Poor mental health is a significant individual, social and economic problem that is worsening with denser urbanisation, ingrained social media use and more sedentary lives. An ignite event hosted by the Victorian Chamber in partnership with Victoria University (VU) at VU’s Footscray campus on Friday, 19 July, addressed the urgent need to improve Australia’s mental health system.
ignite+VU Mental health - it's on everyone's mind
Poor mental health is a significant individual, social and economic problem that is worsening with denser urbanisation, ingrained social media use and more sedentary lives.
An ignite event hosted by the Victorian Chamber in partnership with Victoria University (VU) at VU’s Footscray campus on Friday, 19 July, addressed the urgent need to improve Australia’s mental health system.
VU Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Dawkins AO opened the event, which heard from leading academics Associate Professor Melinda Craike, Dr Siân McLean and Professor Alexandra Parker about links between physical and mental health.
Associate Professor Melinda Craike: The importance of physical activity in maintaining mental health
Institute for Health and Sport Associate Professor Melinda Craike said while research had found physical activity essential for good mental health, too few people, particularly in disadvantaged areas, got enough exercise.
Associate Professor Craike said she and her team were working to reduce inequity and expand opportunities for activities in workplaces and communities, such as bike riding, to improve physical and mental health.
Dr Siân McLean: Body dissatisfaction and the toxic role of social media
Former Institute for Health and Sport Adjunct Fellow Dr Siân McLean works to bust body dissatisfaction myths and understand how toxic social media can be for body image.
Dr McLean described her research on the negative effects of the likes of ‘fitspiration’ and ‘bonespo’ and explained how she hoped to develop ways to counter those messages with more rounded views and ideals.
Professor Alex Parker: How reduced physical activity can impact mental health
Professor Alex Parker leads several Institute for Health and Sport research groups. She explained that as society became more passive, inadequate activity adversely affected physical and mental health.
Professor Parker said new research showed that physical activity could make young people with depression feel better. Conversely, people who did not exercise enough were at increased risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes.
The Victorian Chamber would like to thank Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Dawkins AO for his help in making ignite a success.
Good mental health is everybody's business
Associate Professor Melinda Craike is with the Institute for Health and Sport (IHeS) and Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy
Most Australians, particularly those who experience disadvantage, do little physical activity. And this can affect their mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health conditions cost Australian businesses at least $10.9 billion each year. They reduce workforce productivity when employees are absent or unable to be as efficient or effective as usual.
At Victoria University (VU), we are working to address this by promoting physical activity to employees and communities. We need the help of local industry to do this effectively.
National data shows that that almost half of Australians experience a mental illness at some point. Those facing income, education or social disadvantage are substantially more likely to have poor mental health than those who are more affluent.
Our research shows that low levels of physical activity are associated with poor mental health in disadvantaged groups.
We often look to the clinical health system for answers on how to improve mental health, but in many cases, they lay beyond it. In this instance, encouraging more physical activity can improve mental health.
Partnering with business helps to develop and test strategies and programs that can improve physical activity for employees and communities.
There is strong evidence that physical activity improves cognition and wellbeing while reducing the risk of depression. Promoting physical activity is therefore a key strategy in building mentally healthy workplaces and communities.
The potential for business to get employees moving is strong. Business can create, coordinate and sustain public-private partnerships and cross-sectoral strategies that promote physical activity.
We know that workplaces can promote physical activity and facilitate it through flexible work hours and realistic workloads. We know that people who experience disadvantage require extra support to do this.
At VU, we have a strong record of external engagement and research translation in this area. We are working on several projects to inform better programs and policies.
For example, the Growing Brimbank program aims to demonstrate what works to support physical activity and improve mental health in disadvantaged communities.
Also, we surveyed Mother’s Day Classic participants to ask whether such events encourage ongoing physical activity.
And we are working with Belgravia Leisure to examine factors that influence older adults’ participation in aquatic and recreation centres to develop more effective participation strategies.
Partnering with business helps to develop and test strategies and programs that can improve physical activity for employees and communities, particularly those experiencing disadvantage.
The importance of reducing inequities in physical activity and mental health outcomes cannot be overstated. They are unfair and avoidable.
Policies and programs to address this must be tailored to tackle the impacts of disadvantage to improve the health of all Australians.
With the help of local industry, we can make a difference.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Professor Alex Parker leads several Institute for Health and Sport research groups
Thousands of years after Hippocrates told us that the fastest way to health was ‘just the right amount’ of nourishment and exercise, we’re still struggling to find our way.
