May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it cannot be denied that mental health has become a focal point of many broader discussions in our state and country over the last few years. There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the state of mental health in North Carolina and beyond. According to Mental Health America, approximately 1 in 5 adults in our state are experiencing a mental illness.
Mental illness used to be surrounded by significant stigma, as something that people had a tough time understanding. There was a misconception that mental health concerns or illness could happen to “others” but not you or your family. For better or worse, this lack of understanding is becoming a thing of the past. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a myriad of issues and mental health was certainly one of them. Isolation, fear of sickness, actual sickness, and loss were universal reasons that people across the globe came to understand what it was like to feel anxious or depressed. For those not doing well with their mental health, their symptoms tended to worsen over the course of the pandemic. And for those who did not have mental health symptoms before the pandemic, many began to experience these symptoms. Now that the world has seemingly picked up where it left off, many are still left with a feeling that things are not quite how they used to be before the pandemic. Mental health exists on a continuum and depends on several factors including, but not limited to, life circumstances, genetics, zip code, trauma, and resilience. Today, you may find yourself at a point on the continuum of mental wellbeing that you did not anticipate.
Recognizing the Signs
It can be difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder. Research shows that it can take upwards of ten years from the onset of symptoms to beginning treatment (NAMI) This common delay in receiving treatment, for whatever reason, makes it critical that we begin to recognize in ourselves and in our loved ones when we might need a little extra support.
People often miss these symptoms because they manifest physically such that they land in their primary care office wondering why they have periods of racing heartbeats or daily headaches. Gastrointestinal upset and even difficulty breathing can be physical symptoms of moving towards the illness side of that mental health continuum. This is not to say that these symptoms are always indicative of mental health concerns, but to consider that possibility when taking in the bigger context of a person’s life.
|Stomach pain||Back Pain||Fatigue||Poor hygiene|
|Stomach upset||Headaches||Weight changes||Repetitive tics|
Other symptoms might be less surprising, such as feelings of sadness for two weeks or more, or an increase in drinking or using substances, often to self-medicate or escape the thoughts that might be upsetting. So, what does a person do when they notice these in themselves or a loved one?
“I knew I was struggling when I had several weeks when I would finish work for the day and just wanted to go straight to sleep to get the day over with and go to the next one. There was nothing that I looked forward to or found joy in, and I wanted time to pass me by.”
“I was so fixated on my family’s safety, to an extreme level. I would panic when they would go to school and work and could not sleep at night thinking of all the ways I needed them to be safe. My body and mind were on edge 24/7.”
“I could feel myself being reactive and irritable towards my friends, coworkers, and partner. I was so annoyed with everyone. I just wanted to be alone. Then I would feel terribly guilty and try to re-engage, only to find myself so irritable again with no emotional energy to give to my relationships.”
Conversations about coping and toolboxes are often found in a therapist’s office, but there is no reason those conversations cannot be had among your support system, including friends, family, and colleagues. True connection with others makes a difference in our lives.
What do you do when you start feeling not quite yourself? When you find yourself worrying about a bunch of stuff or feel like a lead balloon and can’t quite get out of bed? These are the conversations that can help you feel validated about your emotional experience and prevent the slide down the continuum towards more severe mental health challenges. Connection is one of the best protective factors for managing and mitigating mental health concerns.
What could some of those tools or coping strategies be to help you stay in the mental wellness part of the mental health continuum?
- Keeping with the idea of whole person health, often strategies that ground a person in their body can be very helpful. Research has shown that getting into nature and getting outside can really provide a myriad of cognitive and psychological benefits. Walking, stretching, simply moving our bodies can also be extremely helpful as a coping tool.
- Developing a sense of connection either through personal relationships or volunteering can be helpful.
- Setting very realistic and achievable goals can be the first step towards deciding how to find what works for you.
Of course, these are techniques for when you just notice a slide into worsening mental health. If symptoms become more serious then additional support like talk therapy and medication may be in order. Many people are caught off guard when their mental health takes a hit, and they find themselves in what we would call a clinical distress category. A clinical level of distress is when symptoms impair functioning, such as mental health symptoms disrupting your work or home life. Having that level of disruption in your life indicates that professional support is needed. However, we do not want to wait until we are feeling that bad to start taking steps to take care of our mental health.
In fact, as much as exercise and nutrition have become integrated into conversations about our overall health, mental wellbeing management should become a part of that conversation as well. Let’s start talking about how we take care of ourselves and when we need additional support and help reduce the prejudice and discrimination that often still exists if professional support, such as therapy and evaluation for medication, is still needed.
In celebration of mental health awareness month, as licensed therapists ourselves, we will be sharing our insights into the bits and pieces that can help support mental wellness for the rest of the month and hope you will join our conversation.