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Are mental health days legit? Why it's ok to take one

When you’re feeling physically unwell, looking after yourself is straight-forward. You take time off work to rest and recuperate.

But for those struggling mentally, the options aren’t as clear. With one in five kiwis affected by mental illness, ensuring you know the signs that something isn’t right is more important than ever.

No one knows this better than Auckland-born Justin Geange, a tradie whose own experiences with mental health has led him to become a strong advocate for mental health awareness and education.

In addition to running his own business, Justin is an ambassador for several mental health charities and is a passionate advocate for starting conversations about mental health and suicide prevention. We sat down with him to get the lowdown on mental health days and the importance of a holistic approach to wellness.

What is a mental health day?
A mental health day is different from just wanting a day off. It’s a day you’ve identified for some self-care, where you can recharge your batteries in a way that’s best for you. It’s important these days are taken when you notice you’re not acting like yourself and before you’re at breaking point. Some warning signs are recurring physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, or realising your moods are often low. Taking one day to yourself now, is better for everyone than having to take several days or weeks in the long run.

Can I just call in sick?
You absolutely can, as a mental health day is another form of sick leave, but consider the environment of your workplace and the culture it has instilled. If you feel comfortable, talk to your boss or colleague about why you’re taking the time off so they can help you by making changes that may impact your working life.

What are the signs that I (or a colleague) may need a mental health day?
It can be hard to put your hand up and say “I need help”, which is why keeping an eye on the key signs that someone (or you) might be struggling is so important. There are 7.5 billion people on this earth and everyone deals with things differently, but the common themes we see and hear usually relate to the ‘big-ticket’ items in someone’s life such as relationship breakdowns, loss, grief or financial hardship.

As we’re talking about a workplace environment, it’s good to look out for signs in your work mates. You may not know what’s exactly going on in their personal life, but you’ll see the signs in their behaviour. Not turning up for work on-time when they’re usually punctual, their normally clean appearance takes a sharp decline, or they’re withdrawing from social situations that they’d normally participate in.

What should I do if I take a mental health day?
It’s a day where you can focus on you – be kind to yourself, rest if you need to rest, move if you need to move. Nourish your body and mind with mood boosting foods, like colourful fruits and veggies, foods high in fibre and fermented foods.

How can I approach someone I think is struggling?
Whether the person struggling is you, a family member or a colleague, take the time to know the signs. If someone is acting out of character, ask “are you ok?” and then follow up with “I’ve just noticed you don’t seem to be acting like yourself”. It’s these meaningful conversations that will make an attempt to connect successful and helpful.

What are some practical tips I can try to help support my mental health?
Find that special thing that keeps you going and make sure you can dedicate enough of your time to it. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and eating a balanced diet full of fruits and veggies. We know that eating well can have a big impact on your mood – just like a car that needs premium petrol, our brain needs premium fuel to function. You can also connect with nature. Go for a walk outside, a dip in the ocean, whatever will make you feel recharged.

Here are 5 more tips when you take a mental health day:

1. Have a good breakfast
It will refuel your brain, lift your mood, and lower stress levels. Breakfast is brain food!

2. Include foods rich in B vitamins
These include wholegrain breads and high-fibre breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables, soybeans and other legumes, sunflower seeds, and low-fat dairy or B12-fortified soy milk. Vitamin B12, and folate in particular, can assist with low mood and depression.

3. Include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Although a vegetarian diet is always desirable, try salmon (if personally acceptable), linseeds, walnuts, or omega-3 enriched eggs. The type of fats you eat can have a profound effect on your brain function since 50 percent of the brain is made up of fat! The cells that transmit signals in the brain are unusually rich in omega-3 fats, meaning this fat is really important. Yet depressed people have low levels in the body.

4. Drink plenty of water
Aim for at least 8 glasses daily. Dehydration causes fatigue and is sometimes mistaken for hunger. Adequate water is needed to keep brain cells functioning optimally.

5. Activate yourself
Walk daily to boost your self-esteem, distract yourself from negative thought processes, and help you sleep better.

For more tips and advice, and to read more about the signs, visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help. If you’re struggling or this story has brought up anything for you, you can contact Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or free text 4357