Published on: May 6, 2015
by Dr. Leonaura Rhodes for CT News:
May is Mental Health Month. Just last week I was talking to a coaching client about their loved one’s depression, and she said to me “but mental illness is not as bad as a real illness”. This perception that mental illness is not real or that it is not severely debilitating and sometimes even life threatening, is endemic in our society. It leads to the continued taboo, inequitable health insurance provision (try getting cognitive behavioral therapy on insurance, in CT) and intolerance of society and employers to people suffering from mental health problems.
The CDC defines Mental Health as the “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Mental health is a continuum that includes serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, anorexia, psychosis, depression, anxiety, dementia and chronic stress through to positive, optimal mental health (estimated in only 17% of Americans).
Mental Illness is defined as “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” Studies suggest that mental illness affects about 25% of American adults and will affect nearly 50% in their lifetime. Most common of all the mental illnesses, depression affects an estimated 26% of adults and is on the rise. By 2020 depression will be second only to heart disease in the causes of worldwide disability. And it’s not just adults who suffer, the National Alliance for Mental Health estimates that approximately 20 percent of 13 to 18 year olds experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.
What about the financial costs of mental illness? Well, in 2008 serious mental illness was estimated to cost the US economy $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. “Lost earning potential, costs associated with treating coexisting conditions, Social Security payments, homelessness and incarceration are just some of the indirect costs associated with mental illnesses that have been difficult to quantify,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. The indirect costs to the individual and their families of reduced quality of life, energy, and attention, damaged relationships and lost opportunities are immeasurable.
I hope I have convinced you that mental illness is real and significant… and it’s not going away!
Preventing mental illness, optimizing positive mental health
For too long, the medical profession has focused its’ attention solely on the treatment of mental illness. When I trained as a physician and counsellor in the UK, there was no mention of prevention. In Public Health we did talk about prevention, but this rarely filtered down the frontline doctors or to the public. There is a wealth of evidence that in the majority of people mental health can be improved, and mental illness prevented or treated in the early stages, with simple measures, before it becomes disabling. So what can we do as individuals to improve, optimize and stabilize our mental health?
Seven steps to better mental health
Be healthy: like any other organ in your body, healthy lifestyle improves the health and function of the brain. Factors like diet, exercise, sleep, hydration and avoidance of poisons such as cigarettes and excessive alcohol are essential to improving your mental health.
Be connected: we humans are social animals, we thrive when we surround ourselves with positive people. Take notice of which relationships make you feel good… and those that sap your energy. Spend more time with those positive people, limit time with toxic people or if they are close to you, look for ways to improve the relationship. People love helping people, so if you are suffering reach out to those positive people and ask for support, they will gain as much from helping you, as you will gain from their help. It’s win-win.
Be inquisitive: science has shown that our brain is constantly rewiring itself, and new learning keeps it healthy. Learn a new hobby, skill, sport, art, instrument or language or delve deeper into an area of interest or explore your world. The “flow-state” which is achieved when we are highly focused on a meaningful task that we enjoy, is medicine for our minds.
Be generous: when we give our time, energy, support or money to others, it is good for our brain and mind. Not only that it makes the world a better place. Whether you are giving to your children, to help them grow, your community, a cause, religious group or charity, it is all beneficial to you and to them.
Be positive: neuroscience research shows that negative thinking is bad for your brain and body, positive thinking is good for it. If you are a “glass half empty” person, you would benefit from learning to shift the direction of your thoughts. Negative thinking is just a bad habit… it can be overcome by introducing and practicing the new habit of positive thinking. This may sound obvious but it can be challenging to do. An expert coach or therapist may be able to help you.
Be mindful: there is a rapidly increasing body of evidence of the benefits of mindfulness practice to our physical and mental health. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of the flow of your thoughts and energy and then learning to exert some control over them. Practices range from diaphragmatic breathing, gratitude journaling, meditation, prayer and yoga through to simply taking a mindful walk in nature. Short periods of mindfulness give you a brief, yet significant break from the stresses of the day.
Be playful: it’s hard to be sad or anxious when you are having fun or laughing, as this gives you a boost of powerful endorphins, the happy chemicals. Take time daily to laugh, have fun, be silly and playful: Watch your favorite comedy movie; play with your children or your pet; dance around the kitchen to your favorite song or take a zumba class with your best friend!
The quality of your mental health is essential to the quality of your life. Don’t wait until depression, anxiety or dementia strike… take control of your brain with some positive action today.
Source: 7 steps to better mental health
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