Wellbeing | Jess Kapitola

There is much focus on wellbeing at the moment - It seems to be a favourite buzz word of the influencer.  

However, I suspect, that most of us know that it runs much deeper. So what does it look like when we are not well, or our schools and communities are not well?  

And is there anything we can do to address the difficulties and help to turn the tide?

Our modern, Western world is one of busyness and stress. 
One of rush and consistent bombardment.
One of the juggle to do it all and have it all.
One of decreasing connection and down time.

And it has brought us to a place where we are seeing increasing levels of poor physical and mental health. What is our population’s current state of wellbeing? It is a grim picture.

In Australia more than half of adults and 2 in 3 children aged 2 to 17 do not meet physical activity guidelines (i), worrying because this inactivity is closely linked to many illnesses such as diabetes, bowel cancer, uterine cancer, dementia, breast cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke (ii).

In 2020-21, 15.4% of Australians aged 16-85, and 20% aged 16-34 years, experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress (iii).

More than 40% of Australians aged 16-85 years had experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life, with anxiety related disorders being the most common (iv).

Of course, a person does not need to meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder to be negatively affected by a challenge to their mental health, meaning that many more are negatively impacted in some way.

The rates of reported mental health difficulties have been increasing over the past decade (v) with data over 3 years from 2014/2015 to 2017/2018 showing that;

*  20% of Australians had a mental or behavioural condition, an increase from 18%
*  13% of Australians had an anxiety-related condition, an increase from 11%, and
*  10% had depression or feelings of depression, an increase from 9%.

One of the outcomes of poor mental health is the terrible tragedy of an increasing rate of people ending their own lives (vi). Suicide Prevention Australia has found that over the previous ten years the age-standardised suicide death rate per 100,000 people has increased from 11.2 in 2012 to 12.0 in 2021, an increase of 7%.

These are devastating numbers.

Today, though we are permanently connected via digital devices, many, including children are more and more socially isolated and removed from community connection.

The negative impact that has on us as humans is huge.  Our God is a relational God. In creating people in His image, He created us to be in relationship with Him AND with each other.

So, we know that our current situation is not one of wellbeing – what would a life and a community of wellbeing look like and how can we influence it?

In his article “Lifestyle and Mental Health”, Roger Walsh proposes multiple factors he calls TLCs (vii) – Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes - that research has shown to be effective in ameliorating poor mental health and wellbeing. Many of them are relevant, not only to us as individuals, but also to our schools.

The advantages to these lifestyle changes are that there is no waiting list, they can be started immediately, with no costly appointments, very few downsides or potential negatives and they can be applied to both the individual and the collective for the benefit of all. They are certainly not ever designed to simply replace expert medical care, therapy or medications, but they are worth considering.

Exercise has benefits for multiple body systems, both physiological and psychological. As well as being preventative for many health reasons, it has also been found to be restorative. In fact, Walsh shows that exercise has been shown to compared favourably with psychological and pharmacological treatments for mild to moderate depression (viii). It has a protective effect against age related cognitive decline and has even been shown to increase concentration and academic performance in children (ix).

Time in Nature
We are so often immersed in the digital and online space that being in nature brings us back to reality and helps to provide a quieter, calmer space for our minds to process more slowly and efficiently. Multiple studies have shown that simply spending time in nature brings and improvement in cognition, attention, emotion, and spiritual and subjective wellbeing (x). It truly is a potent force.

Our creator saw that it was not good for us to be alone (xi). Increasing digital access and social isolation makes it more important than ever that we foster connectivity and relationships. As Walsh says (xii), good relationships are of prominent importance to individual and collective wellbeing. Humans have known this since ancient times, but we are now seeing it backed up with research outcomes.

Recreation is central to a healthy lifestyle. Lester & Russel (xiii) have shown that play and playfulness are correlated to a decrease in defensiveness, an increase in wellbeing and the fostering of improved social skills in children. As multifaceted humans, we need more than just work, and of course, recreation can have wonderful overlaps with exercise, relaxation, relationships and time spent in nature.

