#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 4°C Sunday 11 April 2021

Opinion: The gym is great, but please don't insult us by suggesting it's the answer to mental illness

Rachel O’Neill lives with anxiety and depression and says ‘bad actors’ using mental health as an excuse to keep gyms open in Level 5 is unforgivable.

Rachel O’Neill

I LOVE THE gym. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get after a long row on the rowing machine or 40 minutes of hard cardio. It’s a key part of my mental health routine along with a healthy diet, a very good therapist and some strong antidepressants. 

In another life maybe I would have been a strong advocate for keeping the gyms open in Level 5. As someone who suffers from both depression and anxiety, the news that gyms would not be kept open in Level 5 did upset me.

Being able to go back to the gym in July boosted my mental and physical wellbeing immensely. I was able to re-establish my routine and get out of my apartment at least twice a week.

But what has made me more upset, is people arguing that certain businesses such as gyms should remain open for “mental health reasons”. 

I have seen many tweets and Instagram posts from gym owners and gym lovers alike claiming that the rising cases aren’t coming from gyms therefore they should not be forced to close.

Infection source unclear

The reality is that we actually don’t know where cases are coming from. We saw over the weekend, the collapse of our Test and Trace system as more than 2,000 people were asked to reach out to their close contacts themselves as the contact tracers had become overwhelmed. This is the reality that we’re dealing with at the moment. 

There is no doubt that the mental health of the entire country is at an extremely low ebb right now. Everything that we like to do to keep ourselves healthy and happy has been taken away from us. There are good and strong reasons for this but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

However, there are bad-faith actors who are using the term ‘mental health’ as something to hide behind when in reality, they want to keep their businesses open because they don’t like the new restrictions. 

Over the past number of months, I have noticed a rising number of people overestimating and conflating the effect of exercise on mental illness. There is no shortage of evidence that exercise can help lower stress and boost your mood. This is particularly beneficial for people like me who suffer from anxiety and depression.

But let’s be clear; exercise cannot cure mental illness. If that was true, I’d be in the gym every single day. Exercise is only part of the answer. 

Put it this way, I haven’t seen my therapist in person in eight months. We have had our sessions over the phone which have been incredibly important to me but they’re not the same as in-person therapy.

Exercise only a factor

I would argue that being able to see a therapist has more benefits for mental health than exercise. But I’ve yet to see the same people advocating for the gyms to stay open being as passionate about day-to-day medical services such as therapy continuing to operate.

The stigma around talking about certain mental health conditions like anxiety and depression is no longer a thing. But the flip-side is that it allows bad-faith actors to use the term mental health as a catch-all.

It’s hard to argue with a gym owner who says they’re keeping their gym open because of ‘mental health reasons’ than if they just said ‘I don’t agree with the restrictions’ or ‘I want to make money’. 

Instead, people accuse you of being insensitive or trying to shame people or saying that your arguments mean that people will lose their lives. I know that because I received a lot of abuse online this week when I suggested that businesses such as gyms were using the term ‘mental health reasons’ as an excuse to flout the new restrictions. 

Everyone has something that they deem ‘essential’ to their wellbeing whether it be the gym, the cinema, meeting up with friends, art classes or even just hanging out with a pet.

We could all make a case that our favourite activity needs to stay open. But that would be pitting things and people against each other and we can’t afford to that. Not right now.  

The next six weeks are not going to be easy. As winter sets in, the idea of doing exercise outside seems less and less appealing. However, as we know, it’s safer to exercise outside right now than indoors. It’s also the only option we have. 

Back in April, I lost my grandmother to a non-Covid illness. Because of the restrictions imposed at the time, we couldn’t say goodbye to her in person at the hospital. Instead, I said goodbye to my grandmother over a WhatsApp video call. I never want to go through that again nor do I want anyone else to have to either.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

The restrictions are hard on all of us but we need to stick together and look after each other. And if that means I’ve to give up the gym for a few weeks to do that, then so be it. 

I look forward to seeing those advocating so hard for the gyms to be open, advocating just as hard for better mental health services overall when this is all over. 

Rachel O’Neill is a Neuroscience graduate, writer and podcaster. She hosts a podcast called Disturbing the Peace which you can find here.

voices logo

About the author:

Rachel O’Neill

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel