One of the few benefits of the pandemic is an increased awareness of mental health concerns and their impact on your overall health. But removing the stigma around mental health doesn’t make it less of a concern.
“Your mental health is extremely important, says Shelby Gardner, MD, a family medicine specialist with The Christ Hospital Physicians – Primary Care. “It can impact your physical health, your family life, your job, your finances, and more.”
Feeling down? You’re not alone
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness each year. For youths ages six to 17, it’s one in six, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. each year for people aged 10 to 14.
Dr. Gardner says she and her colleagues are seeing the impact of the increased stress and anxiety of our everyday lives, and the damage it can do to our mental health.
“It comes up every day during visits with my patients,” she says, “sometimes multiple times per day.”
According to Dr. Gardner, the most common mental health disorders experienced by her patients are anxiety and depression, along with some issues with substance abuse.
“Those are by far the most common,” she says. “But some patients experience more significant disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others. The one common thread is that these are real clinical conditions and it’s important to address them before they cause other health problems or worse. It’s more than just ‘being sad.”
Are there things you can do on your own to improve your mental health?
Mild symptoms of depression and anxiety are not uncommon. They can be brought on by everyday worries and stress, other health concerns, or lifestyle influences. Dr. Gardner says there are things you can do on your own to help improve your mental health when you experience mild depression or anxiety. She recommends:
Proper nutrition: “Eating right can directly affect how you feel physically and emotionally,” she says, “So make sure you get good nutrition on most days. It doesn’t always have to be healthy. You can still have your cheeseburger or other favorite foods, just do it in moderation.”
Exercise: “Even a little activity each day is proven to help improve your moods,” she says. “You don’t have to run a marathon. Just try to get 30 minutes of exercise five or more days per week. You can do something fun like playing with the kids or walking the dog. It still gives you the natural endorphins to boost your moods, not to mention the confidence that comes from being more physically fit.”
Get good sleep: “You can’t feel good if you’re running on fumes,” she says. “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, stay away from things right before bed that interfere with sleep like binging your shows, scrolling your phone, or grabbing a couple beers. Prepare your body and your mind to be at rest.”
Be mindful: “Mindfulness is the art of recognizing the emotions within yourself and getting in touch with them before they get out of control,” she says. “If you recognize the existence of your anxiety and identify the source, it’s easier to say and believe ‘it’s going to be ok.’ You can try breathing exercises or toying with ‘fidgets’ to slow your mind down enough to be able to ‘check in with yourself.”
Can talk therapy help?
It’s never been easier to get access to talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, from a licensed professional. In addition to in-person visits, there are an increasing number of options via telehealth, or even mobile apps. Some primary care offices actually employ licensed mental health professionals to assist their existing patients, and a growing number of employers offer Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, as a benefit to their staff.
“Not only are more people willing to talk about mental health and recognize its importance,” Dr. Gardner says, “they’re providing the resources to make it more accessible for everyone.”
Dr. Gardner points out the existence of virtual or over-the-phone options as a way to tear down a common hurdle keeping people from seeking help with their mental health.
“You may already feel down and going to the doctor or sitting face-to-face with a stranger may not exactly help to calm your mind in some cases,” she says. “Now most people have a way to get around that from the comfort of their own home. The biggest risk to you for pursuing talk therapy is your time or any associated costs.”
But how can talk therapy help you feel better?
“A skilled expert will be able to listen to you and hear how your past experiences and current situation inform the way you think, and they can reflect that back to you and help you understand why you feel the way you do,” Dr. Gardner says. “They can help you achieve a better understanding of your concerns, and they can give you the tools to help you take that next step toward feeling better emotionally. It can be hard work, but they can help you find the way to get there.”
Do CBD products or other leading supplements work?
There is a growing trend for people to seek out products containing cannabidiol (CBD) to help them cope with anxiety. CBD is a legal byproduct of hemp that does not offer the same psychoactive effects of another hemp product – marijuana. Still, the increase of sales of CBD products demonstrates a belief by some in their therapeutic benefits. But Dr. Gardner offers a word of caution.
“While those products are a hot button topic,” she says, “it’s important to remember that there is still very little data to prove their benefit. Not to mention, without FDA oversight, there are no standards surrounding dosage, efficacy, safety, or manufacturing methods.”
Dr. Gardner says the same about another popular supplement often thought to offer therapeutic benefits for mental health – St. John’s Wort.
“Like other popular herbal remedies, there are few regulations and little data to determine safe and effective usage.”
Dr. Gardner recommends talking to your doctor if you have questions about the use of supplements for treating mental health issues.
“We have access to many proven and approved medications for the treatment of mental health disorders of all types and severities,” she says. “We can also help through other means such as psychotherapy or treatment of other physical issues that can lead to poor mental health. Why try to treat it on your own with unproven and unregulated supplements?”
When should you get help and where should you go?
“I tell my patients there’s a fine line between what may be your personality and having a mental health condition,” Dr. Gardner says. “Some people, like myself, are just more high-strung. We like to know what’s going to happen and what the consequences are going to be, and that may cause us to worry.”
“But can you turn that off,” she continues. “Does that anxiety interfere with your life and your ability to do the things you want to get done, or worse, impact your ability to enjoy doing your favorite things or spending time with people close to you. If that’s the case, it’s probably a good time to seek some help. You should definitely do so if it’s escalated to the point where you even think about harming yourself or others.”
Dr. Gardner acknowledges a growing number of self-assessments available via mobile apps or online, but she recommends calling your primary care provider if you really reach the point where you need support. They may ask you to fill out one of two standard screening questionnaires specific to the diagnosis of either depression or general anxiety based on what you are experiencing. They can also provide the care you need based on your symptoms and diagnosis or provide you with information on reliable resources if you are seeking other support.
“Remember, you’re not alone,” she says, “and you shouldn’t have to deal with it alone.”
Click below to listen to Dr. Gardner talk about mental health on the Pound This Podcast with Amanda Valentine.