Healthy living is often thought of in terms of eating well and exercising regularly. But a healthy lifestyle isn’t just a matter of looking after your physical health – your mental health is important too.

This article offers practical help and advice for looking after your mental health, including information on assessing how you feel and finding help if your mental health gets worse.

What is mental health?

Mental health comes in many forms. It includes your emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, and can affect how you handle everyday stress, interact with others and make choices.

Your mental health is likely to change over the course of your life. There are lots of reasons for this, but the most common causes are traumatic life experiences, family history and biological factors such as brain chemistry.

What can affect your mental health in later life?

People of all ages experience changes in mental health. But as you get older, there are specific events and situations that can affect your psychological wellbeing. Research shows that older people are more likely to suffer from poor mental health due to five particular issues. These are:

  • Discrimination
  • A lack of meaningful activity
  • Relationships
  • Physical health
  • Poverty

What are the signs of mental illness?

Mental health disorders affect everyone differently and the symptoms vary widely between people. To complicate matters, sometimes a mental illness can appear as a physical problem rather than an emotional one.

If your mental health is in decline, or you are worried someone you know is suffering from mental ill health, signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Feeling sad or low
  • Feeling confused or unable to concentrate
  • Excessive worrying or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Mood swings
  • Withdrawal from social interactions or avoiding friends and family
  • Significant fatigue or low energy
  • Problems sleeping
  • Delusions, paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and people
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Being overly aggressive or hostile
  • Suicidal thoughts

When to get support

Most mental health problems don’t get better on their own. If left untreated, your mental health can get worse and lead to more serious problems.

If your symptoms persist, speak to your GP or someone you trust. Talking about how you feel will help you work through your problems and decide your next steps. If you are in crisis, call an emotional support line such as The Samaritans or Silver Line, the only confidential helpline dedicated to providing information, friendship and advice to older people.

How to look after your mental health

Stay in touch

Human beings are social animals, and that means we all pine for social connection – no matter how much we enjoy our own company.

Volunteering is a great way to stay connected. Best of all, doing something that makes you feel proud of yourself can boost your self-esteem and make it easier to combat negative thoughts and feelings.

There are thousands of charities up and down the country that are always looking for new volunteers. If you’re unsure about where to start, Do It is a database of UK volunteering opportunities that you can search by interest, activity and location.

Be present

Being present, also referred to as ‘mindfulness’, is about concentrating on the here and now. It can improve your self-awareness and help you enjoy the world around you.

The practice has been around for hundreds of years and usually involves some form of meditative exercise. Here is a guided breathing exercise from Every Mind Matters to get you started.

Be active

Staying active is proven to help you look after your mental wellbeing. Exercise improves cognitive function and encourages the production of endorphins, the body’s natural happiness hormone.

Being active doesn’t mean running marathons or going to the gym every day – there are plenty of low-impact activities that you can do. Most importantly, you should try to do something that you enjoy and can continue long-term.

Many councils offer low-cost activities for those in later life. You may be able to access exercise therapy through your local practice too. Speak to your GP or visit www.nhs.uk to find out if this service is available where you live.

Sleep well

There’s a very close relationship between sleep and mental health: suffering from a mental health condition can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, and getting too little sleep can negatively affect your mental health. This makes it very easy for sleeplessness to impact your wellbeing.

There are lots of steps that you can take to improve your sleep. They include establishing a solid bedtime routine, keeping a sleep diary and making sure your bedroom is as comfortable as possible.

Whichever method you choose, you should only do what feels right for you and not put too much pressure on yourself to get things right first time. If the first strategy you choose doesn’t work, you can always try something else and come back to it when you’re ready.

Final thoughts

Older adults experience mental health problems at a lower rate than many younger age groups, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to them. There are lots of things that can affect older people, and it’s important for people of all ages to feel comfortable talking about how they feel.

If you are worried about your mental or physical health, seek help from a medical professional. There are lots of treatments available, including talking therapies and medications, that can make a big difference to your overall quality of life.