In general, mental health comprises emotional, psychological and social well-being. It’s all about how we think, feel, and act in life, which profound impacts our overall well being – physical, emotional, and psychological. Taking good care of mental health is vital as it affects every aspect of our life – relationships with friends and family to our performance at the workplace or college. A number of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder and more can adversely affect our mental wellbeing. Though they have wide variations in terms of their severity, they do have a negative impact on our lives.
On the obverse side, our mental well-being is also affected by the situations we face in life. Managing mental health during the COVID-19 times has become even a bigger challenge given the backdrop of severe restrictions on economic and social activities globally. For mental health professionals during COVID-19, there has been a record rise in the number of the mentally sick. With the clubbing of fear and anxiety about COVID-19, emotional distress resulting from illness, bereavement, unemployment, income loss, and loneliness due to social isolation — all of them interact and create or worsen mental health problems on a global scale.
Being a life coach, I get a chance to talk to people having mental health problems. Such problems contribute to the issues they bring to a life coach. The life coach has to work on such issues to realize the most from consultation. As a daughter of a severely depressed mother and a depressive patient myself, I can well understand the personal distress, dysfunction and the social costs of being part of such a household. My mother had developed severe depression when I was a young school-going kid. She kept lying in bed all day long, hardly moving out of it. Though I wasn’t alive to its real nature then, I could still make out that not all was well with her. And at a point in time, her condition worsened to the extent that she had to be administered electro-convulsive therapy to give her some relief.
When later, my husband committed suicide, leaving behind two teenage daughters and me, a 60-crore debt, hundreds of court cases to fight, and a fledgling textile plant to manage, I too believed I would slip into depression, given my harrowing circumstances and my genetically inherited tendencies. But fortunately, I was able to collect the pieces of life with my determination and positive attitude to rebuild my life. So much so that I underwent training to become a qualified life coach to help others like me to improve their lives. My own story is a message to the readers of the immense value of hope, optimism and determination to come out of life’s adversities.
The Cost of Mental Illness
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues of mental health have come to the forefront. The pandemic has drastically changed our lives – the way we live, work and enjoy – and has brought in its wake a lot of worries, insecurity, and fears. Virtually none has been left unaffected by COVID-19 and this is why it’s doubly important to be conscious of our mental health needs and make mental wellbeing a top priority.
Unfortunately, despite the huge medical advances, the concept of mental health as part of holistic well-being doesn’t evoke the interest it deserves in the developing world. The indifference is understandable in that such countries are still struggling with the more mundane poverty, hunger, unemployment and given the situation, any talk of mental health is greeted with indifference. Mental health care will get open acceptance only if there are concerted efforts by governments, awareness campaigns and improved economic well-being.
From anxiety, depression to substance addiction to dementia to schizophrenia, almost 100 crore people i.e. about 12.5% of the global populace suffers from one or the mental disorder. Just to get a handle on the overall economic, social and psychological costs of mental illness, consider the loss of productivity happening due to two most common disorders – anxiety and depression. They both cost the global economy about US $ 10000 crore annually. Overall, poor mental health is estimated to cost the global economy US $ 25000 crore by way of poor health and loss of productivity, besides causing personal distress to crores of people.
In India, almost all those availing of mental health services pay their bills out-of-pocket. Therefore, the economic case for investment in mental health is quite strong: it has been calculated that every $ 1 invested in treatment for depression and anxiety results in a $ 4 return in terms of better health and productivity. Thus, mental health awareness is the crying need of the hour in larger social and economic interest.
The Meaning of Mental Health
I can tell you that we all need to get a strong handle on “mental health” first before we proceed. Contrary to lay perception, mental health is NOT “the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.” Rather, it is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his/her abilities, can cope well with normal stresses, can work productively, and make a contribution to the community of which they are part. In other words, it is overall cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being.
What Can Good Mental Health Do?
Better Quality of Life
As good mental health coaches can tell you, mental well-being brings better quality of life and thereby makes room for greater participation in community building e.g. volunteering, taking up local causes, fundraising etc. A mentally healthy person is also more likely to take to new hobbies, forge new acquaintances, and travel more.
