Today I am going to talk about mental illness. The stigma associated with mental illness can make it difficult to decide to seek help. It can be difficult to tell that you might need help.
Where there is doubt, screening tools can help. Health care providers have screening tools that we routinely use in our office when patients come in for appointments.
In my office, it is our goal to screen every one of our patients at least once a year for depression. We also use these tools when a patient shares a complaint of depression, anxiety, etc. If a diagnosis is made, we use them to track how a patient is responding to treatment in addition to follow-up visits and conversations.
There are online screening tools that you can use to help you decide whether to seek help. Mental Health America has online screening tools (screening.mhanational.org/screening-tools) for depression, anxiety, bipolar, psychosis, eating disorders, PTSD and addiction.
Even if your screening result says your mental health is fine, if you are concerned that you have a problem, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider. Many health care systems have a dedicated phone number that allows you to talk to a health care professional to decide if you need treatment – and, if you do, to get you connected to the right resource.
Many provider offices like mine also have mental health counselors as part of the primary care team, so your needs can be met on-site at your clinic and all of your providers are connected to your care – body and mind.
Sometimes, it might not be yourself that you are concerned about, and it can be difficult to know what to do. Be loving and supportive without being enabling. If you are concerned that someone might hurt themselves or someone else, getting him or her to a hospital ER is the best course of action.
In your effort to be supportive, focus on things you notice (“You don’t seem to find enjoyment in things like you used to”) and offer specific ways you can help (“Could I go with you to talk to talk to your family doctor about how you are doing?”). It’s easy to give up too early on mental health treatment.
If you are supporting someone who is starting treatment, make sure you understand the follow-up plan so you can help make it happen. If you are the patient, keep in mind that what’s helpful might change over time, so don’t be afraid to ask from time to time if you should change what you are doing.
The path to mental wellness isn’t always a straight line, and at times there may be one step forward followed by two steps back (or even a step sideways). As a person experiencing mental illness or as a loved one, this can be frustrating and confusing. Stick with your treatment plan. It takes time to get better.
I have the goal with my patients who we decide to prescribe anti-depressants that they stay on these medications for at least six months and more often a year or two. If you are a loved one, counseling for yourself or a support group can help you cope with the complicated path to health for your loved one.
Taking care of your own mental health so you can continue to be loving and supportive is as important as your loved one’s mental health. Just like physical illnesses, mental illness comes in many shapes and sizes. Your brain is a part of your body, so mental illness is really just illness, as well.
I hope if we can move to this understanding, the stigma around mental illness will go away and more people will seek assistance and treatment so that they can live fully healthy lives.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.
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