There has never been a wider recognition of the universal importance of our mental health than over the past year. We’ve all been tested as a result of the pandemic. This has led to a strong uptake in psychological therapy services, including by people who have never previously sought such help. The increased demand has made it more difficult for many people to access timely appointments for mental health services. This relative shortage is more pronounced in rural and regional areas.
What might people do when they are struggling emotionally and would otherwise seek help from a therapist, but are having difficulty accessing such help? Fortunately, there are a number of steps people can take to support their mental health if unable to access specialised services or facing a longer wait to see a professional. In particular, many digital online therapy services and resources have been developed over recent years that can be practical and effective, especially for those with mild to moderate mental health problems. These resources can also be a helpful supplement to face to face therapy.
A good starting point is to explore what’s available at the information websites www.emhprac.org.au and www.headtohealth.gov.au. They refer to free online cognitive-behavioural therapy programs for adults and adolescents including ecouch, Moodgym and Mindspot, which involves some therapist phone contact. Resources for parents can be found at parentworks.org.au and at www.triplep-parenting.net.au, a Positive Parenting Program based on decades of development. Many of these programs have solid research evidence demonstrating their potential effectiveness.
Most of these targeted programs build on some form of assessment and range of interventions known to be more effective in alleviating anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Such strategies include identifying and altering common patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety and depression, as well as behavioural and problem-solving strategies.
In addition to accessing online resources, it’s always worth seeing your GP if you are struggling emotionally. They are there to help you with your mental as well as physical health. They might also know of other counsellors or support services in your local area that are relevant to your circumstances.
There can be many useful personal steps to take. Sometimes it is powerfully helpful just to openly acknowledge a significant problem to a partner, family member or trusted friend. This can help us and others to accept our vulnerability and to take more objective stock of the problem rather than to deny or minimise it. It can mobilise worthwhile social and emotional support. It can reduce unwarranted shame for having serious struggles in the first place.
In my experience, openly acknowledging a problem and clarifying your hopes in addressing it is one of the most worthwhile early steps in seeing a psychologist, even before any specific interventions are used. Hearing yourself talk about a concerning problem can help take more distance from it and consider some relevant action to start to address it.
Whatever help we get from others, we are likely to get some reliable benefit from developing our own formula for managing with stress. More reliable ingredients tend to include regular physical exercise, a healthy diet and habits that support good sleep. It helps to practise a technique that can lower our arousal levels, including yoga, meditation, mindfulness, relaxation or breathing techniques. Regularly engaging in activities that give a sense of pleasure or achievement can reliably boost our mood. Containing alcohol use helps. Anything that gives us a sense of meaning and purpose supports our resilience.
In particular it is important to draw on your social supports. This can also include contact with sporting clubs or other community groups. Our sense of connection with others is a very important factor in supporting our resilience.
Benefits from such activities might not be immediate, but they tend to make a discernible difference within a month or two. The main thing is to gain a sense of what steps might make a difference for you and to actively follow such strategies. Even when seeing a therapist, it is the client’s active approach in applying coping strategies that makes the most difference.
Each person might have a slightly different approach for what works best for them. Once people feel that they are gaining some benefit and making progress with one or two strategies it becomes easier to build on that progress and gain further momentum. If you’re making these changes based on online guidance, it might be helpful to report what you are doing to someone close to you, such as a family member or friend, who might provide encouragement. This might help replace the encouragement that clients receive from a therapist.
As confidence builds in the direction you are taking, stresses tend to ease. Then the key is to maintain any positive changes you have made over a period of at least four months, when new learning and habits have consolidated and positive changes can become more ingrained.
Our own practice website includes a very wide range of materials offering detailed clinical information and advice on how to help manage with a wide range of psychological difficulties including panic reactions, depression, trauma reactions, obsessive compulsive disorder, relationship difficulties, addictions and many more. This material includes the original clinical handouts that we have prepared for use with our clients based on what we have found to work best over many decades of therapy experience. Our website resources section and Youtube channel make available a great deal of information in articles and and videos on how we can also develop our positive wellbeing, drawing on strategies from positive psychology.
Other free resources including clinical handouts can be readily accessed online through such organizations as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute. Our website links page website links page can help you find such additional material.
Drawing on such online resources is the theme of a recent episode of Psych Spiels and Silver Linings, our practice podcast. This podcast series, which will continue throughout 2021, already has 30 episodes describing ways of addressing a wide range of psychological problems. This and our other practice resources can be found at www.chrismackey.com.au/resources.
Chris Mackey is principal psychologist at Chris Mackey and Associates Psychology Services in Geelong. He has 40 years’ psychotherapy experience in public mental health and private practice settings.