Mental health coaches opine that good mental health makes challenges easier to overcome. While some resort to alcohol / drugs, withdrawal or fighting as coping mechanisms to manage relationship issues, economic worries, job challenges and other obstacles, a mentally healthy person adopts healthier coping mechanisms.
Mental health has a strongly link with self-perception as it can play a big role in promoting self-esteem. Self-confidence indicates a healthy mind. A mentally healthy person focuses on the good they have and is fired by the desire to leading a healthy, happy life.
Sound mental health enables us to have quality time, affection and our friends and family’s support. Besides, since there is no emotional distress, it can be easy to support the people you love in the times of need. Obviously, one doesn’t expect an unhealthy person to support another unhealthy one!
All mental disorders, without exception, affect our productivity negatively since we are unable to work to our full potential. A mentally healthy person works more efficiently and produces good quality work.
What Causes Mental Illnesses
Mental health affects all aspects of life, relationships, work and overall health. Conditions like stress, depression, and anxiety can affect mental health and disrupt daily living. Many psychological disorders are rooted in biological variables as well.
Globally, mental disorders are a major cause behind physical and mental distress, bad relationships, poor productivity, absenteeism, poor performance and suicides. Sadly, we do not have much idea about the exact causes of many among these disorders. But medical research makes it clear that most of these problems arise from an interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. One’s mental health is primed by social and financial circumstances, biology and lifestyle. Therefore, good mental health is a function of keeping a delicate balance of various factors and elements of life and the world at large.
Many common mental disorders – depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – are linked to abnormal functioning of circuits in the brain. They interact with each other by an exchange of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, melanin etc.). For example, a biological tendency towards lesser production of feel-good hormones has been found to be among the major causes of depression. Thus, a common approach to treating such diseases is tweaking the balance of these chemicals with medications or talk therapy to make the brain circuits work more efficiently. Besides, defects/injuries to some areas of the brain are also responsible for loss of memory, loss of speech etc..
Several mental disorders are found in families as they are rooted in the way the genes behave. Most such mental illnesses are caused by many genes working together. Exactly how they interact with their environment is quite unique for every person. That’s why making targeted drugs for these diseases is a big challenge before researchers. Revolutionizing mental health care would require more genome sequencing so that researchers can hope to develop more targeted drugs for such disorders.
This phenomenon can also explain why some people carrying genes for a certain mental illness don’t always develop it as it results from multiple genes interacting among themselves and other triggers e.g. stress, abuse, trauma. It’s quite akin to how diabetes develops i.e. one may be born with the genes for it, but whether one develops diabetes later in life depends on environmental factors too like body weight, physical exercise, diet, stress etc.
Some infections are linked to brain damage and mental illnesses or their deterioration. For example, the pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDAS) attributed to Streptococcus bacteria leads to an obsessive-compulsive disorder among children.
Certain defects or injuries in some areas of the brain can result in mental illnesses i.e. damage to the hippocampus, which can result in amnesia or loss of memory. Brain defects/ injuries are also among the causes of depression.
Traumas occurring at the time of birth like a shortage of oxygen disrupts and arrests early brain development in a fetus, which triggers certain conditions like autism.
Long-term substance abuse is linked to problems like anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
- Other factors
- Health issues
Health problems like cancers, diabetes, and chronic pain can cause stress, depression, and anxiety. Likewise, poor nutrition and exposure to toxins like mercury (Minamata) and lead (poor brain functioning) in early age may cause mental illness.
- Psychological Factors
- Emotional, physical, sexual abuse in early age or teenage
- Loss of parent / primary caregiver
- Emotional abuse or neglect
- Poor ability to relate to other people
- Environmental Factors
- Loved one’s death or parental divorce / separation
- Broken families OR dysfunctional family life
- Feeling of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness
- Switching of job / school
- Socio-cultural expectations e.g. associating beauty with a lean body is a contributing factor in triggering eating disorders e.g. bulimia, anorexia nervosa etc.