Over 90% of the planet follows some form of faith or spiritual practice (xiv). This is not just something that we do as Christians, it is central to who we are. Our God offers us love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. We are adopted into his family as dearly loved children. (xv) But often we forget to dwell on these things and they get pushed to the sidelines in our busyness, rather than being our rock and foundation. And when they are pushed to the sidelines, other things get given far more room and weight in our thinking. When love and forgiveness are centrally taught, Koenig et al (xvi) showed that the benefits spanned many health measures; enhanced psychological wellbeing with reduced rates of mental health disorders and even an improvement in psychical health and reduction in mortality rates.

Contribution and Service
Jesus came not as the conquering hero but at the servant King. He came to not be to served, but to serve  (xvii). When we follow that example, we do better. We know that people who volunteer are psychologically happier and psychically healthier (xviii). Walsh points us (xix) to the ‘paradox of happiness’ that is that when we spend our own time and resources on the care of others, it makes us happier. Service and altruistic behaviour are linked to many measures of psychological, physical and social wellbeing – this does come with a warning though, to be aware of the load you are taking on and allowing for times when others can be of service to you instead.

Mental Health Charity, Headspace, call quality sleep a “mental health superpower” (xx). Sufficient sleep makes it easier to manage your emotions, leading to more patience and the ability to better deal with stressors that arise. Sleep has also been shown to help in reduce the risk of future mental health struggles. As well as managing emotions, enough sleep will help you to have more energy, improve your focus and concentration as well as helping you to manage a more nutritious diet – a lack of sleep is directly correlated to increases in sweet food cravings. Struggling to get enough sleep (that is 8 to 10 hours sleep for 12-17 year olds, and 7 to 9 hours for 18-25 year olds), is very common. For optimal sleep, experts recommend a calm, quiet place just for sleep, time to wind down away from digital devices, mindfulness activities to calm an anxious mind, limited caffeine and regular bedtime routines (xxi)

Food and Nutrition
A myriad of long-term research has shown and continues to show that food and nutrition is highly correlated to wellbeing and more recently, to mental health. Instead of being swayed by every new fad diet touted by influencers, we should be encouraged that the diet or pattern of eating that continuously comes out on top in terms of long-term health and aging, cardiovascular preventative health, gut health, mental health, and community health is the Mediterranean diet (xxii). This way of eating is high in a variety of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, olive oil, oily fish, fermented dairy and a little red meat. The Mediterranean way of eating is minimally processed, easy to adapt to most cultural backgrounds and can be one of the least expensive ways to eat, when considering dried beans, grains and legumes and the availability of frozen and tinned fruit and veg as well as fresh food. Obviously eating in a way that is good for our body promotes physical health, and although research is young and ongoing, it continues to show that gut health is correlated to mood and mental health. With the microbiota in the gut communicating with the brain and actually producing short chain fatty acids in digestion that contribute to the production of neurotransmitters that can improve mood (xxiii)*. One of the additional benefits of the Mediterranean diet isn’t from the food itself, rather it is from a focus on eating in community and therefore increasing relationship strength and connectedness.

Relaxation and stress
Chronic stress impacts every factor of our body, both physical and mental. We are not meant to live in this ‘go go go!’ culture and heighted state of stress with little opportunity to disconnect or refresh. However, many of us have not been taught the strategies we could use to manage this stress – or if we have strategies that we do implement, they can often be mindless or even destructive, like sugar binges or alcohol. Mindfulness and meditation are oft suggested strategies for managing stress, but, as Christians, we also have the added benefit of prayer. Our loving heavenly father not only knows that we will struggle with this strain, but he invites us to cast ALL of our anxieties on to him. (xxiv)

Although as the individual, being responsible for enacting these lifestyle changes it might seem challenging to start, it is a much easier to tackle when you live or work in a community that aims to do this as a culture change, providing support and encouragement for one another.

We know that in schools, the culture starts at, and is directed from, the top. The leadership of the school defines the culture of the school.

In discussing organizational culture, Andrew Herbert says that Leaders define the culture in many ways (xxv):
by setting direction and cast vision for culture;
with their use of language and terminology;
in the way they respond in critical moments;
by what they praise and what they rebuke;
through personal example. This is one of the most powerful ways to shape the culture. And lastly;
through the power of their persuasive personal influence. 

