(The Daily Dish) There is an increased awareness of mental health in our daily lives — in the news, in schools, and while at work. But what does mental health mean? And why is it important to focus on when we talk about improving our overall health and well-being?

1 in 5 adults in the U.S. are affected by a mental health condition and nearly one third of adults in the U.S reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in Spring 2021 according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers.

Today we are joined by Dr. Christopher Valentine, medical director with Optum Care Network – Utah. Dr. Valentine is here to provide insight through his clinical interest in adolescent and adult medicine, depression, and anxiety.

What is Mental Health?

  • Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being
    • It also relates to preventing or treating mental illness such as depression or anxiety
    • Preventing or treating substance abuse or other addictions
    • And how we think, feel or act. How we handle stress, make choices, and interact with others.
    • And it starts when you’re young.
      • The most prevalent issues among youth today are depression, anxiety, suicide, and childhood trauma. And some conditions – like eating disorders – may not be the most prevalent but can cause the greatest life-long impact on the family and child.

During the pandemic, existing vulnerabilities and challenges were intensified/exacerbated. The result was increased overall demand for mental health services over the last two years, with the most pronounced increase among young people.

Increased mental distress during the pandemic is occurring against a backdrop of overall high rates of mental illness and substance use that existed before the current crisis. The pandemic placed an even greater strain on youth and their families. Remote learning and canceled extracurricular activities left many teens feeling frustrated, anxious, hopeless, and disconnected.

School-aged children reported during the pandemic their mental and emotional health worsened, and more young people were coming to emergency rooms and hospitals because of self-harm and mental health crises. COVID has also contributed to unseen levels of grief and loss of life with over 140,000 children nationally experiencing the death of a primary or secondary caregiver. 

What can we do?

Get started by talking about mental health which may not always be easy, but it is important. For some families, talking about mental health might be an everyday occurrence. For other families, it may be a new topic, and it may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. But the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel.

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues plays a role in improving acceptance of discussing and caring for issues related to mental health. The Stigma surrounding mental health can all too often make talking about mental wellness difficult conversations to have, and often prevents people of all ages from asking for help. Also, the stigma might make parents/caregivers feel uncomfortable checking in on how a young person is doing, unsure of what language to use, or how to broach the topic.

The critical factor is having those conversations and not waiting to take action if you recognize there’s a problem: research shows that intervening early can often prevent symptoms from getting worse and make the path to recovery easier. On the other hand, delays from the onset of symptoms to getting someone appropriate help can make mild symptoms worse and recovery more difficult.

In response to this crisis, and to support families who may be navigating behavioral health challenges, Optum has created a free “shuffle deck” of digital cards to help start conversations about mental health. Optum has these easy-to-download “Conversation Starters” cards that make it easier for parents/caregivers to start the conversation and get past one-word answers to spark meaningful family dialogue.

The goal is to reduce the stigma and equip parents and caregivers with tools to have conversations with teens and young adults about these important issues.

What are some ways to reduce the stigma related to mental health?

  • Talk openly about mental health
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness
    • A good place to start is with your family doctor or pediatrician
    • Also, consider how your health plan may offer support, including through virtual visits for mental health, which have become more widely available.
  • Be honest about treatment
  • Educate yourself and others
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness
  • Be conscious of language
  • Choose empowerment over shame

Looking for resources?

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
    • Anyone that needs help with a mental or substance use disorder can call their National Helpline (800)662-HELP (4357) or TTY: (800)487-4889, or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U).
    • Or visit their website to use SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator tool, a confidential and anonymous source of information for those seeking substance use or mental health treatment.

If you or someone you know has thoughts about suicide, seek help right away. To talk with a trained counselor, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255).

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