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Here’s how we can improve our mental wellbeing today

A recent study into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental wellbeing paints a bleak global picture. Thankfully, there are solutions writes Dr Seranne Motilal, a mental wellbeing expert and clinician at Discovery Vitality.

The science communities project that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic goes well beyond the virus itself. These projections include diseases of lifestyle, mental wellbeing and health impact, economic effects, and more. 

The recently published Mental Health Million project, developed at Sapien Labs in Washington DC in the United States, also confirms the projections. They began the study, which started in April 2020 when many countries went into lockdown, because “understanding where we stand collectively on the spectrum of mental wellbeing serves as an important barometer of the health of our society”.

The Sapien project uses an online assessment called the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ). The study, led by scientists Tara Thiagarajan (PhD) and Jennifer Newson (PhD), gathered 49 000 responses from eight countries.

How South Africa fared 

The average mental wellbeing score was highest for respondents from Singapore (94) and the United States (72), and the lowest was from United Kingdom (54) and South Africa (56). The study also highlighted a crisis among young adults in South Africa. MHQ scores were 86 points lower in young adults aged 18 to 24 years compared to adults 65 years and older.

What’s affecting our mental wellbeing

While there are socio-economic factors, the reality is that 57% of South African respondents experience a range of negative health, financial, or social consequences. However, solutions are available and can make an immediate impact. The study highlights how sleep, social interaction, and exercise behaviours can positively affect scoring.

The good news

An almost 30% improvement was seen in those who had a good night’s sleep, relative to those who rarely do. The study found that good sleep affected high scores around self-image, appetite regulation and optimism. 

It’s fascinating that those who engaged in face-to-face social interaction with friends and family at least three times a week before the pandemic fared better. Also, people who exercised at least 30 minutes a day had a 30% higher score.

How Vitality shapes solutions

Part of our aim at Discovery Vitality is to provide solutions to our members, which could also apply to all South Africans. 

Mental wellbeing assessments are the first intervention, where we assess sleep, resilience, use of alcohol, and other factors which impact mental wellbeing. 

Next, we suggest interventions for those who are trying to achieve mental wellbeing (different from mental health, which is a clinical condition). This could include app-based sleep and mindfulness tracking, educational material on Vitality at Home and telephonic counselling through SADAG.

One area that we focus on is getting a good night’s rest. It is a key pillar of physical and mental wellbeing. For adults, at least seven hours of good quality sleep per night is recommended.

Regular exercise, just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, plus a balanced, wholesome diet (including restricted meal sizes, especially at night) are key interventions to improve sleep. The long-term impact of these actions leads to maintaining a healthy weight, which is important as obesity is directly linked to conditions like obstructive sleep apnoea, a common cause of poor sleep. 

Then, if we look at exercise for the mind, mindfulness, meditation, and mind-body activities such as yoga have been shown to reduce physical and psychological stress and may improve sleep quality.

The positive effect of physical activity on mental wellbeing 

Intuitively, we know that once we get into exercise, it is enjoyable, social, and helps relieve stress. But regular physical activity is also associated with a greater sense of wellbeing and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

The psychological benefits of regular exercise affect us at a molecular level. Exercise creates chemical changes in the brain that boosts our mood. Recent research tells us that people who exercised have 43% fewer days of poor mental health in a month than individuals who didn’t exercise.

A major benefit of the Vitality mental wellbeing programme is that it is goal and incentive-based, which means we motivate and reward members for taking positive steps towards their overall good health. For all South Africans, there are resources available online at no cost. As long as your health allows it, the first step to good mental wellbeing could start with taking a few steps – just 30 minutes a day, three times a week. DM


Dr Seranne Motilal is a medical doctor who has completed a diploma in mental health. In 2018, Dr Seranne graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in public health.


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