The 23rd annual Mayor’s Event for Mental Health was all about finding creative ways to handle stress, anxiety and other mental health issues. Taking a break from campaigning, Mayor Cam Guthrie welcomed four guests to talk about how things like laughing, music, making art, or just sitting in nature can all have a powerful affect in making our minds healthier as part of a well-balanced life.
Guthrie started by paraphrasing an analogy from the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Wellington-Waterloo Helen Fishburn by talking about the things we do when if have a neighbour with a broken leg or some other physical malady: we visit them, send them cards, cook their meals, but we don’t act the same ways when our neighbour has a malady of the emotional or mental variety.
“We tend not to have those, ‘let me bring you a casserole’ moments as I would call them, and instead of everyone jumping into action, like we normally would, it’s not really talked about, and that’s where that stigma comes in,” Guthrie explained. “When we find out that someone is struggling with mental health, we tend to ignore it and we pull back, but mental health is health, and we have to start treating it that way.”
First up was Priya Shah, who is a music therapist, psychotherapist, and educator at Homewood Health Centre. After leading participants in a breathing exercise as she strummed the guitar, she talked about the ways that music supports improved mental health in her own life.
“Music helps me to validate challenging emotions that I feel. It helps me to feel connected with other people and less isolated. It motivates me to get things done, and helps me to decrease my stress or anxiety and increase relaxation. And it also allows me to express my emotions, sometimes non-verbally when I don’t have the words, or sometimes I add words, which helped me to articulate what it is I’m feeling,” Shah said.
Shah said that her practice at Homewood is about using the creation of music, or even just listening to music, as a way to address therapeutic issues. Music is processed globally by the brain and can reach us on multiple levels from our emotional state to a spiritual sense. She encourages patients to make playlists to gradually adjust their emotional state, or to replace lyrics in songs to express their own feelings.
“And then lastly, just create music on your own using an instrument if you have one at home, or maybe you want to purchase one that’s not too expensive, such as a ukulele,” Shah said. “You can then learn through YouTube, or through getting a teacher, but there’s a lot of really easy videos on YouTube where you can just improvise or learn a chord progression.”
Courtney McLeod, a certified life and leadership coach (CPCC), was the next speaker. She is the founder of the Kick-Ass Ladies group, which brings women together for connection, learning, fun, and adventure, but what she brought to the Mayor’s Event was the idea of “laughter yoga.”
“With all the work that I do, I incorporate laughter yoga into it,” McLeod said. “It’s all about coming in and engaging in voluntary laughter, and I think the coolest part about laughter yoga is the fact that our bodies are so cool. They don’t know the difference between real and fake laughter, so even if it’s fake, our bodies get the same health benefits. And laughter is contagious.”
McLeod noted all the health benefits of laughter, like the reduction of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and the generation of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. She compared laughter yoga activities to cleaning one’s toilet, a way to scrub away stress and anxiety and negative feelings in order to feel more focused and positive, and it gets results.
“I often hear groups and participants say, ‘I feel so much better coming out of it than when I came into it,’ and people feel lighter, better, happier. I’ve even heard people say they feel guilty,” McLeod said.
“I had one woman contact me after a session and say, she was doing her most hated chore, and then she remembered the laughter exercises that we did and she just started laughing. It changed the whole trajectory of her day, and the way she was interacting with people changed. It changed their mood, everyone had a better time, and she was more productive.”
Next, Marcey Gray, the program co-ordinator for Spark of Brilliance, talked about how making art improves mental health. As the saying goes, Gray not only helps to run Spark of Brilliance, but she’s also been a beneficiary of its practices.
“My story began as a person with a long list of mental health diagnoses, including agoraphobia, and I was once deemed by a professional as a ‘hopeless case’, someone who would never hold a job or be a contributing member of society,” Gray said candidly.
“Through the arts, and through Spark of Brilliance, I was able to gain the tools I needed to express to others what I couldn’t express verbally. It gave me motivation and confidence and a better quality of life. It helps me find the strengths that have carried me along in my journey to this day, and I now share those strengths with others.”
Gray explained that the point of making art doesn’t need to be about making a museum ready masterpiece, it’s just about the act of doing. It also doesn’t mean drawing a picture, painting a portrait or moulding a sculpture, it’s merely about the act of being creative.
“Healing can be found in other creative activities too like knitting, writing, photography, doodling, woodworking, gardening, even DIY home repair; they all increase dopamine, they ward off depression, they help your brain make new connections between brain cells and protect the brain from aging,” Gray said. “They can each engage the brain in ways that make us feel better, less stressed, healthier, and more human.”
And is there anything more human than engaging with nature? Tamaura Proctor, a Registered Horticultural Therapist with Homewood, certainly thinks so even though her practice is one that’s only shared by about 35-40 therapists in all of Canada.
“We have this genetic inherited fondness for natural settings, and that we feel more emotionally comforted by being within them,” Proctor explained about the biophilia hypothesis. “This can help to reduce stressful events in us, it helps to reduce our blood pressure and helps to relax our muscles, so it’s an evolutionary connection that we have wanting to be in nature.”
Proctor offered various tips to use the nature around us to help your mental health. At Homewood, there’s a lot of gardening at the centre’s ample facilities, but outside of institutional care you have options like finding your “sweet spot”, a type of mindful mediation where you pick a spot in nature, even if it’s just your backyard, and build connections to the Earth. You can also fill your home with different plants, and then there’s the practice of “forest bathing.”
“It’s the practice of being mindfully present in nature. and not actually bathing within the forest,” Proctor said. “It’s immersing yourself within the forest atmosphere, and within that forest environment.
“There’s a natural compound that most often comes from coniferous trees or cone producing trees that’s a natural aromatherapy. We breathe it in as we’re walking through the forest and it helps to improve your health and well-being,” Proctor added. “There’s lot of research to support that it helps to reduce stress, and blood pressure. Your heart rate is lowered and it reduces your blood cortisol levels too.”
You can watch the full video from the Mayor’s Event here: