Mental Health Awareness Day Should Be Every Day!
About 44 million American adults experience a serious mental-health condition in a given year, including 46% of teenagers, and 13% of children—but those numbers have been blown out of the water by the exponential increase in mental-health disorders amidst the pandemic of 2020. What’s more, according to a report in the October 9 Journal of the American Medical Association, there is mounting evidence that a “second wave” of spiking mental-health and substance-abuse disorders is “imminent” in COVID’s wake, further overwhelming the already-stressed mental-health system, including access problems for some of the most vulnerable people.
Mental illness affects people of all ages, races, religion, and income but, sadly, less than half of those who struggle with mental-health conditions ever get treated for them. Just as diabetes and heart disease are medical disorders, mental illness is a physical illness of the brain. Harvard Health reports that anxiety alone has been implicated in several chronic physical conditions, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions. So why does the stigma of mental illness being a personal “weakness” still play so prominently in our society?
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says the answer, in part, is a lack of understanding and sometimes fear, as reflected in the way people routinely belittle mental health and make light of it. You’ll commonly hear people say things like, “I literally had a panic attack” or “She’s so bipolar” or “He’s a little OCD.” Those who actually struggle with these sometimes debilitating mental-health issues take messages from these off-the-cuff comments that they should keep their battles to themselves.
The repercussions of the stigma around mental health and the dramatic increase in the numbers of people suffering from it in 2020 are a couple of the reasons that we believe it’s crucial to talk about it. While there are times of the year that mental-health awareness is center stage, we don’t think that’s enough. We believe that Mental Health Awareness Day should be every day.
On the Front Lines
People’s City Mission (pcmlincoln.org) CEO Pastor Tom Barber said while he believes most Nebraskans are aware that mental health is a growing problem in our society, he doubts that they full comprehend its devastating impacts on those who suffer from mental illness and doesn’t believe they understand the lack of resources available to deal with this social dilemma. Pastor Tom says mental-health disorders have long been a growing problem in Lincoln, and the number of people at the Mission with mental illness has spiked since COVID hit.
“It is a very serious and growing problem for Lincoln,” he said. “When I first came to the Mission in 2004, issues with mental health accounted for about 5% of the guests staying here. This year, it accounts for over 20% of our clientele. I have directly observed COVID contributing to the stress and despair of our clients who suffer from mental-health issues, though we have no way to determine if this virus is a primary factor in causing homelessness due to mental health—but there is a shortage of mental-health services needed to deal with this growing population.”
People’s City Mission primarily provides immediate relief—in the form of food, clothing, and shelter—to homeless individuals struggling with mental-health issues. They also help those clients find needed community resources, such as counseling, medications, and permanent housing. Unfortunately, there remains a stigma around these disorders—the answer to which is education.
“I believe we need more promotion of this cause to our community,” Pastor Tom said, “and the public’s continued education could help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Creating a culture of care and acceptance for those suffering with mental health is the best way for the community to help!”
According to Krystal Jackson, PA-C for Access Family Medicine (accessfamilymedicine.com), COVID has significantly affected our mental health, thanks to increased stress, worry, and anxiety related to financial security, personal safety, isolation, and loss of interpersonal interactions. She said it’s important to recognize within yourself when you are struggling and ask for help. You can start by talking to your primary care provider, who can help refer you to counseling services and prescribe medications when needed.”
“The cornerstone of mental health is counseling,” Krystal said, “helping us to navigate our thoughts, emotions, fears, and anxieties. Sometimes medications are needed to help us through these seasons, as they can help us to clear the ‘clouds of chaos’ in especially difficult times to open that space for counseling.”
Pivoting with Change
With the burgeoning press of mental illness upon us, counseling is a crucial piece of the puzzle for many Nebraskans living with or newly struggling with mental-health issues. Although we cannot fully evaluate the impact of COVID on mental health in the Lincoln community, Affinity Community Counseling (www.affinitycommunitycounseling.com) Outpatient Therapist Abby Alger, LHMP (licensed mental health professional) said some common symptoms of mental-health illness have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Those include anxiety, frustration and anger, sadness and depression, and struggles with relationships with close friends and families caused by differing opinions about topics of the day. The repercussions of everything happening in 2020 have forced a change in counseling focus, too.
