Being self-conscious about our bodies can lower self-esteem, confidence, and lead to mental health problems. This year, Mental Health Awareness Week (13–19 May) explores the topic of body image and how we think and feel about our bodies
Good mental health should be prioritised in the same way as physical health, but for this to happen there must be greater awareness, understanding, and reduced stigma around the topic.
In the UK, more than half of people with a learning disability have a mental health problem, and it is thought that almost 40 per cent of people with a physical disability or long-term health condition have mental health concerns.
In a bid to promote awareness and reduce stigma, each year the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) hosts Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), an opportunity to raise knowledge of mental illness, mental health problems, and inspire action to promote good mental health for all.
Campaigns like MHAW start a conversation about mental health and provide accurate information aboutmental illness.
During an important week of sharing experiences, promoting education, and representing the one in five people living with mental illness, a theme is introduced for a clear focus. In previous years themes have included topics like loneliness, sleep and friendship.
Last year’s theme, stress, brought new research to light that highlighted the effect of negative body image on mental health.
It was found that almost one in every three people have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Body image issues can affect anyone at any time or age, but there is still little research on the subject.
Alongside additional research, more needs to be done to create an open conversation about how we think and feel about our bodies. This year’s MHAW provides the perfect opportunity.
New research by the MHF in preparation for MHAW has found that 19 per cent of adults have felt disgusted by their body image in the last year.
More than 30 per cent felt down or low about their body image and 13per cent experienced suicidal thoughts of feelings because of concerns about their body image.
People from different backgrounds can experience body image issues in different ways. Age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability can all have an effect on this.
Emily Davison is a beauty and fashion blogger. Living with a visual impairment, Emily is working to reduce the stigma around sight loss and disability.
“When I was growing up there was a very standard way a disabled person looked and was portrayed,” Emily remembers. “There wasn’t a lot of racial diversity in fashion and beauty either, and social media wasn’t as big back then.”
Disabled people face unique challenges with regards to body image due to discrimination and the cultural perception of disability.
While often inaccurate, these negative perceptions of being different can exacerbate or invalidate mental health issues relating to negative body image.
“Sometimes people can overlook the fact that people with disabilities might also have mental health issues,” explains Emily. “Someone can have more than one disability and a mental health issue might be one of them.”
Every day disabled people are helping to change the outdated and inaccurate view of disability. For Emily, social media is a great platform to be open, she says: “A lot of issues that surround mental health and body image can stem from social media but, in terms of positive body image, social media is playing a big part.
“It’s important to raise awareness that in real life there’s so many shapes sizes and different ways of being,” Emily continues. “There’s no conventional way of looking despite what the media portrays.”
These voices from the disabled community are proving that we are all equals, regardless of our ability, and deserve to treat ourselves with dignity and respect.
The need to dismiss outdated ideals stretches further than the disabled community, Emily explains: “It’s becoming a growing movement about what is positive, not even just with disability but also ethnicity, and body shape and size as well.”
After you log on to a social media platform it is easy to begin comparing yourself to others and the seemingly perfect lives they lead online.
“Just because someone looks happy, that might not actually be their reality,” stresses Emily. “That person might also have mental health issues.”
Comparing yourself to other people online can be detrimental for your mental health, but there’s nothing wrong with having role models, Emily says: “There’s nothing wrong with seeing someone and aspiring to reach a goal like the way they dress, how long they’ve grown their hair to, or a health regime they follow.
“Take inspiration from other creators but I think it’s also about being positive,” she continues. “Follow people who work with what they have, who use their assets to the best of their ability.”
While not everyone has body image issues, working to change attitudes is essential to reducing stigma, Emily suggests: “Talk to people who have the same issues that can help because it’s nice to hear that you aren’t going through this in isolation, but it’s also important if you can use your experience and share that in order to help you grow.”
You can help to reduce stigma, change attitudes and start a conversation about body image this MHAW. Getting involved can be as simple as sharing mental health facts with a friend to hosting an event to help raise awareness.
After using the MHF website to get informed, social media is the easiest way to spread the word about MHAW. Sharing your own experiences with body image issues and how you overcame them, or just sharing information about the week can help start a discussion.
For this year’s MHAW, the MHF is using #BeBodyKind to raise awareness of body image issues. Simply post a photo of yourself on social media of a time or place when you felt comfortable in your own skin and use the hashtag. This could be a picture of yourself or something else that reminds you of the moment.
Having a get together with family and friends is a great way to create a safe space for a discussion about mental health and show those around you that you are there to support them.
The easiest way to show your support is to wear a green ribbon – the international symbol for mental health awareness. By wearing a ribbon, you are showing others that you care about their mental health.
Doing your part to reduce mental health stigma and body image is as simple as starting a conversation. How will you be making a difference this Mental Health Awareness Week?