DSC08049

Where Eco-Social Work and Indigenous World Views Intersect

Eco-social work is an area of practice that is still trying to find its identity. I have only very recently ‘come out’ as an eco‑social worker and recognise there are many different approaches to incorporating eco‑therapies into practice.

My eco-social work practice has been largely influenced by my Indigenous mentors and co-workers in the Northern Territory. Spending time on country with Tiwi Elders gave me insight into their culture, spiritual connection to the land and harmonious lifestyles. For those experiencing intergenerational trauma, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence issues, the women often told me “going bush is the best medicine for our people”. Essentially what the Elders were telling me is that land and connection to country is critical for social and emotional wellbeing, and must be part of a therapeutic plan for recovery. This is consistent with a 2009 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS) paper, which says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing. Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.

Lucy with Tiwi Elders, Alberta and Elaine

Part of my therapeutic work involved taking families out on camping trips away from the stresses of their community. The strong women always took a lead in traditional healing ceremonies for their children and families on these camps.

Eco-social work practice requires us to expand our thinking beyond the ‘person-in-environment’ perspective to consider the earth as an ecological whole in which humans have always belonged. Eco-psychologists might argue that people and the planet are so inextricably linked that when one becomes unwell so does the other, likewise when one is healthy so is the other. According to the biophilia hypothesis, people have an innate affiliation with nature and if we separate from nature we will suffer psychologically.

This need for nature goes beyond exploiting natural resources for human gain, but is vital for human emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and cognitive growth and development. It could be that our evolution away from forests into the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilisation is contributing to the rapidly rising rates of mental health issues we are seeing globally. Richard Louv, who uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the impact of our separation, says children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, that it is having a detrimental impact on their development. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

To assist in the process of getting people to reconnect with nature for health and wellbeing, I did training in an eco-therapy called Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT). NFT is inspired by the traditional Japanese practice of shinrin yoku (forest bathing). The objective of a nature therapy walk is to give participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.

The key is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just ‘be’. This mindful approach to nature connection can be likened to the Indigenous contemplative practice of Dadirri, traditionally practised while sitting on country. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr says ‘Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us’.

Nature and Forest Therapy Walk, Nambucca Heads, NSW

On a guided group Nature Therapy walk, particular attention is paid to the practice of reciprocity. In supporting the development of human-nature relationships we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers. I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect her. People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices tend to spontaneously want to give back to nature or introduce lifestyle changes to tread more lightly on the earth. This is consistent with the Indigenous worldview that recognises the interconnectedness of all things.

In a counselling context, eco-social work can be as simple as conducting sessions outdoors or doing a ‘walk and talk’ session in nature. The relaxation effects of being in nature are immediate for our clients, regardless of what happens in the therapeutic conversation. If it is not possible to meet outside, nature can be brought indoors to enhance the healing effects. Introducing pot plants, nature landscape artwork and natural forest scents to your office all have health and wellbeing benefits.

Eco-therapists are implementing nature-based enquiries into their assessment processes using instruments such as the Sensory Awareness Inventory. Investigations into the sensory activities that give people pleasure often feature nature-based themes and provide insight into ways clients can move towards their therapeutic goals. Interventions such as sensate focusing allow clients to draw on the full range of sensory experiences to help them achieve a life of comfort, safety and joy. Using nature as a teaching or learning tool, nature-based assignments can be client or therapist-directed to help them draw on available resources and move towards change.

I believe eco-therapies will be the evidence-based focused psychological strategies of the future, as we begin to understand the interconnectedness between people and a planet under stress. Even putting aside for a moment what Indigenous people have demonstrated through their relationship with the land for thousands of years, there is evidence showing the benefits of nature and green space, to mental, physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual health.

In bringing eco-therapy into my social work practice, I aspire to connect people back to their true nature, promote wellness and recovery from physical and mental ill health, and bring healing to those who have experienced trauma. By strengthening the human-nature connection, I am also indebted to the traditional, ancient wisdom of Indigenous cultures about the healing power of nature and our obligations to care for our planet.

IMG_20220320_223603_953

What does it mean to be a climate-conscious practitioner?

In the same way that I developed a passion for Indigenous social work and working with the most marginalised, I have also made the commitment to become a climate-conscious social worker.  But what does that mean exactly?  Well, here goes.

For me, it means acknowledging the climate emergency, that it is a human made problem and that there is a real urgency to address it.  It means knowing just enough about the climate science to be informed, but limiting my intake of climate news so that it does not lead me down a black hole of despair.  It means filling my awareness with good news environmental stories too, of which there are plenty.

It means recognising both the experience-near and distance effects of climate change, and that it impacts all of us.  One does not need to have lost their home, possessions or loved ones through a flood or fire to be feeling deeply the effects.

It means I acknowledge that uncertainty over the future of the planet is a contributing factor to the rapidly rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.  I recognise the need to move away from individual therapy to more collaborative models that bring people together in community.  I believe linking the lives of people through sharing stories and experiences reduces isolation, builds resilience and fosters hope. 

It means being aware that the climate-concerns clients raise with me and the emotions they are experiencing are real, and deeply felt by me too.  It means I listen actively and respectfully to their pain for the world, making space for people to explore their despair, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and other feelings.  And allowing myself to sit with the discomfort too.

It means I do not label people with a disorder.  Eco-anxiety is not something to be cured or fixed.  Climate distress is a very healthy emotional response, as a sign of sensitivity, empathy and love for our beautiful planet.  It speaks to the values and beliefs that are important to people. 

