Don’t Overlook Your Mental Health

Portrait of a sad woman

As a surgeon, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to keep people’s bodies well – their hearts pumping, their kidneys filtering, their stomachs digesting. We all know that keeping our bodies in good, working order is essential to good health. But it’s crucial to remember that how we think and how we feel can have just as much to do with living a long and healthy life, if not more.

Mental health is often overlooked in medicine and in our society as a whole, yet nearly one in four Americans is affected by a mental health issue in any given year, and nearly everyone has a loved one who has been touched by mental illness. Sadly, only 38% of adults with a diagnosable mental health problem get the treatment they need. Many people with mental health disorders suffer for years unable or unwilling to seek help, often because there is a stigma that makes people think that problems like depression, anxiety, addiction or schizophrenia aren’t “real” or that they should be able to overcome them on their own. But this just isn’t true. Mental health problems are just as real and deserving of fast, effective treatment as physical medical problems, and no one is “to blame” for their illness.

This month, which is Mental Health Month, pause to check in with yourself and think about what you can do to support your own emotional wellbeing. Pay attention to any signs that might suggest you could be at risk for common mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Some of these symptoms can be easy to brush off, but ignoring them could just do more harm. Common symptoms of depression, for example, include feeling sad or down, losing interest in things you normally enjoy, trouble concentrating, disrupted sleep, changes in your weight or appetite, moving or fidgeting more or less than usual, feeling fatigued or low-energy, feeling guilty or worthless and thinking of death or suicide.

If you are in crisis, and especially if you’re having thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, seek help immediately. You can call a round-the-clock crisis center at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911. Don’t ever feel hopeless – treatment is effective, with 70-90% of people experiencing a significant improvement in symptoms and quality of life following treatment with therapy, medication or other types of support.

People with and without mental health disorders should make sure to take care of their mental health just as they would their physical health. Here are a few things that have been shown to give mental wellbeing a boost:

Surround yourself with positivity: Studies show that happy friends are more likely to keep you happy, too. In fact, one study found that people were 25% more likely to be happy if they had a happy friend living within a mile. Make a list of all the positive people in your life and reach out to them as much as you can. Strong social networks have also been linked to mental wellbeing.

Eat to be happy: Foods that are good for your body are also good for your mental health. Eating regular, balanced meals will help you feel your best. Also, limit your alcohol intake and never drink because you’re feeling sad or down – alcohol is a depressant and will likely just make you feel worse.

Dance: Dancing has been shown to ease depression, stress and fatigue, and could also boost self-esteem. Plus, the activity could help your body release natural feel-good chemicals like endorphins. One person dance parties are also allowed!

Get help: Never hesitate to seek professional help to help you work through and cope with feelings or thoughts you’re having trouble managing on your own. A doctor, social worker, therapist, psychologist or other medical or mental health professional should be able to help you find resources near you.