In these times of a global health crisis and more and more everyday stressors piling on us left and right, everyone could benefit from a guide on how to improve mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness each year. This number is only marginally better (1 in 25) when it comes to severe mental illness.
Many would say that mental health is not all that important. To be a contributing member of society, it is far more essential to be physically healthy and able. However, mental health problems can affect a person’s way of life just as much as any physical illness. Mental illness symptoms can be so debilitating that a person can no longer work or go to school, socialize, or create a positive, thriving atmosphere for themselves.
Mental health and wellbeing are every bit as important as physical health, and those who suffer from mental health issues could greatly benefit from seeking professional care.
Barriers to Mental Health Treatment
Even though mental health issues are so prevalent, two-thirds of those suffering from them never seek medical treatment. There are many reasons why, but we will outline the most common barriers to looking for mental health professionals.
Stigma and Discrimination
Societal stigma and discrimination towards individuals suffering from mental health conditions are still present. One of the main reasons people avoid seeking therapy is that they fear ridicule and rejection from their peers, even their closest family, and friends. In some places, mental illness is treated as shameful and something to be hidden at all costs.
Of course, this cannot be further than the truth. A mental health condition is no different than a physical one. Having depression and anxiety is not more of the patient’s fault than having high blood pressure or diabetes.
Healthcare services are incredibly expensive in the United States. In 2019, there was still 8% of the US population that had no health insurance to speak of. Even those that do often have limited coverage that doesn’t include mental health services. Not to mention that people with a mental illness are more likely to lose their insurance because they may have a more challenging time holding down a job.
If the biggest obstacle you’re facing on your path to getting the right mental health treatment is finances, several services might help:
- Mental Health America offices in your area
- US Department of Veterans Affairs, if you are an eligible veteran (877-222-8387)
- Right Way Recovery, an organization that will find you an affordable mental health and substance abuse program no matter the budget
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (800-662-4357)
Mental Health System
Lastly, the healthcare system can be quite convoluted and confusing. In particular, mental health services are fragmented, and a patient has to jump through many hoops before they get an appointment with a mental health professional. It is getting better in recent years, but there are still many system barriers in the way.
The organizations and services mentioned above will also help you untangle the mental health system’s administrative knot. They will assist you in making all the necessary appointments and advise you on what to do next to start improving your mental health as soon as possible.
Mental Health Conditions
The first step to mental wellbeing is finding out what mental illness or illnesses you’re suffering from. Only professionals trained and certified in mental health care can help you: psychiatrists, psychologists, and general practitioners.
There are several different classes of mental health conditions you may get diagnosed with, including but not limited to:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Psychotic disorders (including the schizophrenia spectrum)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Gender dysphoria
- Substance abuse disorders
- Personality disorders
- Trauma- and stressor-related disorders, and more
How to Get Diagnosed
- Talk to your primary care provider
Whether you see a GP, a family medicine doctor, or a different type of medical professional, make sure to talk to them about your mental health symptoms. Even though GPs have the ability to diagnose you, they will more likely refer you to a mental health specialist who will examine you further.
Your primary care provider may perform a physical exam and order lab tests to rule out physical causes of your symptoms. After that, you can request an appointment with a psychotherapist.
- Prepare for the appointment
To help your therapist, prepare a list of things, such as your symptoms, traumatic events from the past, current stressors in life, etc. Even though you will be primarily talking about your mental and emotional wellbeing, make sure to mention any physical conditions you may have, as well as what medication, herbal remedies, vitamins, or supplements you’re taking.
Take this time to think of questions to ask your therapist. Feel free to ask about the type of mental illness you have, what the treatment for it looks like, how long it will take, what you can do to boost your mental health, and similar. If you wish to learn more about your condition, ask the therapist about websites or any additional reading they recommend.
- Be open and honest
During the appointment, the therapist will ask questions. They will probably want to know how long ago the symptoms started, whether anyone around you has noticed them, how they affect your daily life, if there is anything that worsens your condition, etc.
Answer as truthfully as you can. Unlike other doctors who can go off physical examinations and laboratory tests, therapists only know what you tell them. Don’t be ashamed of revealing information that you’ve previously never told anyone. Psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t there to judge you. They will do their best to improve your mood and emotional well-being while addressing important factors in your life.
Once your therapist diagnoses you, they will work with you to come up with a treatment plan. What type of plan will depend on the severity of your illness and what you’re comfortable with.
