Mental health is an integral and crucial component of our overall health. It influences how we react to the “ebb and flow,” the “give and take,” the “positive and negative” of everyday life.  The current status of our own mental health helps or possibly hinders how well we cope with the stressors and problems we face on a daily basis. Our mental health dictates how quickly we bounce back from disappointments. It speaks to what strengths we can muster to help us cope with trauma or loss. It gives us the ability to put past experiences into perspective so they need not hang over our heads and stop us from moving on in our lives.

Our mental health can also affect our physical health. Elevated stress hormones found during periods of depression and/or anxiety can affect both our blood sugar levels and cardiovascular system. 

We prioritize our physical health because we realize it must be protected. We eat nutritious food, take vitamins, exercise on a daily basis and try to sleep soundly at night. All of these habits are rewarded with a stronger physical self. But what about our mental self? Should we not give it the same attention and priority as we do the rest of our body? 

So many aspects of our lives may be affected by poor mental health habits: our work life, our home-life and all our interpersonal relationships. Issues such as depression, grief, loss and trying to keep negative thoughts and feelings at bay take all our energy and strength. 

When mental health concerns take over your life

When mental health concerns begin to cause marked distress physically, when home-life feels tense, when work performance slips or when personal relationships suffer, one ought to seek professional guidance. Oftentimes, a close friend or family member may remark that an individual does not seem like himself or herself.  Hopefully an individual will listen to the “cues” that something is not right and contact a professional who can help. A doctor can offer insights, support, a plan of action, psychotherapy and medications. The answers seem simple enough: if a problem is hurting me, find help. 

Unfortunately, a stigma of shame persists in mental health. People assume they have to “tough it out”. They may minimize the difficulty or deny it completely. Neither of these techniques works for very long. A problem pushed down under the surface of consciousness and silenced comes back again and again affecting everyday life in different and multiple ways. 

We shatter the “shame stigma” when we finally realize that the body and mind are one. Just as we care for a physical injury, we must heal a mental injury. Mental health concerns are not the results of “weakness,” “laziness,” or a “personal defect.” Mental health is determined by the difficulties we encounter and the resources we have to survive them. 

It is argued that the brain is the most important of all organs and arguably the least understood. We know that millions of Americans have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes and do not feel stigmatized by seeking treatment, taking medication or changing their lifestyle. 

We need to do the same when it comes to mental health.  

Regardless of any stigma, mental illness is in fact common and affects the lives of approximately every 1 in 4 Americans in some way. The risk of being stigmatized means many of these people will avoid seeking treatment altogether which is very unfortunate, because the approaches used by practitioners of mental health can offer options to get real healing. Left untreated, the mental suffering can often become debilitating. 

How can someone support another who is facing a mental health crisis?

A loved one can show support by approaching someone in a mental health crisis with compassion and understanding. If it is an emergency situation, the first priority is the individual’s safety. As one example, a person threatening self-harm needs to be evaluated in an emergency setting. Perhaps 911 needs to be called. If the crisis does not dictate an emergency evaluation, a person can support someone by encouraging them to reach out to a therapist or a psychiatrist in an outpatient setting.

What does treatment look like? 

Mental health is ideally situated for telehealth. Treatment includes a comprehensive psychological examination. Psychological screening measures may also be sent to the patient before the visit to assist in diagnosis. Once a proper diagnosis is made, treatment plans may require additional lab work to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms. Medication and/or psychotherapy may be recommended in conjunction with the patient’s needs and preferences. Studies done during the more recent Covid-19 epidemic demonstrate that mental health treatment outcomes are comparable to in-person visits.

Another area of treatment includes a functional medicine approach. Functional medicine seeks to find the root cause of an illness. This approach realizes there can be multiple causes of mental health issues. For example, individuals with hypothyroidism or individuals with low vitamin D levels present as clinically depressed. Low B12 and Folate levels may play a role in mood disorders and low ferritin levels can play a role in poor attention in children with suspected ADHD. Often, I will order labs to investigate and rule out underlying medical issues.

Author: Dr. Ryan Leahy, Board-Certified Psychiatrist with MyCatholicDoctor

Editor: Samantha Wright, Marketing Director with MyCatholicDoctor

Ryan Leahy, M.D., M.S.

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