What is mental health?
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood hence the importance of knowing how to identify mental health conditions for early treatment.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not the same. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental and social wellbeing.
A mental health disorder may affect how well you:
• Maintain personal or family relationships
• Function in social settings
• Perform at work or school
• Learn at a level expected for your age and intelligence
• Participate in other important activities
Cultural norms and social expectations also play a role in defining mental health disorders. There is no standard measure across cultures to determine whether a behavior is normal or when it becomes disruptive. What might be normal in one society may be a cause for concern in another. So, people should learn how to identify mental health conditions early enough to get proper treatment.
Why is mental health important for overall health?
Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. For example, depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness. Can your mental health change over time?
Yes, it’s important to remember that a person’s mental health can change over time, depending on many factors. When the demands placed on a person exceed their resources and coping abilities, their mental health could be impacted. For example, if someone is working long hours, caring for a relative, or experiencing economic hardship, they may experience poor mental health.
What causes mental illness?
There is no single cause for mental illness. A number of factors can contribute to risk for mental illness, such as:
• Early adverse life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse (for example, child abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence, etc.).
• Experiences related to other ongoing (chronic) medical conditions, such as cancer or diabetes.
• Biological factors or chemical imbalances in the brain.
• Use of alcohol or drugs.
• Having feelings of loneliness or isolation.
How to do a mental health check.
It’s a question most of us have likely asked ourselves, especially during the trying times, which distresses us, upends us, and disconnects us. Maybe you asked it when two bad days turned into four, or when you lost something, or someone, and the grief never abated. Maybe you asked it when melancholy edged toward hopelessness, when you grew tired of treading water, when you inhabited the same body but no longer felt like the same self.
People are often told to check in with others when they notice someone struggling. “Just reach out” we say. But what about reaching in? Mental health experts say everyone should perform regular mental health checks to assess their own well-being. There’s a process for determining if you are okay and it’s not unlike what you would do if you were concerned about someone you love.
It’s sort of in some way shifting this mindset of what questions would I ask my friend if I was worried about them and then using that on yourself and this is how you can perform personal health mental check:
Find some quiet place.
It can be hard to listen to what our brains are telling us when we’re working, caring for others or distracted. A mental health expert says to do a mental health check, you need quietness.
“We’re so used to multi-tasking that we don’t really give ourselves space to sit down and reflect,” expert says. “Scheduling that time for yourself is going to be an important component.”
Start with the big question.
An important measure of well-being is whether you’re able to function in daily life.
“One of the biggest indicators is whether the person is really having trouble doing their day-to-day life,” Expert says. “Are you able to fulfill your role as a parent, a teacher, a professional, a guardian?”
If you’re really struggling in domains that you previously weren’t, that’s a sign things are off the track.
Look at your feelings and habits.
No one’s baseline normal is the same, so experts say it’s important to look for changes in your mood. Questions you can ask yourself:
• How have my behaviors changed?
• How have my feelings changed?
• Do I still find joy in the things that once brought me joy?
• Am I being irritable or snapping at people?
• Am I really down more than I usually am?
• Do I find that I’m catastrophizing more than I usually do?
• Am I avoiding people?
Also consider the duration of your symptoms. Everyone has bad days. But experts say from a diagnostic point of view, if you’re feeling down for longer than two weeks, that’s cause for concern and may mean it’s time to seek professional help.
Look at your body.
Our bodies try and communicate when our brains are not well. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. You should ask yourself:
• How am I sleeping?
• Am I eating well?
• Am I grinding my teeth?
• Do I feel muscle tension in my neck or shoulders?
• Am I being active the way I usually am?
Don’t wait until things are out of hand.
In a perfect world, people would do these check-ins even when they weren’t struggling. It’s much easier to prevent a crisis than it is, to climb out of one.
The way in which we see a physical doctor even when we’re feeling okay, just to make sure that everything’s still going right, is kind of how we need to be approaching our emotional wellbeing as well and how to identify mental health conditions before things get out of hand.
When is an evaluation or treatment needed?
Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general, however, professional help might be needed if you experience:
• Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns.
• An inability to cope with problems or daily activities.
• Feeling of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities.
• Unusual or “magical” thinking.
• Excessive anxiety.
• Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy.
• Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others.
• Substance misuse.
• Extreme mood swings.
• Excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior.
Many people who have mental health disorders consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life or avoid treatment out of shame or fear. If you’re concerned about your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice.
Consult your primary care doctor or make an appointment with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional. It may be important for you to find a professional who is familiar with your culture or who demonstrates an understanding of the cultural and social context that’s relevant to your experiences and life story.
With appropriate support, you can know how to identify mental health conditions and receive appropriate treatment, such as medications or counseling.