It means acknowledging the role that Indigenous peoples played in caring for the environment before colonisation and industrialisation (and continue to do so).  It is awareness of the links between climate change and global inequality and recognising that institutional racism, injustice and economic inequality are root causes.  It is those that have been exploited and contributed the least to the problem that are now suffering the most.

It means bringing people back into relationship with the more-than-human world.  It is the loss of our connection with nature that has got us into this mess.  And so my belief is that one step towards climate healing is coming back to nature.  When we have re-established our relationship with Mother Nature, then we are more like to care for her, look out for her, respect her.

It means helping people to find ‘active hope’, that is, moving beyond paralysing feelings of helplessness to taking action.  It is only after exploring and accepting our feelings, that we can take action in a conscious and grounded way.  Whether you decide to fly less and holiday near home or become an environmentalist, it is all valued.   

It means holding my counselling sessions and groupwork in the outdoors wherever possible.  There is a wealth of scientific knowledge that nature is good for our health and wellbeing and so holding my consultations outdoors is already working magic on people before they open their mouth to speak.

It means that I actively maintain my own healthy relationship with the more-than-human world.  I walk the talk.  I do everything that I invite my clients to do.  Spending time sitting in quiet contemplation, practicing mindfulness, finding ways of tending to nature like picking up rubbish or joining Landcare.

It means I live as lightly as possible on the earth.  It is accepting the reality that I am contributing to the release of green houses gases every time I leave the house but not letting guilt or shame talk me into becoming immobilised.  It is about taking any small actions I can, because it does make a difference.

It means that I actively support causes which are addressing climate change.  I attend Climate Change marches and events where possible.  I donate $1 from each counselling session I provide to ReForest Now, a non-profit planting trees and regenerating rainforest in NSW. 

It means I am committed to ongoing professional development in the area of climate aware practice.  I am a full member of Psychology For a Safe Climate and working towards becoming a Climate Aware Practitioner.

If it is a climate-conscious mental health practitioner you are looking for, then let’s chat.

Days work (aerial)

Giving Back to Nature

Giving Back to Nature

There are lots of ways humans communicate their distress and need for help without actually using words, which can be too hard.  You might notice their mood changes and they retreat into their bedroom, they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings, start to harm or say they’re going to kill themselves.  The person is not a problem to be fixed here.  It’s a sign that there is something drastically wrong with their environment that does not allow them to thrive.   Rather than attention-seeking behaviours, I see these as cries for help to fix their environment!   In short, eradicating things like homelessness, homophobia, racism, discrimination, poverty, injustice, inequality and environmental degradation would go a long way to fixing people’s mental health issues.

Consider that the Earth also finds it difficult to speak up.  She has been trying to seek our attention for many decades now to indicate her distress.  She has been giving us warning signs that are growing much more alarming.   You know them.  The melting polar caps, the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, escalating animal extinction rates, more frequent natural disasters and arguably now a pandemic.  The Planet is not attention-seeking here!  She is crying out for help.  We need to fix her environment, those precious spaces and places we share with her.  By doing so, our health and mental health will also benefit.

The reality of climate changes’ devastating effects was most prominent for me in the Black Summer fires of 2019-20.  Bushfires were bearing down on us in our makeshift home at the time on the outskirts of Bowraville.  The impact was devastating and people hardly had time to recover before the pandemic hit.  Some are still living without proper housing. 

After this close call, I felt a real urge to take action and I’ve been doing as much as I can to live more lightly on the earth like establishing a worm farm, buying more bulk organic goods and less plastic, and ensuring I recycled or reused everything I possibly could!  In my most despairing of moments I often feel powerless, thinking what difference can one person really make.  In my most hopeful moments, I can see that larger movements of people really can do good, the work of Greta Thunberg being an obvious example.  So I’ve decided that this year, it’s time for more broader action.

It’s time to plant trees.  Lots of them.  Using the tools that Nature has provided us already, this is one way we can take action now to draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere.  My commitment this year is to donate $1 from each counselling session to ReForest Now.

ReForest Now volunteers planting in the Upper Mongogorie, NSW.
Photo credit – Reforest Now

“ReForest Now works to restore what was once Australia’s largest expanse of subtropical rainforest, home to an incredible array of species that grew from the rich volcanic soils of Wollumbin. The Big Scrub once covered 75,000 hectares of Northern NSW (an area larger than Singapore!)  By 1900, more than 99% of this unique ecosystem had been cleared. The remaining forest occurs in small, scattered patches called “remnants”. These remnants contain 122 endangered/critically endangered species, with many more threatened.” You can read more about their inspiring work here.  And if you feel inspired to support them in any way, whether through donations or getting out there and putting plant into soil, I encourage you to do so.

We are all part of the Climate Change problem.  Think about what part you can play in being part of the solution.  We have taken so much.  It’s time to give back to nature.

Reforest Now volunteers maintain plantations. Photo credit – Reforest Now.
pexels-suzy-hazelwood-3656855

Anxiety: Learning when it’s good to listen to it (and when it’s just being plain irrational)!

