The London mental health guide: how and where to get help
We emerged blinking and battle bruised from the horrors of the pandemic over a year ago, but anyone expecting sunshine and rainbows in a land of plenty has had a rude awakening.
Sure, we’re not locked down anymore but the country has a whole new set of problems to contend with, including a cost of living crisis which 78 per cent of Britons say is impacting their mental health.
Plus, new studies by the Office for Health Improvements and Disparities and the NHS found that 75 percent of adults in England admit to feeling anxious while one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year.
These statistics might seem bleak but the flipside is that society has come a long way as far as giving mental health the respect it deserves is concerned. Celebrities are more open about their struggles, apps offer emotional support and workshops dedicated to boosting mental wellbeing are increasingly popular.
Initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week (May 15 - May 21) are more important than ever in helping to reframe what mental health struggles are and who experiences them, as well as encouraging people to find the support they need.
Help can come in all sorts of guises: here are some of our best suggestions to achieve better mental health.
Check your sources
When it comes to psychological wellbeing it is so important to be especially discerning about what advice we take and media we consume, especially as there really is an app, podcast, book, expert or coach for just about everything.
Anyone offering advice about mental health should ideally be a medic, academic or certified therapist – but if they aren’t it should very clear that they are coming from a place of personal experience not professional expertise.
“You need to look for credentials,” says Lowri Dowthwaite-Walsh senior psychologist at The University of Central Lancashire who specialises in positive psychology. “There are of course people who are not qualified but who do offer great suggestions [around mental health] but [ideally] you want evidence based tips and advice.”
Put pen to paper
There have been hundreds of studies which confirm that writing can help us heal mentally, including research in 2019 which found that six weeks expressive writing intervention increases resilience and decreases depressive symptoms, perceived stress, emotional upheaval and rumination among those who identified as suffering trauma within the past year.
But, it can be difficult to find the motivation and a blank page is often intimidating. The team at Self Space – a service offering straightforward access to mental health support, with no waitlists, seven days a week with locations across London – has launched Open Letters. It’s a project which shares deeply personal letters and invites anyone to submit their own either in person or online until May 27 with the aim of tackling mental health stigma and capturing a true picture of the nation’s emotional psyche. The Open Letters project will be live on the Self Space website throughout May.
“Everyone deserves a safe space to express their emotions without fear of judgement,” says Chance Marshall, Therapist and Founding Partner of Self Space. “That’s why we’re launching the Open Letters project - to encourage people to speak from the heart and share their stories.”
Each letter is part of a growing digital library, which will feature on billboards throughout Shoreditch and across Self Space’s London locations. Alongside the letter library, there are letter writing workshops as well as accessible group therapy programmes on offer – giving people a chance to connect.
“One of the biggest threats to good mental health is people ignoring or not recognising early symptoms that indicate they are stressed, experiencing low mood and anxious thoughts and dealing with these proactively before they escalate,” says psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos citing feeling nervous, restless or tense, having trouble sleeping or difficulty concentrating as examples.
“These symptoms can be reduced with just a few minutes of physical activity, as movement can help to release feel good hormones and reduce the symptoms of anxiety – giving us agency over our own mental health.”
Dr Papadopoulos is part of the latest Better Health – Every Mind Matters campaign which is committed to using movement as a tool to boost mental health.
“If you’re struggling with your mental health, get outside and move your body,” she says. “Any amount of physical activity is better than none, but regular activity is recommended, so it’s helpful to find an activity you like and are able to do regularly, even if that means starting small and building up slowly.”
The Sporting Recovery Group offers activities including football, yoga and non-contact boxing to people living with mental illness in a few different areas of south London, while Sport in Mind have started running yoga and badminton sessions in Brent.
If all of this seems a bit much, try a simple walk. Mental Health Mates, founded by author Bryony Gordon, organises walks all over the capital and beyond where people can meet, walk and talk without judgement.
Find a therapist
The prevalence of online therapy means we’re no longer bound by location, however many people still prefer the intimacy of a face-to-face appointment. But whether in person or remote, finding a therapist is trickier than it sounds and there are things you need to consider.
Firstly - make sure they are accredited.
“Anyone can put themselves out there as a counsellor or therapist or even psychotherapist because the name itself isn’t particularly protected,” warns Dowthwaite-Walsh. “Look at directories where people have been accredited by institutions like BACP or the BABCP.”
It’s also worth finding someone with expertise in the specific area you are concerned - be it eating disorders, self harm or PTSD. But the main thing is making sure your therapist is someone you can get along with.
“Most psychotherapists will offer an introductory or discovery [session] when you can meet them to see if you can hit it off and if they don’t offer that I’d be wary,” says Dowthwaite-Walsh. Try the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists. Mind also has links to NHS therapists and private therapists.
