Before the start of the pandemic, one in five Americans lived with a diagnosable mental health condition. These rates have skyrocketed as individuals from all walks of life have experienced disruption and insecurity in their lives due to the collective trauma caused by this experience.
One CDC study reveals that more than two in five U.S. residents report struggling with mental or behavioral health issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including anxiety, depression, increased substance use, and suicidal thoughts.*
“As we enter the New Year, it is important to remember that our mental health is a critical component of facing the challenging days ahead,” says Karl Shallowhorn, chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition. “By doing so, we can support one another and establish healthy practices that support our overall well-being.”
Adam Giancarlo, LCSW, offers the three actions that can improve mental health. First, seek therapy, a valuable tool for anyone and everyone (again, depending on the circumstances). It has been shown to be highly effective in promoting the kinds of changes that people want or need to make in their lives, and those who engage in therapy tend to be in a much better position for experiencing positive outcomes and improvement in various life areas.
“Second, there is a very strong link between physical health and mental/emotional health and well-being. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, taking medications as prescribed, and staying current with regular/annual physical exams/check-ups as well as getting regular bloodwork done are very important. When it comes to sleep, sleep hygiene is very important – going to bed at a reasonable time, trying to keep somewhat of a regular routine or schedule, avoiding excessive caffeine and/or screen-time prior to bedtime,” Giancarlo said.
According to Giancarlo, the third suggestion is establishing, building, and maintaining a strong and healthy support network which is vital to improving mental health. Utilizing one’s social structure of friends, family, coworkers, employer, clergy or spiritual advisors, and self-help/mutual aid support groups and peer supports can be very valuable and effective when it comes to establishing and maintaining good, positive mental and emotional health and well-being.
Self-care is one of the best ways to make mental wellness a priority and the new year is a great time to make it part of your daily routine.
What is self-care? The World Health Organization defines self-care as the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.
“Self-care improves mental health in every way possible,” Lindsay Herndon, LMHC, Associate VP of Outpatient Services, BryLin Behavioral Health System. “Self-care is not selfish,” Herndon said. “It has been a very difficult time as we have had to wear different hats – parent, co-worker, teacher. You are no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself.”
She suggests keeping self-care simple. Some ideas are getting fresh air, finding a hobby like painting, working out, or simply taking a bath.
According to Lisa Prefontaine, M.S. LMHC, self-care requires the commitment to take care of yourself as much as you take care of others. This allows you to be there for others in the way that you want. Self-care helps you to concentrate, increases energy levels, and most importantly, reduces stress which can be a trigger for depression and anxiety.
Mental wellness requires a commitment to taking care of yourself with strategies such as mindfulness, saying no when you need to, and knowing what your limits are, taking time to get your mind off what worries you, and exercising in any way you are able to.
“This past year has shown us that we need one another to cope and thrive through difficult times. My hope is that this in itself has helped de-stigmatize the concept that mental health and substance use issues are of humanity, not of personal choice,” Prefontaine said.
“It wasn’t so long ago that people feared those living with cancer and HIV, and with knowledge, we have come to understand the disease underlying,” she said. “The brain is an organ, just as a heart which when stressed, becomes compromised with illness such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, when the brain is stressed it becomes compromised with anxiety and depression and can become dependent on substances or alcohol to cope,” she said.
With continued knowledge and understanding, these symptoms can be treated just like any other symptom of the body.
The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition is committed to ending the stigma of mental illness so everyone in our community can get the help they need. Everyone is invited to take the Pledge to End Stigma here (it’s free) and create a new dialogue about mental health. Explore the website and discover stories of friends and neighbors who have experienced mental illness, recovered, and are living full lives.
“I like using the end of a year for reflection and seeing what I’d like to take into the New Year with me, and what to let go of. From there, you may identify some personal goals you want to work on. Use supports such as friends, apps, online groups, or getting your own counseling to help you look at what to prioritize, what is a realistic goal/timeframe, for encouragement and keeping you accountable, and what could be getting in the way of your motivation. It’s a process, not a destination!”
Lisa Prefontaine, M.S., LMHC
“I believe that there are times in everyone’s life in which they could use some extra support. Therapy provides a safe place for people to discuss and process their thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, decisions, choices, and behaviors in an environment of understanding, acceptance, and non-judgment. This type of resource could be helpful to anyone at any time, but particularly during challenging periods of their lives.”
Adam Giancarlo, LCSW
Habits to Improve Mental Health:
Exercise can take many forms, such as taking the stairs whenever possible, walking up escalators, and running and biking rather than driving.
Eating mainly unprocessed foods like whole grains, vegetables and fresh fruit is key to a healthy body.
Get Enough Sleep.
Adults generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep. A brief nap—up to 30 minutes—can help you feel alert again during the day. Even 15 minutes of daytime sleep is helpful.
Avoid Alcohol and Drugs.
They don’t actually reduce stress and often worsen it.
Practice Relaxation Exercises.
Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are easy, quick ways to reduce stress.