5 tips to help if you're struggling a little with mental health

If you are going through a difficult time with your mental health, please know that you really are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. There is help available.

By now, most of us are aware of the importance of mental health and, thanks to the continued work of dedicated people and organisations, the stigma of mental ill health is reducing as our understanding grows. May is mental health awareness month and it began in 1949 as a means to raise awareness of mental health with the message: “We’re all in this together.”

All of us have mental health, just as each of us has physical health. Both mental and physical health can experience stresses and strains that call on us to take care of ourselves. When there’s a more serious issue at hand, it’s wise to seek professional help to get ourselves back on track.

Over the past few years, I’ve been inspired by the likes of Prof Alvin Ng and Dr Chua Sook Ning – both prominent advocates of mental health in Malaysia – as they lead by example, talking openly about the struggles they’ve faced with their own mental health. More recently, I was impressed by Lee Lung Nien – former CEO of Citibank Malaysia and current chairman of Citi Private Bank, South Asia – who talked on LinkedIn about dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

These people are extremely bright, accomplished and passionate individuals who show that mental health issues neither discriminate nor mean that anyone struggling with their mental health is weak or incapable of achieving great things.

And not that I put myself in the same league as these exceptional industry leaders, but I’ve also struggled with my mental health, having experienced persistent depressive disorder (PDD) for many years throughout my late teens and 20s. All of us will struggle with our mental health at some points in our lives. And it needn’t be a diagnosed clinical condition. Just as physical injury lies on a wide spectrum, so do mental health problems. As we have more open conversations about mental health, we start to see that we really are “all in it together” and it’s by improving our understanding that we reduce any fear and stigma surrounding a perfectly normal and natural experience.

Although we are emerging from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all going through the psychological and social after-effects that arose in its wake.

Today, I want to share some of the ways I came to manage my mental health issues, which I hope will be helpful for anyone who is experiencing depression or any mental state that leaves them feeling low or languishing.

If you are going through a difficult time with your mental health, please know that you really are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. There is help available. In the meantime, I share these tips with the wish that they can be of service in helping you deal with whatever you’re going through:

1. Allow for what shows up: I would spend so much energy trying to resist and battle my feelings. It was exhausting. Of course I didn’t want these feelings (who would?), but the more I tried to get rid of them, the stronger they seemed to become.

We needn’t like what’s there, but when we allow whatever shows up to be as it is, it becomes easier to deal with. We can choose to leave the mental battlefield.

2. Record the better days: When you’re not feeling great, it can colour how you see everything and you can feel like there’s nothing to be grateful for.

On good days, I’d leave notes to myself, reflecting on elevated energy, getting something done, or spending time with friends. When I’d feel worse, I’d be able to remind myself, “It feels hopeless now, but it’s not always like this – even if it feels like it, it’s not permanent.”

3. Listen to your needs and be kind: When I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed, I’d think, “OK, I’m going to get up on the count of five”. If I could do it, I’d know the self-doubt was just that inner voice doing its thing. If I couldn’t get up, I’d give myself a bit more time to rest and try not to judge myself for it.

4. Do something that feels good: This can be counterintuitive. When you’re feeling down and have no energy, the last thing you want to do is get active. But even if I wasn’t feeling it initially, I found that doing things I normally enjoyed made me feel better, if only a little.

Depression is an expert at deception, and this helps call out its lies that we can’t do anything and there’s nothing worth doing anyway.

5. Remember, it’s not a choice: I lost count of the number of times I let people down (there’s that inner voice again) and failed to show up for myself and others. Do what you can, when you can, but keep in mind you didn’t choose what you’re going through – you’re coping the best way you know how.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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