That is potential for profound influence with a lasting impact.

So, my questions then are – How is your own wellbeing? Take a minute. Be honest. It’s not always easy or comfortable to answer.

If you are a leader, are you addressing your own wellbeing and setting an example and a direction within your school? Are you employing some (or all) of the TLCs suggested?

What does the wellbeing culture in your school look like? Are your staff and students able and encouraged to employ the discussed TLCs?

We live in a society where the prevailing culture is one of glorifying busyness, dietary excess, inactivity, social isolation, a focus on the individual and moving away from engagement with community.   We can see clearly that this not going well for us – so how are we standing out as different?

In Christian Schools, as we care for the whole child and the community, we can become places that are communities of connection, encouragement that support mental and physical wellbeing.   Schools that truly display wellbeing.  In connection and community, with an encouragement to serve God and others.  Not only allowing, but encouraging; down time, breaks, relaxation, and regular examples of turning to God in prayer and dependence.  Encouraging students and teachers alike to disconnect from formal learning, especially from screens, to get outside into nature, to move and be active, to be silly and have fun. Eating well – encouraging the canteen or cafe and staff room to stock and serve food that will aid in focus, concentration and mood in the student and teachers alike. 

These might be simple ideas, but we must acknowledge that they are not easy to do. And there is a tension – of course we need to remain professional and meet the needs of the school, whilst also meeting the needs of the individual as struggling humans in our current, challenging environment.

The creation of culture of wellness in your school starts at the top – but there are many around you who can help you to build and sustain it. Small changes over time, will add up to a big difference.

What a privilege to be able to impact so significant a part of students and teachers lives!

*Please note that these TLC suggestions are not to be taken as individual medical advice.  
Always check with your health care provider before stopping or changing medications or therapy.

[i]Department of Health and Aged Care. (2021). About physical activity and exercise. Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. https://www.health.gov.au/topics/physical-activity-and-exercise/about-physical-activity-and-exercise

[ii] ibid

[iii] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2022). National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 2020-21 | Australian Bureau of Statistics. Www.abs.gov.au. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/2020-21

[iv] Ibid

[v] Australian Bureau Of Statistics. (2018). Mental health, 2017-18 financial year | Australian Bureau of Statistics. Www.abs.gov.au; Australian Bureau of Statistics. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/mental-health/2017-18

[vi]Suicide Prevention Australia. (2021). Stats & Facts. Suicide Prevention Australia. https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/news/statsandfacts

[vii] Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579–592. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[viii] Ibid p.581

[ix] McMorris, T., Tomporowski, P. D., & Audiffren, M. (Eds.). (2009). Exercise and Cognitive Function. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470740668 Cited in, Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p581. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[x] Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555 Cited in, Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p584. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xi] Genesis 2:18.

[xii]  Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p585. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xiii] Lester, S., Russell, W., & Play England. (2008). Play for a change : play policy and practice : review of contemporary perspectives : summary report. National Children’s Bureau. Cited in, Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p585. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xiv] Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p58. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xv] Ephesians 5:1

[xvi] Koenig, H.G., McCullough, M.E., & Larson, D.B (2001). Handbook of religion and health. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Cited in Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p587. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xvii] Matthew 20:28

[xviii] Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p587. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xix] Walsh, R. N. (1999). Essential Spirituality: The seven central practices. New York, NY: Wiley. Cited in Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), p588. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021769

[xx]Facts About Sleep & The Impact on Mental Health | headspace. (n.d.). Headspace.org.au. https://headspace.org.au/explore-topics/for-young-people/get-enough-sleep/

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Morris, L., & Bhatnagar, D. (2016). The Mediterranean diet. Current Opinion in Lipidology, 27(1), 89–91. https://doi.org/10.1097/mol.

[xxiii] McMillan, J. (2021). Gutful. Audible & McMillan, J. (2022). How to eat. Audible

[xxiv] 1 Peter 5:7.

[xxv] lwleadership. (2014, October 16). How to Shape Your Church’s Culture. Ministry Grid. https://ministrygrid.com/how-to-shape-your-churchs-culture/


13 June 2023

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