The pandemic has been challenging in so many ways. Social isolation, job loss, financial stress, increased caregiving responsibilities; and the anxiety, grief, and fear related to COVID-19 have dealt a blow to our collective mental health. Mental health issues currently have the highest increase for young people, marginalized groups, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers., What can you do about it, and how do you know when mental health crosses over into mental illness?
Although it does require commitment and consistency, a holistic approach to diet, exercise, and mindfulness are tools that can greatly help improve overall mental health. Additionally, it’s important to know that there are accessible resources and professional support available when needed.
Lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet and regular exercise have been shown to lower the risk of mental health conditions. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of anxiety and depression and helps you sleep better, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In fact, doing vigorous exercise for just 15 minutes a day (such as running or dancing) may help prevent depression, as can longer durations of lower intensity exercise, such as walking or doing housework for an hour, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
Meditation is also effective for decreasing anxiety and depression. The practice, which originated in India several thousands of years ago, requires focus and discipline. It helps increase mindfulness and decrease stress by training the mind to observe thoughts without judgement so those thoughts can be released, creating space for presence and a sense of calm. Many published articles have confirmed that meditating for just 10 minutes a day can change your life.
What you eat matters, too. A diet that is low in refined sugar and processed foods and high in vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and unprocessed grains has been shown to reduce the risk of depression by as much as 25–35%. Fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, and tempeh, which contain naturally occurring probiotics and prebiotics, are also being studied for their mental health benefits.
While maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be highly impactful for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, sometimes it is not enough. If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues or just need someone to talk to, there are resources available to help sort out concerns, find professional counseling and provide referrals.
Here are just a few of many resources:
SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline
Crisis counseling for anyone experiencing emotional distress
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline
Support for people living with mental health conditions and their family members.
NAMI Resource Directory: A comprehensive list of resources for people from specific communities (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ, healthcare workers)
An anonymous source for finding mental health and substance use treatment in your area.
USA.gov A US government agency providing information on available financial assistance for food, housing, and bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mental Health.gov One-stop access to U.S. government mental health and mental health problems information offering topics, tips, hotlines and websites.
Better Help is the world’s largest eCounseling platform offering affordable, private online counseling
CALM an app that helps you “take a deep breath” through guided meditation, leading to increased mindfulness and reduced stress and anxiety. CALM also has sessions to help improve sleep quality.
Headspace is a meditation app with millions of users in more than 190 countries, with the mission of improving the health and happiness of the world.
It is important to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health refers to the ability to cope with life’s daily stressors and maintain a general state of emotional, social, and psychological well-being. Mental illness refers to specific diagnoses and conditions that change a person’s thinking, emotions, mood, and/or behavior and are often associated with challenges in how a person functions at work, socially, or with family. Mental illnesses are common and often treatable—1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year.
Mental illnesses, also known as mental health conditions, include (but are not limited to):
A 2020 survey conducted by the CDC found that 40% of participants reported an uptick in mental health issues due to the pandemic, such as symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trauma, starting or increasing substance use, and experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing these things or anything similar, know that you are not alone, and there are tools and resources available to help.
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