HALF of out of work benefit claimants suffer with a mental illness.

Figures from 2016 show 50 per cent of incapacity benefit/employment and support allowance claims in Bolton were for mental illness.

The phrase “mental illness” covers a range of conditions but the one being focused on for this year’s Mental Health Awareness week (MHA) is stress.

In the broad umbrella of mental health, stress may seem a low level and manageable problem but as James Mallion from Bolton Council pointed out, it affects a huge number of people.

Work, family, relationships and money are all triggers for stress for many people and few would be able to claim they live a life entirely devoid of stress.

Mr Mallion, the speciality registrar in public health at the council, said: “It can be a low starting point and it may lead to anxiety and depression which can become clinical problems. People need to learn how to tackle stress.”

The Mental Health Foundation, which launched MHA week, defines the body’s physical response to stress.

Its report says: “When we encounter a stressor, an important pathway in our body and brain, the hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal axis, is stimulated to produce stress hormones (cortisol and catecholamines) that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response.

“Our immune system is also activated to prepare for possible injury.”

This can be a positive response in order to get you through a short-lived stressor, such as public speaking. But, stress becomes a problem when stressors are too frequent or intense, leaving the body in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode. This can leave people feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope — stressed.

In the UK in the last year 74 per cent of 4,169 people said at at least one point they felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Mr Mallion, who deals with suicide prevention in his day to day work, said: “If you have got someone with suicidal thoughts and is struggling, it is likely they have been struggling for a while and things may have made it worse. The whole point is to try and act early and help people before it gets to that point.

“It could have started with a few situations that started with stress that have developed into suicidal thoughts and if they could have talked to someone maybe it could have helped them and stopped them getting to that point.”

Talking about stress does not need to be with a professional. Sharing the load with a friend or family member can be helpful.

However, for those that would prefer to speak to someone removed from the situation, therapists and counsellors are available and there are local services to point people in the right direction.

As well as being the starting point for more serious mental health conditions, it can create physical symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers and in serious cases even lead to heart attacks.

Mr Mallion pointed out that for stress a lot of work was being done around ‘mindfulness’ - the idea that people can take responsibility for their own mental health, like they would for their physical health by eating well and exercising.

He said: “Mindfulness is taking some time and some space and focusing your mind. It’s a way of escaping from what else is going on for you and possibly calming down.

“There’s a growing evidence base around it, that it can have a real benefit.

“It can be five minutes in your office to focus on your breathing,”

Coping with stress

Mr Mallion wanted to highlight a range of services that are on offer to people in Bolton who are feeling overwhelmed.

  • 1Point - a signposting service with 130 qualified counsellors and therapists - 01204 483101 - 1pointbolton.org.uk 
  • Samaritans - have a Bolton branch and are happy to talk about all kinds of mental health concerns - 01204 521 200
  • NHS Choices - offers Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing for people to consider and adopt in their lives - 

The five steps are:

- Connect - talk to people
- Be active - exercise 
- Keep learning - find a new skill, develop others 
- Give to others - small acts like a smile count just as much as volunteering
- Be mindful - be aware of your own feelings

To find out more about the Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing, visit nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/ online.