Before you read any further, understand one thing: You matter.
When you think of sadness, confusion, anger, irritability, or loneliness, you probably think of someone who’s experiencing anxiety or depression.
Now, what about when you think of muscle pain, headaches, shortness of breath, cardiovascular disease, hair loss, or weight gain/loss? Are you still thinking of someone with anxiety and/or depression?
Probably not. You’re probably thinking of someone experiencing a physical injury or illness.
With more education and awareness, we can begin to understand that mental health issues can present in many ways.
My mental health journey
Late last year, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, minor depression, and small semblances of post-trauma. I had known for a long time that something wasn’t right, but like many others, I only ever thought to treat the physical symptoms.
I had visited physiotherapists, naturopaths, and more to try and address how my body felt. The symptoms weren’t always persistent; I could go several months without feeling any physical regression, and thought my physical therapy had worked.
But the symptoms would return.
Sometimes I would barely sleep at all or sleep excessively. I’d feel sore and stiff, weak and unable to perform athletically, or completely lacking the motivation to do anything.
After years of this cycle, I visited my family doctor and told him that I thought I may be having mental health problems. We spent nearly half an hour talking, and I learned that symptoms of anxiety and depression aren’t limited to the emotional ones listed above.
I learned that everyone may experience a different manifestation of symptoms, and that what I was experiencing was my body signaling that something wasn’t right, which I learned was normal when experiencing a mental illness.
Six weeks and an appointment with a psychiatrist later, I had my diagnosis. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders (pardon the cliché). I wasn’t embarrassed or upset by my diagnosis; I was happy to finally have answers.
There was a reason to explain how I felt, and I had options to seek help. In the weeks since, I’ve found an excellent psychologist to teach me the tools I need to ensure I can manage my diagnosis. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past two months, and I don’t let me diagnosis hold me back.
I feel much better physically, and I’m glad that I have managed to care for myself without pharmaceutical options, although there is nothing wrong with using them!
Mental health is key to overall health
Physical health and mental health are highly intertwined, and an increasing body of research is finding evidence to support this link. Physical injuries and conditions can deteriorate your mental health, due to feelings of inadequacy, reduced performance, inability to do basic activities, and/or missing time away from work or recreation.
Mental illnesses can alter hormone balance, interrupt sleep patterns, and increase stress, not to mention the physical side effects that come with most psychotropic medications.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadians who report symptoms of depression can experience three times as many chronic physical conditions compared to the general population. Conversely, those with chronic physical conditions are twice as likely to experience a mood or anxiety disorder, which can limit daily activities.
If physical and mental conditions are so closely connected, why are people quick to turn to a doctor or physiotherapist to address their physical health, but rarely seek psychological help for their mental health?
Stigma. Shame. Embarrassment. Fear.
1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness annually, and 50% of Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in their lifetime.
With such prevalence in our lives, the stigma around mental illness needs to be eliminated. Mental health needs to be addressed with the same urgency as physical health. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment can make a positive difference for over 80% of people with a mental health challenge, but they need to take the first steps.
With open and continuing dialogue around mental health, the stigma will continue to fade. High-profile discussions, like #BellLetsTalk Day, are great for raising awareness. Keeping an open mind, being patient and listening to those having a tough time, and talking regularly about mental health will help chip away at stigma for those around you.
People aren’t always aware of what they’re going through, nor are they willing to disclose their struggles. It takes strength to evaluate yourself with honesty and to reach out for support; it’s arguably the most difficult step to take in the recovery process.
The sooner help can be provided, the more likely it is that the benefits of treatment can be experienced. Take care of your mental health and physical health.
Always remember that you matter, you have a purpose, and people are there to help you. Don’t struggle in silence.