Mental Health: Back to Basics

I love being a psychiatrist. For the past fifteen years, I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with thousands of patients to help enhance their mental health and quality of life. My passion has been to discover the answer to one critical question: “What simple habits can people follow to significantly improve their mental health?”

This question has never been more relevant than today. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have dramatically increased in the past few decades. The pandemic and its aftermath have only amplified this suffering. 

In one recent survey, one in four American young adults admitted to having suicidal thoughts in the past month.  In recent years, “Deaths of Despair” caused by suicide, alcohol-related illnesses, and opioid overdoses have significantly reduced the life expectancy in the United States.  Needless to say, these trends are very concerning for the future of our nation, our communities, and our families.

This raises an important question: Why are mental health problems increasing significantly, despite the fact that we have more knowledge and resources to address these issues than we ever have before?

Why are so many people suffering? 

In the 2019 documentary, One Nation Under Stress, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, explores the unprecedented levels of anxiety Americans are facing today.  This ongoing stress contributes significantly to the mental health crisis described above. Most people today are unprepared, both physically and psychologically, to deal with the level of stress that has crept into everyday life. 

How should we respond to this crisis? Are we at the mercy of the circumstances around us, or are there practical things we can do to become more resilient, more connected, and more content, even in the face of adversity?

Mental illness is real. Those who are suffering deserve our utmost compassion. But I believe there is hope. I’ve seen too many people bounce back from major depression and anxiety to believe otherwise. 

The solution comes from going back to the basics. As human beings, we were designed to live a certain way. We function best when we practice the simple habits that help protect our wellbeing—habits such as adequate sleep, social connection, proper nutrition, regular exercise, time in nature, gratitude, and more. 

I have found in my psychiatric practice that patients who are willing to incorporate these simple habits into their lives (in addition to standard treatment) often experience much more significant improvements than patients who prefer to limit their treatment to medication and therapy alone. 

Our clinic offers an intensive outpatient program which provides 15-plus hours of treatment each week for patients struggling with debilitating depression or anxiety. Many of these patients have suffered tremendously for decades. 

Some come to us from psychiatric hospitals after losing all hope or even attempting suicide. 

Our team uses standard depression screening tools to assess our patient’s progress. We’re grateful to report that more than 90 percent of patients have a positive treatment response after 10 or more days in the program, 92 percent of patients that start the program with high levels of anxiety leave with low to normal levels of anxiety, and 67 percent of patients suffering from depression go into remission before discharge. I believe these improvements can be attributed to the wholistic approach we practice—encouraging patients to care for their physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.

Whether you’re suffering from mental illness or just want to enhance your mood, memory, and mental functioning, the simple lifestyle habits outlined in this magazine can help. At Beautiful Minds, we use an acronym called CHOOSE LIFE© to remind patients of 10 simple habits that promote mental wellness. These habits are listed on page 26, but I’d like to discuss a few of them here. 

Hippocrates, known as the Father of Western Medicine, once wrote: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” In recent years, science has shown that proper nutrition plays a critical role in mental wellness.  Many of our patients have noticed significant mood improvements by cutting back on refined foods and eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. 

Exercise is a powerful tool to fight depression and anxiety. Some clinical studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication for treating depression.  Exercise can also be used successfully in combination with medication to enhance patient outcomes. 

I believe that much of our stress and sadness comes from a lack of meaningful social and spiritual connection. In January of 2020, three out of five American adults surveyed reported feeling lonely and isolated.  The pandemic only exacerbated this problem. 

I’ve seen many patients begin to flourish when their social isolation was replaced with meaningful connection. Investing in our relationships is one of the most powerful things we can do to enhance our mental health.  Being generous to people in need is also a great way to fight feelings of sadness and stress.  

Spiritual connection is also important. People who belong to a spiritual community are less likely to suffer from depression and other mental health conditions than those who do not. Contemplating God’s love and spending time in prayer can significantly reduce anxiety. 

My hope and prayer is that many more people will learn about the intricate connection between lifestyle habits and mental health. Ultimately, I believe the most critical factor for mental wellness is the ability to give and receive love. 

If you’re struggling today, I want to remind you that you are valuable and loved. No two sets of fingerprints are the same. No two brains or bodies are the same. I believe that you are a masterpiece—uniquely created and uniquely loved. And that, my friend, is a good reason to take care of yourself. 

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