About this post: Seeking treatment before you develop depression or anxiety helps you catch the earliest signs of symptoms. Annual mental health check-ups can change the course of your life.
Self-care, mental health, and wellness have all suffered with the pandemic.
Countless people are experiencing frequent and distressing mental health symptoms, and we still don’t have systems in place to catch symptoms before they grow. Yet for physical health, it’s expected that someone goes to their primary care doctor for annual physical check-ups. These annual appointments are thought to be preventative and can catch issues early on, ideally preventing or lessening the burden of physical illnesses. Similarly, mental health check-ups need to be the next step in truly caring for our mental health.
Right now when we go for our annual physical visits, we often do fill out screener questions on mental health, which is a great step in being preventative, but if you haven’t had suicidal thoughts or the specific symptoms asked about, your symptoms may not be noticed. And if your symptoms are picked up on, the provider, not being a mental health clinician, may not have the training to know which steps to take next.
Many times though, symptoms may not reach the level that it would take to get noticed, but they could still affect your life every single day. Sometimes low levels of depression or anxiety come up daily but aren’t noticed for what they are. Maybe you feel tired every day and it’s hard to get the energy to do everything you’d typically want to do. This might be a physical symptom that comes from untreated depression. Maybe you have migraines so often that you are falling behind at work or school. Again, maybe this physical symptom is coming from untreated anxiety.
Now, having a couple symptoms doesn’t mean someone has a mental illness, but they do put you at risk for having one at some point. Mental illnesses are extremely common. In any given year, 1 in 5 people are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, and each person has a 50% chance of developing a mental health disorder in their lifetime. What about symptoms that don’t rise to the level of being “diagnosable”? Symptoms like irritable mood, low energy, and negative thoughts by themselves might not be enough to label something as an illness, but they definitely affect your everyday life, your relationships, and your productivity. Untreated and with time, these symptoms can worsen, give rise to new symptoms, and begin affecting more and more areas of your life. The average time for seeking treatment is actually 11 years after the onset of symptoms! Imagine if you had worked on those symptoms during that time – you could have improved that decade of your life and the decades to come.
Yet, beyond being told to focus on self-care and lifestyle changes, most people don’t know how to effectively change their mental health. Working with a therapist can teach a person to catch negative thoughts, frame them in different ways, and change the way they view certain situations. Similarly, sometimes we are unaware of how our behaviors affect our mental health, and someone pointing it out to us can help affect change.
Imagine that yearly you went for a mental health check-up, and then within a few sessions, someone helped you identify areas that you could strengthen. Your entire year could look different going forward. Maybe you changed schools or jobs and thought people didn’t like you at the new place, but all the while you were unknowingly isolating yourself, and not giving them the chance to know you and want to hang out. Maybe you were having depressive thoughts, but rather than identifying them as a consequence of depression, you just thought they were true. Now, if a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another therapist could help you see some of these areas, you could live a different life – a life with more connections, that is more satisfying, and where you feel whole.
For now, mental health check-ups are not held up as an expected part of caring for yourself, but just because others are still living in darkness doesn’t mean that you have to as well. Every year, we experience different changes in our lives, milestones, and new experiences, and even when these are healthy and even positive changes, it’s important to keep adapting in psychologically healthy ways. No one expects a person to be an expert in mental health, and so working with a therapist who is an expert can guide you in becoming a true expert on yourself, knowing your strengths and how to apply them in difficult situations.
At graymatters, we offer wellness visits where a person can come in, meet with a therapist, and identify areas to work on and areas to continue making strides in. Sometimes one visit is enough to inform you and set you on a path toward greater wellness. Other times a few targeted sessions can help you identify unhelpful patterns and begin to make changes. We often say that our clients are much healthier than others who are not in treatment, precisely because they choose to work on their mental health. Interestingly, when the pandemic started, many of our clients were much better equipped to deal with the mental health challenges than the rest of the population. Checking in with a mental health professional can be a preventative action. It’s much better than being reactive and experiencing the 11-year delay many people experience.
Written by Tejal Kaur, MD, founder and medical director at graymatters