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It is Mental Health Awareness Month and given less than half of people with a diagnosable mental illness get treatment, raising awareness about specific mental illness and the value of treatment is important. However, a vital area that has received very little attention in terms of awareness, is preventive mental health care.
It is curious that in the United States — where we are both highly aware and many dollars are spent on preventive health care in general — preventive mental health care is not included. Many people do preventive cardiac care by reducing and treating cholesterol levels and blood pressure as well as exercising for aerobic fitness. Most people do cancer screenings of various sorts such as colonoscopies, mammograms and PSA blood levels, all methods to screen preventively for cancer. We do preventive Pap smears, glucose screenings, bone density scans and yearly check-ups all looking to the possibility you are at risk for an illness, preemptively take care of and reduce that risk, and make sure that one’s lifestyle habits are consistent with staying physically healthy. We know that preventive care is actually more cost effective in the long run than having disease occur and treating it, not to mention the vastly improved quality and quantity of life.
But what of our most precious organ, the brain? When the brain is chronically stressed, when a person has high and constant anxiety, it takes a toll on that organ. We know as well that depressed mood affects the brain and quality and quantity of life. Our focus on dealing with mental health has been one of waiting until there is a serious problem and then treating it. But the reality is we also know there are ways to be preventive in terms of mental health, we are just behind the eight ball in terms of implementing these preventive strategies in our everyday life, thereby decreasing the odds we will develop some mental health problems at all.
Preventive mental health care is aimed at both reducing risk exposure and strengthening coping mechanisms. What raises the risk of mental illness? Besides genetic factors there are numerous environmental factors. These include parental neglect or abuse, bullying in school, workplace bullying and chronic stress, exposure to trauma and post trauma support, financial and other intense adversity, stressful life events, substance abuse, poor diet, lack of sleep and lack of social connection or support. Because 75% of mental illness presents by the time someone is 24-years-old, much preventive mental health care is important during childhood and young adulthood. For example, parents who are really struggling and overwhelmed need outside support to prevent any increased likelihood of neglect and abuse that will harm their child’s mental health.
The implementation of anti-bullying programming at schools to decrease bullying, as well as discussing bullying with your child and getting important support to stop any bullying is crucial. Children who are bullied are far more likely to develop anxiety and depression and this increased risk extends into their adulthood.
The world health organization has recognized “work burn out” as a mental health issue. Workplaces lose tremendous amounts of productivity to anxiety disorders and depression. Preventatively workplaces that have programming related to stress management and building resilience decrease the likelihood their employees will develop mental health problems.
As an individual there are a number of things that you can and should be doing preventatively as part of your lifestyle as a way to decrease the likelihood you will suffer with or relapse with a mental health issue. We know that diets high in fat and refined sugars (aka junk food) lead to general inflammation in the body and this inflammation leads to a decrease in specific brain proteins. This in turn leads to an increased stress response and a decrease in learning memory. Having a healthy diet matters to mental health across the life cycle.
We also know that exercise reduces anxiety and decreases the risk of depression. Exercise can be used both preventatively and as a help in treatment. Aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes multiple times per week is great preventive mental health care throughout the lifespan.
Sleep deprivation affects mental health adversely and it is cumulative. Getting a regular 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night is preventively healthy for your mind.
Substance abuse of various kinds increases the likelihood of other mental illness and makes most mental illnesses worse if they do occur. Avoiding drugs and more than mild alcohol use is important. But in addition, it appears that smoking correlates with a greater likelihood of suicidal thoughts. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug and the ups and downs of this addiction can affect mood as well.
A huge area of preventive mental health care has to do with the devastating impact of loneliness on people of all ages. Lack of social support and social connectedness increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety, as well as worsening the symptoms in someone already suffering. This is especially an issue for older adults, but it is a growing concern in young adults as well who are reporting growing struggles with loneliness. Efforts towards maintaining a social circle, talking to others on a regular basis about more than superficial things are vital. Staying involved in a particular community, such as a religious one, an activity based one, extended family, etc. can be good ways to increase your social connectedness. Volunteering is a way to enter a new community and build social connection with a mutual interest as well as reaping the mental health benefits of giving.
Lastly, but far from least, accruing coping mechanisms for managing stress and anxiety prevents a build up over time that can result in a mental health problem. Learning relaxation techniques that work for you, such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing and various forms of meditation that can be done on a regular basis help to manage building stress. Having trusted people in your life to talk to about how you are really feeling and who understand and appreciate the real you, helps you cope with ongoing stressors. When a difficult life event occurs or emotionally you are having more difficulty figuring out why and how to manage, seeing a therapist who can objectively help you sort out your situation and aid in managing your feelings is another available tool for coping.
Mental health researchers continue to look for other preventive measures that can help your brain to stay healthy over the course of your life. Stay tuned for future updates as the field is always making progress, but in the meanwhile implementing these strategies into your daily life can help you and your loved ones to keep your mind as healthy as possible.
This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.
Read more of our mental health coverage here.