Social connections, life balance: Mental health forum focuses on value of self-care

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    Family therapist and author Sarri Gilman

    The importance of taking care of yourself and living a balanced life were the central themes on Wednesday evening at a mental health forum hosted by Sno-Isle Libraries at the Mountlake Terrace Library. Self-care as an Accepted Practice was the fourth in a series of 18 forums the libraries are hosting for their Issues that Matter: Let’s Talk Mental Health initiative.

    Wednesday evening’s forum focused on increasing the awareness of self-care — a relatively new mental health practice — and its role in mental health. A resource sheet distributed at the event defines self-care as “a practice focused on achieving and maintaining physical and mental health. Self-care involves recognizing one’s own needs and establishing strategies or routines to meet and fulfill them to lead a healthy, productive, and enjoyable life.”

    Family therapist and author Sarri Gilman, who facilitated the forum, noted in opening remarks that “Historically self-care is very new to our language and our culture. It entered our culture in the 1970s from the nursing profession.” Gillman went on to say that self-care “has really grown in momentum as we start to understand that it is foundational to everybody’s well-being and health.”

    During the evening, presenters frequently returned to a central theme of balance — specifically the need to balance all the major areas of our lives. A “Self-care Wheel” resource identified Physical, Psychological, Emotional, Spiritual, Personal and Professional as key life segments that require self-care. Gilman suggested also adding segments for Friends, Nature and Creativity, and encouraged the forum’s attendees to write self-care tips and strategies from the evening’s discussion on the appropriate segment of the wheel. The core message was that all the life areas on the wheel are important and require attention and self-care. If any of the segments are ignored, life becomes unbalanced and happiness and quality of life suffers.

    Counselor Amber Saldivar says frequent work breaks are key to mental health.

    Gilman was joined by three panelists who shared self-care tips, strategies and resources. Mental health counselor Amber Saldivar spoke of the importance of thinking about your own needs, noting that often it’s “hard to say no to the needs and demands of others.”

    In response to the question, “How do you fit time for self-care into your life?” Saldivar responded that there is a natural tendency to think “I can rest after I get everything done.” However, typically, she said“this never happens.” Her self-care tip was to be sure you “take regular breaks even when you still have things to do on your list.” Strategies she uses include setting an alarm during the day to remind her to take regular breaks, and she takes a 10-minute work break every hour. She also goes on two personal weekend retreats every year to recharge. In addition, Saldivar noted that getting enough sleep and rest is a key self-care requirement.

    Caregivers must also take care of themselves, advised Saranne Moreschi of the National Alliance on Mental Illness

    Panelist Saranne Moreschi, a retired educator and a Family-to-Family instructor with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), made the point that almost everyone is affected by mental illness, either through their own struggles or the struggles of a child, parent, spouse, grandparent, grandchild, sibling or friend.

    Many people are also caregivers for a loved one with mental illness or another chronic health problem, making it difficult to focus on their own self-care. Moreschi observed that “family members and caregivers must take care of themselves too, or else burn out,” advising that “caregivers who pay attention to their own physical and emotional health are better able to handle the challenges of supporting someone with mental illness.”

    She went on to explain that “it’s like the advice given in airplanes. You must put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help someone with theirs. Taking care of yourself is a valid goal on its own, but it will also help you to support the people you love who need your care.”

    Moreschi presented NAMI’s “7 Principles of Living a Balanced Life,” a set of self-care principles and strategies for anyone caring for someone with mental illness or other chronic health problems.

    • Do as much as you can financially and physically to improve the situation
    • Strive for good physical health
    • Watch your stress level
    • Maintain social contacts
    • Seek out and join a support group
    • Continue pursuing your own interests.
    • Do something for someone else; give back

    Maintaining social contacts was specifically called out by the panel as one of the most important self-care principles. Studies have shown that people who are the happiest have six hours or more of social contact each day.

    Ivette Bayo Urban advised unplugging from technology during non-work hours.

    Ivette Bayo Urban, a doctoral candidate in the University of Washington Information School, addressed the stresses that modern technology brings to self-care, noting the constant pressures and distractions of email and social media. A technology-related self-care strategy that Bayo Urban uses is to turn off email notifications on her phone when she isn’t working. This forces her to make a conscious effort to check her email, rather than being constantly interrupted by incoming work emails when she wants to focus on other important non-work areas of her life. Bayo Urban stressed the importance of cutting technology out for part of the day to focus on loved ones.

    How do you get started? Sarri Gilman recommended that people commit to a small amount of self-care time every day, then expand the time. “If you are at zero, get to 15 minutes a day. Fifteen minutes a day is what we call the “turning point” in all the research.” The panelists acknowledged that they started small, but now spend an average of an hour or two per day on self-care. A few examples of self-care that were mentioned by the panelists included meditating, taking a walk, exercising, reading, prayer, sewing and other hobbies and calling a friend on the phone.

    Sno-Isle Libraries has published a list of recommended mental health books and other resources to complement the forum on their Issues That Matter: Let’s Talk Mental Health web page. This include books about general mental health, responding to crises, and the state of mental health services in the U.S., and links to local and national organizations that provide mental health services and information.

    Wednesday night’s forum was recorded, and an audio recording and video will be posted on the Sno-Isle Libraries’ website. The libraries will host additional forums in the mental health series during the first half of 2018. Details and a schedule are also available on the website.

    — Story and photos by Michael McAuliffe
    Michael McAuliffe is a freelance writer and photographer in Edmonds. He can be reached at www.mtmcauliffe.com.

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