Kimberley Wilson is an advocate for whole body mental health, a Chartered Psychologist and visiting lecturer working in private practice in central London. She’s also Governor of the Tavistock & Portman NHS Mental Health Trust, and the former Chair of the British Psychological Society's Training Committee in Counselling Psychology, plus she formerly led the therapy service at HMP & YOI Holloway, which at the time was Europe’s largest women’s prison. As if that wasn’t enough, Kimberley is an award-winning food producer with training in nutrition. Oh, and she was a finalist on the Great British Bake off! Psychologies talk to her about her values, mental and physical health, her podcast Stronger Minds and talking at Live Well London Festival.
What does ‘whole body mental health’ mean?
The way that we think about and treat mental health is fundamentally flawed. We treat the brain as if it exists in a vacuum completely separate from your body and that the only thing your body does is carry your brain around. But the evidence shows us, unequivocally, that that is untrue. Your brain health is affected by the conditions in your body – nutrient availability/deficiency, illness, stress, sleep status, physical illness, the gut microbiome, hydration levels all affect whether your brain has what it needs to function and how hard your brain has to work to do its job(s). I coined the term ‘whole body mental health’ to make the point that the body must be considered when we are thinking about the causes and treatments of mental illness.
How do you approach this in your life?
For me it means giving my body what it needs to function well. Nutritionally, this means making sure I get enough oily fish, B vitamins, plants foods, fibre and water; making time for movement (one of the best ways to protect brain health long-term); managing my stress levels with adequate preventative self-care; not skimping on sleep; and taking care of my emotional health.
Why is it important to think about our mental health and physical health as one?
Personally, I don’t think it makes sense to try to do one without the other, it’s a false dichotomy. I think treating the two as separate has contributed to disappointingly low success rates of our ‘best’ mental health drugs and ignored the utility of accessible interventions. Knowing, for example, that there is robust evidence for the role or physical activity and nutritional improvement in the prevention and treatment of depression, and that it can increase the success rates of traditional treatment (medication and therapy), empowers patients with tools that can help them to get their lives back. The research is clear and it’s time the public knew about it.
How does food play a part in our mental health?
In lots of ways. For example, your brain is largely made of fats that you can only get through the diet (the body can’t make them itself) so the brain is literally dependent on the body (through nutrition and digestion) for its basic structure. If you don’t consume these fats your brain cannot function optimally, and you will experience the effects as mood disturbance and cognitive impairment.
What’s the most life changing thing you’ve learnt since starting your podcast, Stronger Minds?
I’ve learned so much from all of my guests, I feel incredibly grateful to all of them. I guess one of the areas I was most ignorant about was sex work. I interviewed Molly Smith and Juno Mac, authors of Revolting Prostitutes, about the impact that the different forms of legislation around sex work have on the safety of sex workers. Topics like sex work bring up a lot of strong feelings and most people would like to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or characterise sex workers as ‘less than’. But sex work exists, people you know have either sold sex or purchased it and we need to be able to have adult conversations about what this means for society and how to keep everyone involved as safe as possible.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice about mental health and wellbeing, what would it be?
Prevention is better than cure. We have a tendency of only thinking about mental health when something goes wrong, when there is a crisis. But that’s like waiting until all your teeth fall out before going to the dentist. We don’t do that with physical health. We brush our teeth every day not because they are rotting but to prevent it from happening. We should be applying she same principle to mental health.
What one thing do you truly believe in?
Good therapy can change your life.
How do you think we can better approach our ‘whole body mental health’ – what one thing can we do to achieve greater wellbeing here?
Take your emotions seriously. Stress and emotions have measurable, physical affects on the body. Ignoring them, suppressing them, denying them will only store up problems further down the line. And go to bed!
You’re appearing at Live Well London Festival in February 2020 – what will you be speaking about there?
It’ll be just a few days before my book is published so I’m likely to be a bit giddy, hopefully I’ll be coherent! I’ll describe what I call the ‘Major Players’, two physical processes, the balance of which dictate your long-term brain health, and then giving the audience an overview of how they can influence the two. The plan is to empower people with the practical tools to start taking better care of their brains straight away. I can’t wait!
Kimberley will be speaking at Live Well London on Friday 28th February on the Live Kitchen Stage with her talk ‘How to Build a Healthy Brain’ To find out more and get your ticket visit www.livewelllondon.com/tickets Live Well London 28 Feb – 1 March 2020, Old Billingsgate, London.