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Michael Friedman, L.M.S.W.

Michael Friedman, L.M.S.W.

Posted: December 8, 2010 08:11 AM

Old or young, neglecting your mental health is bad for your physical health and vice versa. If you have a chronic physical illness such as diabetes or heart disease and you suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder, you are at considerably higher risk for disability and premature death. Depression and anxiety disorders often express themselves through physical symptoms: stomach problems, headaches, backaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, weight loss, or obesity. People in the early or mid stages of a dementia, such as Alzheimer's Disease, are likely to also be depressed and/or anxious, and these co-occurring mental conditions reduce already compromised cognitive functions. If you suffer from a long term, severe mental illness, your life expectancy is at least 10 and perhaps 30 years less than the general population's, largely due to poor health.

Mind and body are inextricably linked. A decade ago the Surgeon General of the United States tried to capture this relationship by saying, "There is no health without mental health." He might have added, "There is no mental health without health." Millennia ago the Romans said much the same thing, "Sound mind, sound body."

Each year about 25 percent of us have a diagnosable mental or substance use disorder or both. Yet only 40 percent of those of us who have such a disorder get treatment. Why? Many people get help from family, friends or clergy. But many of us don't know when we have a mental disorder or are too embarrassed to talk about it openly. In addition, many primary care physicians don't ask questions to identify mental and/or substance use problems; and if they do, they may make referrals, which many people do not follow up on. Besides, in most places there is a shortage of qualified mental health professionals.

It is entirely understandable that many of us don't realize when we have a mental disorder because sometimes the symptoms of a disorder are very much like the ordinary ups and downs of human life. Sometimes we get sad, sometimes we are frightened, sometimes we ruminate at night and can't sleep, sometimes we are lethargic, and sometimes we are really charged up. That's just being human. But sometimes we are not just sad; we are despondent and nothing gives us pleasure. Sometimes we are not just anxious; we are immobilized by our fear. Sometimes we are not just having a little too much to drink from time to time; being drunk or hung over is getting in the way of our work or our relationships.

It is also entirely understandable that many of us are too embarrassed to talk openly about having a mental disorder. It is very hard to say out loud or even to oneself, "I am mentally ill," in a society in which being mentally ill is a curse.

And it is understandable that most primary care physicians are not very good at identifying mental and substance use disorders. They haven't been adequately trained; and, if they do identify a mental illness, they often don't know how to treat it effectively or have time for the part of treatment that depends on talk and human interaction.

What can you do to take care of your mental health?
1. Preserve it by staying active and involved with other people, particularly those you enjoy.

2. Try -- hard as it is -- to maintain enough balance in your life so you are not stressed out all the time.

3. Ask your doctor to screen for mental health problems. There are screening tests that you can fill out in the waiting room that are remarkably accurate. Of course, your doctor may not know what to do if you screen positive; but she/he is more likely to learn once there are test results just as they have learned to manage lipids because there are now tests for cholesterol and triglycerides.

4. Go to a mental health or substance abuse professional in a local clinic or in private practice.
Medical and mental health professionals cannot successfully treat all our suffering. Human life is filled with reasons to be unhappy, frightened and confused. But some of our suffering can be avoided, cured, or ameliorated if we make adjustments in how we live, recognize that our minds are integral to our health, acknowledge that we may have a mental or substance use disorder, and seek help when we need it. Treatment can be, and often is, effective.

Something on your mind but don't know where to turn? Call 1-800-273-TALK. This will connect you to mental health call centers around the U.S.