- Alcohol / drug/ substance abuse by self/ parents
There are no physical test/scans, which can reliably detect mental illness. However, there are some common symptoms that may be the possible signs of a mental disorder:
- Social withdrawal from one’s family, friends, colleagues
- Avoidance of favourite activities/ hobbies
- Excessive/ under-sleeping
- Over-eating/under- eating
- Ideas of hopelessness
- Poor energy levels
- Use of alcohol, nicotine
- Negative emotions, feelings of worthlessness
- Problems performing daily tasks
- Suicidal thoughts/ behaviour
- Having delusions
- Excessive Confusion, anger, guilt or worry
- Frequent mood swings
- Fighting with family, friends
- “Hearing” voices
Common Mental Disorders
The most common mental illness types are:
- Anxiety disorders
- Mood disorders
- Schizophrenia and allied disorders
- Anxiety disorders
The most common of mental illnesses. Anxiety-related disorders involve disproportionate worrying which tends to disrupt everyday life. Fear or anxiety in the presence of some objects or situations is a common experience. Patients with such problems tend to avoid exposure to situations, which trigger anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Patients with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience excessive anxiety in everyday life situations like routine chores or meeting people. They can also experience other signs like restlessness, fatigue, muscular tension and disruptions in sleep.
Panic disorder patients suffer from regular panic attacks with a feeling of sudden terror or an imminent disaster and death.
A phobia is irrational, excessive fear of some objects, scenarios, or animals e.g. a fear of spiders or heights.
A k a social anxiety, it is the fear of being subject to others’ judgment. As a result, such people tend to reduce social exposure.
The fear of open places like a marketplace.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
People with an Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) suffer from obsessions and compulsions i.e. persistent, stressful thoughts and the urge for repetitive acts like hand washing or locking door repeatedly, bathing again and again. Unless they do so, they experience a feeling of anxiety and unrest and that’s how, it tends to become a habitual action, causing significant disruption in daily life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) results from someone experiencing a highly stressful or traumatic event, for example riots, genocide, fire, earthquake, floods, war, ethnic conflict, terrorism etc..
A k a affective disorders / depressive disorders. Patients have significant mood changes, involving either mania – high energy and elation, or a down-in-the-dumps depression. Examples of mood disorders are:
Consistently low mood and loss of interest in favourite activities and prolonged sadness.
Bipolar patients experience unusual changes in mood, energy and activity level. The highs bring a manic phase, while a depressive period brings the low mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Reduced daylight triggers it during fall, winter, and early spring months. It’s common among people living in countries located far away from the equator.
Schizophrenia and related disorders
Mental health professionals are unsure of whether schizophrenia is a single disorder or a group of disorders. Typically, schizophrenia appears between 16 and 30 years, with the patient exhibiting significant thought disruption. The individual experiences fragmented thoughts, with there being no filter to check them and finds it hard to process information efficiently.
Schizophrenia has been seen to be marked by delusions, thought disruptions, and hallucinations, social withdrawal, lack of motivation and an indifferent mood.
Various methods are available to manage mental health problems. Of course, the treatment plan in every case has to be tailored to each individual and what works for one may not work for other one. Most often, a combination of various therapies proves to be most effective in terms of the results they give.
Types of Treatment
The talk therapy takes a psychological approach to treating such illnesses. Some such therapies include cognitive behaviour therapy, exposure therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Typically, psychologists and psychotherapists use psychotherapy to relieve the symptoms of patients. Psychotherapy is based on the idea of helping people understand the root causes of their problems and enabling them to develop healthy thought patterns with therapy.
Most often, people suffering from anxiety or depression are able to benefit from relaxation techniques like progressive muscular relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness.
One of the major factors behind the current revolution in mental health care has been the emergence of medicines.
A psychiatrist may prescribe tranquilizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics and other drugs to relieve the symptoms of such diseases. Although these medicines cannot cure mental disorders, they relieve the symptoms and help the patients function effectively in daily life.
