I seem to be spending a lot of time over the past few months helping my patients manage through worsening mental health symptoms. While a large percentage of my patients suffer from insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, this year is just different. Between pandemics, politics, and all the other stressors we face in our busy lives, our systems are on overload. But what really concerns me are the statistics- dramatic increases in suicide rates (especially among our children and teens), significant increases in drug abuse and associated overdose deaths, and notable increases in anxiety and depression diagnoses in 2020. We’re not sleeping, not relaxing, not eating well, and not getting regular health care.
Our current system of healthcare often treats mental health issues as if they are either “in your head” or not related to anything else going on in the body. While we have come a long way from the Sanitariums of the early 1900’s, we continue to have a long way to go in recognizing and treating mental illness. I cannot tell you how many patients will avoid discussing mental health issues because they are somehow embarrassed and ashamed. You wouldn’t feel bad discussing your high blood pressure or diabetes with a healthcare provider, yet our society has and continues to treat mental illness as a separate not-to-be-openly-discussed “thing” that you must have been caused or are imagining it. Like all our body parts, the brain is an organ, and it too can have disease. And like other diseases, there are many treatment options available, from behavioral therapy to lifestyle modifications, pharmaceuticals, and nutraceuticals. Let me say it again- mental health disease is no different than other disease or health condition- it can be treated if diagnosed and addressed appropriately.
As a Functional Medicine provider, I recognize that ALL components of health (physical, emotional, spiritual) play an important role in mental health, and that mental health is critical to overall health. Functional Medicine considers all the components of health from a scientific, evidence based perspective- mind, body, and spirit- because the body is not a “silo” of organs that operate independently, but rather a complex system where interactions between all parts are needed for proper function. As an example, consider the gut-brain axis, and that serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) is “manufactured” in large part in your gut. An “unhappy” gut often translates to an “unhappy” mind. Another example is hormones- and not just sex hormones. Low or elevated hormone levels can strongly affect mood, and many dysfunctions in the body can affect hormone production. And if you suffer from chronic disease, mental health issues frequently arise. Studies also show that chronic mental health disease suppresses immune function- we sure don’t need that in the age of Covid! The complex inter-connection between mental and physiological health cannot be overstated!
So what are some steps you can take to either prevent or get help with mental health treatment?
- Monitor your emotions and the emotions of your loved ones- especially during stressful times such as these. Just like diabetics monitor their blood sugar and hypertensives monitor their blood pressure, it’s important to know how your emotions are tracking so that you can intervene before things get worse. Do you have less energy, are you more irritable, are strong negative emotions ruling your outlook, do you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with small things? As importantly- are you seeing changes in any of your loved ones- more isolation, behavioral changes, changes in friend groups, avoidance? If you have noticed a worsening change in yourself or your loved one, it may be time to take action. As with any illness, the earlier the intervention, the better the results. I strongly recommend against ignoring or ”toughing it out”, as failing to address mental health concerns can literally be life threatening. The holidays can be a difficult time of year, and statistics show a marked increase in depression and suicide during this time of year.
- While it might be stating the obvious, a new study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine concluded that anger is amplified with a lack of sleep. Anger also increases inflammation and reduces immune function- just a few impacts on the body… I think we can all agree that good immune function is critical, especially this year! While anger is a natural emotion and can be good, it can also be destructive to all aspects of our physical and emotional health. Anger that is “out of control”, vindictive, and meant to harm others isn’t helpful to anyone. Anger that is controlled and turned into appropriate action can actually be helpful. Remember what the Bible says- a gentle word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
- Anxiety and depression- if left untreated- can have a profound effect on overall health. Studies show us that chronic anxiety and depression can lead to a multitude of chronic diseases, so why not monitor those feelings, especially if you notice a change.
- Other negative emotions can affect us as well, especially around the holidays. Sadness, grief, loneliness, and a host of other negative emotions all can have profound effects on our overall health. It’s important to recognize these emotions and to seek help if overwhelmed by them.
- Take care of your overall health. Increased stress, poor sleep, poor dietary intake, and travel can have a profound effect on overall health and immune function- and that applies to mental health as well. As a Functional Medicine provider, I recognize that the best defense is a good offense- good nutrition, maintaining a strong immune system, and allowing time for relaxation and relationships are all key components to a healthy mind that are often ignored during the holidays.
- Don’t wait to get help. I know I keep stating this, but the earlier you intervene with any disease, the better the outcomes. Patients with mental health concerns are notorious for waiting to get help, thinking “this will pass” or believing it’s something wrong with them- somehow a sign of weakness. We now have much more advanced diagnostics to help us understand the origins of symptoms and even to determine how your unique genetic profile will help us to determine appropriate medications, if indicated. There are many treatment options, including therapy, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and dietary and lifestyle changes. Finding the right health care provider who will truly take the time to understand your unique health history and symptoms is the key to implementing the right treatment regimen and monitoring your health over time.
A word about pharmaceuticals…As a Functional Medicine provider, I believe there is much more to mental health treatment (or any disease treatment for that matter) than simply writing a prescription. That said, I do believe in the value of medications for treating mental health conditions in certain situations. While our goal is always a return to “homeostasis”, treatment can and often should involve prescription medications in the initial phase and with severe symptoms. And if you’ve tried multiple medications without good results, we can perform genetic testing to determine which medications will likely result in a better response- the value of personalized healthcare! I wouldn’t expect you to forego your blood pressure medication while working on dietary and lifestyle factors to reduce or eliminate symptoms, so why is it any different with mental health treatment? Untreated high blood pressure can be fatal, and so can untreated depression.
My hope and prayer is that if you are suffering from a mental health disease and it’s not improving, you will seek help and treatment. If you need help, please contact your healthcare provider. If you don’t have a healthcare provider or just want to chat in confidence, please contact our office at 904-373-0942. Be well and God Bless!
Useful Links & Resources:
Does Losing Sleep Unleash Anger?:
As above, so below: examining the interplay between emotion and the immune system.
Chronic Illness and Mental Health:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: