Staying in the right headspace

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On World Mental Health Day, a new initiative aims to support young people with mental health issues, ensuring they have access to health care, no matter where they live. Clinical psychologist Natasha Herbert speaks to Poornima Koonath about how to cope with the normal stresses of life

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Mental Health as the state of well-being in which every individual with their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to their community. And studies show that a staggering 45% of all Australians will experience some form of mental illness during their lifetime, and/or will most likely know someone that does.

Mental Health Week raises community awareness about mental health issues and is held every October each year to coincide with World Mental Health Day on 10 October. The 2016 Mental Health Week was held from 8 to 15 October and the theme for this year is“Act-Belong-Commit” with a focus on suicide prevention—“Together we can save lives”.

This year the first Headspace Day was launched and celebrated on 11 October to support young people with mental health issues.Headspace is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation that supports young people with mental health issues. This is a national day of awareness aimed at ensuring that every young person in Australia has access to mental health services, no matter where they live.

Natasha Herbert works in the field of mental health and is a clinical psychologist. She has worked in various areas of mental health including eating disorders which continues to plague various sections of the community and does not discriminate. During the course of her career she has worked with schools, parents and children battling with mental illness. “It becomes imperative for anyone who works with the vulnerable section of the society to maintain a well-balanced life style and stay detached from the problems that trouble their parents while still remaining connected to them,” says Natasha, who adds that she owes her calmness and fortitude to her parents who have been and continue to be her role models with their zest for life.”They have always encouraged me to embark on new adventures and take up exciting opportunities. I think at the moment I’m motivated by life, as cliché as that may sound,” she says.

The area of mental health is a very challenging one. When Natasha was asked why she chose to work in this field, she says, “I have always wanted to work in a profession that helps others in some way. I have always been a people person and was intrigued by human behaviour so clinical psychology for me seemed a great fit.”

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The uncertainty that comes with the job can be an exciting proposition too. Natasha says that no single day is the same as there is a wide range of mental health issues and her job gives her the scope to work with people of all ages and clinical presentations, from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, behavioural difficulties, and grief.

“At times it can be difficult listening to the tough life experiences of people and what they are going through, but then in her line of work she knows “that in most cases, this is exactly what people need to experience and process in order to move forward”. She reiterates that it is important that people experience and process the pain and uncomfortable emotions and thoughts that keep them stuck and learn to form a new relationship with them. It is critical they be supported while they do this and Natasha strives to create a safe, warm and empathic space for her clients to process their ‘stuff’ and guide and motivate them towards change. “While work can be challenging it is always rewarding, especially when your clients start to see change in their lives. My clients really inspire me and I feel genuine joy when they arrive at a more settled place in their lives,” says Natasha. She has always believed in the principle that “for the most part, people are doing the best they can, with what they’ve been given”.

Natasha has worked with a number of institutions, making positive contributions to improve the lifestyle of the people who need support and guidance due to some sort of mental ailment. In 2011, she worked with young children in Thailand as part of the Starfish Project and also worked with young indigenous Australians, encouraging them to complete school and enhance their connection with the community. She has also worked at the Central Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression providing psychological intervention for people suffering from a range of anxiety disorders including Panic Disorder, Health Anxiety and Social Anxiety amongst others.

Her work with the Black Dog Institute helped the institute obtain funding for a study on depression in men. Natasha has done extensive work in the area of body image. She currently works at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and is part of the Peter Beumont Eating Disorder Day Program (NSW Public Health).

“Insecurities stemming from body image issues do not discriminate and can afflict both boys and girls. Children as young as eight can experience this. Mixed messages in the media don’t help ease the pressure, thus aggravating the existing problem as people tend to relate ‘healthy’ with ‘weight loss’. Media literacy is the crux to educating children and young adults the tricks used by the trade industry for advertising purposes such as photoshop,” she says.

Natasha has been actively involved in educating parents and children the nuances to creating a strong healthy identity. Early this year she facilitated a‘raising body confident kids’ full day workshop teaching kids to navigate body image issues that may arise and develop in school years. Natasha advises that the aim is to build and develop a personality that is multifaceted and well-rounded with focus on more than one domain.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Instead build up multiple strengths and ways of feeling good about yourself,” she says. She warns parents to beware of ‘fat talk’. “Parents talk about and around diets, weight loss, etc. is easily picked up by children and they start seeing this as a significant thing to pay attention to,” says Natasha.

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Photo caption: Natasha with her mother

In her role as clinical psychologist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital facilitating Wesley Eating Disorders Day Program, Natasha works with people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and/or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). This year, she won Wesley Mission’s ‘AChance to Shine’ award for outstanding contribution to client care and team work.

“The treatment pattern,” says Natasha, “aims to support them back into health by teaching them how to nourish themselves again, both physically and emotionally.” She continues to state that parents also have great powers to role model effective communication and emotion regulation skills to their children. It is no surprise that children learn how to deal with stress and emotions the way their parents or significant carers do. Parents who never talk about their emotions, or are ‘highly emotional’ all the time, will find that in stressful situations their children react in similar ways.

As a mental health professional, Natasha clearly understands the need to maintain a good balance between her personal and professional life. She acknowledges that work can over-consume one’s life and she always makes deliberate efforts to maintain a balance between her personal and professional life. This is an important cornerstone to maintaining good mental health. “I feel lucky to be working in Australia as work life balance is more accessible here when compared to countries like India or USA, where longer working hours and shorter annual leave makes this adjustment very difficult,” says Natasha.

Being raised in a multicultural society can be a challenging proposition. Children from Indian backgrounds have to often battle the high expectations that their parents place upon them while navigating the traditional expectations of parents and family with other socio-cultural expectations of their friends and colleagues. Balance is always the key.

“I’d encourage you to define for yourself what is most helpful/ meaningful for you and take steps toward this. At the end of the day, the beauty about living in a multicultural society is that cultural difference is expected and accepted, and at best celebrated,” says Natasha.

She says that she was fortunate to be raised by parents who encouraged her to enjoy the “best of both the worlds”. She was exposed to Indian culture, food, clothes, etc. from a young age always in a fun way. Her parentsnever forced it on her or make her feel obligated to ‘uphold’ tradition in a strict or rigid way. “I really think it is up to the individual to decide for themselves how they would like to ‘be’ in a multicultural society like ours. There is no right or wrong,” she says. Keeping up outward appearances can be quite stressful. Children from Indian backgrounds often find it difficult to discuss their insecurities with their parents and the downside to this is that they do not receive timely support.

Natasha’s advice to the readers is that they should not ignore any changes in behaviour they may notice in theirfamily or friends. “We need to start getting curious about why a child, or any person for that matter, may be responding in a particular way,” she says.

She advises that anyone who is experiencing mental health issues must be open and willing to seek support, whether through family or friends or professionals. “You don’t have to do it alone,” she says. On a wider level, she would like to remind the readers to pause, find the beauty in little things, and connect back to their values. This way we might notice we experience life a little differently. Natasha concludes by saying, “I think the important thing to remember is that mental health issues are real, just like medical conditions are. They don’t need to be, and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. There is help out there if you need it.”

 

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