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Mental Health and Wellbeing with PKU

 Helen Scally
by    Helen Scally

Hi, my name is Helen Scally, I live in West Yorkshire and I have 3 children. My eldest, Kian (17) has  PKU and my other 2 children Erin (15) & Nate (8) are non-PKU. I work part-time in a school as a  Special Educational Needs Administrator and I am also the Mental Health and Wellbeing Lead for 11  Primary and Secondary academies.

Effects of Coronavirus on families with PKU 

This is my first blog post and I thought I’d start with a subject that everyone seems to be talking  about right now and that’s Mental Health and Wellbeing. 2020 was a very unusual year and mental  health has very much been in the limelight as we have all had to cope with situations that we have  never found ourselves in before. The disruption in our daily lives has caused many people to suffer  with anxiety, increased stress levels and depression. People with PKU and their families also had  extra stress including; would we still be able to get the specialist protein substitutes and low  protein food? Can we still speak to our dietitian? Will the labs still be running in order to process  phenylalanine levels? Will the people stockpiling foods, who have never eaten fruit before in their  lives, please leave it so that we can actually buy stuff that our kids can eat?! 

Going into lockdown in March sent the whole country pretty loopy and whilst most people were  stockpiling toilet roll, I was trying to find a supermarket that had low protein cheese, frozen French  fries and butter in stock!! Kian has a pretty limited amount of foods that he likes to eat, so I have to  admit that walking into the supermarket at the beginning of lockdown and not being able to buy the  few things that he likes to eat sent my stress levels a little high – I had my family on alert to grab  things whenever they were out. 

Good mental health is important regardless of whether you or a family member has PKU. Your  mental health influences how you think, feel and behave in daily life. It also affects your ability to  cope with stress, overcome challenges, build relationships, and recover from life’s setbacks and  hardships. 

The Stress Bucket

There is a really good theory called ‘The Stress Bucket’ which was developed by Brabban and  Turkington (2002). Imagine you are carrying around a bucket and all the things that happen in your life, all the challenges and stress, add water into the bucket; these might be financial worries, health issues, changes that are happening, anxiety, relationship problems etc. Your bucket fills up quite easily with all these different types of stress flowing in and it’s important that you find activities to help lessen the load. You might find that talking to friends helps to relieve some of the load or going for a walk or having a bath; we all have different ways of coping and the main thing is to realise that your bucket is  getting full and that you need to do something before it overflows.

Hints and Tips to Improve Your Mental Health and Wellbeing

You may have seen some of the poster campaigns that have been running throughout this last year, advertising the ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’. Evidence suggests that there are 5 steps that you can take to  improve your Mental Health and Wellbeing, these are:

1. Connecting with other people – feeling close and connected with other people can uplift  your mood and ease your worries. It helps you to build a sense of belonging and self-worth  and gives you an opportunity to share positive experiences with others. I feel this is  especially important for people with PKU and parents of a PKU child. I know that I have  benefitted massively over the years because I have a friend who also has children with PKU.

2. Be physically active – being active releases stress and tension, burns off excess energy,  makes us feel happier by releasing endorphins and boosts our immune system. This doesn’t  need to involve a hardcore gym session or a 10 mile run. It can be going for a gentle walk or  simply turning up the music and having a dance around the room.

3. Pay attention to the present moment – this is also known as mindfulness. Our lives are often  so busy with thousands of thoughts every day that we don’t notice the things going on  around us. Taking a few minutes out each day to take notice, can make you feel more  present and less stressed and overwhelmed.

4. Learn new skills – this boosts confidence, helps you to achieve new goals, can help you to  connect with others and can keep you occupied if you need a distraction. This could involve; learning to cook a new low protein food, learning a TikTok dance routine or maybe learning  some DIY skills.

5. Give to others – this doesn’t have to be presents or money, giving people your time is much  more important. Doing things for others without being asked, can make you feel happy – and them too!

If you can find a way to incorporate at least some of these into your daily life, then you’ll find that  your stress bucket becomes easier to carry around and hopefully, life will start to feel a little less  crazy.

Explorers Club

If you haven’t done so already, why not register for the Vitafriends Explorers Club – an education programme for families managing PKU in the early years.

It’s packed full of recipes to help with the introduction of solid foods!