I know what it’s like to have an attack of Anxiety, although I didn’t know what it was at the time.  It was the kind of Anxiety that came with a sense of dread, that I was going to have a heart attack.  The thoughts of Anxiety were relentless as the odd pain in my chest wouldn’t budge, no matter how much Panadol, laying down to rest or comfort hubby provided.  My mind had been hijacked by Anxiety convincing me I might not live long enough to go on the adventure we had planned the following day.  I also remember thinking I don’t want to have a heart attack on White Island as medical help will be limited and slow.  We were on holidays in New Zealand having a wonderful, relaxing time.  But I didn’t want to worry my hubby so I walked myself to the hospital underplaying how concerned I was.  I knew the visit was going to cost a lot of money (being overseas) but I couldn’t ease my mind as long as the pain continued. 

I had a fair wait at the hospital before they ran all the blood tests you would expect as well as ECG monitoring.  I was discharged with the news that my heart was good, but just to be on the safe side they recommended follow up with a cardiologist for a stress test, back in Australia. 

White Island, November 2019

The next day my hubby and I were walking on a live volcano.  A few weeks before we arrived in New Zealand, White Island (known by its Maori name of Whakaari) was put on a Volcanic Alert Level 2 rating, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.  I learned this is the last level before eruption.  I remember feeling a little nervous hearing this, but no-one else seemed concerned, least of all the tour company taking us out there.  Before boarding the boat, I happily signed the waiver, but in the back of my mind conflicting voices were toying with each other; ‘Is this really safe?” and “Of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be going.”  The mood on the boat was jovial.  I was able to discount and push aside the lingering thoughts of “This could blow any moment!”.  A few hours later, after passing the steaming mouth of the volcano on foot, I was quietly relieved to be heading back to the waters edge, for the ride back.

Just over two weeks later White Island erupted, killing 22 people and injuring 25 others.

A few months later, I learned I had a very healthy heart and it must have been Anxiety causing my symptoms.  I got on with my life and didn’t think much of it again until recently as the 2 year anniversary of the tragedy looms.  As I’ve been learning more and more about the art of listening to the body, I’ve been wondering if the symptoms I’d experienced were actually my body’s warning system that something was imminent.  I like to think that I am in tune with my gut and it has guided me towards good fortune many a time, but sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between gut feelings and an overactive mind.  I’ve been sitting on the tarmac on a few flights and have had the thought ‘What if this plane goes down today?’  The gut was clearly not reacting in those moments.  I’ve managed to push these thoughts aside and lived.  But I have heard stories of people who’ve chosen not to board an aeroplane because ‘something’ told them not to, and they avoided a horror crash.  Perhaps they were listening to their body?

Was my heart (and my gut) trying to tell me something the day before my trip to White Island?

Looking back I wonder if my body was picking up on the heat that was bubbling away in the Earth’s core, getting ready to break the surface?  Was my body sensing Mother Nature’s unsettled energy?  Was this my body’s way of warning me not to get on that boat?  I wonder how those people who have avoided plane crashes by refusing to board, distinguished between the irrational thoughts of Anxiety and the premonition warning system that seems to be built into our bodies?  This must be the same system that my ancestors listened to when they were being hunted down by a predator.  For someone who experiences Anxiety regularly talking them out of doing things, I imagine this would be much more difficult terrain to negotiate.

I don’t have any answers.  I only feel blessed to be here telling this story.  But I am left wondering, what it would take to stop me from doing something I’d planned, if I got these symptoms again?  I’d like to think I might take more notice of my body next time.

Fishing

‘Sharing the Seeds’: More Tales from the Territory

As you may have noticed from previous ramblings, COVID brought a halt to any plans I had last year to travel back to the Northern Territory.  As a result, I ended up co-facilitating this Tree of Life workshop on-line with the women of Borroloola.

When 2021 ticked over and COVID restrictions lifted, there were hopes within the Telling Story project to travel to Borroloola in June to share some of the seeds in real life that had been planted virtually.  Our aim was to bring back the stories that had been shared by the women and published in their Tree of Life booklet, to gather some more wisdom from others about their skills and knowledge of growing up strong and healthy kids.

My journey took me from Bowraville on Gumbaynggirr country in NSW to Centre Island on Yanyawa country in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a good two days of travel time via jet plane, ute, charter plane, community bus then boat.  On the way we collected about 18 women living in the community of Borroloola or nearby outstations; an intergenerational mix of grandmothers, mothers, Aunties and young women from high school.  Supported by the hardworking team at the li-anthawirriyarra Sea Ranger Unit and the enthusiastic staff of Indi Kindi, all the logistics of camping gear, food and travel arrangements were sorted.  For some of the women, this was the first time they had travelled to Centre Island.  It was a healing time to connect with stories of place they had been told from family members or passed down from ancestors. 

Our plan was to weave the Tree of Life workshops over the three night camp, allowing spaces for the women to connect with country and each other, yarning around the campfire, fishing, enjoying great food and relaxing.  Our first night around the campfire at Black Rock on the McArthur River was an opportunity to introduce the Tree of Life booklet and introduce the process of the workshop with the women.  In our first scattering of the seeds, we invited the Indi Kindi staff who contributed stories to the Tree of Life booklet, to share some of their words with the others.

On day 2, we proceeded to make our way out to Centre Island, past crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the river, to where endless blue skies kissed the horizon of vast ocean.  Much to our unexpected delight we discovered there was generator power connected to the remote outstation shack, a large equipped kitchen, welcoming indoor meeting space, shady front and back verandahs and even a bedroom with aircon.  Outside, a large sprawling fig tree set the scene.

