The beginning of a new year marks the chance to make resolutions, to set goals for ourselves for the next 365 days – like more stable finances, travel, organization, and the ever-present health goals. Getting physically healthy tends to make it on a lot of people’s new year’s resolutions lists. Those resolutions, though, have a inclination to end at our head, so to speak. But good mental health is just as important a goal as good physical health. Sure, in a lot of ways, it’s much easier to focus on physical health. There are quantifiable numbers by which to measure our progress; we can set specific and tangible goals. Mental health is, in some ways, a little more abstract. What do I set my goal as? To feel happier? To be less stressed? How do I really measure something like that, and – more importantly – how do I get there?
In an often mentally taxing time of year for many, those questions have been on our mind. But luckily, the answers aren’t totally elusive. Let’s start with the way we think about mental health. Kathleen Abbott, MSW, LMHC of WellSpring Counseling and Health says that we don’t always have the right attitude toward mental health, “Although we have come a long way, there is still a negative perception around mental health issues. People often think a person with depression can just try harder, think positive or exercise to feel better. Insurance companies do not always offer the same coverage for mental health conditions as other medical conditions which may present a challenge for people to get the care they need.”
Dr. Vanessa Townsend of Townsend & Associates breaks mental health stigmas into two types – social and self-perceived. “Stigma has arisen out of fear and lack of understanding, and this is reflected in the way mental health is then portrayed in the media, further deepening the stigma,” she says. “This has continued even with more knowledge of the biochemical and genetic nature of different mental health issues. Individuals may then internalize society’s message and feel bad about feeling bad. Fighting these stigmas matter because they lead to isolation and shame and prevent people from seeking treatment. As a result of delaying treatment, individuals’ symptoms become worse and more difficult to treat.”
So clearly, the first step is to break the stigma – knowing that there is no shame that comes with mental health issues, being willing to reach out to a support system yourself or be a support system for others, and understanding that these issues are complex and our perception of them isn’t always accurate. One in four people will, at some point in their lifetime, suffer from a mental health issue, but help is out there.
When it comes to the more serious mental health issues, recognizing the warning signs is essential on the road to treatment. Many of the more significant mental health issues begin in late adolescence and early adulthood – with signs like addiction, avoidance or fears, suicidal thoughts, decreased ability to function, major sleep or appetite changes, difficulty perceiving reality (in which a person experiences and senses things that do not exist), confused thinking and difficulties understanding or relating to others, extreme mood changes, and sustained period of feeling excessively sad or worried/fearful accompanied by behavioral changes. Noticing these signs in close friends, relatives, children, or yourself can be the first step in healing and finding help.
But even though the majority of us will not suffer from a serious mental health issue, caring for our own mental health is key and goes beyond just having some “self care” days where we relax with a face mask and a good book. Kathleen Abbott believes that transformation begins with the renewing of the mind and says to start by creating healthy habits and boundaries to not only protect but enhance your health, and she encourages finding a good support system of people you trust and rely on. “Most people will experience loss or stress or demands in the future,” she says, “but if there is a secure and stable foundation, coping and recovering will be faster.”
Dr. Townsend echoes the advice and urges finding a network of support with different friends meeting different needs. She also advises starting with physical health by getting regular exercise and eating right as both of these can act as treatment for concerns like anxiety, depression, and stress. Engaging in activities we love is also important as these reinforce our feelings of purpose and accomplishment. “Remember, too, that ‘feeling’ our emotions is important,” she says. “Emotions are crucial to letting us know what is or isn’t healthy in our lives and allow us to make changes as necessary. Keeping emotions hidden from others and ourselves only increases internal discomfort and keeps us isolated with our pain. Finally, be good to yourself. I often remind people (and myself) to treat ourselves with the same kindness, compassion, and forgiveness as we would our best friend.”
Implementing these changes into our lives won’t always be easy or straightforward, but it will create a strong and steady foundation for improving our mental health. And our road to good mental health shouldn’t be walked alone. Besides that support network, it’s never a bad idea to seek professional help even for concerns like stress or anxiety. “Sometimes just two or three sessions will be helpful and enable better understanding of self and others as well identifying coping skills,” says Kathleen.
“We would never tell someone not to treat a cold but only pneumonia, and emotional issues are no different,” says Dr. Townsend. “A trained mental health professional can offer assistance and a perspective that is different from that of our friends and family – which, of course, are also very valuable, just different.”
As we focus on improving our own mental health, it’s also important to remember to be a good support system for those around us. This starts with something as simple as listening without judgment. Even if you don’t agree with what they’re telling you, nonjudgmental listening shows them respect and reminds them of their importance to you. Next, offer support by asking what they need at that moment and offering it, if you can. “If you can” is the operative phrase there. As Dr. Townsend advises, know your limits and encourage them to seek professional help. You can still be by their side as they get healthy.
Mental health is a heavy subject and mental health issues are complex, but wellness doesn’t have to feel insurmountable. As the stigmas surrounding the issue are slowly eroded, the solutions and treatments grow ever more effective. Whether you’re facing a serious mental health concern, struggling with feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression, or merely want to be more self-aware and self-focused as the new year begins, help is out there and healing is attainable.