As published in Vancity Buzz on Friday May 8th, 2015.
Think of the last time that you had a really bad cold.
Remember how, after endless days of feeling miserable, you began to believe you would feel like that forever? You began to lose perspective on what it felt like to feel healthy. Coughing, congestion and exhaustion became your new normal. Eventually you started googling your symptoms to see if it is something other than a cold.
This is the problem when it comes to our mental health.
We become so used to feeling unwell that we forget we didn’t always feel like this. But we are hesitant to start asking if it might be a more serious health concern.
So what exactly is mental health?
HeretoHelp BC reminds us that, “mental health is determined by our overall patterns of thoughts, emotions, behaviours and body reactions.” Each of these four factors is connected. For example, a racing heart and tense muscles make it hard to feel calm.
Your mental health affects your ability to focus, to accomplish goals, how you feel about yourself and your relationship with others, as well as your ability to deal with challenges. By proactively addressing negative thought patterns, healthy ways to process emotions, self-destructive behaviours, and overall physical health, we protect our own mental health.
Sometimes, life throws us curveballs and we find ourselves struggling with managing our emotions. Unlike dealing with a nasty cough, where we would chat with our pharmacist, naturopath, or friend for advice on reducing the symptoms, we rarely seek input from others when we start struggling with our thoughts and behaviors. Word travels of that friend’s cousin who developed pneumonia last month, and worry that might happen to us if we don’t seek medical intervention.
We know that having a bad cold does not mean we are going to get pneumonia, just as struggling with our mental health does not mean that we have a mental illness. However, some people are more predisposed to developing pneumonia…or full blown depression.
There is no way I have a mental illness.
No one wants to be labelled.
Let’s address the label itself. In his TEDxCaltech talk, Thomas Insel, neuroscientist and Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, advocates for the term “brain disorder” instead of mental illness. This term isn’t so much about trying to be politically correct, but an attempt to be more scientifically accurate.
According to Insel, research has shown that the connections and synapses within the brains of those who struggle with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are wired differently. There are predictable patterns that can identify risk factors for these diagnoses, but western medicine still relies on behavioural symptoms to show up and then we diagnose.
“For brain disorders, behaviour is the last thing to change,” explains Insel. When it comes to early intervention, we are much further ahead with preventing heart attacks than brain disorders.
So instead of dreading a label or diagnosis of “mental illness,” we need to start thinking of this as having a brain that is wired slightly differently, which can eventually lead to behavioural changes. If your doctor told you that you had an abnormal valve in your heart that was starting to affect your heartbeat, there would be no shame attached to that diagnosis.
How do I know if it’s a brain disorder?
Think back to that bad cold analogy. When you started carefully studying the checklist of symptoms that WebMD told you to go see a doctor for, you may have decided it was time to go seek medical advice.
There are screening checklists that can help you to determine if you should go see a medical professional about your behavioural symptoms. Although not comprehensive, these checklists can help you to consider that it might be more than just stress.
According to Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the leading experts in brain research and imaging, there are seven types of anxiety and depression, which can make it challenging for a medical professional to correctly diagnose. Just because the symptoms are vague doesn’t mean that they aren’t legitimate.
In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon reminds us that the definition of depression is “entirely arbitrary.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used by psychiatrists and psychologists as their primary reference guide, indicates that a depression diagnosis should be made when five of the nine listed symptoms are present. Andrew argues that, “Even one symptom is unpleasant. Having slight versions of all the symptoms may be less of a problem than having severe versions of two symptoms.”
Bottom line: if you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting your everyday life, go and see your medical professional.
How type-A personalities can mask their symptoms
A word of caution to those of you who consider yourself a type-A personality—you are able to power through any situation, no matter how challenging the circumstances.
You are probably really good at ignoring or compensating for any symptoms you are experiencing. Have a loved one go through the pre-screening checklists with you and go to the doctor appointment with you. This helps to keep you honest.
I have talked to many busy professional women who have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and the most common symptom they described was, “feeling like they were going to lose it…all the time.” It was only when a friend or significant other pointed out other symptoms that they began to acknowledge the possibility it is something more than just stress.
Spread the word for Mental Health week!
If you realize that perhaps you are struggling with a brain disorder, please commit to yourself today that you will be brave and seek medical attention. The BC Division of CMHA has a PREPARE checklist for you to use so that your doctor appointment is more effective.
If you need resources for prioritizing your mental health, I would encourage you to check out the wellness worksheets from HeretoHelp BC’s website. For those of you who are busy professionals struggling to prioritize your own wellbeing, Secondhand Therapy offers one hour eClasses to help get you back on track.
Finally, if you are one of the lucky ones that are feeling pretty good about life and your own mental health, help spread the word for Canada’s Mental Health Week. CMHA’s campaign for this week is to #GetLoud and start talking about how you really feel: fine or phine (saying you are fine when you are not)?
Share this post on social media and join the conversation about Mental Health on Twitter with the #GetLoud hashtag.