During your treatment, you may work with only one therapist, but you may also need a team of people to support you. This team could include your primary care provider, psychotherapist, social worker, your closest family and friends, and others who will help you handle the worst of your condition.
Individual talking therapy sessions will likely be arranged, and you might even get prescribed some medication, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, mood stabilizers, and similar. The cornerstone of improving your mental health is attending these sessions regularly and being disciplined in taking your medication.
Other than these clinical measures that will help you, you can also make lifestyle changes to relieve or eliminate your symptoms.
How to Improve Mental Health
No pill will magically solve all of your problems. As you’re working through your issues with licensed therapists, you should also try some of these practices that will bring you peace of mind and might help you gain a new perspective in life.
- Be physically active
Countless studies have shown that exercise has a dramatically positive effect on the mind and body. It has a crucial role in reducing stress and releasing endorphins – hormones that alleviate pain in your body and make you feel happier. Exercise also helps in setting goals and challenges that help you stay motivated.
If you have never been much of an athlete, don’t worry. You don’t have to get a gym membership card and start sweating on a treadmill day in and day out. Choose activities you enjoy – yoga, dancing, swimming, tennis, jogging, etc. Even simple walking for at least half an hour a day is enough to boost your mental wellbeing and make you feel better about yourself.
- Connect with others
Even though being social is difficult in a global pandemic where social distancing saves lives, it is still important to keep in touch with your loved ones. Healthy relationships create a sense of belonging and self-worth and allow you to share your positive experiences and support others. In turn, you also get emotional support from other people, which is invaluable in mental health treatment.
Humans are social beings. Take a little bit of time each day to call up a friend or family member and ask them how they’re doing. If they’re up for it, you could even invite them to go on walks together. Two birds, one stone!
- Learn new skills
Research suggests that when people learn new skills, their self-esteem grows, and they introduce meaning and purpose into their lives. Plus, it is another excellent way to connect with others!
If you’re employed, look for new responsibilities or opportunities that will help you develop new skills. These new skills might even lead to a promotion somewhere down the line.
Suppose you’re more interested in new hobbies. In that case, you can try so many of them: new cooking recipes, DIY projects (building furniture or decoration pieces, putting together bicycles, motorcycles, or cars, etc.), new languages, practical skills (plumbing, gardening, flower arranging, website design, programming languages), writing a blog, learning to paint, and many more.
- Practice Mindfulness
In this fast-paced world, it is easy to stop noticing what’s happening around you. It is easy to get too caught up in your head and thoughts and not notice the sunset or the patter of rain on the window or a cute dog wagging its tail at you. Practicing mindfulness brings you out of your head and into the world and encourages you to notice your body sensations, feelings, thoughts, and happenings in your surroundings.
To be mindful, all you need to do is press the pause button every once in a while. Stop what you’re doing and ask yourself: what am I thinking? What is my body doing? What is going on around me?
You can also set aside some time for mindfulness practice. It doesn’t have to be anything more than sitting in silence and taking stock of sensations. But it can also turn into yoga or meditation if you’d like it to. Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques included in these practices help enhance mindfulness.
- Practice gratitude
You can find at least three things to be grateful for at the end of each day. Practicing gratitude creates a more positive outlook on life. The human brain is wired to focus on the negative. Focusing on the positives instead will lead to more appreciation for what you have and what you’d like to hold onto in the future.
At the same time, don’t hold back in expressing this gratitude. Let the people around you know how much they mean to you. Give back to the community that supports you and to those who are not as fortunate. Nurture a caring, compassionate environment for improving mental health.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental and emotional health.
The first thing would be to recognize the symptoms of a mental illness and ask for help. You don’t have to consult a doctor right away. It can be a friend, family member, teacher, social worker, a member of the clergy – anyone you trust to help you get better.
Improving mental health cannot come without an accurate mental illness diagnosis. Through conversation and a series of questions, a psychiatrist or psychologist will be able to assess what your condition is and how to treat it. The therapy you receive should be individualistic, tailored to your needs and comfort levels.
Alongside professional help, you may also try some tips to boost your mental health in your everyday life. It can be an exercise to relieve stress, bonding with other people, learning new skills to challenge yourself, and practicing mindfulness and gratitude to understand that there is good in your life that should be cherished.
You may not feel instantly better. It may take some time for all the efforts to start taking effect. But you shouldn’t give up – on the other side of the climb are better concentration, increased productivity, stronger interpersonal relationships, and a life filled with purpose.
If you need help in getting there or have any questions regarding mental health, please reach out to Road to Recovery for more information.