May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a topic often avoided but one that must be addressed. Part of the reason the topic of mental health is avoided and ignored is because there is a stigma surrounding mental health. Many perceive mental illness as a weakness or something you can just snap out of. Neither of those notions is correct.
Mental illness is real and appears in many different forms. It doesn’t discriminate, leaving most of us to experience some type of mental illness at some point in our lives. And that’s okay. You just have to know how to care for yourself and get the help you need if you need it.
We spoke with VIPcare Apopka’s primary care provider, Dr. Jibril Skaden, who answered some important questions about mental health. He shed some light on how your mental health can actually affect your physical health. He also provided some tips on how you can combat the very serious condition.
Q: How does your mental health affect your physical health?
Our mental and physical health are extremely interrelated; each informs the other and has the potential ability to exert effects on the other, for better or worse. Oftentimes the effects of unchecked mental health concerns can work in ways that are not immediately obvious or evident but have powerful and negative effects all the same. Anything that brings our bodies stress, such as unaddressed depression, insufficient sleep, or chronic anxiety, has the potential to drive up our bodies’ sympathetic nervous system, which is designed to bring attention and prompt us to take action and attention by way of our hormonally-mediated neuroendocrine systems – this can have the immediate effect of turning up our heart rate and blood pressure or driving up our blood sugar, which in the long-term can have disastrous effects for our physical health when we remain in such a state for too long.
Q: What are some mental health symptoms you look for in seniors that signal depression?
Oftentimes we think of depression as being simply a protracted state of sadness, when in reality, depression can look very different for different people. While there are no hard and fast rules about it, men may tend to embody depression through heightened emotions of anger, irritability, withdrawal, or avoidance, while women may tend to feel more classically down and depressed, hopeless, or distraught. This can take on different shades as we age as well, oftentimes felt as a loss of interest or enjoyment in things that once brought pleasure and can even masquerade as what we call “pseudodementia” at times, for its ability to cause more forgetfulness through inattention. This is something that your doctor can certainly help to distinguish and differentiate.
Q: How can seniors modify their diet to ease anxiety and depression and improve their mental health? Are there certain foods they should include? Eliminate?
The best diet to support good mental health is one that is especially rich in whole foods in order to provide the good energy needed to be fully present and engaged in the physical activities that bring joy and pleasure. As most of our brain’s neurotransmitters are, in fact, made in our guts, what we eat and put into our bodies has such a powerful effect on our experience of mental health or risk for illness in the form of anxiety and depression. Diets that rely too heavily on convenience or processed food items tend to be missing those essential nutrients and ingredients that become the building blocks for our brain’s optimal functioning. So too, while daily routines that rely heavily on excess sugar, caffeine, or other stimulants can provide energy to get up and go, they more often leave a person feeling anxious and quickly depleted.
Q: What are some lifestyle changes seniors can make to improve mental health?
Lifestyle measures of healthy change are almost always the first place to look for mental wellness. These can include getting a good night’s sleep and being well rested, engaging in some regular physical activity and exercise, doing some regular stretching or yoga, going for a walk or getting out in the beauty of nature, engaging in practices or mindfulness or meditation, reminding yourself daily of things you are grateful for, being of service to others, and most especially, keeping yourself connected to friends, family, faith, and the community or practice that brings you love and support.
Q: Are there any specific coping strategies for seniors experiencing depression?
One of the best coping strategies for depression is talking with someone about how you’re feeling. Depression tends to make us feel like we should be or need to be left alone, and one of the best ways to counter that isolating effect is to remind yourself that you are not alone. Talking with loved ones, letting your doctor know what you are feeling, and getting yourself connected to people who truly care is a good place to start.
Symptoms of depression can sometimes last and linger for long periods of time, sometimes can fade and sometimes return, sometimes may require medication from your doctor to help with the lifting of moods or low energy, and sometimes require help from trusted counselors and advisors to get us out of ourselves and back into the world with the best of ourselves. Know that there is no shame in reaching out for help and that feeling these feelings is an all too human experience.
About Dr. Skaden:
Dr. Jibril Skaden is a board-certified family medicine specialist. He earned his medical degree from the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical School in Brooklyn, NY, and completed his residency at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. Learn more about Dr. Skaden HERE.