After setting up tents and having lunch, the women were keen to wet a line.  I took the opportunity to go exploring and gather materials from nature that might be useful to help people express and record their stories throughout the workshop – things like driftwood to represent roots and leaves to represent the people who are important to us in life.  After discovering one of the young women loved art and drawing, we invited her to outline a large tree image on a piece of calico which would become the centrepiece for yarning up strong stories in our circle. 

Our afternoon session with the women, began with laying out a set of cards featuring various images of trees and inviting people to share how they were feeling by selecting a card to tell a story.  We then introduced the roots of the Tree of Life and invited people to write on a piece of driftwood some words that capture important parts of their family history.  Participants spoke their root stories to the group and place their driftwood down on the calico, to start to assemble what would become a collective tree of wisdom.  We followed this with a yarning circle about the kinds of skills and abilities women have for growing up strong children and families.  Some of the questions that can guide such conversations are:

  • What are some of the skills your family has in helping each other?  In getting things done at home?  In keeping the family together and happy?
  • What things is mum/dad/kids/grandparents good at doing for the family to keep strong?
  • What is each persons role?  How do people in the family come to have these roles?  

We can then go on to thicken these stories and make them richer by enquiring about the history of these skills, where they come from and who taught them these skills.  We also used Strengths Cards as prompts to help people expand their thinking around their own strengths.  As facilitators, we observed that the younger people in our group held back from sharing stories in front of their Elders.  There can be cultural reasons why younger people feel shy about speaking up, out of respect.  We made a decision to meet with the youth separately early the following day, so that the unique skills of young people are given a voice.  During this session, we noticed that the young people would also identify strengths in their friends, naming what they admired about them and why.  We also saw these strengths in action, observing later in the day one of the young women teaching another how to throw in a castnet.  Such a delight to see.

In the afternoon with the older women, we proceeded with yarning up stories about the special people in our lives that help us grow our family strong.  Our participants shared stories with a partner then recorded this on a leaf to add to the tree.  They also spoke of the fruits or the special gifts that these people had given to them.

Having richly explored the strengths, skills and knowledge of people’s lives, we had created a solid place for people to stand (or what narrative therapists refer to as ‘the safe riverbank position’) in which explore the concept of storms.  One of the women shared a story about a special tree on their country.  This provided the perfect metaphor for exploring the storms of life.

“On my country was a huge Tamarind Tree.  Lots of visitors from Borroloola came out there.  It survived so many cyclones.  I wonder how old it was?  A lot of people were held together under that tree.  That tree kept family together, out of the hot sun, sharing stories.  Everyone would talk.  Cyclone Trevor came through.  It didn’t want to go down, that tree.  It wanted to grow back up.  It has lots of shoots.  It wants to stay alive and say “I’m still here”.  It’s heard lots of stories that tree.  People are working together to keep the tree going.”

The storms of life make us feel not so solid in our trunk.  The group named these things as storms in their families and community – violence, deaths in the community, break ins, fighting, being disrespectful towards Elders, drugs and alcohol, suicide, Welfare coming in and bullying.  We explored how storms can start with one person and ripple out to affect a whole community.

Surviving storms is harder when you are standing on your own.  The group shared ways that they work together and support each other like a forest does, to helps them weather the storms until they blow over.

In our evening session after dinner, we concluded our workshop with sharing stories of our hopes and dreams for the future on the branches of our tree.  They included visions they had for themselves as well as their community.  Each of the women wrote the actions they might need to take to fertilise these hopes on seed shapes which were added to the ground of the community tree.  It is hoped that by naming these intentions in front of other family members, these ideas are fertilised and supported to grow.  Participants were also invited to have a photo taken of their hopes and dreams which was framed and sent back to them as a reminder of their commitment. 

From time to time, over the few days as our collective tree was growing, we would notice people wandering over to read or reflect on what had been recorded.  This also provided an opportunity for the younger women to make further additions away from the group sittings.

Documentation of the rich description of people’s stories is a key part of narrative therapy.  At times, this was participants themselves writing some words on elements of the tree.  At other times Sudha or I would write on the calico, the essence of what was being shared, in order to capture the wisdom of the whole.  One of us would also be writing on notepaper what was being shared.  All these actions of story-capturing became part of the final collective document given back to participants.

As the sun rose on our final day, it was time to think about packing up and heading home, back across the waters and to our children, families and communities.  Even just a few days away in the quiet and peace of Yanyawa country was enough for people to feel rejuvenated but also homesick for their loved ones.

Opportunities like this wouldn’t be possible without the support of Artback NT, the Moriarty Foundation and the li-anthawirriyarra Sea Ranger Unit.  It’s been a privilege to be part of the Telling Story project, an initiative of Founder and Facilitator Sudha Coutinho.  Telling Story invites individuals and communities to widen their lens and re-author their stories to find strength, resilience and hope.  Visit their page on vimeo to see more of their work.

Invitation to be an Outsider Witness to the women’s stories from Borroloola

Reading the ‘Sharing the Seeds’ booklet about raising strong and healthy kids in Borroloola may spark thoughts about your own skills and knowledge, your hopes and dreams for your children, and help you stand against any storms you may face. If you would like to share these thoughts with the women, you can email Telling Story at sudhacoutinho@gmail.com

cauliflower brain

Feed Your Brain and Feel Better

Did you know that up to 40% of the nutrients you eat goes into feeding your brain? 

The food you eat not only fuels your physical health but new research shows it affects our mental health too!

