Paying attention to my emotions — Emotions are messengers which provide an opportunity to become attuned to changes we may need to make. You can practice mindfulness to get better at recognizing your feelings and emotions, whilst identifying the bodily sensations which are connected to them. Emotions need to be expressed to be processed. So ask yourself what is this emotion telling me? What does this emotion need from me? Emotional regulation is important to promote mental wellness. Dedicate time to understand your triggers, feelings and emotions.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Natalie Hardie.
Natalie Hardie is an award winning holistic mental health practitioner, keynote speaker and director of NH Neuro Training, an organisation which specialises in consultancy and training on the neural and cognitive mechanisms which underlie behaviour.
Natalie is a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor who has trained education professionals, NHS staff and UK Cabinet members in all aspects of mental health and factors that can affect wellbeing.
Natalie is renowned for her eloquent style of creative non-fiction writing on neuroscience and mental health and has been featured in health and wellbeing publications.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in Shepherds Bush, an area in West London within a very close knit family who provided a solid framework of morals, values and integrity. My family always promoted the importance of education.
I loved reading as a child! But not fictional stories, I enjoyed immersing myself into non-fiction literature. Anything scientific and technical allowing me to understand the intricate functioning of systems kept me fascinated.
As a child my Dad gave me a book from the series how my body works, and I was hooked! My love of the human brain was inaugurated from here onward!
In school I excelled academically and was always determined to be a high achiever. I went on to formally study Psychology, English Literature and Science.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
I have always taken interest in shifting focus from mental illness to mental wellness, by taking a holistic approach to mental health.
NH Neuro Training directs intentional focus towards making mental illnesses visible within society with increased access to support; leading to mental wellness.
NH Neuro training specializes in teaching the biological and cognitive processes involved in mental health, to help to understand and normalize mental illness whilst assisting to eradicate stigma. The societal perception of mental illness will not change if we do not intentionally endeavor to change it. The more we talk about our mental health the more normalized it becomes, which is vital to our wellness journey.
I have always advocated for mental health to be viewed as just as important as our physical health. We have annual check-ups to see the dentist but how often do we have a check-up with a mental health professional?
Seeking professional help for our mental health often only occurs after a crisis.
However, we can experience psychological injuries far more often than physical ones. Rejection, failure, loneliness, grief and betrayal can all occur on a daily basis; accumulation of these can impair our mental health.
It is important to me that we normalize seeking support and therapy alongside prioritizing our self care.
NH Neuro Training campaigns to highlight and address the importance of youth mental health on academic performance.
Young people with mental health difficulties are more likely to be excluded from school and also experience adverse effects from school exclusion.
By highlighting the relationship between mood and attainment, it creates a need for mental health education to be a vital component of the school curriculum.
Providing education professionals with in depth training around youth mental health and mental health first aid will equip them with the tools to help and tailor appropriate interventions.
Prompt access to effective early intervention for young people experiencing mental health difficulties, may improve both their mental health and access to education whilst avoiding the negative trajectory that accompanies school exclusions.
I actively address the profound mental health inequalities such as racial disparity in mental health.
It is clear that systematic barriers disproportionately impact mental health amongst differing racial groups. Historically, the Black community was and continues to be disadvantaged in mental health experiences and services.
We see substantial disparity in access to and experiences of mental health services, ranging from initial support, admission and detainment to disproportionate use of section 136 of the Mental Health Act and community treatment orders.
The racial disparity and experiences of ethnic minorities in mental health services are detrimental hence why I believe it should be actively addressed.
Societal challenges continue to affect mental health services and cultural judgements often prevent access to support and healthcare.
This must be addressed and dismantled; whilst providing readily available culturally appropriate advocacy and care to ensure better health outcomes.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I’ve been fascinated and passionate about the human brain for as long as I can remember!
Studying mental health helped to provide me with an understanding of the underlying mechanisms which are associated with mental illness.
When I first began working within the mental health sector; the existence of stigma, prejudice and discrimination became increasingly apparent. I felt an overwhelming desire to advocate for those affected by mental illness, where society had ostracized them for an aspect of their health no different than their physical health.
Mental health is an integral part of health; there is no health without mental health and I’ve always felt passionate about this being a crucial message to convey.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I became aware that my passion alongside my wealth of knowledge could help to create positive change, especially for youth mental health within education.
I have spent many years advocating for reform and expressing that low mood, grief, trauma, and anxiety amongst other mental health difficulties; impairs the educational performance, attainment, experiences and overall outlook on life for young people.
