/ Mind/ A Guide to Building Mental Health Goals
Build better mental health goals with guidance and examples from an Inkblot practitioner.
In recent years, mental health has become a primary concern for people everywhere — and rightly so. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) June 2022 World Mental Health report, rates of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety rose by more than 25 per cent in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the nearly one billion people who had already been living with a mental disorder.
With this in mind, there’s never been a better time to prioritize mental health—for ourselves, our loved ones and our colleagues. However, accurately measuring positive momentum isn’t always the most straightforward task.
That’s where the process of setting and working towards mental health goals comes in. A study conducted at the Dominican University of California by Dr. Gail Matthews found that people are 42 per cent more likely to reach their goals just by writing them down. Moreover, 70 per cent of the study participants who shared regular progress updates with a friend reported successful achievement of their goal, compared to just 35 per cent of those who kept their goals a secret.
This article will explore how to build better mental health goals, including how to get started and stay motivated, with expert support from Nadine Hill-Carey, a Registered Psychotherapist and member of the Inkblot network of practitioners.
Hill-Carey compares the process of improving our mental health to a long road trip: without GPS or a well-marked map, you likely won’t get very far. That’s why she recommends setting tangible goals before you embark on your journey, so you can adequately measure progress once you’ve started.
“I always say if we get in a car and we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know when we’ve arrived,” she says. “It’s important to establish clear, specific goals to know when we’re moving in the right direction or achieving them. If we’re just using broad-based statements like ‘I want to feel better,’ it can be difficult to know what that means and how we know when we’ve gotten there.”
The most important tip for building mental health goals is to set clear, specific, measurable and attainable goals. If you don't have experience with goal setting of any kind, it can be helpful to lean on the SMART goals concept. The acronym hits all the points required to build practical goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
“Saying something like ‘I want to feel less anxious’ is not overly helpful because what does less anxious look like?” says Hill-Carey. “So instead, the goal may not be ‘I don’t want to feel any anxiety,’ because we’re human and it’s part of our human experience, so really being able to place your feelings on a scale of one to 10. If your anxiety is a 10, how can you bring that down to a five?”
Hill-Carey recommends using a journal to record your thoughts and feelings throughout the day and measure your feelings on a sliding scale. She also notes that working with a therapist can be an effective way to supercharge your goals.
When it comes to staying motivated throughout your journey, Hill-Carey acknowledges that it can be difficult to keep morale high beyond January, when New Year's resolutions begin to lose their sheen. To avoid burning out and ultimately giving up on your goals, she recommends setting challenging yet attainable goals to ensure you're making progress while staying realistic. The balance will allow you to set meaningful goals without setting the bar so high you can't reach them.
“I’m a big proponent of stepping out of your comfort zone, but if we step too far out and make our goals too big, they’re not going to be attainable,” she says. “We’re human, so I advise people that goals are about making progress, not being perfect, and remembering we have the power to choose again. We need to have more grace, compassion and flexibility with ourselves.”
For example, if it’s the end of the day and you realize you haven’t practiced mindfulness for an hour, as you said, you would simply make the next best choice by practicing for 10 seconds in the shower instead. Hill-Carey recommends taking the pressure off yourself and approaching the entire process with an element of playfulness and curiosity.
“Often, we’re already telling a story of, ‘it’s going to be too hard.’ Our brain creates thoughts of overwhelm and confusion to keep us stuck because staying stuck, while uncomfortable, feels safer than establishing a goal and then not being able to reach it,” she says. “There are no right or wrong answers — it’s just about getting in there, staying curious and playing a little bit.”
Understanding the strategic thinking behind building mental health goals helps set a foundation, but sometimes it's helpful to see examples of what a mental health goal could look like. Below are a few positive mental health goals to help you get started.
At the end of the day, Hill-Carey reminds us that working towards mental health goals should be measurable, achievable and playful. Stay active and curious about the goals you’ve set for yourself, and celebrate all wins — no matter how small. By allowing yourself to feel grateful for your progress, you’ll create a positive feedback loop in your brain that will encourage you to keep going despite any challenges you may face.
If the concept of mental health goals still feels daunting to you, or if you are looking for someone to help you build goals and stay accountable, lean on your Inkblot EAP to find a therapist best suited to your needs.
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