May is Mental Health Awareness Month

  • Published
  • By Kurt Guindon and Maj. Thomas N. Magee
  • 55th Medical Group
For most of us mental health is like our car engine, we don't give it much attention until something goes wrong. And like our car engine, we'll ignore something wrong until it absolutely has to be fixed. Unfortunately, our mental health doesn't come with a check engine light.

Whether it's family, friends or the chain of command, someone usually has to point it out to us. That's where the awareness part comes in.

It's good to think of the mind as a stew of strengths and vulnerabilities. Everyone has resilience, strengths and effective coping mechanisms, and everyone has vulnerabilities and fault lines along which they will crack when properly stressed.

One of the tasks we all face is finding a balance between these strengths and vulnerabilities that help us be successful in the world. This balance constitutes our mental health and it usually hums along without a hitch until something happens.

Of all the factors that might cause a problem with mental health - such as personality structure, genetics or diet - the most important factor is stress. Think of stress as an event or situation that causes us to expend internal energies to adapt. Just about any change - and anything we lose in life - can be a stressor. One odd thing about stress is even positive events can be stressful. Watch one episode of "Bridezillas" and it becomes clear that something that gives us happiness can also be tremendously stressful.

Everyone has inner reserves they can tap into to help absorb stress and a little stress can be a good thing because it spurs growth and maturation. Problems come when change or loss overwhelms our ability to adapt and the car engine of our mind develops a rattle - making functioning no longer smooth and seamless. How our mental health frays shows up in different ways for different people and to a certain extent depends on the stressor. The physical and mental demands of deployment, divorce, medical illness and loss of status are all times when people should be especially vigilant about their stress levels and pay careful attention to how it might show up in their lives.

Depression and post traumatic stress disorder get a lot attention in the press, but the most common mental health issues are anxiety related. Did you know social anxiety, a condition where people become anxious when they speak in front of others, occurs in up to 25 percent of Americans? Generalized anxiety, marked by constant worry and a pervasive feeling of nervousness, is close behind.

Ten percent of Americans also suffer from chronic insomnia, which we now know leads to hypertension, weight gain, heart disease, depression, accidents and poor job performance. Ten percent of men and 25 percent of women will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Post traumatic stress affects 20 percent of those exposed to combat for a year and increases to 30 percent if that exposure extends to two or three years.

Fortunately, 25 percent of PTSD goes away on its own after six months and 40 percent after 12 months. On the other hand, a recent study showed that while military veterans account for 7 percent of the American populace, they represent 20 percent of the nation's suicides.

Another study focusing on Airmen and Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan showed a telling difference in what was likely to impel these servicemembers to seek help. Those who suffered from panic attacks were more likely to seek help while those with alcohol problems were least likely. Those with depression or PTSD fell somewhere in between. We've long known in the mental health community that seeking help depends on how much mental pain and anguish a person experiences. Panic attacks are horrendous events that have built-in motivation to seek treatment, while the same can't be said for those who have alcohol problems. Interestingly enough, with alcohol, often times the people around those who are drinking do the suffering.

Ten to 15 percent of Americans suffer from alcohol dependence, but alcohol abuse is as high as 45 percent within the past year, especially in male servicemembers. Worldwide, alcohol is the most common way to treat insomnia, but alcohol makes for poor sleep quality and prevents sleep from restoring the brain and the immune system. Many people use alcohol to handle stress, but alcohol can make stress sink in deeper if not used in a reasonable way it can also erode the relationships that make for a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

Here are some simple ways to maintain a healthy mental balance.

· Get enough sleep. The latest research on sleep indicates nearly everyone needs eight hours of sleep per night. Sleep remains a true fountain of youth - or at least health -- and is the simplest, best thing we can do for ourselves. Get into the habit of going to bed and getting up at the same time and don't do work in bed. Doing so conditions the brain to stay active and analytical when it should be repairing itself for tomorrow.

· Exercise. The myriad of benefits of regular exercise can't be overstated for physical and mental health.

· Eat right. There are many ways to eat out there. Be tough-minded about trying out different approaches and find out what works best to help you feel well. There is strong research on the benefits of supplementary fish oil and Vitamin D, but that's not the case with all dietary claims. Be cautious when it comes to herbs and other supplements. In the United States there's no requirement that supplements be certified as to what they include for ingredients, much less that the dosage is accurate.

· Manage your relationships. Human connection and a social network is a central pillar in sound mental health. The dictum, "if you value something take care of it," is central to this idea. Love and friends make the world go round but if you want love and good friends you have to work hard to be one-half of that equation. The human social self seems to be designed to function best in an extended family or tribe.

· Tap your spirituality. There are many ways to understand the spiritual. Find what feels right for you and what rings true in your depths, then make it a regular part of your life.

· Eliminate destructive habits and people. Guarding the gates of the mind and protecting our peace from poisonous people, as well as our own self-destructive habits are often something we work on our entire lives.

· Find something to adore about your work. Considering how we contribute to a sense of community or to the benefit of our nation often helps foster this ideal.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but staying on top of our mental health is a full-time, year-round job. It's vital to maintain excellent mental health and protect it from being fouled by stress or negativity. A simple awareness of our unique combination of strength and vulnerability, and how we bend when stressed, can be powerful medicine for keeping ourselves well and happy. Sometimes, it's also wise to come in for a tune up.