I have attended numerous debates at the House of Commons related to the reform of the Mental Health Act 1983, including the rising detention rates, use of police cells for detentions and racial disparity in detentions. Important changes still need to be implemented, hence why I advocate, campaign and educate on the significance of quality pertinent care within mental health services.
I believe that if you are passionate about something; you must do something about it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
To be honest it would have to be about the assumptions people make due to their unconscious bias. After a year or so of anonymity on my social media accounts; someone booked onto a mental health first aid course with me and arrived astonished that I was a woman; they said that they expected to see a male professor! I took it humorously but it highlights gender bias and assumed inequalities in the profession.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I am blessed to have insightful, knowledgeable and wise individuals within my close network.
My aunt Patricia is usually my go to person when I have a new idea that is somewhat controversial. She will always give me impartial logical advice whilst encouraging my creativity. I remember when NH Neuro Training was being established, I explained to my aunt how underwhelmedI was feeling in my previous job role. Her reply was ‘because it’s your time to soar’. This gave me such encouragement, which I will forever be grateful for.
I think that it is important to have a mentor as they can provide you with support and assist you to remain self-aware throughout your career journey.
Contrary to popular belief, business professionals do not always have the answers to every challenge or query. Having a mentor can help to guide us and offer strategies which we may never have contemplated before.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I believe that people often fear what they do not understand and a lack of education is often at the root of stigma. When you are not equipped with factual information regarding mental illness; your perception can become skewed leading to stigma.
The complexity of mental illness which I find completely fascinating; is ironically one of the reasons which causes stigma. Stigma prevents mental illness from gaining societal acceptance in the same way that physical illness does.
The fundamental lack of understanding and awareness can often be exacerbated due to media portrayal of mental illness. The media often portrays those with mental illness stereotypically as dangerous, violent or unable to live happy and fulfilled lives.
This portrayal only serves to further suppress those experiencing mental illness from society and can delay their support and recovery process.
There are still not enough honest and transparent conversations about mental health.
The best way to challenge and dispel stereotypes and stigma is by engaging in first hand conversations with those experiencing mental illness.
Talking openly about experiences, symptoms, trauma, treatment and diagnosis can help to raise awareness and remove stigma. Those experiencing mental illness are more likely to be socially excluded and experience discrimination within institutions despite the protective factors of the 2010 Equality Act.
Cultural factors also contribute to the stigma of mental illness. Different cultural attitudes or ideas regarding mental illness and distrust for service staff can prevent many from accessing the much needed psychological support.
There is evidence of disparities in service usage, those from ethnic minorities are less likely to access mental health support through their general practitioner and are unfortunately more likely to be treated in crisis care. The consistency of this occurrence leads to stigma as many believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness which will result in sectioning, community orders and being medicated against their will.
Many ethnic minority groups express adverse experiences within the mental health services. The inequalities and racial disparities further amplify trauma, causing a cascade of distress contributing to stigma.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
At an individual level we have a duty to be mindful of, and challenge our unconscious bias. What led me to think this way? What are my judgments based on? Are they helpful?
Our perceptions towards mental health are really important. Being conscious of our choice of language is vital to supporting someone experiencing mental illness. At an individual level we can intentionally correct stigmatizing language which is both harmful and unhelpful.
Supportive relationships are paramount in helping individuals who are experiencing mental illness. Being open and talking to someone about their experiences can help them to feel supported and accepted.
Look out for early detection signs, individuals expressing unbearable pain, feeling empty or significant changes in usual behaviour such as emotional detachment and changes in sleeping patterns.
I think that societal change is important as it will create transformation for communities and institutions, adjusting both perceptions and behaviours to mental health.
Socioeconomic factors such as housing and unemployment are linked to mental health, if strategies to improve socioeconomic status can have great impact on mental health over time.
Promotion of multi-stakeholder collaboration involving community organizations, private sector companies, academic institutions and religious groups will help to advance local and national efforts in supporting mental health.
Mental illness has huge financial implications for society in regards to absence from work, unemployment and use of healthcare services, so implementing cost efficient mental health services using a range of multi stakeholder facilities would be advantageous.
The government has executive power to implement positive change, especially in relation to public health laws.
The government can make a significant impact on the lives of individuals experiencing mental health by implementing adequate polices and legalization which take account of the epidemiology of mental illness, contextual factors and cultural components.
The government should provide a multi-sector approach which promotes positive mental health and prevention whilst delivering a robust recovery programme including person centered care and treatment.
