Churchman’s guide to maintaining optimal mental health

The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s slogan “No health without mental health” could not be more true, as we commence the third decade of the 21st century. Our world is busier than ever, and optimal mental health is no longer to be taken for granted. An intentional approach to keeping sanity has become more pertinent than ever.

What is optimal mental health?

According to WHO, “Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Another way to look at it is as a spectrum, a continuum that we all sit on. At one end is mental health, where we are all thriving, fulfilled, and at ease. At the middle, people can be described as coping, surviving or struggling. At the far end sits the range of mental illnesses. Most us move back and forth along this line our entire lives (The Guardian).

Conversely, mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour (or a combination of these) . They are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities (American Psychiatric Association).

These conditions usually result as an outcome of a complex interaction of vulnerabilities which may be genetic (inherited), biological (relating to physical health conditions, infections, injuries or use of substances), or environmental (usually from unmitigated stress).

A simple approach to optimal mental health is aiming to manage your temple, time, treasure and thoughts.

Managing your temple (Body)

There is an overwhelming link between physical and mental well-being. A weak body will eventually weaken the mind, and vice versa.

My aim here is not to provide a theological view on alcohol use. However, I know that excessive alcohol, and use of any illicit intoxicants, puts the mental health at great risk. The weekly safe recommended alcohol intake is not more than 14 units. One can of 4-5% larger contains 1.5 units of alcohol.

Dare I say that, some apparently harmless beverages such as caffeinated drinks including tea, coffee and energy boosters are no less harmful, when taken in excess. Excessive caffeine is associated with anxiety, depression and impaired concentration. Not more than 400mgs of caffeine is deemed safe for non-pregnant adults daily. An average 240mls cup of coffee contains about 95mgs, and two shots of an average energy drink takes you to the safe limit.

One of the myths of the 21st century is that you can improve productivity by cutting back on sleep time.There is mounting evidence that chronic sleep deprivation is detriment to the mental health.The question is, “how much sleep is adequate for our well-being?”

One size does not fit all in the sleep department, however, most adults require an average of eight hours at night to function optimally during the day. The clue that you are not getting enough rest is feelings of fatigue, undue daytime drowsiness, irritability and impaired concentration. Sleep deprivation is linked to mood disorders, anxiety, poor productivity and increased risk of accidents. Sleep in addition to adequate nutrition and exercise constitute the three pillars of optimal health.

Managing your time

It massages the ego to have a diary packed with activities, doesn’t it? However, none of us can boast of having more than the 24 hours in a single day to meet our obligations. Overcommitment is a sure recipe for stress. A simple practical model to use before saying yes to a task or commitment is the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. This is a simple method of categorizing commitments into 4 matrixes based on whether they are important, not important, urgent or non-urgent. Delegation, deletion, decision to reschedule, and doing a task immediately are all in the menu of options based on which category the task falls into.

The easy way to find out if you are too busy, is if your diary is too cramped to accommodate regular time for reflection, relaxation, and family. If you are struggling to find time in addressing tasks relating to your life’s purpose, then chances are that time is being squandered elsewhere. Inevitable burn out become the possible consequence.

Managing your treasures

Forget the bank balance for a moment. Another treasure to manage for optimal mental health are your relationships. Research shows that those who invest quality time in meaningful relationships live longer and are more likely to be mentally sound. Lack of confiding relationships is a risk factor for depression.

Managing thoughts is the final strategy to optimal mental health. However, this is a theme worth a full article. Look out for next month’s edition.

By Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi
Consultant Psychiatrist

Dr T Ajayi is on the pastoral team of one of the New Covenant Churches in London, with responsibility for the youth church. He is the author of Footprints of Giants – an inspirational book in the Christian personal development genre.

He is a trained mentor and coach, and Founder and Executive Lead of Mentor Into Medicine – a mentoring organisation that empowers school and college students from socially and ethnically disadvantaged backgrounds; to achieve their dreams of studying medicine. Dr Ajayi is the Convener of the Mentor Into Medicine workshops.

He is happily married to Dupe and they have two teenage daughters.