VU is also developing a mental health research consortium with a team of internal and external researchers.
Inactivity causes a range of physical problems and can contribute to mental health issues.
People with serious mental illness may also have preventable physical conditions due to lifestyle behaviours associated with their mental health issues.
This can prove disastrous for young people.
With about a million young Australians experiencing mental ill health each year, the challenge is offering the right and timely interventions so they can reach their potential.
Physical activity and depression
Most of my work has focussed on depression. Victoria University (VU) and others are demonstrating the value of physical activity in this area. But integrating it into mental health treatment is challenging.
Our research team collaborated with headspace centres to study the potential of physical activity interventions in mental health treatment for young people.
We offered the usual psychological treatment and a behaviour change intervention increasing their physical activity.
Of the 176 participants, all their depressive symptoms improved over the six weeks, with those who had the physical activity intervention showing the greatest reductions.
These changes were evident in as little as three weeks.
Our intervention focussed on helping a young person identify physical activities that they might enjoy doing that might give them a sense of achievement. We helped them set small and achievable goals and to monitor their progress and encouraged them to draw on social supports in doing this.
With other institutions, we are trying to replicate these findings in a larger study of 470 participants in six headspace centres nationally.
If the pattern holds, we hope to train mental health clinicians to include physical activity in their everyday practice and reach many more people.
Making a difference
We’re excited about the findings because current treatments don’t tend to work for depression, with only about half recovering from an episode of depression.
We’re also planning major projects requiring further investment. Some will recruit a large sample of young people to track their data and inform predictive algorithms.
Collecting information about physical activity, who they’re with, what they’re doing and their thoughts and feelings in real time will allow us to predict changes in their mental health.
We could then offer real time online or app interventions.
VU is also developing a mental health research consortium with a team of internal and external researchers to focus on behavioural and lifestyle interventions to prevent and treat mental illness.
The lessons learned in Melbourne’s west will be applicable to all of Victoria and can be scaled up federally and potentially globally.
To do this we need funding from traditional grants and partnerships with industry and philanthropic organisations. Such research has great potential for industry involvement, as it can benefit people’s health and business productivity.
We know it is a difficult time for young people, but with the right supports to keep them in work or study, their chances of successfully navigating adulthood and making a contribution will improve.
Body politics: the toxic role of social media
Dr Siân McLean was a Victoria University Institute for Health and Sport Adjunct Fellow
I want to begin by dispelling a few myths about body dissatisfaction.
The first is that people with body dissatisfaction are just being vain.
This implies an element of choice, which is simply not the case. We live in a culture where appearance is social capital, where one’s value and success hinges upon appearance.
The second myth is that body dissatisfaction doesn’t do any harm.
It is in fact associated with high levels of distress, reduced quality of life and risk of depression, low self-esteem, unhealthy and extreme weight control and eating disorders.
Body dissatisfaction is also often thought of as the domain of girls and young women.
Unfortunately, we are increasingly seeing boys and young men with it. And the potential negative health consequences are just as severe.
Another unfortunate myth is that body dissatisfaction is good for motivating weight loss. In reality, people with body dissatisfaction often find it harder to care for their health.
Doing it differently
None of this is helped by social media trends such as ‘fitspiration’.
These posts predominantly feature images of hypermuscular men and very slim women, typically the face obscured and focused only on a single body part, which can have a depersonalising and objectifying effect. They can also make people feel pressured to change how they look.
The insights we have gained from research offer ideas about how to do things differently. When women and men view images showing diverse body sizes that are not digitally modified, the impact on their body image is much less damaging.
Organisations can work with Victoria University (VU) to use these insights to consider the well-being of the people they interact with. For businesses, that may mean modifying their social media engagement, which can be good for the bottom line too.
We live in a culture where appearance is social capital, where one’s value and success hinges upon appearance.
When diverse body sizes and non-modified images are used in campaigns and advertising, they are perceived to be equally or more effective. People like the brand more and have higher purchasing intentions.
A positive image
The next challenge for VU is to engage with social media creators to get businesses and organisations to think seriously about the messages their social media practices send. We want to reduce the focus on appearance and promote the values that really matter.
Businesses can ask themselves:
Are your posts and advertising contributing to the toxic body image environment?
Do you only post images of your best self or only work with influencers who present a narrow and unrealistic appearance ideal?
Do you carefully curate your personal or business online presence to focus on appearance above other qualities and values?
If so, you may need to show a side of your organisation that reflects your true values rather than reinforcing appearance ideals.
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