You spoke—and we listened. Ahead of our 2016 SCI Health Forum, we asked participants to answer a few key questions about mental wellbeing. On April 16, Heather Lamb, SCI BC’s Information Resource Specialist and our Forum emcee, shared your views on nutrition, fitness, connection and mindfulness in her opening comments. Here’s a recap of Heather’s speaking notes.
Good morning and welcome to our annual SCI Forum.
Today is Stress Awareness Day, an ideal time for us to be talking about mental wellness here today.
Mental wellness is something that affects everyone. I’ll talk in a minute about what mental wellness is and how we can improve it, but first a comment about our intended audience for today’s forum. We know that an injury happens to family and friends, as well as the individual who is injured. Today’s speakers will be centred on the experiences of people with an injury but the information will be applicable to spouses, caregivers and friends as well. We encourage you to share what you learn here today, not only for the health of your support network, but also so that they can better support you as you integrate the information and activities you learn about today.
I also want to acknowledge the challenges of spinal cord injury, especially pain. These challenges are very real and definitely impact mental wellness. In the survey that many of you filled out for today’s event, you mentioned the challenges that you experience and these are things we are also well aware of. I could read out all the answers that you gave on the survey, but I want to shift attention as quickly as possible to the practical strategies that will help you to increase your own quality of life, even with those secondary complications.
Today our focus is on living well after SCI, so we’ll be focusing less on the negatives and more on positive actions you can take. I also know that we could spend all day talking about the challenges that people with disabilities experience, the things that make life difficult. But you already know what those things are. The last thing I want to do is try to pretend that life is a breeze after SCI. However, we also know that negative thinking leads to more negative thinking…and positive thoughts lead to more positive thoughts. So today we will be talking about practical strategies to improve mental wellness, positive things that you can take home and start using right away.
WHAT IS MENTAL WELLNESS? ESSENTIALLY IT’S ABOUT USING ONE’S COGNITIVE AND EMOTIONAL ABILITIES TO BE AS ACTIVE AND INVOLVED AS POSSIBLE AND TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT ONESELF. IT’S ALSO ABOUT RESILIENCE, OR THE ABILITY TO WEATHER THE BAD PATCHES THAT LIFE THROWS AT EVERYONE.
So what is mental wellness? There are lots of definitions, of course, but essentially it’s about using one’s cognitive and emotional abilities to be as active and involved as possible and to feel good about oneself. It’s also about resilience, or the ability to weather the bad patches that life throws at everyone. Today we’ll be exploring the themes of fitness, social connection, nutrition and mindfulness to learn about developing mental wellness.
Now for a few quick definitions of those themes. Fitness is often associated with exercise, and that is certainly part of it. But it doesn’t mean just going to the gym and lifting weights. It also means living an active lifestyle, which might include indoor and outdoor sports, stretches, or other activities where your body and mind are active. People’s ability to be physically active will vary based on injury, age and other factors, but the key is to be involved in something.
Social connection is anything to do with relationships, interacting positively with others, and feeling like part of a community through shared experiences and emotions.
Nutrition is more self explanatory but keep in mind, it doesn’t mean that you have to deny yourself food you like, just that you should be conscious of what you are putting into your body and ensuring overall balance.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, both physical and mental experiences, without judging them. This means to focus on what is happening now, rather than past or future events, and to achieve connection between mind and body.
You’ll hear lots more about these throughout the day, including what SCI BC peers are doing and practical strategies for you.
In our survey, you told us that social connection is the most important thing for you in terms of being healthy, followed closely by exercise or fitness and doing hobbies. We’ll talk about these things today, and hopefully give you some new ideas as well.
Social connection and fitness are also the top two things you would recommend to someone who is newly injured, to help them stay as well as possible. My encouragement to you is to practice what you know works, and find others to impart this message to. One way of passing on your immense knowledge of SCI and what works is to tell someone who is newly injured. You can do this through our peer program and we know that people who do this get a lot of satisfaction out of it. This also helps to develop your own sense of social connection.
FIGURE OUT WHAT WORKS FOR YOU AND THEN DO MORE OF THAT THING. IT WILL HELP TO GIVE YOU THE MENTAL STRENGTH TO HANDLE THE WORLD JUST A LITTLE IT BETTER.
As a person with a disability and as a social worker, I like to use a strengths-based approach in my personal life and in my work. What does this mean? Basically it means to focus on what a person is good at, rather than on the problems the person may experience. In the context of today’s sessions, this means to figure out what works for you and then do more of that thing. Will this fix an inaccessible world or a secondary complication of SCI? Of course not. It’s never going to be that simple. But it will help to give you the mental strength to handle the world just a little bit better.
All of you are in a different point in your SCI journey, both in terms of time after injury and how other things are going in your life. We know that everyone experiences an injury and the adjustment process differently. There is no right way to do this. Some people spend a lot of time grieving and adjusting and some people do it more quickly. Taking more time or having more trouble with it does not make a person weak. It just means that you need more time or different strategies than the next person. This process is too complicated and individual for there to be one solution.
What helps is different for everyone. For people who are doing well, and I know lots of people who do really well after injury, keep up whatever you’re doing. Also recognize that one day you may need to alter your strategy as your life evolves or as you age. For those that are struggling, it doesn’t mean you are less capable or that you are always going to struggle. It just means that you haven’t yet found the right formula for you.
Please don’t let anyone tell you that your style of adjusting to SCI is wrong. Everyone is unique and everyone will go through this in a different way. However, we do know that practicing self care, meaning actively trying to do things to better your mental wellness, makes it easier to live well after injury. 45% of you do this regularly and 36% of you do this occasionally, according to our survey. My hope is that after today, more of you will practice self care regularly because you will have more tools, support and ideas to do so.
You also told us that having self care scheduled is helpful to you. Put it on the calendar, make a date with a friend to meet to do something healthy together, turn off your phone’s ringer so you won’t be interrupted, and make it a part of your daily life.
So welcome to today’s event and to your day to explore mental wellness. I hope that you will leave here with a renewed sense of what works and the encouragement to go out and make it more of a habit.