This article was co-authored by Des Moines University students Morgan Alwell, D.O.’23, Grace Gavin, D.O.’23, and Charis Kasler, D.O.’23.
What does good mental health look like? There are an endless number of answers, of course, but we’ll begin by discussing two mental illnesses and their role in the science of maintaining positive mental health goals to stay happy and healthy.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression
Depression is a condition that most people think means you are always sad, but the reality is that it encompasses so much more than that. Signs of depression and anxiety can mean that you are excessively tired, you’re not sleeping well, or you’re feeling irritable without really understanding why. Depression can also feel like confusion, trouble focusing or no longer enjoying things that you used to—playing games, going on walks, being with friends and family, watching your favorite tv show or listening to music or even everyday activities, like cooking. Sometimes, depression can cause you to eat less or eat more than you usually would. You may cry a lot more than you used to. Depression can also mean having thoughts of ending your life, whether that’s having a definite plan or feeling like it would be okay if you weren’t around. Depression can also cause physical symptoms, like headaches, muscle aches and digestive troubles.
Anxiety is defined as excessive nervousness, fear or worrying. Everyone worries sometimes, but if your worrying is causing you to fear leaving your house, being around your support system or constantly thinking about traumatic events, it becomes anxiety. Anxiety, like depression, can also have physical symptoms, like chest pain, headaches, sweating and digestive distress.
What causes mental illness?
So now that we know what mental illness looks like, what causes it? The simple answer is that we don’t have a simple answer for that. Conditions like depression and anxiety are multifactorial, meaning that oftentimes, there is more than one cause. For depression, if you have a family history or a personal history of depression, you are at an increased risk for developing it as an older adult. If you experience a stressful event in your life, like loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship or physical isolation associated with COVID-19, these events can increase your risk for depression. Additionally, some people just have different levels of hormones in the brain, meaning that depression originates at the chemical level.
With anxiety, if you concurrently have a physical illness, like COPD, cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease or diabetes—just to name a few—this can lead to excessive worrying over physical health symptoms that can increase your risk. Additionally, medications that are used to treat these conditions can have anxiety as a side effect. If you’re not sleeping properly or have physical limitations to your activities, this can also increase your risk for anxiety. As with depression, stressful or negative events from childhood or adulthood, like living during a pandemic, can contribute to the risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Treatment for anxiety and depression
All of that being said, the most important thing to take away from this is that if you are experiencing any of those feelings or symptoms, you are not alone. You are not weak because of what you’re feeling and there are ways to work through what you are experiencing. Because of the societal stigma surrounding mental health, anxiety and depression are under-diagnosed and under-treated. This phenomenon is seen in all age groups, but it is particularly pronounced in people over the age of 55. Depression is found in 1-5% of the population over age 55, and anxiety is seen in 3-14% in the same age group. Depression and anxiety are not normal parts of aging, but they are not uncommon in aging adults. So, if you take away on thing from this, I hope it’s that you hear that you are not alone.
The good thing is that there are things that you can do to help improve your anxiety and depression symptoms, if these are things that you’re experiencing. The first thing that will have a positive impact on mental health is social involvement. Seniors on the Move is a program that has monthly or yearly subscriptions available for you to have access to lifestyle planning, weekly events, community outreach, lifeline screening and medical coverage for vision and dental. Visiting Angels is a personal home care service that can provide companionship and daily activity assistance without a prescription for home health care. Both of these programs are a way to facilitate social interactions, especially in times when that can be difficult to come by.
Next, nutrition has an incredible impact on our mental health so it’s important to make sure that you are maintaining a well-balanced diet. You should definitely consult your physician about a dietary plan that is best for you, but focusing on eating fruits and veggies, lean proteins like chicken or fish, whole grains and low-fat dairy are the staples of a well-balanced diet. Shopping can be really challenging during these COVID-19 times, but there are options available specifically for vulnerable populations. HyVee, Walmart and Target have pickup and delivery options for groceries where they load groceries into your car to make it safer. Insta Cart is another really great service available where you can have food delivered directly to your door from Aldi, CVS, Sam’s Club and Costco. You can also have groceries delivered from Whole Foods using your Amazon account. If you would rather still do your own shopping, there are also options specifically for vulnerable populations at many local grocery stores. These options all make it possible to stay safe, but make sure that you are eating a well-balanced diet that can positively impact your mental health.
How to talk about mental illness with your provider
It’s also important to note that medical professionals are able to help you with mental health concerns. Whether you feel more comfortable talking in person or through a virtual appointment, there are options available to you within the medical community. Talking with physicians about how you have been feeling and seeing about maybe starting a medication for anxiety and depression to help with your mental health could be very beneficial. Your physician may also consider other physical concerns that could be negatively affecting your mental health, like chronic fatigue, chronic pain or gastrointestinal concerns, and they can talk to you about options to improve those physical concerns. Talking to a therapist is also an option available to you that can help you to express your feelings in a controlled setting, where you can know that your feelings are being heard and that your feelings are valid.
Talk about your needs with family and friends
Emotional expression is always important, but especially so when we’re talking about maintaining positive mental health. Talking about what you’re experiencing is helpful for you, but it is also helpful for those around you who love you and care for you and want to understand what you’ve been struggling with. In order to feel healthy emotions, it’s important to learn to express feelings, whether they be positive or negative because all feelings are valid. Talking to friends and family, talking to a counselor, joining a support group for people in similar situations, participating in artistic activities like painting or drawing, and writing down your thoughts are all healthy ways to express your emotions that will positively contribute to your mental wellbeing.
Activities that help improve mental wellbeing
On top of all of those things, there are activities that you can do every day to help maintain a positive mental outlook during your situation. Staying connected with those you love is more important than ever right now. You can do this through family game nights or family dinners that are either socially distanced or through video calls. Writing letters to loved ones or journaling are helpful ways to put your thoughts into words. Spending at least 15-20 minutes outside every day, either walking, gardening or just sitting and enjoying fresh air can go a long way towards feeling better. Making sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night will also have a very positive impact on mental health. If you are able, adopting a pet to act as a companion is shown to improve moods and motivation in day-to-day life. And of course, don’t forget to exercise your mind. Doing crosswords, sudoku or jigsaw puzzles can be a great way to keep your mind active, which can improve mood. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it can help get you started if you’re looking for ways to improve your mental health in your day-to-day life.
All that being said, why is this topic important? Because of the situation that the world is in, with this global pandemic forcing physical and social isolation on us all. Mental health issues have been arising in every population as a direct result of the state of our world. There is a societal stigma around talking about mental health and admitting that you are struggling with these feelings, so no one talks about it. It’s time that changes. Know that it’s okay if you or someone you know are experiencing these things. The students and providers at Des Moines University are here give you tools to help get through it. There are steps that you can actively take to improve your mental health. It’s really easy right now to get caught up in all the negativity in the world, but if you can find one positive thing in every day, because there is always at least one positive in every day, you will find that you have a new appreciation for life. That’s not always easy to do and sometimes you need people to help you do that, but know that you are not alone and that there are resources to help you along your way.
These three organizations are great resources for anyone who is struggling with their mental health. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) is available for social engagements that talk about the importance of being open and de-stigmatizing mental health discussions. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Disaster Distress Hotline are available 24/7 to talk if you feel like you need someone to help you through what you are feeling. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone.
- National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI): 515-254-0417, firstname.lastname@example.org
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental illness, we can help. The family medicine providers at the Des Moines University Clinic are kind, compassionate, and will work with you to determine the best treatment options for you. To schedule an appointment, visit the DMU Clinic website, or call 515-271-1710.