Mental Health Month

The sad truth is 1 in 5 Australians aged 16-85* will have experienced a mental health illness in their lifetime. So how can we support kids to grow up into strong, resilient adults? How important are relationships for our mental health?

This Mental Health Month, we ask Dr Katherine Knight, Child Psychiatrist and Director of Mental Health at Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, about the link between relationships and mental health and wellbeing.

Are relationships that important?

Absolutely. Humans are relational beings - we crave and benefit from being with others. Through relationships we gain connection and approval and it’s this early need for connection and approval that we carry with us into adulthood.

If you think about our basic needs like safety, food and shelter, we can only access these through the caregiving relationships we forge with others. As children, these are our parents and/or carers – the first relationships we experience. As we grow up into adulthood, nurturing relationships provide space for learning and development and remain critical to our physical and mental wellbeing.

Poor or negative relationships can be the source of serious distress and diminish our health and wellbeing. Positive relationships are protective.

How do relationships help us?

There’s a lot of evidence that healthy relationships support mental health. Similarly, poor relationships and social isolation can increase our chances of developing conditions like heart disease, obesity, depression, and anxiety.

Relationships and mental health are reciprocal. Good mental health stems from good relationships – and relationships can certainly be impacted by poor mental health.

Strong relationships are essential to wellbeing. Safe and healthy relationships with friends and family enhance resilience in times of challenge and uncertainty. They are not just an optional extra.

What about childhood relationships?

Children need safe relationships to develop a sense of themselves, and of the world around them as being safe.

Persistent conflict between adults in a household with children not only causes stress for the adults, it can also affect the child’s wellbeing and development.

In community practice, children and young people who have experienced serious traumatic events such as separation, loss and neglect may have issues developing trust, closeness or intimacy. There is likely to have been a lack of emotionally available, validating and sometimes safe relationships for these children.

What does the science say about relationships?

The link between relationships and health occurs at different levels of medicine and society. For example, an article from 1993 showed clear biochemical differences between newly married couples who spent 30 minutes calmly talking through their issues, versus couples who tried to resolve their issues by arguing or raising their voices at each other.

The Harvard study of adult development, which has been running for 80 years has been quoted as finding:

‘Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

— The Harvard Gazette

Is there a link between mental illness and relationships?

People with mental illness like depression and anxiety are often more isolated. Even when surrounded by people, they may feel alone in their illness, limiting their capacity to engage with others.

Experiences of trauma can impact on the basic trust and hope of reliable and warm relationships. In this way, mental health can impede and diminish relationships, at a time when we need them the most. The challenge of overcoming the barriers to engagement is the first step in any treatment pathway. For a long time, therapists have known that the relationships between the therapist and patient - that connection - is an essential component to care.

But relationships can be HARD work… 

Relationships can be difficult and there may be times when disagreements occur. People can get on our nerves, say something unhelpful or we ‘fall out’ for a time. However, having someone to turn to when things are tough is key to not feeling alone.

“Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.”

— Miles Franklin

Perhaps, some of the best relationships are those in which both individuals can genuinely relate to each other – we can share and be heard by each other for who we really are.

How can I get the best out of my relationships?

The quality of the relationships matters as much as the number of people in our relationship networks. The variety of people we know and are known by enriches our lives and experiences - from casual contacts through to our closest loved ones.

Key to developing relationships is to be open to them. Be aware of the people around you and opportunities for connection. If someone seeks help from you, be open to offering it. Be a friend - and make a friend.

I suggest:

1. Thinking about who you would like to catch up with or get to know better, and do something about it. It’s important to remember that good relationships require care and attention.

2. Think about your principles for relationships. What is important to you? What do you seek in other people? Find ways to celebrate who you are and who you want to be.

3. If you’re a parent, carer or are exposed to children: remember they truly are sponges. Consider how you behave around them. If an adult in your life is frustrating you, or you have a disagreement, try your best to keep ‘debates’ behind closed doors and away from impressionable children. Even better, try and think about ways to calmly discuss and resolve issues – before things get heated.

This Mental Health Month, take some time out to share good moments with the people who are in your relationship network. Perhaps add a few more people to that network. It’s in everyone’s best interests.