The Interconnectedness of Mental and Physical Health: A Youth Perspective

The following article was written for the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington Dufferin 2013 Fall Newsletter.

By: Rachal Bolger & Graeme Smith
Edited by: Jonny Stern, Stephanie Lr, and Jennifer Durst

For most young people, there is an essential link between their physical and mental health. It is this link that we are examining through a series of interconnected topics in this youth-focused article using the responses from interviews of three young people: Bobbie, Avery, and Ashley. Their views and experiences are expressed within this article with their permission.

Physical, Mental Health and How They Interact

A lot of young people have a good grasp of the definition of physical health, Ashley defines it as: “your body and everything included in it, is functioning well and is in good condition”, a sentiment echoed by Avery: “Being physically fit, working out, eating right”. Bobbie, who suffers from arthritis, stated that it is “when you can get up and move, instead of sitting out at home”. Describing mental health often takes a little more thought. The youth interviewed for our article eloquently outlined what their take on mental health is.   Avery: “struggling with something every day that you can’t get rid of”; Bobbie “[It’s] whether or not I can cope with something.” Ashley added: “mental health means that your brain is functioning well. Mental health also means that your emotions and stress are balanced”. Regardless of how they quantified their mental health, all the youth agree that there is a definitive link. Ashley summed this interaction up: “Physical health and mental health are linked because what you are feeling affects your body. As well as how your body is feeling or if there is something physically wrong, you will feel it mentally”.

Athletics and Academics

Athletic and academic achievements are two areas important to youth that are affected by both mental and physical health. Avery, a competitive swimmer in both high school and city leagues, said she notices a difference in her performance if she isn’t feeling well, and explained that she doesn’t have the energy or motivation to go faster. This also expands to her grades in school: “In grade six, during a tough time, I was getting C’s and D’s, whereas when things were doing better so were my grades”. Bobbie used to participate in judo and later taught it, but isn’t physically able to do this any more. Judo helped her relax and she added that “When I did judo, it motivated me to keep going every day”.  Bobbie now finds something to look forward to with drama; she enjoys the physical activities in drama and gets very positive feelings from it. She enjoys the activities where you get to exercise a character’s mind instead of your own. Everyone who was interviewed found that their performance level went down when they were having a tough time.

Sleep

For youth, their level of sleep can help to improve their mental health. The amount of sleep that you get affects your ability to listen, learn, concentrate and solve problems. Teenagers should have over 8 hours of sleep to function at their best. Ashley finds “my level of sleep usually determines whether it will be a good or bad day”. Ashley also finds she has trouble relaxing, and said it “is related to my mental health because when I am not rested, I feel it affecting my everyday life, and since mental health is a part of everyday life, not sleeping in turn affects my mental health.” Bobbie suffers from mild insomnia and her sleep schedule is frequently “messed up”. She finds that whenever she is feeling down, she has trouble relaxing, because “too much thinking can take over your mind”. Avery also notices a decrease in performance, both academically and physically when she hasn’t had enough sleep: “trying to get through the day was really hard, you’re tired, you just don’t care, you’re feeling so depressed and just actually trying to smile hurt[s], because you knew you were faking it.”   With enough sleep she “feels happier”.

Public Figures with Mental Illness

When young people hear about how their role models, such as an athlete or a musician, are living with depression or any mental illness, it can motivate them to strengthen their own mental health. Bobbie: “it’s very inspirational to learn that a public figure lives with a mental illness, and I look up to them and respect them”. Ashley commented: “I think it is a very good thing that athletes talk about their mental health with the media” and I am proud of those who do because it is not an easy task”. Avery: “Although I hadn’t heard about anyone in specific, it’s good to hear about it since it shows that everyone can struggle with mental health and talk about it. If presented in the right way, this can set a positive example for youth”.

Tips

Physical and mental health have an impact on each other. If your physical health is diminished, your mental health can be negatively affected by it, and vice versa. However, there are methods to improve both your physical and mental health. Bobbie advises you to “find something you enjoy and try to make that part of your life as often as you can because it will help motivate and keep you positive”.  She also added that “one hour of music a day helps with depression by 21%”. Most of all, realizing and recognizing that physical and mental health are related can improve them both, as summarized by Avery: “Don’t think that it’s JUST physical, or JUST mental health, it all connects in some way, at some time. There’s something that links them together, it’s just that most people don’t realize it.”

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