There is currently an astonishing lengthy waiting time for mental health services. Reducing waiting times; especially for early intervention services and access to psychological therapies programmeswould greatly support individuals experiencing mental illness.
I believe that changes to legislation such as the Policing and Crime Bill and section 136 of the Mental Health Act would support those experiencing mental illness. The government should completely eradicate occurrences of individuals being detained in police cells during a mental health crisis. We have seen a significant decrease in the use of police cells, however experiencing a mental illness is not a crime, so it should not have the same consequences as committing a criminal offense. This can amplify the trauma of the crisis whilst delaying and impairing their recovery process.
The government should also reassess the funding that is allocated to mental health services, currently there appears to be an institutional bias against mental health within healthcare budgets as mental health services receives a minute percentage of funding.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I take a holistic approach to promote my own wellbeing. There is no health without mental health!
My strategies incorporate nutrition, social interaction and self care.
Six strategies which I use to assist in maintaining my mental wellness include:
- Ensuring I have 8 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night — Sleep is crucial to our mental health as it helps us to recover from both mental and physical exhaustion. Sleep and mood are closely connected. Lack of sleep can impair the communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex in the brain; which is involved in emotional regulation. This can lead to irritability and heightened emotional reactivity. So adequate sleep is vital to our wellbeing, including our emotional regulation.
- Eating foods which support my brain health — The nutrients in whole foods help to support our brain functioning including our moods, cognition, concentration and attention span. Nutrients provide the brain with the required chemical building blocks which are essential to support the synthesis, transportation and degradation of neurotransmitters. Our neurotransmitters influence our mental health and overall wellness. I consume foods that will support my neurotransmitters and mood regulation. For example mood boosting carbohydrates in bananas aid the absorption of tryptophan in the brain which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is linked to mood regulation and feelings of well-being. Pumpkin seeds, avocados, spirulina and cacao are also great sources of tryptophan.
- Paying attention to my emotions — Emotions are messengers which provide an opportunity to become attuned to changes we may need to make. You can practice mindfulness to get better at recognizing your feelings and emotions, whilst identifying the bodily sensations which are connected to them. Emotions need to be expressed to be processed. So ask yourself what is this emotion telling me? What does this emotion need from me? Emotional regulation is important to promote mental wellness. Dedicate time to understand your triggers, feelings and emotions.
- Journaling — There is immense power in seeing things written down in your own handwriting. I use a journal to track my feelings, gratitude and achievements. Journaling can help to understand and process your thoughts, track any symptoms and recognize your triggers. Using writing to express yourself can be very empowering whilst managing your mental health. It can help to reduce stress and anxiety whilst providing an opportunity for positive self talk. I like to include three things I am grateful for and three things I was able to accomplish each day.
We don’t often have the opportunity to process our emotions in the moment; so remember to journal at the end of each day. It also helps to write in a private and quiet space, remembering to take time to reflect after writing.
- Making time to connect — Social contact is good for your mental health; even if you do not feel like engaging with other people when you are low or anxious. I make a conscious effort to check in with my loved ones throughout each day, as interaction always elevates my mood.
- Engaging in regular exercise — Exercise is a great tool to support your mental health. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins; which help to relieve pain and can improve our mood and sleep. Exercise can also help to reduce your stress levels; regular exercise and elevated endorphin concentrations help to balance your body’s level of stress hormones such as cortisol. Aerobic exercise has been linked to the release of the neurotransmitter anandamide. Anandamide is often referred to as the bliss molecule and is involved in creating the state of exercise-induced euphoria known as runner’s high. A long workout at moderate intensity is key for triggering this feeling of elation, reducing stress and helping to improve mood.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
There are so many! Far too many to mention!
I absolutely love the model health show podcast by Shawn Stevenson.
It reminds you to make meaningful and intentional choices with your nutrition to support your mental health on a daily basis.
What you eat impacts the health of your gut microbiome, 90% of our mood regulating neurotransmitter serotonin is made in our gut which is important in depression.
A good book which focuses on body and mind connection is How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body by David Hamilton. I especially enjoy this book because it delves into the mechanisms occurring in our bodies at a cellular level when we are experiencing mental illness.
A few others which come to mind include Mental Health; A Person- Centred Approach, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Making any positive change starts with you. If you feel passionate about anything, peruse it. We must internalize change before we can change anything external.
Lived experience is invaluable! Once you have worked on yourself first; you can then bestow wisdom to others which will make a positive impact on society.
How can our readers follow you online?
Find me on social platforms: @nhneurotraining
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!