Is your brain foggy and lethargic, ruminating and making you feel depressed, or overactive and anxious?  So what is it you are putting into your body?  If we’re really going to make a difference in how we feel and think, then we have to look at what we are feeding our brain.

We need to start taking a different approach to treating mental health, because medication alone is not the answer.  If it were, then we wouldn’t be having a global mental health crisis right now. Globally, the number of people taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anxti-psychotic medication has doubled over the last five years to 17 percent of the adult population.  

So I want to shine the light on nutrition to improve your mental health.

You’re not going to like what you read because this requires a move away from ultra-processed foods which are usually cheap and convenient.  The Western diet is typically high in calories, refined grains and sugar, heavily processed, high in chemicals and low in fresh produce.  These foods are packed out with ingredients like starch, vegetable oil and sugars along with additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers so they are cheap to buy but offer no nutritional goodness.

So what is it your brain actually needs so that it can function at its best and having you thinking and feeling great?   Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that are key to good brain function.  But the real jewels for a mentally healthy diet I want to introduce you to are micronutrients.  Unlike their much bigger cousins’ macronutrients – carbs, proteins and fats – micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.

Minerals are the stable chemical compounds like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium and the trace minerals like zinc, copper, iodine and selenium.  Vitamins are organic compounds which are generally not made in the body, we have to consume them through plants.  There are about 15 essential vitamins with a variety of letters and numbers which you are probably familiar with. 

Most of us are not getting all the necessary micronutrients from real foods that is needed for a mentally healthy brain!  In a recent US study, 94 % of the US population did not even meet the daily requirement for Vitamin D, 89% for Vitamin E, 52% for magnesium, 44% for calcium, 43% for Vitamin A and 39% for Vitamin C.   Could this be the reason why so many of us are struggling with depression and anxiety?

So what is it about these micronutrient little gems that is so key to our mental health?  Well, this is where it gets a little complex because it is about understanding a bit of brain chemistry.

Micronutrients are key to our brain being able to make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, you probably know as the ‘happy hormone’.  It’s the chemical that contributes to our feelings of wellbeing, stabilizes our mood and plays a role in regulating our sleep, learning, memory and appetite.   Without it, we feel depressed.

Micronutrients are also vital in assisting the mitochondria, or energy organelles of your cells to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle, produces ATP and is completely dependent on micronutrients to function.

Take a close look at how many micronutrients are involved in this cycle? Mind blowing.

But wait there’s more.

“In every organ of our body, including our brain, compounds or chemicals go through multiple conversions.  So from chemical A to chemical B.  It’s that simple.  And to make that conversion work, you need enzymes and cofactors.  Consider enzymes as the tools needed to assemble a car.  The enzymes are the tools used to build the car, but they are dependent upon having plenty of factory workers.  Without the workers, the assembly just won’t happen, but with more of them, assembly will go faster.  Minerals and vitamins are your factory workers.  So in other words, you need to feed your brain a steady supply of micronutrients to provide the co-factors needed for brain metabolism to happen.” (Rucklidge)

So let’s use our happy hormone as an example.  We need to consume the chemical tryptophan in order for it to convert into the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  And in order to make the conversation, we also need iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B6.  For serotonin to breakdown we need niacin and riboflavin, as well as molybdenum.  Other steps required for the breakdown of tryptophan, requires calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.  So all up there are 11 micronutrients required for three steps in the chemical pathway of converting tryptophan to serotonin.  Complex isn’t it?  Makes you wonder what happens when one or more of these crucial ingredients is missing from our diet?  Is it no wonder so many of us are depressed when our diets are so poor?

These same types of complex metabolism processes are required to make all neurotransmitters. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which requires the amino acid tyrosine may have a role to play in the diagnosis of schizophrenia, ADHD and Parkinsons Disease.  GABA, the relaxing chemical, is responsible for slowing down the brain and central nervous system, creating a sense of calm, lowering anxiety and reducing mental and physical stress.  So the key message here is, we need a broad range of micronutrients in order to optimize brain metabolism and function, to operate at our physical and mental best.

So now you know why and how micronutrients are like gold for our mental health, you probably just want to know what specific foods you should be eating.  Well, here is one list.  It is considered to be the most micronutrient-rich anti-depressant foods, according to psychiatrists Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey beginning with the most beneficial.

Animals Foods
Oyster
Liver and organ meats
Poultry giblets
Clam and muscles
Octopus
Crab
Goat
Tuna
Lobster
Rainbow Trout
Salmon
Herring
Emu
Snapper

Plant Foods
Watercress
Spinach
Mustard, turnip or beet greens
Lettuces
Swiss chard
Fresh herbs
Chicory greens
Pummelo
Peppers
Kale or collards
Pumpkin
Dandelion greens
Cauliflower
Kohlrabi
Red cabbage
Broccoli
Brussel sprouts
Paw Paw
Lemon
Strawberry

Other research has shown increasing foods high in tryptophan like milk, turkey, chicken and oats reduces depression risk, and maintains appropriate melatonin levels, which aids a good night’s sleep.

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet stacks up well against the criteria for better brain health, rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  How would your diet stack up?  Are there some small changes you could make to improve your mental health, decrease the impact of stress on your body or reduce depression and anxiety?

I look forward to sharing more resources with you as we explore the role of nutrition in mental health.  If a holistic approach to mental health appeals to you, then you may like to check out my services.

