Observing and analyzing trends in my own mental health
I tracked my mental health each day throughout 2018. I rated my happiness on a scale of 1–5, with “1” being a really bad day, “2” being a kind of bad day, “3” being a neutral day, “4” being a kind of good day, and “5” being a really good day. I want to preface this article by saying that I understand how complex and difficult it is to try and quantify mental health. My absurdly simple, completely subjective, and inherently biased rating system is by no means an attempt to accurately represent the complexities of the mental health spectrum. My intention was simply to visualize and observe any trends in my own mental health over the course of the year. I picked my score based on how I felt overall that day. Using Google sheets, I then recorded that score, and also jotted down any major events that happened each day as supplementary qualitative data (more on this later). With that said, I think it’s important to find methods of managing your mental health that work specifically for you, but I hope this project helps provide a different perspective.
Here is a heat map of my scores every day of 2018 laid out in a calendar format. Apologies to anyone with red-green color blindness 🙁
In this section, I try to identify trends by looking at the data in more detail from different angles. With a little help from some simple formulas, conditional formatting, and filtering, I was able to identify some common themes. I also list out possible reasons that could explain the results. Again, I want to reiterate that this is not a scientific study. I am giving explanations based only on my own past experiences with depression and anxiety, my past experience working as health counselor, and what I learned during the course of this project.
Average daily score for the year: 3.72
This is the baseline score. We will compare the other scores to this.
Average score by month
The year started off rough, but there is a clear upward trend, especially towards the later half of the year. The most obvious reason for the spike is my cross-country move from the San Francisco area to New York City in mid-September. Moving to a new city and state is a challenging experience, but in my case it gave me the mental space and opportunity I needed to focus on improving my mental health. I’m a city boy, and there’s just this energy that New York City gives off that I can’t really put into words.
Average score before move to NYC: 3.51
Average score after move to NYC: 4.25
Obviously three months is a small sample size, and I’m very well still in the honeymoon phase. I’ll need to revisit the data for 2019 to see how the move to NYC affects my mental health long-term, but for now I’ll take things as they come.
It was more than just the move that explains my upward trend. As the year went on, I got better at managing my mental health. I got better at recognizing what triggers my depression or anxiety, and I actively removed myself from situations that would make the symptoms worse. I think this project played a large role in that. Since I’m a visual person, seeing my bad days marked out on a spreadsheet in bold red colors motivated me to make the next day a green box or at least a yellow one. If I saw too many 1’s or 2’s in a row, I knew I had to do something about it. I calculated the averages at the end of each month, so I started noticing that each month my average would rise slightly. I would challenge myself to get an even better score for the next month. Seeing my mental health physically mapped out like that helped keep me accountable to myself.
Average score by day of the week
They really do call Wednesday “hump day” for a reason, huh? I’m sure there’s some correlation here between the low average for Wednesday and the grind of the work week. I’m thinking Friday and Saturday are my best days because those are typically the days I would spend time with the people I love and care about. Now that I know this information, I plan to schedule more time on Wednesday for self-care to offset the lower scores. Maybe I can schedule my kickboxing classes on Wednesday evenings, or set aside time to do
Count by score
For all you redditors reading this, one of my favorite subs is r/dataisbeautiful, so imagine my joy when the data resembles an almost perfect (right-skewed) bell curve. The only surprise was I thought I got more 1’s than that, but maybe that’s just my depression tricking me into believing that things are worse than they actually are.
Average score the day after scoring a “1”: 3.86
I wanted to highlight this stat specifically. On the days where my depression or anxiety hits me the hardest, it’s really easy for me to resort back to my old habits and just stay in my room and be sad all day. If it was 2017, when my depression was at its worst, that was definitely the case. For a period of about 4–5 months when I was unemployed, I would stay up until 4am and wake up at 2pm. I let the negative energy roll over into the next day. I’d wake up feeling worse than when I went to bed. A score of 3.86 is actually higher than the average score, which means not only did I not let myself wallow in my bad thoughts, I made it a point to make the most out of the next day. This shows sharp growth from my previous year, and it’s something I’m very proud of myself for.
Average score while traveling: 4.00
This one should probably not come as too much of a surprise. I caught the travel bug this year and spent a total of about 5 weeks traveling either out-of-state or abroad (not including my move to New York). Anytime I can get myself out of my apartment is usually a sign of a good day. Traveling also helps me get out of my “bubble” and reminds me that there is so much more to the world I have yet to experience. If you have the financial means to do it, I encourage you to take at least one trip a year to a country that doesn’t speak the same language as you.
Main causes of “1–2” scores
I jotted down the following reasons in my notes:
Anxiety and depression x20, loneliness, isolation, not feeling like I’m enough, feeling behind in life, arguments with my ex, rejection from jobs and grad school, exhaustion, arguing with parents, friends and family in hospital, overstressed, mental breakdowns, low self esteem.
Main causes of “4–5” scores
Hang out with friends x100, spend time with family, Eagles win the Superbowl, massage therapy, boxing, hang out with coworkers outside of work, got a raise, good workouts, surprise birthday party, concerts, traveling, Game of Thrones season finale, Kaskade, ate Whataburger for the first time, move to NY, first snow in NY, friends visiting me in NY.
My goal for next year is simple. More of the latter and less of the former.
This project directly contributed to improvements in my mental health by keeping me accountable. Considering it took me less than a minute a day to track, I’d say the effort was more than worthwhile. It might sound counterintuitive to list out all your bad days and the things that caused them, but it actually motivated me to work harder to not get those red boxes. I think it says a lot about our culture and how afraid we are to face these negative emotions, but I learned that it’s hard to fix something if you keep shoving it away in the back of your mind. 2018 was about me running towards my fears and finally addressing them. I’m going to continue tracking my mental health for 2019, and now that I know what to look for, hopefully the data analysis can be even more detailed next time. I shared this data not to convince you to do the same thing, but to encourage you to consider being more proactive about taking care of your own mental health by finding a method that works for you. We place a lot of emphasis in our physical health, but not nearly as much into our mental health. I also encourage you to have more open, honest, and vulnerable conversations about mental health with people you trust but most importantly with yourself. These conversations won’t be comfortable, but they are becoming more necessary.
Thanks for listening,