There is a tendency to run away from the term 'mental health’, almost reflexively it is met with fear and discernment. But why? 

What people forget is that mental health is not an interchangeable term for mental illness.

We all have mental health, whilst mental illness is a formal diagnosis of a condition affecting the mind. Mental health can be cyclical, we can experience peaks and troughs, as we do with our physical health. 

We can care for our mental health through two superpowers: neuroplasticity and sleep. 

In 2023, the cost of anti-depressants to the NHS was approximately £60 million. While these medications play a pivotal role in the recovery of some patients, good mental health can also be reinforced at no cost at all. 

The answer to good mental health is also in our hands.

A recent study showed almost a quarter (23.5%) of respondents aged 16–24 described their mental health as either bad or the worst it’s ever been. If you or someone you know suffers with poor mental health, then understand this: it is not a life sentence. 

As responsible individuals, we should look to foster positive mental health as we do with our physical health. 

The first step in doing so is to recognise that mental health matters. We must unravel the stigma associated with mental health; only then can we embrace positive change. 

NHS England spent £16 billion on mental health services in 2022–2023  - 14% of local NHS funding allocations. Despite this mental health issues are on the rise, we are capable of changing this narrative. 

Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to alter the neural networks in the brain in response to external stimuli. In this case, it is the way in which we talk to ourselves. 

Your mind is capable of creating new thought pathways in response to stimuli.

Equally, if certain pathways are not stimulated, they become inactive and are replaced. This is called structural plasticity; it is the brain's ability to physically change its structure as a result of the external stimuli it receives.

Essentially, you can teach your brain to harbor more positive thoughts and improve your mental health.

Sleep is another powerful tool. Yet, 1 in 5 people in the UK state that they do not get enough sleep. Studies indicate that good-quality sleep has the ability to improve our mental health. On average, adults should aim for around 6.5 hours of sleep daily. 

Sleep helps us process the contents of our day, consolidate our knowledge, increase our creativity, and process our emotions. It is therefore inevitable that poor sleep results in emotional instability, low mood, and anxiety.

Mental health is an endemic problem plaguing our nation.

Our thoughts and sleep are underutilised interventions that deserve more attention than they garner. These tools, however, will only be of benefit when we shift our attitudes towards mental health.

Dr Zahra Ali has a passion for healthcare and journalism.