This year, R U OK? Day coincides with Women’s Health Week, providing the perfect opportunity to discuss women’s mental health needs. We sat down with Professor Analise O’Donovan to discuss how our physical, mental and social health are intertwined 

Analise O’Donovan is a clinical psychologist, Dean Academic at Griffith Health, and a Griffith Expert with research interests in positive psychology, supervision and trauma. Her research explores everything from mindfulness and emotion regulation to the effectiveness of training psychology students.  

Analise says that working to improve our mental health not only helps us achieve high levels of mental wellbeing, it also has the additional benefit of impacting our physical health.  

“Mental health is pivotal to general health – there are strong correlations between the two, so we should start to think of overall health as being inclusive of mental health,” says Analise. 

“Research shows that having a positive outlook can bolster our personal resources such as confidence, optimism, likeability, and sociability – positivity even improves our immunity and physical well-being.  

“One study showed a strong relationship between longevity and the expression of positive emotion early in life, with more cheerful subjects living for 10 years longer!” 

The benefits of having a positive outlook can also help us achieve another indicator of longevity: a greater number of reciprocal relationships. 

“Relationships are the central predictor of happiness, and a positive emotional state attracts relationships – essentially, happy people attract more friends and in turn, friends are essential for our wellbeing,” says Analise. 

“We know that women tend to build more relationships than men and rely on these relationships as a support network, so having a positive outlook can help with receiving that support when it’s needed.” 

Building a greater number of reciprocal relationships is one of the areas in which women excel in mental health, so much so psychologists classify it as one of women’s greatest character strengths, that is, the areas in which women tend to excel. 

“Research has shown that women excel at things like building relationships, expressing gratitude and showing compassion and kindness,” says Analise. 

“While these traits were traditionally negatively labelled as “feminine”, we’re now seeing those qualities as more highly desirable in the workplace than the traditionally masculine traits of decisiveness, assertiveness and individualism.  

“In a recent study of 64,000 participants, of the 10 most important traits considered for leadership, eight were traditionally labelled as feminine. And with the growing desire for leaders in workplaces, we would hope this has a positive impact on women in the future.” 

When asked for advice for women on improving mental health, Analise looks to these character strengths and reminds women to focus on maintaining relationships not just with their support network, but with themselves.  

“Showing self-compassion and self-care is a great starting point for anyone hoping to build their mental wellbeing,” says Analise.  

“Self-care is comprised of psychological, physical, professional, social, and spiritual needs – it’s the things we do for ourselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. 

“We can show self-care in a multitude of ways, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic which has left many Australians feeling isolated and lonely. For those working from home, this can be compounded by a lack of separation between home life and work life, a loss of social events, and taking fewer breaks.  

“There are some simple and accessible activities we can do when feeling those emotions. For example, combatting loneliness can be as simple as reaching out to colleagues or friends to organise face-to-face catchups or FaceTime opportunities, depending on the restrictions in your area. We can also do our part to help others by reaching out to someone who we think might be lonely, not just for R U OK? Day, but at any time.” 

This last piece of advice – reaching out to someone you think may need help – is particularly important to combat those areas of mental health where women are more at risk than men, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sadly, both of these areas impact women in higher numbers than men, as does one other area – domestic violence.  

“Every week, a woman in Australia is murdered by a partner or ex-partner, which equals 23% of all homicides. It is more common for women to be victims of domestic violence, with one in four women experiencing family violence compared to one in seven men,” Analise explains.   

“The consequences of domestic violence are far reaching: physical trauma in some instances, but also psychological consequences such as PTSD, sleep disturbance, loss of confidence, reduced coping and problem-solving skills, social isolation, and fear of starting new relationships. 

“As we know that having positive relationships help us to find support when we need it, those last two consequences are particularly worrying, as victims of domestic violence can often find themselves isolated from a support network when they need it most. 

“There are so many ways that physical and mental health intersect, with domestic violence just one extreme example. For many others, that intersection can come down to whether or not they have the energy or motivation to exercise or eat well, two physical choices that can greatly impact our mental health. 

“When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which in turn help lift your mood. Similarly, eating a balanced diet makes us feel better, and while we know this to be the case, we can sometimes make poor choices anyway, with the result being a feeling of sluggishness or even weight gain. So you can see, it’s a deeply intertwined cycle for many women, where choices in one aspect of their health – physical or mental – can impact their general wellbeing. 

“That’s why events such as Women’s Health Week and R U OK? Day are so important – it gives us a chance to reset and refocus. My advice this week is to be kind to yourself and take some time to work on those relationships in your support network.”  

If you would like to do more for your health this Women’s Health Week and R U OK? Daythe Griffith Health Clinics are a great place to start. We provide health services in Dentistry, Exercise Physiology, Dietetics, Physiotherapy, Psychology, Social Work, Speech Pathology and Suicide Prevention. Whether you visit our student or professional (fully-qualified) clinic, you can be assured that you’ll receive the latest evidence-based treatments from passionate individuals who are committed to getting your health back on track. Visit our website for more information on the options available to you.  

If you or anyone you know needs help with any of the issues mentioned in this article, please contact: 

  • Lifeline – 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14 nightly between 6pm-midnight AEDT 
  • 1800 RESPECT – National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service – 1800 737 732 
  • Relationships Australia – 1300 364 277 
  • Or call 000 if you are in danger.