All too often when people talk about health and wellness, there is focus on the physical aspects. But, there is much more to your health and well-being. In fact, many people who are under stress, feel depressed, experience anxiety or have a mental illness appear physically healthy, but they are unlikely to feel well.

Mental health is an essential component of your health. I agree with The World Health Organization: “Health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

May is Mental Health-Awareness Month, aimed to raise the vital awareness about the importance of your mental health and related issues, as you take note of the things you should look out for yourself — as well as those in your life — and what you can do to help.

Anyone anywhere can fall into bouts of depression after a loss or traumatic event — or one can suffer mental duress under pressure from work, home, school, relationships or other outside situations. Facts are that everyone in their lifetime will experience mental health issues at one time or another — either personally or with someone they love. Today, this is more commonly known but a fact that perhaps doesn’t resonate until it hits home. For example, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems, and it’s likely that at some point in your life, you or someone you know will encounter it. It can be difficult to recognize when struggling with it, and it can be tempting to just brush it off as a “bad day.” But you can’t just wait it out or self-medicate to make everything go away … or make it better.

The good news is advancements, along with the great spread of information, have all led to the development of valuable resources and limitless other tools that allow everyone the opportunity for better mental health. And too, there are steps you can take to help yourself.

Understanding mental health and mental illness

Mental health describes your mental well-being: Your emotions, thoughts, feelings, ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, social connections and understanding of the world around us. Mental health also affects, and is affected by, our physical health — leading many experts to describe this intimate relationship as the “mind-body connection.” It’s important at every stage of life — baby, child, adolescent and throughout adulthood.

Mental illnesses, on the other hand, are recognized, medically diagnosable conditions that impair an individual’s cognitive, affective, or relational abilities. There are many forms with different symptoms and severity in regards to their impact on people’s lives. While research continues to evolve in understandings, some of the more common and well-researched mental illnesses, by category of illness, include:

Mood disorders (affective disorders): Depression, mania and bipolar

Anxiety disorders: Generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, eating disorder

Psychotic disorders: schizophrenia

Concurrent disorders: addictions and substance abuse

Personality disorders: antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

Although the terms mental health and mental illness are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has health. And throughout our lives, there are varying degrees and challenges that we will face in regards to our mental and physical health. It is not black and white. For most of us, we are in generally good physical and mental health, with occasional problems. Others experience serious physical or mental problems that either resolve or have a very negative impact on their lives.

And while mental health problems are common today, so is help. Mental disorders can be managed using approaches comparable to those applied to physical illness (i.e., prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).

Contributing factors to mental health problems

Everyone has the potential to develop mental health problems. And although the cause of most mental illnesses remains unknown, research has shown factors contribute to mental health problems including:

• Genetics such as genes, brain chemistry, prenatal, developmental and/or psychosocial factors

• Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, loss, strife

• Family history of mental health problems

• Illnesses, infections, or injury

• Substance abuse

• Lifestyle factors such as poor management of and coping with stress and lack of work/school/home-life balance, lack of quality sleep, consuming a balanced diet and not engaging in physical activity

Mental health epidemic

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults (46.6 million) in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year — across all ages from preschool to teens, college aged to those in their 30s to 100 plus.

Be aware: When it comes to mental illness, a prevalent misconception is the response: “Just snap out of it, it’s in your head, don’t dwell on it so much, you need to move on.” For many, the inability to “just get over it” is exactly the problem. It’s what separates mental illness from normal, day-to-day stress or anxiety. Your brain is supposed to be able to filter your emotions and process thoughts rationally, but sometimes it doesn’t. From time to time, everyone has problems handling their emotions and could use some encouragement. What makes mental illness different is the part of your brain that helps make the jump from discouraged or worried or unmotivated back to normal is malfunctioning.

Interestingly too, is that when someone is suffering from a mental health condition, it may be challenging for them to have that insight. And for this reason, it is often another person (family member or friend) that may point it out. For those who notice changes in someone’s mood or behavior, it can be challenging to address. However, by respectfully speaking up, that discussion may be the key and influencing factor that helps someone to get help and recover.

Warning signs: Experiencing one or more of the following feelings or behaviors can be an early warning sign:

• Eating or sleeping too much or too little

• Pulling away from people and usual activities

• Having low or no energy

• Feeling numb or like nothing matters

• Having unexplained aches and pains

• Feeling helpless or hopeless

• Smoking, drinking or using drugs more than usual

• Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared

• Yelling or fighting with family and friends

• Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships

• Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head

• Hearing voices or believing things that are not true

• Thinking of harming self or others

• Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school

Mental illnesses vary from person to person and are, by nature, disruptive to a person’s life. Talk to someone you trust and consider seeking professional help and counseling. You can start with your primary care physician who knows you (or the individual) well, and they can recommend a mental health professional. And it is always good to gain additional background information on any recommended mental health professional (and their approach).

Wellness

Similar to how a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent the onset or worsening of illness or disease, it also impacts your mental health. In many cases, it can help put you on the path to a speedier recovery. That includes:

Eat nutritious foods. Your brain requires vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fuel and building blocks to function optimally. Make sure to eat a diet filled with fruit, veggies, nuts, legumes and lean meats while minimizing or eliminating processed, fried and saturated fatty foods.

Be physically active to boost your body’s feel good hormones. This can help ease stress, anxious feelings and improve your mood and sleep quality.

Get the right quantity and quality of sleep. It aids in fending off stress, anxiety, and depressed mood. If you are experiencing mental health issues, not getting proper sleep can aggravate your ability to manage them or even worsen them.

Develop a personalized approach to reduce stress. This will help you manage your mental health and improve your quality of life. Experiment with coping strategies (from meditation, setting aside time “off” each day for you, relaxation exercises, to establishing healthy boundaries, to mention a few).

Understanding mental health and the illnesses that can strike is an important step in identifying warning signs and taking steps for effective treatment. As is, learning preventative and effective healthy management methods with your mental health helps to cope, manage and be resilient amongst life’s challenges and curveballs. Along with your physical and social health, your mental — and emotional — health should always be a commitment to yourself, everyday.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author.

Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.

This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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