References: 

Antidepressant foods: An Evidence-Based nutrient profiling system for depression, Laura LaChance & Drew Ramsey, 2018

The role of Vitamins and Minerals in Energy Metabolism and Well-Being, S. Huskisson, S. Maggini & M. Ruf, 2007

The Better Brain: The New Science of Treating, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD and Other Mental Health Disorders With Nutrition, Bonnie J Kaplan & Julia J Rucklidge, 2021

Mental Health and Nutrition, edx course, University of Canterbury, J. Rucklidge

‘Numbness’ and the Battle of Holding onto Something I Care About

I’ve been struggling with this thing I can only describe as ‘Numbness’.

Numbness can set in randomly for no reason at all.  Or if something happens that I feel sad about.  It can happen at home or at school.  It seems to like invading my weekends.

It’s like the light bulb goes out in me.   And I lose the thrill of doing anything.

Numbness can make me not feel anything.  I just feel tired and want to be alone in my room.  I’m even too tired to fight with my siblings.

Numbness takes away my motivation and makes me not want to do any of the stuff I really like.  It takes me away from being with my family. 

When numbness is around, I stop taking care of myself.  I stop showering.  Numbness is not something I can just wash off. 

Numbness throws me out of routine.  There’s no in between.  I either eat too little or eat too much, sleep too much or not enough.

It makes me lose all hope when it tries to tell me “Oh well, it is what it is”.  If I fail an assignment, no big deal.

There are things I try desperately to hold onto when I notice Numbness trying to take me away from the things I care about.  One of these things is LOGIC.  I can call on logical thinking to try to challenge the tricks and tactics of Numbness.

I like bingeing on my favourite TV shows.  This makes the light bulb really bright in me.  I feel happy and it influences me to do more of my favourite stuff.

Numbness has not been able to steal way my personality when it comes to kindness.  Even when I’m not at my best, I am still kind and friendly to others.  I still give a bright smile to people I care about.  I tell my friends to stay strong even when I am feeling worthless.  I know I’m a good person.  Even at my weakest, I still give advice to my friends, even if it’s a bit quicker than usual.  I will never say “I can’t help you”.  I believe it’s important to be friendly.  I hate the idea of making people sad for no reason.  If I snap at them, that hurts me.  I won’t let Numbness take away my goodness. 

If my favourite anime character Erza was fighting Numbness, she would never give up.  She is always thinking of her friends, she keeps fighting for them.  She reminds herself of what she is trying to protect.  She cares a lot about other people and gets strength from helping others.  There are moments when I feel accomplishment when I help other people.

I won’t go overboard trying to chew someone up.  That takes too much energy.  In the past one friend dragged the energy out of me.  When they are upset, I don’t put much energy in.  I don’t want to get drawn into their stuff.  I have to try to put boundaries in for myself. 

Erza wouldn’t let people walk all over her.  She would say “I’m not an inanimate object”.  She has good friends that don’t try to use her.  I want to be able to stand up for myself more.  If no-one is going to stand up for me, I need to do it for myself.  If there are people picking on me, I just ignore them and walk away.

Opportunity to be an Outsider Witness to this story

After reading this story, we invite you to write a message to send back to the author.  Here are some questions to guide your response.

  1. As you read this story, were there any words or phrases that caught your attention?  Which ones?
  2. When you read these words, what pictures came to your mind about the authors hopes for their life and what is important to them (ie. dreams, values and beliefs)?  Can you describe that picture?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you?
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Please contact us with your response and we will forward your message to the author of this story.

‘They Sucked Me Dry”

When Supporting Friends Becomes Too Much

There was a time last year when I realised I had to let go of some friendships that were affecting my mental health.  I would come home grumpy because I was providing therapy sessions for my friends, that didn’t want to get professional help.  I was so wrapped up in taking care of others, that I wasn’t taking myself into account. 

I think my friends sucked the energy out of me and I started withdrawing because I had nothing left.  I felt numb.  I used to spend lots of time gaming and not sleeping.  I first noticed numbness appearing in Year 5 when girls started turning into teenage girls.  It got worse in Year 6 and 7 when everyone was questioning their sexuality and gender.  I was coaching a friend who thought they were trans.  They didn’t have the skills to deal with their own problems.  I had to cut off these people because they had no sense of boundaries and they sucked me dry.

Numbness is an affect of depression.  You lose motivation for everything. Numbness made me not care to shower.  I used to not shower for weeks.  I would feel depressed at the thought of having a shower.  Numbness helped me not to think too much.  It made me too lazy to move forward into despair.  Numbness also made me not sleep.  If I sleep too much, it made me more sad and I might fall into despair.

I realised my friends were dragging me down.  I ended up getting rid of those people.  I just started by not talking to them and then later blocking them.  If it was bad enough, I had to cut them off completely.  There were ones that were extremely attached.  I had to slowly detach them from me.  I told them to go and seek professional help.  I started to find where the line is, and my mental health nurse helped me learn about boundaries.  I noticed they slowly started coming to me less for their problems and I didn’t have to coach them through every single step.  If it got really bad, I would go to their parents.

It can be a scarey thing to get outside help.  Kids attitudes to accessing professionals can differ depending on the school culture.  At my old school, the whole counselling thing was not set out well.  There was no privacy and kids didn’t feel secure, teachers had access to notes, parents would know about it, and it was less about mental health and more about religion.  I did my own research looking at headspace online and realised there was a better way.  I told my friends about it.  Some said thanks but others wanted to continue to talk to me.  I couldn’t keep them as friends anymore.

