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Lifestyle Tips for Improving Mental Health Amid the Pandemic

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Hawai'i is lurching back into business, with visitor arrivals ramping up toward pre-pandemic levels. Mental health experts have some tips for getting back to regular business.

Close to 30,000 visitors are arriving daily. That's about 7,000 fewer per day than before the pandemic, and the amount is rising quickly.

More than half of Americans across the nation report the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to Kumi Macdonald, Executive Director for National Alliance for Mental Illness Hawai'i, NAMI Hawai'i.

In February, research showed almost 38% of adults in Hawai'i reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. That may sound understandable, but Macdonald says it represents a huge increase.

"So normally we say one in five people struggle with mental health conditions, now we're saying 50% are struggling with their mental health."

If you're having a tough time getting back into the swing of things, Macdonald says there's a lot people can do on their own.

"Get out in the sunlight, go for a walk, get out in nature, go and volunteer if you have the energy and capacity to do so. Giving back also fills your happy tank."

Recent Hawai'i mental health conferences have highlighted success with art therapies.

"There is scientific proof because medical insurance won't pay for it unless it works, right?"

Art therapies by licensed practitioners are covered by insurance. Macdonald says she was sidelined with depression, and knows the tiniest steps can be excruciating.

"I think it was my doctor who said, 'You know, it's okay take medicine, it shouldn't be that hard.' And I said, 'Really? Oh, I didn't know I could take medicine and feel a little better.' That just helped me lessen my depression to about 50%, but it wasn't a cure-all," she said.

It got Macdonald far enough to think about exercising.

"I just didn't have the energy or the drive. So I just decided I'm just going to do five minutes," she said. "But I committed to that and then it went to 15, it went to 20, it went to an hour. Once I started walking I said I feel better, so now maybe I'm going to do my green juice smoothie. Before, I didn't even have the energy to think about eating healthier."

Macdonald says exercise, then eating better happened incrementally for her.

"Changing your diet, you can feel the effect in just a few days. That really does help," she said. "I think exercise is immediate. If you do it for five minutes, within about 15 minutes you'll start to feel better. You don't have to do an hour. Just do five minutes, Five minutes of stretching, then wait fifteen minutes and go, Oh yeah! I do feel less stressed, I do feel less irritable. Because it releases all these happy chemicals in your brain."

Start small and stay with it, Macdonald says. How long? Macdonald felt better from the medication after a couple of weeks. And changes in diet and exercise can start feeling better even sooner.

Do consult a mental health professional if needed. Find tips and free resources at namihawaii.org.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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