Taking care of your mental health through self management

We all do things that make us feel good. Sharing a nice meal with friends, going for a walk with our favourite music, respecting our limits. When we do these things regularly, we’re practising mental health self-management, often without even knowing it.

By Simon Coulombe, PhD.

Associate Professor at Université Laval, Relief Research Chair in Mental Health, Self-Management and Work, and associated researcher at Relief

Relief would like to thank Charles Saliba-Couture for his contribution to this article.

Did you know that in Canada...
  • Every year, one in five people will experience a mental health problem1.
  • At some point in their lives, one in four people will suffer from depression2.
  • By age 40,one in two people will have had a mental illness3.

How to regain control over your mental health?

Mental health: More than the absence of symptoms

If a person isn’t experiencing any symptoms of depression or anxiety, does that mean they’re in good mental health? For a long time, mental health has been defined as the absence of symptoms, and many people still see it that way today.

But mental health goes much deeper than that. If we also define it positively (e.g., feeling well) instead of just negatively (e.g., not having any symptoms), we realize that good mental health also means leading a satisfying4 life that’s full of meaning and hope5 and having a sense of balance, control and well-being6.

In this holistic spirit, researchers wanted to better understand the different dimensions of healing for people suffering from mental health problems7:

  • The clinical dimension (presence or absence of symptoms)
  • The functional dimension (employment, shelter, etc.)
  • The physical dimension (diet, exercise, etc.)
  • The social dimension (family, friends, activities, etc.)
  • The existential dimension (hope, autonomy, etc.)

This view of mental health and healing is the basis for self-management, which involves adopting behaviours that promote day-to-day quality of life and well-being.

Self-management: concrete ways to take care of your mental health

People who suffer from anxiety or depression have a high risk of relapse, even with appropriate treatment or medication. The relapse rate is 20 to 40% one year after recovering from major depression8 and 24% in the two years following an episode of anxiety disorder9. Bipolar disorders, on the other hand, are chronic, so learning to deal with it day to day is even more important. Self management is a good way to do that. It’s a practice that can be used by people suffering from mental health disorders, but it’s also useful on a broader level as a preventive measure to promote well-being.

For a long time, mental health programs and interventions have taken a prescriptive approach (here’s your treatment plan and what you need to do to feel better).. Even today, many mental health professionals issue recommendations that patients need to follow10. Mental health self management is different in that it focuses on the power of each individual to make decisions and take actions for their own health. You play an active, key role because, after all, you’re the expert on your own mental health.

But that doesn’t mean you’re alone in it. Quite the contrary opposite, in fact. Mental health care providers are there to guide and support you.

Self-management support: The role of health care providers and professionals

Self-management is something you can do on your own, but its positive impact on your mental health increases considerably when tools and support are provided by a mental health professional11. This is the rationale behind self-management support, which is essentially what some refer to as “directed self-care”12.

Mental health self-management support does not replace psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy. It’s used in conjunction with these approaches, and helps you:

  • recognize your warning signs and know when you’re susceptible to a relapse, and learn about different things you can do and resources you can consult to help you deal with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.
  • choose the techniques for promoting your well-being and quality of life that are best for you.
  • assess your mental health using a number of tools and techniques for determining the factors that impact your mood and stress level.
  • take action and play an active role in your own wellness by adopting behaviours that you’ve chosen yourself based on your preferences, interests, needs and objectives.

The benefits of self-management on mental health and well-being

Over the last decade, the self-management support approach has grown in popularity. Some believe this is due to budget cuts and an increase in the number of people suffering from chronic illnesses. There’s also an increasing desire for people to play a more active role in their well-being and to regain control over their health13.

Research has primarily focused on the benefits of self-management in the context of physical chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and arthritis. However, in the past few years, more and more researchers have been interested in the impact of self-management on mental health. The results so far are very promising14.

Mental health self-management appears to help reduce symptoms related to depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, as well as prevent relapses and improve quality of life. Many people who suffer from a severe disorder (generalized anxiety, major depression, etc.) seem to regain control over their lives when they receive self-management support15.

Self management in action: A few tips

“Take care of yourself”. We hear this all the time, but how do you do it exactly? Every person is unique so there’s no formula that works for everyone. Researchers have identified 60 self management strategies used by people who suffer from anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder16. Some of these strategies and tips for self-care include:

  • Surround yourself with people who make you feel good.
  • Take part in social activities you enjoy (sports, dining out, etc.).
  • Take care of others (family, friends, etc.)
  • Draw inspiration from people who have overcome adversity.
  • Have a routine (work, school, etc.).
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle (diet, physical activity, sleep, etc.).
  • Seek professional help (psychologist, counsellor, etc.).

These strategies vary not only from person to person, but according to the context as well. For example, some of the strategies perceived as being most useful in the workplace include routinely taking steps to set boundaries, maintain work-life balance, determine the causes of stress and have positive co-worker relationships17. Employers and managers can play a role in supporting this kind of self-management by creating a safe environment that encourages people to look after their mental health.

Get better my way

Put together your personalized self-management plan with this free online tool. It includes a number of ways to look after your mental health, broken down into five categories that correspond to the different dimensions of recovery.

  1. I deal with my difficulties.
  2. I function well day-to-day.
  3. I take care of my physical condition.
  4. I maintain positive relationships with others.
  5. I foster hope.

In summary

Your mental health is impacted by a number of social factors that are beyond your control. However, self-management enables you to change what you can control, every day, one step at a time. Healthcare professionals and organizations are also available to support you and give you the tools you need to maximize the effectiveness of your self-management techniques.

About Relief

Relief (formerly known as Revivre) is an organization that supports people living with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, and their loved ones, so they can keep moving forward. For over 30 years, Relief has become a centre of expertise and support in mental health, with a network of partners extending across Canada. Recognized as an authority and a leader in common mental disorders, Relief has developed a truly innovative social program in the form of its unique self-management support concept. Its bilingual services are a key component of the community services and support ecosystem.