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Mental health tools apply to everyone

| May 21, 2020 1:00 AM

With physical illness, we can learn the hard way what happens if we wait until things are dire to do something about it. Ignore symptoms too long and any action may come too late to do much good.

Why treat mental symptoms differently? The mind is part of the body, as important as any organ.

May is Mental Health Month.

According to Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association), one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health condition right now. Half of all Americans will have one at some point in their lifetime.

With hundreds of different conditions symptoms obviously vary, but the MHA describes four stages to indicate when to take things seriously and get help:

Stage 1 — Mild symptoms are there, but functioning at home, work or school is still doable, if not as easy. Still, there’s a sense that something isn’t right.

Stage 2 — Symptoms are more frequent and start to interfere. Keeping up is getting harder.

Stage 3 — Relapses, recurring episodes, and serious life disruption occurs. You may feel you’re losing control.

Stage 4 — Symptoms become extreme, prolonged or persistent and jeopardize life functions, often risking a crisis such as unemployment, hospitalization, homelessness, or incarceration.

Professional help has no equal, especially before things get too far. Psychologists and the MHA say there are also tools anyone can use to help prevent and cope with mental struggles.

The theme of this year’s awareness month is “Tools 2 Thrive:”

Own your feelings: Giving yourself the time and permission to identify feelings and talk it out with someone you trust, or journaling, can purge related anxiety and provide release, as well as increase self-awareness.

Bottling them up tends to backfire.

Find the positive: No, we’re not talking about just “bucking up.” Everyone experiences loss, whether of a person, relationship, job, dream, home … Knowing you’re not alone helps. according to WebMD data, 60 percent have experienced major loss in the past three years, and two-thirds had physical symptoms along with it.

Getting by and finding the positive in life again is made easier by (1) seeing your endurance and experiences as strength; (2) learning from others who’ve been through it, via support groups or friendships; (3) allowing yourself to find opportunity (new relationships, careers, etc.); (4) honoring your loss, but doing things you enjoy (without guilt).

Eliminate toxic influences: Easier said than done sometimes, but if eliminating isn’t possible, limiting exposure and adjusting reactions certainly are. Emotional abuse from a partner, family member, boss, coworker or friend, especially when cumulative, can wreak havoc on well-being. Controllers and manipulators can make us feel weak, subpar, or at fault, often in a way that’s difficult to pin down or describe to others.

If someone routinely makes you feel bad about yourself, try to remove them from your sphere or set boundaries. If safety is an issue, a hotline such as 800-799-SAFE (7233) can help.

Create healthy routines: It’s simple but true: Mental function is dependent on physical function. Diet, exercise and sleep can have profound effects, according to a plethora of scientific research. Needed change can feel overwhelming, so MHA advises starting small, perhaps building on one improvement each week with (healthy) rewards for small victories.

Support and connect with others: It’s interesting how focusing on others helps us feel better about ourselves. One, it strengthens the social net, itself a sort of supportive foundation so we don’t feel alone. Two, it takes us outside ourselves, so we can feel less overwhelmed. Three, it releases feel-good chemicals in the body, so we literally feel better about ourselves and our own value.

Supportive tips include practicing active listening, resisting the temptation to compare — to tell your own stories rather than listening to theirs, asking how you can help — then following up.

When simply connecting with others, however, “me too” can be a source of bonding. If you don’t know where to start, try familiar places. Open with a compliment, and pay attention to what others are interested in. MHA also suggests organizing an activity or charitable effort yourself. That’s a great way to make friends and feel good doing it.

If you’re struggling MHA offers confidential screening at Mhanational.org, a tool for measuring relatively common conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and PTSD. Screening results can be a way to start a conversation with a primary care provider or responsible loved one.

With or without screening, some don’t recognize warning signs or may feel ashamed of their effects. There’s no such thing as perfect. Life has ups and downs and we all need help sometimes. There’s no shame in that; it’s a universal part of being human.

Anyway, man is a social beast. It’s incumbent on all to watch out for one another with compassion and extend a nonjudgmental hand when witnessing difficulty.

For more help and support try the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at NAMI.org and the local chapter at Cdanami.org.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.