Consider AI therapy
According the Royal College of Psychiatrists, almost a quarter of people suffering with mental health issues have at least 12 weeks to wait before they start treatment – resulting in despairing calls to emergency services.
It’s where tech can bridge the gap. There are obviously going to be reservations when it comes to having a robot as substitute therapist — can AI really replace people when it comes to that most human of traits: emotion?
“I think there’s room for both,” says Dowthwaite-Walsh. “I know some people have had really good experiences of using chatbots. These offer psychoeducation and guided self-help and can be quite a motivating tool. If you have severe trauma you might have been hurt by humans and find it hard to relate to them so maybe it is a way of building up confidence to go and speak to a therapist.”
She does advise people exercise caution when considering using an AI as a therapist.
“There’s still not enough research in that area,” she says. “Use it to get thought day but people severely depressed and suicidal really need to see their GP.”
If you want to try out some therapeutic AI, Replika allows users to make their own friend an “AI companion” rather than as a therapist but users will find ‘someone’ who will will listen, talk and counsel. Woebot is another good shout for anyone dipping their toes into AI therapy. Grounded in science, it is sold as an “ally” rather than an expert.
Read all about it
Knowledge is power and all that – so if you’re feeling a little mentally sub par you could do worse than reading up on your symptoms and the experiences of others.
There are some well established texts including Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, Untamed by Glennon Doyle and Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before by Dr Julie Smith which have been enduringly popular and bestsellers for very good reason.
But there are also some brilliant new books to dive into, too.
The Mind Manual by Dr Alex George is perfect for anyone who takes comfort in action. Dr George has essentially created a practical toolkit for anyone to use in order to keep their psyche supported – all starting with how to assess your own mental health on any given day.
Meanwhile comedian Ruby Wax’s memoir I’m Not as Well as I thought I Was is the account of her stay in a psychiatric hospital in 2022 and her struggle to “stay sane in a completely chaotic world”. While at times it will make for tough reading, Wax’s words are ultimately a hand to hold for anyone experiencing poor mental health. She is both brutally honest and unfailingly warm.
Will You Read This Please?, edited by Joanna Cannon is a beautiful book in which 12 stories about mental illness as told to some of Britain’s finest writers are laid bare. “Some people who deal with mental illness have the opportunity and ability to write about it, but many do not - and it was those people, those unread stories, I wanted to find,” said Cannon of the collection, which includes tales of strength and resilience as well as heartbreak.
Lastly, Tim Clare’s meditation on anxiety — Coward: Why We Get Anxious & What We Can Do About It —has been released in paperback. It’s a rigorous exploration of the most common and widely misunderstood mental illnesses and Clare’s exhaustive research into every possible treatment is both funny and wise.
Get on the apps
While most of us don’t need a reason to spend more time on our devices, there are a host of apps dedicated to shoring up good mental health or helping combat the blues and most are either totally free or have a free version.
One of the most popular is Headspace which is essentially a comprehensive library of guided meditations — some as short as three minutes, which is perfect for anyone new to mindfulness. Then there’s Happify, which is home to reams of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) games which help users identify and break harmful habits. Eighty four percent of regular Happify users feel better within two months.
Thrive is brilliant for helping to track and manage low moods, as is My Possible Self, which is NHS-approved.
There are a host of brilliant podcasts that are informative safe havens for anyone feeling a little bit battered by their own brains.
The Mental Illness Happy Hour was created by comedian Paul Gilmartin who has navigated both clinical depression and alcoholism. Listeners are treated to hour long interviews with creative people who have experience with mental illness including eating disorders and addiction and is done with such sensitivity and humour it’s become critically acclaimed.
That Brene Brown and Dr Gabor Maté have been guests should be some indication as to the credence and popularity of Ten Per Cent Happier, a podcast hosted by Dan Harris a “fidgety, skeptical journalist” who sought salvage from debilitating panic attacks in meditation. Harris and his guests discuss failure, productivity, anxiety, anger and much more in a bid for happiness which he believes is “a skill you can train”.
Named after her personal mantra, Gennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things is another popular option. Each episode, Doyle plus her wife and her sister “drop the fake and talk honestly about the hard”. Nothing is off the table - marriage, divorce, illness, loneliness - and the aim is to “help each other carry the hard so we can all live a little bit lighter and braver, more free and less alone”.
Billed as “funny people talking about death” the multiple award-winning Griefcast, which has been downloaded seven million times — is a go to for anyone going through any sort bereavement. Host, Cariad Lloyd talks to all sorts of people - guests have included Adam Buxton, Romesh Ranganathan and Fleur East - about life and loss, giving gallows humour and comfort to listeners.