Erasing Stigma: Research reveals mental illnesses is common, treatable

Man outside Ryan McGuire of Bells Design
Man outside Ryan McGuire of Bells Design

Special to The Dallas Examiner

L.J. made three suicide attempts before age 16. But there was no official diagnosis of depression until his second attempt. Before that, he was labeled with a behavioral disorder. After his diagnosis, he began the long journey of finding the right combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.

L.J. was among the over 1 million Texans who suffer from a mental illness, according to the Mental Health Committee established by the Texas Judicial Council.

In Dallas County in 2016, there were nearly 427,000 behavior health visits by patients with mental health or substance abuse issues, according to the DFW Hospital Council Foundation. Also, new research has shown that Black youth age 5 to 12 are twice as likely to commit suicide than White youth of the same age, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In contrast, when rates were grouped by sex, using all youth age groups, the rate of suicide in White youth was higher than Black youth.

Though suicide in youth is rare, it is the over-all leading cause of death in the United States.

Additionally more than 20 percent of Texas children ages 9 to 17 and nearly one in five adults in Texas experiences mental illness each year and have a diagnosed mental illness. Mental health experts at Parkland Health and Hospital System say that many mental illnesses, like physical health problems, are common, treatable and even preventable.

Recognizing the link between mental and physical health is crucial to overall wellness, a message mental health professionals are emphasizing this month, National Mental Health Awareness Month. The advocacy group Mental Health America selected this year’s theme Fitness#4Mind4Body to focus on what individuals can do to improve their fitness by making small changes, physically and mentally, to improve overall health.

“Taking good care of your body is part of an evidence-based approach to mental health. We know that people living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic health conditions and that a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent the onset or worsening of many mental health problems like depression and anxiety, as well as heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health problems,” said Pedro Fernandez, MD, medical director of Consult-Liaison Psychiatry at Parkland and assistant professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

L.J. was encouraged to develop and maintain a daily routine that included eating healthy and exercise. As a teenager, his daily meals still fluctuated between healthy meals and fast food, but he did begin running on a daily basis. His mother reported a noticeable difference in his behavior and attitude, and was hopeful that his progress would continue.

“Much of what we do physically impacts us mentally, so it’s important to view mental health as a component of overall health and well-being. Eating healthy foods, managing stress, exercising and getting enough sleep can go a long way in improving your mental health as well as your physical fitness,” Fernandez said.

Research shows that people who are chronically stressed or depressed have a greater risk of physical illness. Exercise and good nutrition can have a significant impact on overall health and stress reduction by improving immunity, lowering blood pressure, preventing or aiding in management of diabetes and heart disease and boosting endorphins for improved mood and overall mental health.

Adults with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year, the organization reports. In addition, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. More than 90 percent of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In 2015, Parkland became the first health system in the nation to administer a universal suicide screening program to identify persons at risk in order to help save lives through early intervention. The program was designed to screen adults and youth 12 to 17 years old, regardless of their reason for seeking care. Since initiating the program, more than 2 million suicide risk screenings have been completed. In March, Parkland expanded the screenings to include patients age 10 and older. Parkland expects to complete more than 11,000 screenings for children ages 10 to 12 annually.

“We recognize that we have the opportunity to identify children and young adults coming to Parkland for other health services who may also need mental health services. By asking a few questions of every patient, regardless of why they come in for medical care, we can determine if there are reasons for concern and take steps to help,” said Kimberly Roaten, PhD, director of Quality for Safety, Education and Implementation in the department of Psychiatry at Parkland and associate professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Diabetes and other chronic diseases can lead to serious depression in some patients, setting up a vicious cycle between mental and physical problems, said Luigi Meneghini, MD, MBA, Executive Director of the Global Diabetes Program at Parkland and Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “It’s known that when people are depressed, they might exercise less, make less healthy food choices and engage in less healthy behaviors which can lead to weight gain, increase the risk of developing chronic conditions or worsen control of existing ones. For people with diabetes, depression may make it more challenging to stick to a diabetes management plan, which includes eating a healthy diet, exercising, monitoring blood glucose and taking medications. Effectively addressing depression can improve both mood and diabetes control.”

Fernandez emphasized that mental illness should not be stigmatized, any more than a physical ailment.

“There are many taboos and myths still surrounding mental illness, but through education we can erase the feelings of shame and fear that prevent many from seeking treatment,” he said. “If you have a mental health condition, you’re not alone. As with other illnesses, mental illness is not your fault. With proper treatment, symptoms can be dramatically reduced and many people with mental health conditions can and do succeed in leading active, fulfilling lives.”

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