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Though attitudes are changing slowly, many people still don’t like to talk about mental illness. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans 18 and older (about one in four adults) suffer from some kind of mental illness. It’s also the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Mental illness can describe different disorders from schizophrenia to anxiety to depression. Depression can often go hand-in-hand with other disorders. It can also occur at any point in the lifespan.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 10 Americans suffers from depression each year. Everyone has days when she or he just feels sad or “blue,” especially during our region’s long, cold winters. But, depression is more than that. It’s a serious mental illness that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health for longer than a couple of weeks. It isn’t caused by one single thing. Signs of depression most often include:
• Feeling sad or empty
• Not having as much interest in things you used to enjoy
• Changes in eating or sleeping habits
• Feeling restless or slowed down
• Feeling very tired
• Feeling worthless
• Finding it hard to think clearly
Even though many people experience depression or know someone who has, it’s still a hard thing to talk about. The Allegheny County Health Survey, done in 2009-2010, asked adults about life satisfaction and social support. Black adults reported feeling dissatisfied with their lives more often (14 percent) than White adults (8 percent). In addition, the percentage of Black adults was much higher (11 percent) than White adults (7 percent) who said they never or rarely get the support they need. People feel a stigma, or shame, in talking about mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that two-thirds of people with depression don’t get the help they need. According to Charles Reynolds III, MD, UPMC Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, shame is one reason African Americans in particular have trouble getting help.
“In general, African Americans face barriers to health care and mental health services,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Many feel shame from their communities about having mental illness. Some people just don’t want to be diagnosed as ‘mentally ill.’”
Because African Americans are less likely to seek mental health services, they are also less likely to receive the correct diagnosis or treatment. Dr. Reynolds says that people may define depression in their own way. Their idea of what depression is may not be the same as a mental health provider’s. They also cope differently. In some communities, people prefer to find help solely from their families, religious or from community leaders. Dr. Reynolds has found that family and friends can help bridge the gap between people who need mental health help and those who can provide it. People should not suffer in silence and isolation, Dr. Reynolds says. Finding out there’s a problem and getting help early on is important.
Depression can be prevented and treated. The first step is for people to talk to someone they trust about how they’re feeling. Then, talk to a mental health professional who can recommend behavioral interventions. These can include talk therapy, learning about better problem-solving and coping skills, help with sleep and eating practices, exercise and doing pleasurable activities. For some people, medication may also lessen the effects of depression on their lives.
Dr. Reynolds has worked with a lot of people who have complicated grief. He works with people in communities that experience a lot of violence and violent death, which is an experience that can lead to major, long-lasting depression. In studying grief, he has found that when people who face barriers to mental health seek help, they are treated with just as much success as people who don’t face barriers. Mental health intervention does help.
It’s important to know that anyone experiencing depression doesn’t need to just “tough it out” or expect it to go away on its own. Depression isn’t about people choosing to be in a “bad mood.” It is a dysfunction of the brain that can happen to anyone. Getting help is important for physical health, too. Many people know that keeping their heart healthy is important. Keeping their brain healthy is, too.
“Over time, depression can be toxic to the brain,” says Dr. Reynolds. “It can cause the brain to not work as well. People start having problems thinking and with their memories, among other things. Getting treated for depression can only better brain health.”
Some basic ways to take care of mental health include:
• Take care of yourself—make sure you have a doctor
• Stay connected with friends and family
• Watch health habits— eat healthfully, try not to smoke or drink alcohol too much
• Watch out for yourself and others—don’t ignore changes in yourself or loved ones. Find someone who can help.
Everyone wants to live a happy, independent life no matter what his or her age is. It’s time to begin taking our mental health as seriously as our physical health.
Resources for Mental Health Services:
Peoples Oakland is recovery center with wellness based recovery programs for adults in Allegheny County. Guiding all Peoples Oakland services and activities is a philosophy of recovery based real life experiences nurtured by peer support, hope, self-help and collaborative relationships with professionals. For more information call Peoples Oakland at 412-683-7140.
The AgeWell program offers a wide range of mental health services for seniors provided by caring and experienced clinicians. If you have questions, please call 412-422-3800. Medicare and most insurance plans are accepted.
If you or someone you know does not have adequate health care, more resources can be found in the Allegheny County Health Care Guide for the Underinsured and Uninsured. Visit www.achd.net or call 412-687-ACHD to request a copy of the guide.
Re:solve Crisis Network provides round-the-clock services to anyone with or without a diagnosed mental illness. Call any time and speak with a trained counselor can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 1-888-7-YOU CAN (1-888-796-8226).
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