Why We Need the Mental Health Version of Brushing Teeth

In the early 1900s, less than 7% of adults brushed their teeth or even had toothpaste.  Fast forward a century, we are much better. We recommend brushing 2 minutes twice daily, a recent survey confirmed 77% now follow the guidelines.

What we need is the mental health equivalent of brushing our teeth. We need clear consistent habits that protect the health of our minds.

Mental health sugar

Modern lifestyle changes, even positive and delicious ones, necessitate new health habits. The rise of sugar and simple carbohydrates in our diet meant if we wanted to protect our teeth we needed to care for them in a new way.

Mental health sugar is a term to describe aspects of modern life that can be quite desirable, sometimes harmful in excess. In short, we need new ways to care for our minds if we want to protect them from ill-health.

Mental health sugar isn’t the cause of mental health issues but it does contribute to the soaring rates.  Like sugar itself, mental health sugar isn’t inherently bad. I love biscuits, but the first is much better for my happiness and health than the 10th! Similarly, mental health sugars can help or harm us depending on how we interact with them.

Examples of mental health sugar

Social media

Social comparison isn’t all bad. Seeing others’ success or moral beauty can inspire us to reach higher. Seeing others’ struggles can bring a much-needed perspective, and motivate us to lend a hand. But any of us who have gotten lost scrolling through the lives of “friends” can also probably attest to not feeling so wonderful when done.


Between working from home, grocery delivery, and delivery / pick-up of other necessities, I can reasonably care for myself and my family without leaving the confines of my home. Even pre-pandemic when outings weren’t limited, on particularly busy workdays I could find myself barely leaving my desk until dinnertime.

Though not everyone works from home or uses delivery, conveniences of modern life, such as cars and supermarkets, enable a much more sedentary lifestyle, which is a significant risk factor for depression. We miss out on mood-boosting activities such as experiencing sun on our skin, movement and interaction with others. We also know sitting for long periods of time is bad for our back, but it also poses threats to the wellbeing of our minds.


When we all have mini-computers within reach most of the day, gone are the days of leaving work at work and home at home. Quiet, uninterrupted time has become a thing of the past and burnout rates are increasing.

We often value individualism and autonomy in the Western world but the flip side of this can be isolation and loneliness.  As social creatures, we are wired for connection. Close connections act as an medicine against stress.  Lack of connection makes everything harder, and can nudge us towards further isolation.

Mind care in a high sugar world

The counterbalance to mental health sugar is mental health hygiene.

Sometimes it can feel as if the modern world is conspiring against our well-being. In order to thrive in this world that doesn’t always promote or protect mental health, we need to take an active role.

Soaring rates of anxiety and depression mean that not thinking about mental health until there’s a serious issue is like not brushing your teeth until you need a root canal. Prevention doesn’t mean you won’t have issues, but it does mean those issues will be less severe and less costly. Also, the reason to focus on prevention isn’t because you will experience issues. Even if you have no reason to feel you are at risk for mental health conditions, mental health hygiene can support a more vital, energised life.

Where do you begin?

Identify personal building blocks. These are foundational practices that promote calm and balance, to bring you back to yourself in tough times.

  1. Improve your quantity and quality of your sleep
  2. Reduce your time spent on devices by having a time limit and key times when you are not ‘available’. Consider a detox day/ part day each week.
  3. Self-compassion. Try to accept yourself and your flaws
  4. Social connection: Spend time with family and friends online or in person listening and sharing.
  5. Exercise: A study found that 15 minutes a day of vigorous exercise significantly prevents depression. A single session can have immediate benefits for reducing stress and worry.
  6. Diet: Traditional diets (like the Mediterranean diet) high in vegetables, whole grains, and good-for-your-brain fats are associated with a 25-35% reduced risk of depression compared to the typical western diet which is higher in sugar, processed foods, and dairy.
  7. Meaning and Purpose. Find ways to give your daily life meaning and purpose – donate time or money to people or projects, surround yourself with positive people, start conversations with new people or explore your interests further.