“Much of the work I am doing now revolves around creating appropriate boundaries to help people maintain balance in their lives,” Abby said. “Sometimes those boundaries are for social-media use, work/life balance—especially with more people working from home—and setting boundaries in relationships. People in the helping professions are creative and used to pivoting to meet challenges head-on, and this has been no different. Seemingly overnight, we adjusted and made a way to still create access for our clients.”
One of the great challenges during 2020 has been that therapists also are experiencing the same stressors as their clients, which gives them a unique perspective in sessions with clients, but also means that they must ensure they are caring for themselves, as well.
“Therapists are experiencing burnout and fatigue at high rates right now,” Abby said. “As winter encroaches, we know that many will continue to struggle or deteriorate in functioning, and we will be needed more than ever. Counseling clients aren’t just struggling with mental health, either, but also are facing reductions in employment or even job losses, which sometimes means that getting the help they need is no longer a necessity because they need to feed their families.”
A Matter of Balance
Mental health is directly related to physical health, so exercise is a crucial part of maintaining or improving your mental health. Valiant Fitness (www.facebook.com/FitnessValiant) works to help clients achieve the physical health piece of the puzzle.
“At Valiant Fitness, we focus on balancing the body through exercise, proper breath work, holistic nutrition, stress management, and more,” said Valiant Certified Personal Trainer and Balanced Body Pilates Instructor Justin Wittler. “Our services compliment the important work for mental health that can be achieved through therapy, and we always seek the root cause of what is keeping someone out of balance. Overall, it will take a large, concentrated effort to address the growing issues with mental- health issues—one that looks at all aspects of good mental health.”
Two of those aspects are fitness and nutrition. On the fitness side, Justin explained, simply getting blood-flow going can make a tremendous difference in people’s moods as endorphins are released. In particular, strength training, walking outside, and basic stretching and breath work can be crucial for individuals struggling with mental-health issues. On the nutrition side, focusing on eating enough protein, healthy fat, and vegetables from any real food sources supports the balance of blood sugar and hormones. In particular, healthy fats from whole foods, including avocado, olive oil, egg yolks, coconut oil, are building blocks for adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones. When our hormones are off, our entire system is off.
“When it comes to fitness, having access to trainers who are aware of any mental-health issues their clients may be experiencing is key, so that the trainer can adjust the workout to suit specific needs,” Justin said. “As a personal example, several years ago, I had a heavy strength workout planned for a client, but when she walked through the door and started telling me about the stress of her day and how overwhelmed she felt, I changed the plan. We took a walk outside, and to this day, that client still remembers that appointment as one of her favorites.”
In an effort to help clients improve their nutrition quality, Valiant doesn’t recommend another “diet” that triggers guilt and shame when you break it. Rather, they focus on holistic nutrition based on real, whole foods as a template to follow for good nutrition. A great partner to nutrition, physical fitness, and releasing some increased anxiety—as a piece of the overall puzzle—is massage. 5 Elements Massage & Spa (www.facebook.com/5elementsmassage) cares for their clients with healing in mind.
“Massages are a great many things to a great many people,” said Owner Erin McLenon. “They are pain control for so me and preventive healthcare for others. Some just need to take care of themselves for a day, where others need a routine once a month to turn off their brains and relax. Other times, it is an alternative way to manage acute issues from daily life. Depending on the issue, clients can choose fix-it or relaxation work, whatever works best for them.
Shrouded in Stigma
Research indicates that one in five Americans experience mental illness, with some 60 million affected in a given year—only 43% of whom actually receive treatment. Sadly, much of that is because mental illness is shrouded in a stigma that physical health is not, a stereotype that has persisted over time. Choices Treatment Center (www.choicestreatmentcenter.com) Director Deb Hammond said the No. 1 reason people don’t reach out for help is embarrassment, followed by time, fear, and money or lack of insurance benefits that would allow for counseling.
Clouding the entire picture is people’s poor understanding of mental illness, to the extent that they dismiss depression as feeling down and lazy, or anxiety as being over-worried, when the fact is that these symptoms actually could represent cases of clinical mental illness. The risk of downplaying the warning signs can be dangerous.
“There is absolutely no shame in having an addiction or mental-health issue,” Deb said. “If people continue to ignore signs, their condition can become far more dire and they begin to believe the misinformation and false stereotypes that they hear repeated so often. It’s important to seek help as early as possible, and we’re here to help without any judgment. I would encourage anyone who might be suffering with depression, anxiety, stress, or anger-management issues or anyone experiencing increased substance use or gambling to reach out to the community services available and keep calling until their needs are met.”
Youth at the Helm
The simplest way to reduce or eliminate the stigma around mental health is to talk about it. Having good support systems in place and providing open lines of nonjudgmental communication between family, friends, and community members makes a real difference. Given the increased awareness of mental-health in recent years, Daring Minds Therapy, LLC (daringmindstherapy.info) therapist Erica Schroeder says today’s youth just might be the ones to guide a change in the attitudes associated with mental-health.
“I believe a majority of middle-school-aged teens and high-school students have better awareness of what mental health is and, in some cases, it can even be identified as a form of status,” Erica said. “I often hear teens identify with peers by making statements such as, ‘Who’s your therapist?’, followed by sharing of therapeutic tools they have learned. On the other side of that, older generations are not as aware of, or believe in, mental-health services because their core family values are primarily associated with strength and/or being guarded, which do not correlate well with therapy.”
Change is difficult for people, too, and the pandemic and growing number of reported COVID cases and increased need for social distancing may increase people’s existing anxieties and other mental-health challenges—as it does for the therapists working with them.
“In some instances, the COVID pandemic exacerbated clients’ pre-existing conditions,” Erica said. “Any time there are major life changes for people who are already struggling, you can expect increased difficulties. Addressing ongoing difficulties and finding a new normal for any person is key to decreasing some of the symptoms associated with the pandemic. Keep in mind that therapists are also experiencing stressors, both personally and professionally, associated with COVID. Being safe for our families, ourselves, and being able to provide the best possible care for all of our clients is a difficult balance to maintain.”
A Positive Mindset
While never a substitute for mental-health counseling or therapy, life coaching can supplement professional mental-health services by helping people refocus and improve their mindset to a more positive-facing one. Leadership Harbor (www.leadershipharbor.com) does just that.
“To be very clear, we are not doctors or trained counselors or therapists, but we are really great at helping with people’s mindsets,” said Kris Peterson, a certified leadership, parenting, family, and youth coach with Leadership Harbor and an executive director with The John Maxwell Team. “We don’t focus on the negatives, but on the positives and the potential for moving forward. Of course, if someone is truly in need of therapy or counseling, we want them to get that. Not doing so is like not seeing a cardiologist when you have a heart problem. Your mental health is as important to your entire body as anything else!”
Kris said she has seen COVID have mixed effects on people, with one of the biggest issues being people’s realization that it isn’t going away: “People need people. We’ve gotten to a point where many people are feeling that deep desire to be around other people, and I think that will get harder over the holidays when everyone really wants to be with their loved ones. There is likely to be a lot of stress and anxiety over that.”
One of Leadership Harbor’s services—a FREE one—focuses on suicide and bully prevention but its results reach much father. It’s called CALM, which is an acronym for stay Calm, Ask questions, and actively listen, Lead, and Move, and it helps people assess a situation and find a comfortable space in it. Leadership Harbor offers CALM to anyone, at no cost, because they consider it so essential, and it inspires positive changes.
“When you’re in the middle of something and something is holding you back from getting 100% from it, we can help you think about some things you can do to reinvigorate yourself by changing your approach,” Kris said. “We want to help people feel empowered, develop confidence, and experience all the good that comes with that process.”
While Kris believes that awareness of mental-health issues and the need for treatment of them has improved, the question is whether the common person realizes that they might be having issues that they can’t just move on from alone. Getting help isn’t the part that might be most difficult. Realizing you need it might be even more challenging.
We can all play a role in improving mental health by becoming educated about it. If you or someone you know is struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to some of the professional service providers featured here.