Everyone can benefit from improved mental health

HOUGHTON – Some people stereotype mental health only in terms of severe mental disabilities, but that’s a very incomplete picture. Everyone can benefit from improved mental health.

That’s a big part of Mental Health America’s message throughout May, which is Mental Health Month. This year’s theme is Pathways to Wellness, which focuses not only on getting healthy, but staying healthy.

“Mental health is for everybody,” said Taryn Mack, director of the Copper Country Mental Health Services Institute, which focuses on prevention and training. “We know if people are mentally healthy, if they’re adults, they’re better workers, better parents, better spouses, better friends.”

Mental health concerns affect about one in 10 Americans, but fewer than 25 percent of those people with a diagnosable mental health disorder seek treatment.

A big part of that problem is the negative stigma surrounding mental health treatment – though it is improving.

“A lot of people think that a mental health disease is not quite as serious as a physical disease,” Mack said. “Most people if they had heart disease wouldn’t just forget about it and think it would go away – they would definitely go seek medical attention for that, and people wouldn’t think anything bad about that. But when we think about mental illness, people think if they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if they just think more positive, it would go away.

“The stigma definitely impacts that, but there’s some studies that have indicated that the stigma is reducing.”

Many times, though, mental illness – which causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking, perception and behavior – has a biological component, such as a chemical imbalance in the brain that can lead to depression. Mack compared that scenario to somebody with diabetes and blood sugar.

“You wouldn’t just assume if you just let it go (diabetes) would just go away,” she said. “(For depression) you need to get the medication to balance the chemicals in your brain, but it’s more effective if you also talk with a mental health professional.”

Fortunately, the health care industry is starting to utilize a more integrated model of treatment, which recognizes the connection between mental and physical components.

“That’s one of the things in our society we’ve messed up on is overlooking the connection between all of these things,” said Debbie Makkonen, Cognitive Behavioral Therapist with Copper Country Community Mental Health.

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 is helping further integrate mental and physical health by requiring group health insurance plans to make sure coverage for mental health is no more restrictive than for medical or surgical procedures. Therapy, often covered now through insurance, is a helpful treatment worth pursuing.

“Everyone could use therapy at one time or another,” Makkonen said. “We all have problems and issues to deal with in life and the ability to talk to someone whose only investment is to help you figure out the best way for you to function at the highest level is very beneficial toward recovery.”

Recognizing the interaction between the mental and the physical can help with treating mental issues outside a clinical setting as well, and pursuing wellness.

An example is a recent study Mack cited on exercise and depression. Regular aerobic exercise 60 minutes a day, three days a week can have the same effect as an anti-depressant for somebody who is mildly and moderately depressed.

In the Copper Country in particular, Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common due to the long, dark winter, but diet considerations and Vitamin D supplements can help.

MHA suggests four simple steps toward wellness, which, once again, reflect both mental and physical health: 1) a healthy diet, 2) regular exercise, 3) relaxation (reducing stress) and 4) plenty of rest.

Avoiding alcohol and drugs is also important, and many people may not realize that alcohol is a depressant.

In terms of stress management, there are many ways to help, whether it be simply reducing the workload, limiting constant connections to technology or volunteering in the community.

“If you reach outside of yourself and help others … you have a more positive attitude,” Mack said. “We have lots of opportunities for volunteering.”

For more advice on wellness, through the MHA’s “Mental Health Month: Pathways to Wellness,” visit mentalhealthamerica.net/go/may. For more information on Copper Country Community Mental Health, including its main office in Houghton and satellite offices in Ontonagon, L’Anse and Calumet, visit cccmh.org. The emergency mental health services line during business hours is 482-9404, or after hours 1-800-526-5059. For non-emergency services, call 1-888-906-9060.