Ask a Health Care Professional – Mental Illness

By Diana Weber, M.D., Medical Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to stay informed about mental health, advocate for mental well-being and support those with mental illness. Mental health problems are pervasive in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of U.S. adults are affected by mental illness each year, and depression is the most common mental illness in older adults. While there is stigma surrounding mental health, it is helpful to think about mental health problems just as you would consider physical health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to our emotional, psychological and social well-being, which affects not only how we act but also how we think and feel. Problems in our mental health can affect our mood, thinking, and behavior, as well as how we handle stress and interact with others. Most of us go through periods of feeling sad, anxious, or blue, but when these feelings persist and interfere with our ability to function, it can become a mental illness. Common mental illnesses include mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders, addictive behaviors, and schizophrenia. Mental health problems can affect anyone, and it is very likely that you or someone you know is impacted by mental health issues.

What are the risk factors for developing mental illness?

Like most illnesses, mental illnesses are linked to both genetic and environmental factors that can put people at risk. People can develop mental illness at any stage in life. Children are at greater risk if they are exposed to maternal or perinatal conditions such as alcohol, drugs, or toxins. Exposure to adverse childhood events — such as homelessness, violence, abuse, food insecurity, or family conflict — can predispose individuals to mental illness or substance abuse. Additionally, people with a family history of mental illness or certain genetic abnormalities are at higher risk. Abnormalities in brain chemistry can lead to depression or other disorders. As we get older, life stressors such as divorce, financial difficulties, or the death of a loved one can result in anxiety or depression. Depression can worsen in times of loneliness. People who lack community support, friends, and healthy relationships are at higher risk. Even chronic medical conditions such as diabetes can increase the risk of mental illness.

What treatments are available for mental illness?

Treatment can include medications, therapy, or both. Sadly, reports indicate that more than half of people who suffer from mental illness do not receive treatment of any kind. This is unfortunate because many people with mood disorders respond well to treatment, and some recover completely. Therefore, the first step in treatment is to seek help. Family and friends can help their loved ones who may be suffering by encouraging them to get treatment, by providing emotional support, and by helping them get to appointments and therapy. Additionally, we can all help by treating people with mental illness respectfully, and most importantly, by not defining people by their mental illness. Mental health treatment is covered by insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid. There are community resources and support groups for mental health treatment as well. Keep in mind that with appropriate treatment, many people fully recover from mental illness.

Is there anything I can do to prevent mental illness?

Just like physical diseases, mental diseases cannot be prevented by any absolute way. However, you can take steps to decrease your risk of developing mental illnesses, just like you can make choices to better protect yourself from physical illnesses.

It is important to develop healthy habits, such as regular exercise, which has been demonstrated in many studies to improve mental health. In fact, regular exercise has been shown to be more effective for mild depression than medications. Getting the proper amount of sleep is key to staying mentally healthy. Maintaining a healthful and nutritious diet is also crucial. Many people find that their moods are affected by what they consume, so keeping track of how foods affect your mental health is a good habit. Avoiding excessive alcohol and illicit drugs can also help prevent mental illness.

In addition, it is very important to develop and maintain a supportive community. Friends, family, and faith communities can help you manage your health and may assist in keeping you mentally healthy.

How can I get care for myself if I have a mental illness?

Seeking treatment is the most important first step. Speak with your primary care provider, who can treat mental illness or refer you to a specialist. Get to know your symptoms so that you can avoid situations or people that trigger your symptoms. You should also have regular appointments with your provider to treat your physical health, as medical conditions can contribute to mental illness. If your provider recommends medications to treat your mental illness, consider them as you would medications for a heart condition or high blood pressure. Avoid attaching stigma to medications that are designed to help you feel mentally healthy.

If you have a health question that you would like to be considered in Ask a Health Care Professional, please email [email protected]. BCBSNM will select questions that may appear. Questions will not be personally answered. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of BCBSNM. This column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care.

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