There are some problems that are bigger than what teenagers can deal with.  I didn’t want to be their only support person.  Mum told me that if there was ever a problem too far out of my reach, that they should go to a trusted adult.  And that’s what I did.  I told them it was way out of my hands.  If you tell them enough, they will realise what they are doing is unhealthy.  I did this to make them stop relying on me.

I think we need to find a balance; having a balance of professional help and being able to help yourself.  Friendships turn into relationships of dependence if friends don’t help themselves.  You need to find other ways to help yourself, if your support systems are failing. 

When I moved schools I realised I was just a support person that was giving advice to friends, and they were not healthy friendships.  But even when I left, I gave each of my friends a book about what I appreciated about our friendship.  I have held onto relationships with friends that are more open to getting help for themselves. 

Opportunity to be an Outsider Witness to this story

After reading this story, we invite you to write a message to send back to the author.  Here are some questions to guide your response.

  1. As you read this story, were there any words or phrases that caught your attention?  Which ones?
  2. When you read these words, what pictures came to your mind about the authors hopes for their life and what is important to them (ie. dreams, values and beliefs)?  Can you describe that picture?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you?
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Please contact us with your response and we will forward your message to the author of this story.

Balancing in the Boat: What helps me get out of the dark messy waters of Depression

In this reflection, our author shares the skills and knowledge she holds for managing depression. This story emerged after we read together the story of Ebony which was published by Sarah Penwarden in her work with young women at a New Zealand High School. The reflection begins with an excerpt from Ebony’s story, followed by our author’s story.

EBONY’S FIGHT WITH DEPRESSION – in which she holds onto what she’s learned and what she knows
After many years of depression Ebony knew depression quite well. It was familiar; it could suck you in.
Depression was like a well; a daunting, dark and gloomy well. It was made out of grey stone, and had sides to it. When she was at the bottom of the well, she couldn’t climb out of it.
Ebony learned that you’ve just got to stop yourself reaching the bottom of the well. She‘d also learn that others can help you up. Some people can do this without even realising it. She knew from experience that once you were in the well, it was very hard to climb back up. She could fall
back down the well by letting one thing get to her.
There were times when Ebony could see herself perched on the edge of the well, sitting on the top; feeling unsteady, swaying, waiting for one gust of wind to push her off balance. All she could do was to try to fall back instead of forward; back onto the grass, rather than forward into the well. Even though falling back would be difficult and painful, it would be better than falling into the well. It was all relative.
Up on the grass, she had people there to break her fall, people to support her. That was the advice she wanted to give herself: fall back instead of forward. It will eventually get better. The grass was soft and there was shorter to fall. She just needed the courage to fall back.
This was difficult because the well was very familiar, and falling backwards involved complete trust. There was something slightly welcoming to her about the well. There was so much comfort in the
depression. No-one else seemed to understand that. But down in the well she knew would become accustomed to being alone in a cold, dark place. It felt safe down there; no-one could harm her. But then she would look up and see something beautiful – a bird, a butterfly, someone’s face, and this would give her determination to climb up.

I recently heard Ebony’s ‘Fight with Depression’ story.  I really liked this story and I connected with her experience of depression being like falling into a dark and gloomy well.  I noticed how hard Ebony tried to ‘fall back instead of forward’ into the well because once she had fallen into the well it was very hard to climb back up.  This got me thinking about how ‘falling back’ requires a lot of trust.  Trust that people will be there for you.  For me, trust is when you know you have people behind you and you have a history of supporting each other.  If you support them, then you know they will be there for you when you need it.  I’ve been there supporting my brother in the past and I know he will be there for me.  For me this is having a good balance in the relationship.  Balance is important when trying to get out of the well of depression.  Without balance, you might fall in.

For me, depression lurks in the deep, dark water underneath my boat.  It makes me not care if I fall in or not. When I feel myself slowing dipping into the darkness, life feels bland and exhausting.  Its hard to see life being any different.  It takes away my motivation to live and I all I feel is pain.  Sitting on the edge of that boat, I feel like I’ve lost myself.

Depression makes you withdraw from relationships with people and with life.  It takes me away from doing my assignments and stuffs up my routine.  It pulls you down into the dark water and disrupts the balance.  It makes me not bothered to ask for help.

There are some things that help to keep me in the boat.

Friends distract me from falling in.  The best kind of friends are ones that are fun, easy to talk to and don’t push subjects onto you.  They might gently make suggestions like how to get better sleep.  They are looking out for me.  They include me in things.  They have a good balance of logic and emotion.  When I lack logic in my thinking or cannot connect with myself emotionally, they help me out.  They read me well.  These friends have good balanced lives.  They are not fussed about the future or the past; they help me stay in the present moment.  I appreciate that they are not self centred.

Depression has me wanting to keep my emotional and dark thoughts to myself.  I’ve learnt that its healthier to project these thoughts onto other people like counsellors.  I also know I can talk to my brother.  I know that he has dealt with his own depressing emotions before.  We have dealt with tough situations together in the past and have been able to get things off our chest.  We developed a bond.  So recently when I found myself in the dark depressing waters, my mum got him on the phone.  My brother doesn’t undermine a problem.  He thinks all problems are on the same level, none is more important than another.  So even if my problems are different to his, he still values my experience.  That’s where trust comes in.  I can ‘fall back’ and trust my brother to be there for me.

Opportunity to be an Outsider Witness to this story

After reading this story, we invite you to write a message to send back to the author.  Here are some questions to guide your response.

  1. As you read this story, were there any words or phrases that caught your attention?  Which ones?
  2. When you read these words, what pictures came to your mind about the authors hopes for her life and what is important to her (ie. dreams, values and beliefs)?  Can you describe that picture?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you?
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Please contact us with your response and we will forward your message to the author of this story.

Tree-of-life-booklet-photo

Group Work During COVID Times: Capturing the Hardwon Knowledge of Parents, Aunties and Grandmothers on raising strong kids in Borroloola

I received an invitation from a colleague this year to travel back to the Northern Territory to co-facilitate some narrative therapy group work with the Aboriginal women of Borroloola.  We had it all planned out.  It would have been a two day drive from Darwin to reach the remote township, then a trek over to Barrnayi, an island off the coast of the Gulf of Carpenteria for our two day camp.  I love it when collaborations like this come together – Telling Story, Artback NT and the Moriarty Foundation – bringing together good will and established therapeutic practice for positive community outcomes.  What we didn’t account for was the arrival of COVID 19 and the immediate closure of state and territory borders as well and lockdown in remote communities. 

Airfares were cancelled.  However, I wasn’t about to shelve this one without some serious thought into whether delivering the Tree of Life on-line was a possibility.  I learned later that this is called pivoting!

I had some doubts about whether we were going to be able to gather rich story from participants over a technology platform.  However, Sudha Coutinho had done a lot of work in Borroloola and already had established relationships with some of the women, so that was a positive starting point.  With some thoughtful deliberations and program modifications to the Tree of Life methodology, Sudha and I decided to ‘set sail’ and see where the adventure might take us on these unchartered waters. 

Facilitating the Tree of Life with ‘Zoom’ technology

We were very influenced by the beautiful work done by Anne Mead and Jasmine Mack in their application of the Tree of Life with parents of Roebourne.  Ideas such as home yarning, the tree visualisation meditation and crafting a community tree appealed to us.  Given the extra difficulties we would face interacting over a screen with our participants, we needed to pay attention to ways people could join in that did not require so much hands-on guidance.  

The program was delivered over five weekly morning sessions consisting of three hours with a break in the middle.  We posted out a big box of materials required including art supplies and resources prior to starting.  We hoped that our local Yanyawa Project Officer could work alongside us in navigating the use of these materials.  Each session generally consisted of an introductory activity such as using Tree Card images we created to check in with how people were feeling, followed by a yarning section with corresponding drawing or art making, and a collective conversation on what these stories meant to the community as a whole, then finishing with an invitation to undertake an exercise at home between sessions. We invited people to connect on the Workplace Chat App on their mobiles to continue the conversation and share images of what they discovered in their environment between sessions.  This is also where we, as facilitators, shared therapeutic documents based on the ‘rescued words’ from each session.  These five therapeutic documents were later incorporated into a Tree of Life booklet the women wanted to publish capturing their skills, knowledges and hopes for raising strong and healthy children. 

The women in Borroloola were on a learning journey with us

Over the project the following themes were explored using the tree as a metaphor for growing up strong children in the community.

  • The Sun – principles of caring.  Just like the sun shining down on little trees guides their growth, the principles that are important to us guide our caring.
  • Roots – History of place and story.  The roots follow the history of culture, linking us to stories, traditions and places of significance.
  • Trunk – Strengths of skills and knowledge. This includes the practical things we do to keep our families strong and to hold up our kids.
  • Bark – The Protective Layer.  Acknowledging the need to protect our children because the types of experiences our children have in life influence their development.
  • Leaves and Fruit – The important people and their gifts to us and our children.
  • Storms of Life – The things that try to get in the way of us bringing up strong and healthy kids and how we stand strong against them.
  • Branches – Our hopes and dreams for our children and family.
  • Planting Seeds – The actions we want to take to make our hopes and dreams grow.
    and;
  • Flowers – Ways we want to work together to make our community dreams blossom.

The women brought together their completed individual tree pictures and shared together their hopes for the future of their community as a ‘Collective Forest’ to stand strong against the storms of life.  We finished on physical actions of planting seeds into flowerpots as a reminder of their hopes and dreams coming to life, slowly but surely.

Forest of Life – Borroloola

We had to make lots of changes on the go and this required some quick thinking and flexibility on our part.  We needed to feel not so precious about sticking to our script, even more so, given the lack of ability to just jump in physically and rescue a situation.  The struggles as well as the delightful outcomes of this work are explored extensively on the video below, so I won’t repeat those here.  Let me just say that our doubts about gathering rich story were well and truly blown out of the water.  We gathered so much beautiful knowledge and wisdom from the mothers, aunties and grandmothers that participated, we couldn’t fit it all in the booklet.  If you do not have access to a hard copy, you can read an on-line version here.

The following video is a 17 minute snapshot of this work presented at the AASW 2020 Symposium.  Meanwhile, If you’d like to know more about using the Tree of Life over ‘Zoom’ technology, please contact us.  We are really open to sharing our work with you.


Invitation to be an Outsider Witness to the women’s stories from Borroloola

Reading the Tree of Life booklet about raising strong and healthy kids in Borroloola may spark thoughts about your own skills and knowledge, your hopes and dreams for your children, and help you stand against any storms you may face. If you would like to share these thoughts with the women you can email Telling Story at sudhacoutinho@gmail.com