“Why mental health rocks!” and why movement can be part of the journey to a healthier mind: Dominique de Marné
“If you have a body and you have physical health, then you have a mind, so you also have mental health – congratulations!” Et voilà! It sounds so absurdly obvious the way MOVE Congress keynote speaker Dominique de Marné put it in her presentation ‘Why mental health rocks!”.
In reality, it’s far from obvious to many people that physical and mental health are equal parts of a whole. That’s why de Marné, the founder of the Mental Health Crowd GmbH, author and Senior Policy Advisor on Youth at Mental Health Europe, is on a mission to normalise conversations about mental health in a similar way to which describe our physical health.
Dominique de Marné introduced the topic to the audience of grassroots sport and physical activity promoters in the MOVE Congress auditorium in Madrid on 16 November with a timeline of her own 20-year journey from the first signs of mental illness to founding a social café in Germany and becoming a full-time mental health advocate. She speaks about mental illness as unexpected “company” that cost 10 years of her life through depression, alcoholism, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Now she speaks publicly about her own experience to make it easier for others to do so. And she is proud to have successfully organised her first grassroots sport event in Munich, the Mental Health Rocks Run, which took place in September this year.
Is exercise also medicine for mental health?
In de Marné’s TEDxTUM talk, published before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, she admitted that she was sceptical of flippant, albeit well-meaning, suggestions to treat anxiety and depression with physical activity, particularly yoga. She is still ready to call out the wellness industry for exploiting vulnerable people with expensive fitness cures and yoga retreats, and emphasises that the complexity of mental illness cannot be solved by taking a “MOVEment pill” alone. But she also recognises how physical activity can help – and how she discovered it helped her in her own recovery.
“Running and yoga were not part of my ultimate solution, but they became a big part of it,” she said.
“Movement is a big part of my whole recovery and my mental health maintenance. I’m not saying, ‘Just go for a run and all of your mental health problems will be gone!’ Of course, that’s not the case, and I don’t need to tell you [that]. But movement can be a big support in this whole journey, and it was for me.”
The importance of physical activity in maintaining our mental health is also being underlined in research that shows how effective being active can be in treating milder symptoms, she pointed out.
“A new study showed that training at the gym is 1.5 times more effective that cognitive behaviour therapy or medication. It’s not to say that everybody with schizophrenia or a diagnosis of depression or anxiety should go to the gym and all of your problems will be gone. Of course not. But it can be a huge contributor to good mental health.”
So why do we still treat physical and mental health differently?
If we can thank the pandemic for one thing, it could be that there is more positive public awareness of mental health – in the media, among actors, musicians and sportspeople who express that they’re taking time out to look after themselves. So why is it that many people still shy away from talking about mental health, or find it uncomfortable when others share their mental struggles with them?
These were questions that nagged de Marné as she was seeking treatment and gaining more perspective into how mental illness is treated systemically, publicly and (often awkwardly) privately.
“I realised that our societies deal very differently with a physical problem compared to a mental health problem,” she said. “On the one hand, [with a physical ailment] you have support and people send you flowers and cards and ask you, ‘How did you break your leg?’ But if you have a mental health problem or illness, there’s more of, ‘I’m not too sure what to say’. And I just didn’t understand why it is like that because mental illness is not a choice.”
Sufferers, she notes, have a tendency to think, “If I’m not happy, it’s my fault and that’s that.” This overlooks the reality that mental health is affected by several factors, including our genes, life experiences and circumstances that are out of our control.
That’s why she aims to raise awareness and promote mental health literacy to help people answer questions about their minds that they might more easily answer about their bodies.
“What is mental health? What can I do for it? What influences are there? How can I get support? How can I support others?”
Doctors and trainers go into autopilot when it comes to making fitness assessments – weight, blood pressure, stamina – but we lack similar indicators for assessing mental health in daily terms, she notices. As a counterpart, she offers a “battery check” as a metaphor for describing mood, fatigue and cognitive function, like the digital devices we charge every day. Asking “How full is your battery?” is an informal tool she uses to check on others’ mental health without starting an interrogating or intimidating conversation.
It’s all part of normalising the conversation and feeling comfortable that our mental health does not always need to be in the best shape. Just like our physical health, there will always be ups and downs, and that’s okay.
On the other side, as a professional, colleague or friend who wants to help, listening maybe be just as, or even more valuable, than finding solutions that may not be easy to provide.
As providers of health-enhancing physical activity, this is a theme that will recur during the MOVE Congress 2023. Thanks to support from the EU, our programme is exploring mental health from three different angles this year – from Dominique’s personal account as a mental health advocate, to children’s wellbeing and the Icehearts programme for vulnerable kids, to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. At ISCA, we hope not only to bring these conversations forward, but to continue bringing great examples of mental health and physical activity promotion to the fore.
We always enjoy putting rock star speakers on the MOVE Congress stage – especially those who prove that Mental Health Rocks!