Marathon effort to tackle a mental health stigma

May 5, 2017

I don’t know about you but I found tremendous inspiration in watching the runners in the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon. This was especially the case this year as the race was dubbed the Mental Health Marathon, with its featured charity Heads Together.

Heads Together is the campaign group set up  in partnership with charities that are tackling stigma, raising awareness, and providing vital help for people with mental health challenges. Heads Together fielded more than 70 runners wearing its distinctive blue headbands.

When I was younger, I used to enjoy jogging; I understand well how it’s good for the mind as well as the body. In many ways, running is like a meditation – it brings clarity, releases endorphins which make us feel good, and for some people it can be very valuable time alone, away from our commitments.

I haven’t jogged for years after a knee injury. Recently my partner purposefully stuck an article under my nose: scientific research confirms the connection that meditation and aerobic exercise carried out together help to reduce depression. According to a 2016 study from Rutgers University in New Jersey, published in Translational Psychiatry, this mind and body combination – done twice a week for only two months – reduced the symptoms of depression for a group of students by 40 per cent.

“Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression,” says Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers. “But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there has always been an awareness of this mind-body connection. Practitioners believe that depression and anxiety, for example, are connected to the liver. This ties in with modern UK research: in 2015, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that suffering from anxiety or depression could carry an increased risk of death from liver disease. The study identified a possible link between high levels of psychological distress and deaths resulting from a variety of liver diseases. Hopefully studies such as this will open up new ways of treating mental health conditions.

When I watched the marathon runners, I came to the realisation that these amateur sportspeople are contributing to the ending of a taboo. In fact, we are witnessing a movement to make real change: a chord has been struck, and another step forward taken in the global effort to change mindsets and win hearts.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation