Tag Archives: Mental health


Here is a simple idea to give HOPE to elderly parents who are quarantined because of the Coronavirus crisis:


It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow. Like probably millions of other people, I am unable to see my mother, who will turn 91 at the end of the month. Her care home (in Cape Town) is in lockdown. In just a few days I have seen her go from an incredibly lucid, interested person, to someone who is quite often anxious and confused – her response to stress.

I understand this need for isolation, and I also worry what health costs that will bring. And selfishly, I dread the idea of my Mum dying out in Africa without either being able to be with her, or at the very least, being able to see to her things and give her a good send off.

I remembered reading about an experiment where 2 groups of elderly people were given a plant for a year. The first group were told that they were responsible for looking after the plant and keeping it alive for the year. The second group were told that they needn’t do anything for the plant – someone else would care for it. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the year, the survival rate of plants in the first group was significantly higher than that of the second.

The validity of the trial was later questioned, but I figured it was worth a shot. So one of my friends kindly bought and delivered a spathiphyllum plant (pictured above), to my Mum, and I told her that she had to keep it alive until we were able to see each other again. I only discovered later that the common name for this plant is ‘Peace Plant’, and it is purported to help clean the air! So it feels doubly apt!

March 28, 1953

I wrote in my last blog, that in times of uncertainty, it is good to take action where we are able. Of course, my action brings no guarantee of keeping my mother alive, but I have seen firsthand what hope has done for her already. My parents were married for 64 years, and my father was my mother’s world.

60th Anniversary, 2013

When he died in December 2016, I watched dismayed as she turned from an incredibly mobile, mentally agile, positive ‘polyanna’ sort, who always saw the positive side of things, to a little old lady who was miserable, became almost immobile, and really wanted to die.

90th Birthday, 31 March 2019

Last March she turned 90, and I organised a lunch to celebrate. I filled my luggage weight with a large birthday fruit cake, booked our favourite restaurant overlooking the sea, and invited friends of widely varying ages.

View from the restaurant

My mother came alive again! Knowing there were people who still cared about her and having something fun to plan for, kickstarted her vitality. Her memory seemed to improve, her sense of fun returned, and even her physical mobility improved. Up til then, she had not wanted to go much further than a km from her care home. I took her away on holiday to a complicated house by the sea, where she found her way around, and even brought me breakfast in bed one morning! A year previously I had had to help her dress and had thought she would never make 90.

Funky 90 year old on holiday in Hermanus!

So don’t underestimate the power of HOPE! It is something we all desperately need a good dose of in these dark and difficult times. Do what you can to keep it alive for both yourself and your loved ones.

And feel free to share your stories of hope with me!



There is a national realisation that mental ill-health is on the increase and needs our attention. This is true. But should we be talking about Mental Health per se? Here is why I am asking the question:

A new University student who is perhaps introverted and does not enjoy drunkenness may sit alone in her room feeling lonely and anxious. Another may go out ‘socialising’ each night and binge drink. Does it mean that the mental health of the first student is more in question than that of the second? What about the work colleague who has started to come in a bit late sometimes or isn’t paying so much attention to her appearance? Do we equate this to laziness or to mental health? Are we truly paying attention to ourselves and to those around us?

Up until recently if you went to the doctor with an ache or pain, and the diagnosis was ‘psychosomatic’, the underlying assumption was that it wasn’t real. Nowadays there is a much greater understanding of the interaction of mind, body and emotions. The physical pain is extremely real, although caused or aggravated by psychological factors. Psychosomatic is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress’ and ‘relating to the interaction of mind and body’.

I trained to teach the Alexander Technique (AT), which is based on the premise that the use of the whole self (body, mind and emotions) affects function. It is taught using gentle manual guidance with verbal instruction to help the person understand and work with unhelpful habits, be those physical, mental or emotional.

I have been working as an Associate at The University of York for six years now but prior to this I worked for several years in the NHS at the practice of a forward thinking GP, Dr Gavin Young. The doctors would often refer the patients with physical ailments who were not responding to conventional treatment. I discovered that many of the patients whom they had referred with intractable neck pain had lost a parent in the preceding year. This was a surprise to them, though not to me.

In the nearly 30 years that I have worked with AT, I have seen time and again, that people who suppress or repress mental and emotional pain, often manifest psychological issues in physical symptoms. The English are well known for their stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on approach’. It is easier to call in sick because you have excruciating neck pain and headaches than to tell your manager that you can’t come in to work because you are grieving the death of your mother.

I worked with another person at the GP surgery who was in great physical pain, but described herself as a hugely positive person. Over a period of months, we worked physically to relieve the pain, with little success, and at the same time, I probed gently into the incongruencies of positivity and pain. Eventually this person was able to tell me something she had never been able to share before, or even truly admit to herself, that she had been abused.

Once she was able to access and acknowledge this memory, true healing was able to begin, both in her body, and through counselling support offered by the GP practice. It is my contention that purely physical therapy alone would never have worked for this patient, because her pain was so deeply rooted in emotional trauma. However, I very much doubt that she would have been able to acknowledge the abuse without the body work and gentle questioning, for the simple reason that she could only acknowledge the physical pain, and was not presenting with a ‘mental health’ problem.

Professor Nickolaas Tinbergen was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973. He devoted half of his acceptance speech to extolling the virtues of the Alexander Technique and its impact on his life. He said ‘this story of perceptiveness, intelligence and persistence shown by a man without medical training [Frederick Alexander’s], is one of the great epics of medical research and practice.’ He described how he and his family had decided to test some of the seemingly fantastical claims. They found, after only a few months, ‘striking improvements in such diverse things as oedema due to high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.’

Interestingly, 45 years on, terms such as mental alertness and resilience are widely used in discussion and approaches to mental health.

Tinbergen confirmed from personal experience that ‘many types of underperformance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.’ Advances in neuroscience since this time have elucidated further how the brain and body interact positively in this process to explain the ‘surprising extent’ of these improvements. My practice has reflected Tinbergen’s experience. Follow-up questionnaires, immediately after a 10 week treatment plan and 1 year post-treatment, indicated that the majority of patients from my work in the GP surgery found AT to be of ‘considerable help’ or ‘totally sorted’ their problems. Anecdotally, most patients reported to me that if it had not sorted their original presenting problem, it had helped them manage their lives more effectively.

As a result of this work, I realised that what I was doing via AT could also be understood to include, what is now called, Life Coaching. I trained in Relational Dynamic Life Coaching, and have found this to be a powerful synthesis with AT. (Relational Dynamics- the art of interaction with self and others www.relationaldynamics.co.uk)

My understanding based on experience is that the mind and body either act to support or to destabilise the other. Changing thoughts and beliefs can have a powerful effect on the body, just as releasing physical tension and improving physical functioning can free up the mind and give self-empowerment. Being able to work with people via these two techniques has enabled me to enhance overall well-being, not just ‘mental health’ or ‘physical health’. We can approach well-being via either working with the body (physical therapies) or mind (psychological ‘talking’ therapies). My conviction is that a combination of the two can be most powerful.

But, to return to my title, should we even be talking about mental health? In making a distinction between mental health and other health issues, we risk falsely attributing some issues to the purely mental sphere, and the stigma which is commonly associated with mental ill-health. We are all people comprised of bodies and minds, which are deeply affected by our emotions. Are we not missing a trick by failing to approach health as a synthesis of body and mind states?

If we understand that health and ill-health is a matter of the whole person, we can better identify these people and offer appropriate help. But if we separate the ‘mental’ from the ‘physical’ we are likely only to treat the symptoms and not the cause, or at the very least a contributing factor. In this I think we are failing to provide healthcare that meets the needs of the population.

We need a healthcare service that acknowledges how the body and mind impact each other and makes better use of the whole of ourselves to prevent and treat ill-health.

In my opinion, this means dropping the ‘mental health’ label and ensuring our conversations, concerns and treatments are about Health.

Julie Parker BSc, MSTAT
ILM level 7 equivalent accredited Coach

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not represent the views of any organisation