Mental Health awareness is lifesaving. It can mean the difference between life and death. It can mean the difference between strong cognition and thriving independently vs living in a locked treatment facility or prison.
Most new parents do not realize the importance of knowing genetic pre-disposition. Understanding your family tree - going back multiple generations - hunting for those that had a mental illness and/or any addictive behaviors is crucial. We know that schizophrenia and bi-polar for example are the most heritable of all mental illnesses (80-90%.). We know that environment can play a role as well (trauma, extreme stress, and yes there is a strong link between schizophrenia and marijuana particularly when used in the teen years.)
Most parents do not take seriously that the brain isn't fully developed until mid-20's (to maximize cognition and job opportunities and college performance and relationships long-term it is vital that we educate families about wellness.)
Genetic discoveries have emerged literally just in the last few years that profoundly change the landscape for those of us caring for a loved one with a mental health condition or for those of us living with a mental health condition. Tools to understand mechanisms of these illnesses and improved strategies to think about mental health are emerging at a rapid pace. This is a game-changing time to be in the field or start pursuing the field of brain research, cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry, brain surgery, advances in treatments and the like.
"If you're not studying genes, you're going to be dinosaurs in an age of mammals" Daniel Weinberger, M.S. Director and CEO, Lieber Institute for Brain Development
We need to be educating the community about what wellness means from a pre-natal and post-natal perspective when there is a pre-disposition (family history) of mental illness and/or co-occurring addictive behaviors.
Similarly, if we as a community are not talking about genetics in relationship to mental health we are doing a dis-service to our community. We must talk about genetics; we must take the time to learn some very basics in this field of study so that we may in turn encourage our youth and young adults in particular to take notice.
Some people get very excited when a new edition of People Magazine comes out weekly. For others they feel a rush of excitement when they see their favorite Sport's Team is playing. For me, I'm filled with glee when a new scientific discovery with statistical significance is published that is aimed at improved understanding of our brain's health. BBRFoundation.org is just one favorite website.
The brain's Dopamine system, glutamate system, and GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) is implicated in many of our genes.
Our ability to understand how genetics translates in mechanisms of risk and illness are a genuine sweet spot for advancements in treatment and research.
Genes are inherited and most of the genes that influence risk of schizophrenia for example exist from birth. Scientists are keen to find ways to improve pre-natal health by targeting the healthy development of the placenta for example. Understanding our family tree and learning as much as we can about genetics is really important. We have been cheerleading this at every mental health outreach we do.
Depression is ranked #1 in terms of lifetime disability.
Brain research is now proposing that clock ""genes"" may play a critical role in depression. The use of 24-hour rhythms and bio-markers to identify individuals at risk for suicide. Current studies are finding people with depression have abnormal 24-hour rhythms of temperature, hormonal secretion, sleep and mood which are all controlled by clock genes.
Future research studying molecular biomarkers in blood and clinical markers that could predict high risk for suicide and potentially save lives.
Of course healthy diet, exercise, healthy sleep and minimizing stress and saying ""no thank you"" to invites from toxic individuals is important. But we as a community need to learn some of the brain science because it is not as readily available as it needs to be. When was the last time you went for a physical? You see posters on the wall reminding you to get a colon screen or mammogram right? But we do not yet see posters promoting brain health and mental wellness screening.
The nation has a 50% deficit of psychiatrists. People in our community sometimes feel frustrated by a 7-8 month wait to see a psychiatrist. They wonder why do we have tele-psychiatry (something essential to close the gaps on wait-times.). Zimbabwe (Africa) has 1 psychiatrist for over 1 million people.
Appreciating what we have is part of everyday wellness. We encourage our NAMI friends and families to end each day by appreciating something about themselves and doing something special for themselves.
Do any google search and you can find a multitude of lists outlining signs and symptoms. But the truth is that most people do not understand they have a mental health condition until years after symptoms present. Stigma is the most common barrier to seeking treatment. Many feel something may be off but they may be able to simply change their diet, exercise more, or try harder at the task at hand and things will get better. It is sadly infrequent that families will have the crucial dialogue about family history and things to be on the look out for and proactive wellness checks with medical professionals.
For our family we discuss signs and symptoms openly and frequently (as in daily sometimes.). We know that given our pre-disposition to mental health issues we need to follow our treatment plans (therapy, medication, diet, exercise, and quality sleep coupled with resiliency tools.). Going to a weekly therapy appointment and sharing this with others should be no different than telling someone "I'm going for a haircut"" or ""I'm visiting my dentist for a filling."
I've spoken with hundreds of family members and individuals living with mental illnesses including co-occurring addictions. Most say hindsight is 20/20 (perfect vision when looking back at their lives.)
50% of us will have a diagnosable mental health condition in our life-time.
20% of us at minimum live with mental illness.
50% will start showing symptoms by age 14; 75% will show symptoms by age 24.
Psychosis can cause long-term cognition issues which is why we need to treat it with the same sort of urgency as treating a stroke. This is to say promptly. In today's model some wait several weeks, months or even years before getting evaluated and by then our loved ones have lost a great deal of gray and white matter. An anti-psychotic medication acts like a wrapper around the brain to prevent further damage. This is absolutely crucial for those with schizophrenia, bi-polar, and depression with psychotic features. Psychosis comes in many forms and must be taken seriously.
Here are some common signs and symptoms.
Excessive worrying or fear
Feeling excessively sad or low
Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning (example: not being able to follow a simple situation comedy on TV or having to read and re-read the same section of a book to understand it.)
Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger (depression often manifests itself as anger ironically.)
Avoiding friends and social activities (withdrawing is a very common sign)
Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
Changes in sex drive
Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs (this is a very serious sign of an underlying mental health issue.). Most people living with addiction actually are living with a treatable mental health condition but do not realize it.
Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
Thinking about suicide
Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance. Extreme body image concerns.
The most important step is ""sincere, uncritical, acceptance"" of yourself and the symptoms you are feeling. Visit NAMI.org and learn signs/symptoms and find a local support group. If you are caring for a loved one that may be living with a mental health condition then attend a NAMI Family Support Group. They are available across the nation.
Do your family tree detailing history of mental illness and addictive behaviors. Make copies of this for your doctor and other mental health treatment providers.
Visit your PCP (Primary Care Physician) and share your family history proactively expressing concerns about how you are feeling. Be proactive in seeking help.
Make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. Get on that waitlist for a psychiatrist and do see a tele-psychiatrist as an option if the wait is longer than desired.
There are many great on-line apps for maintaining wellness. But in times of un-wellness we need to proactively seek treatment promptly. Many individuals benefit from therapy and medication. It is not a sign of a weakness but rather a strength to seek treatment and maintain recovery. Commit to taking care of your mental wellness! Life is beautiful with all its sticky challenges. Why not live well and thrive?