Some medicines work to boost the bodily absorption of happy hormones like serotonin in the brain. On the other hand, others can boost the overall levels of these chemicals or prevent their degradation or destruction.
Ways to Self-help
A major factor contributing to the overall healing process is the willingness and the readiness of the patient to change their lifestyle to facilitate wellness. Such a change may involve a modification in the patterns of physical activity, sleeping habits, socialization, meditation, relaxation etc.
Risk Factors in Poor Mental Health
Mental health, an important part of overall well-being, determines how effectively we work psychologically, emotionally, and socially to lead a productive and happy life, which enables us to contribute meaningfully to society.
One just needs to look at the millions of broken homes, poor productivity, loss of man-days, absenteeism, personal distress, divorces and suicides to understand how much havoc bad mental health wreaks. Thus, in the light of the role it plays in all our life, it’s vitally important to improve our psychological wellness using appropriate measures.
However, various circumstances may affect our ability to handle the curveballs of life. Some of them are
A child witness to physical assault, sexual violence, emotional abuse or neglect in early years can develop severe mental and emotional distress later. In fact, loving relationships and good mental health in early years are the touchstones of happy, well-adjusted adult personalities. Such early abuse can worsen the risk of getting depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and personality problems in adulthood. Such children may eventually develop problems related to substance abuse, besides others.
Our environment is a contributor to mental well-being as adverse circumstances can affect psychological wellness. For instance, extreme weather conditions or air pollution or natural disasters can increase the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Our biological makeup also affects our well-being. As said earlier, many such disorders run in families and are transmitted to the next generation e.g. autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia.
Our lifestyle also affects mental health e.g. smoking, poor diet, alcoholism and drug use, and risky sexual behavior may cause psychological damage by leading to or worsening various psychological problems.
Looking after Your Mental Well-Being
Various campaigns launched on mental health awareness emphasize the preventive steps in keeping good mental health. Maintaining mental health is vital to getting the most out of life. Here are my Top Ten Tips, which won’t cost you much in money or time.
Embrace yourself as you are
Accepting and loving yourself i.e. self-acceptance is key to good mental health. You can’t be someone else. Remember, none is perfect and trying to improve oneself is a sensible thing to do. But alongside, love yourself, with warts and all. If you can’t love yourself, no one else will!
Talk to friends and family about your feelings, which helps you stay in good mental health and deal with tough times. You may not find a solution but often, just talking about a problem makes you feel better.
Eat, sleep well
The brain requires many nutrients to keep itself in good shape and work the way other organs do. Taking a nutritious, balanced diet is crucial to physical and mental health. Likewise, try to have enough, quality sleep to keep good mental health.
Regular physical exercise boosts self-esteem and helps you focus, sleep, and feel better by releasing feel-good chemicals. It keeps the brain and other organs in good form and improves mental health.
Having a few drinks to alter mood or deal with a fear or loneliness is commonplace but it has temporary effects. As its effects wear off, you begin to feel worse due to the way alcohol works on the brain and the body. Look for better ways to deal with such feelings and try to develop more effective coping ways.
Keep in touch
Though nothing else can beat catching up with someone face to face, that may not be always possible. Give a call, drop a note, or chat online to keep the communication open. It’s better for your mental health!
Admit that you aren’t a superhuman nor is anyone else. It’s normal to be tired or overwhelmed sometimes when things don’t work out as per expectations. Seek help from family or friends, who may give practical help or at least patient listening. Having a support network in the family and close friends can be a great aid in recovering from a mental illness.
Take a break
Take a break from work. A change of scene or place works wonders for mental health. It may be a 5-minute pause from your chore, a 30-minute break or a weekend getaway. But it can also be a longer break i.e. vacation. In most cases, it is more than enough to de-stress you.
Do what you love to. Have some fun and enjoy yourself to beat stress. Do something you’re good at – music, painting, cooking, stitching, carpentry etc. to feel good about yourself and improve your self-esteem.
Try to change your thinking processes to make them more realistic and work on bad personal relationships contributing to poor mental health.