Why do we find it necessary to see our primary care physician regarding our physical ailments once a year but not our psychiatrist or psychologist? And, while primary care does an adequate job of addressing our psychological well being and assessing how we manage stress, is just a cursory assessment of our mental health advisable? After all, our psychological and physical health are significantly intertwined. It is relatively well established that significant psychological stress can trigger underlying biological vulnerabilities to illnesses like depression or anxiety.
If we don’t consult with mental health professionals annually, with whom do we share our worries? Our emotional attachments are one key component of a healthy psychological state. When individuals no longer converse with, seek out, or have access to social supports, the emotional burden of stress increases. In fact social withdrawal can be a trigger or consequence of depression or anxiety, and it is notable that depression and anxiety are often co-travelers.
Clinically significant symptoms of depression last two or more weeks, interfere with everyday functioning, and include at least five of the following: sad or irritable mood, decreased interest or pleasure in activities, significant increase or decrease in weight, significant change in sleep (sleeping too much or too little), feeling overly restless or slowed down, loss of energy or fatigue, significant feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty with concentration/memory or decision making, or recurrent thoughts about death.
Anxiety may be experienced as a reaction to stress resulting in fear, apprehension or avoidance. When anxiety begins to interfere with everyday functioning including sleep, school or work routines, it is time to consider an evaluation from a mental health provider.
In children and adolescents symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety may manifest differently from adults. For example, children or adolescents who are experiencing depression may present with an increase in irritability. Children or adolescents experiencing anxiety may exhibit frequent avoidance- or reassurance-seeking, as well as frequent somatic complaints including stomach aches and headaches.
Family and friends can help individuals suffering from depression or anxiety by providing emotional support and validation. Inquiring about feelings, listening and being genuine and non- judgmental can go a long way towards helping someone cope. Assisting the individual with establishing or maintaining daily routines (such as regular mealtimes and sleep/wake times), and even encouraging light exercise, can help to provide relief from negative feelings and thoughts. Family or friends should ask about whether the individual is having thoughts of suicide. If the individual is experiencing thoughts of hurting himself/herself or others, health care professionals should be contacted. If there is an imminent safety threat it should be treated as an emergency requiring a visit to the emergency room.
One of the biggest obstacles to seeking and engaging in mental health treatment continues to be the stigma of mental illness. Often, individuals minimize symptoms in order to avoid this stigma. Understanding that both the mind and body deserve our utmost attention, and letting go of judgments regarding mental illness, can help remove the barrier to accessing and engaging in appropriate care.
Alison Gilbert, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine with a certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from U.C. Davis.