What we could learn from the Italians to boost our mental health
Sense of community and getting outdoors can be powerful in fighting off depression
There is some UK research suggesting that spending time in nature is good for your mental health and can give you a welcome emotional boost. Photograph: iStock
Longer days bring cheer but not to everybody. For some, the brighter days lead to an increase in depression and this seems to be especially so in the month of May, which is just around the corner.
This mood change may have something to do with hormonal effects brought on by the change in light, but we can’t be certain.
If you’re prone to summer depression, now would be a good time to think about lifestyle measures you could take to lessen the risk.
I was looking recently at an article by Prexa N Shah in the International Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which suggested to me that we might usefully steal some ideas from Italy. She was wondering why Italy has a relatively low rate of depression compared with the US. The Italian rate is also low compared with that in northern Europe and in Ireland.
Here are some ideas based on the Italian way of doing things that might hold a key to why the mental health of people in Italy is better than here.
First, Italians spend time together and remain close to their families. We know this already – it’s a staple of ads exploiting the Italian way of life to sell products. As our society becomes more individualised it’s worth remembering that this is not just a cliche, but also a way of life that we can value and nurture here. The big families are more or less a thing of the past but the commitment to closeness remains.
If you have family from whom you happen to be a bit isolated, spending more time with them may be part of the answer to the summer blues.
Italians also spend a lot of time out in nature. Italians I have known in Dublin have visited more parts of Ireland than I have, going west for surfing, north for the Giant’s Causeway and to Bray for the purpose of walking to Greystones and back.
There is some UK research which I’ve mentioned here before suggesting that spending time in nature is good for your mental health and can give you a welcome emotional boost.
Even if you live in a city you can probably find lots of green areas to enjoy during the summer months so if you’re prone to a depression in that season it’s a good idea to plan how to build “green” time into your routine.
The diet favoured by Italians – lots of vegetables and fish for instance – tends to be a healthy one with low reliance on processed foods. Diet has a role in depression and mental health so planning to eat better should be part of your summer programme.
Exercise is very beneficial to mental as well as physical health and that’s why GPs sometimes actually prescribe exercise. If there’s no accessible green area near you for walking and exercising, try going to the gym once or twice a week – it really can make a difference.
Italians are also keen on volunteering and indeed I’ve heard Italians in Ireland lament the difficulty in finding short-term opportunities for volunteering here. Volunteering usually means working with other people and not only do you get that valuable social contact but you also get a sense of achievement as well as the benefit of feeling you have contributed something to others. All of this can be a big help in warding off depression.
To look for opportunities near you check out the website of Volunteer Ireland. It has lots of information on volunteering around the country.
I would also suggest you check out meetup.com which helps people to meet together to pursue common interests. It’s a very popular website and a marvellous resource.
The summer doesn’t have to be gloomy time for those who are prone to depression in those months.
The key is to start planning now.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).