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We are living through a time of rapid lifestyle changes with the potential to impact the mental health of many people.
Connecting to other people is key to your mental health and wellbeing, so if you are experiencing a mental health challenge, reach out to someone you trust.
While change is all around us, there are factors we can control. Focusing and acting on those can strengthen your emotional resilience.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an initiative that was established in 1949 to increase Americans’ understanding of mental health and wellness and the important role it plays in all of our lives. In the 70-plus years since we started observing Mental Health Awareness Month, notable progress has been made. Mental health care is more available and mental health challenges are more widely accepted — but those challenges are evolving along with us.
To learn about some of the most pressing issues in mental health today and to get some advice on how we can prioritize our own mental health and the mental wellbeing of the people we love, we spoke with Dr. Jake Choiniere, a board-certified psychiatrist and consultant with Swedish Primary Care.
Rapid lifestyle changes are testing our mental health
Since 2020, we’ve experienced rapid changes in the ways we live, work and play. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people shifted to remote work. Day-to-day, in-person interactions — like grocery shopping, school and medical appointments — moved online. People experienced financial instability and the loss of family and caregivers.
Some of these changes were temporary, others have lasted. Some changes were welcomed, others were traumatic. Each has affected how we interact with the world. And people who became ill with coronavirus may be dealing with cognitive and attention deficits (which sometimes presents as brain fog) and extreme fatigue, which also impacts mental health.
Human connection is key to our mental wellbeing
“One mental health trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic is a general separation from others, resulting in a loss of interpersonal connection,” says Dr. Choiniere. “While remote work comes with many potential benefits, it also comes at a cost to our sense of community and things greater than ourselves.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, a 2021 study found that nearly half of Americans surveyed reported recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, and 10% of respondents felt their mental health needs were not being met. Rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.
So, three years after the start of the pandemic, Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 is the perfect inflection point to check in with ourselves and our loved ones to make sure we are doing all we can to care for our mental health and wellbeing.
Ask for the help you need and deserve
Sometimes when we’re in the midst of mental health challenges, it can be difficult to give ourselves the time we need to seek care and heal. Dr. Choiniere says it’s important to recognize that what you are experiencing is real, but it isn’t something you have to continue to live with.
“Once we realize we would like to do something to improve our degree of mental suffering, we need to take stock of who and what is available to us to help,” he says. “Certainly, ask a primary care provider for guidance on local resources and if you are involved in a church, consider asking your church leader if they can connect you to help.”
You can also contact Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing to connect to providers and services near you.
Financial trauma such as job loss or losing one’s home can shake the foundations of our sense of security and safety. In these moments, it is normal to feel hesitant about sharing what has happened or just how bad it is with others. But one of the most powerful things you can do is reach out and ask for help.
“The best way to get help during a personal crisis is to send out an S.O.S. to friends, family, health care providers and other people in your community,” says Dr. Choiniere. “I believe that people generally want to help, but can’t if they don’t know you need it.”
“Telling others that you are struggling or need help can often open doors or pathways that you didn’t realize were there,” he adds.
Let the people know you see their struggles, too
If you know someone who needs access to mental health care but is having a hard time taking the first step, what can you do to help them?
“When someone you care about is experiencing mental health challenges, the most important thing you can do is to make sure they feel seen and heard,” says Dr. Choiniere. “Let them know you are aware of their suffering, and express empathy if you feel it. Your acknowledgment of their struggles might be the catalyst they need to start taking steps to improve their situation.”
You can find guidance on how to approach sensitive conversations about mental health from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including specific information about talking to children, teens and young adults.
Seek a supportive home and community
Our living environments have a deep impact on our psychology, but not all homes are conducive to good mental health. And not everyone has the option to change their living environment to one that is healthier.
“A home that supports mental health is one that is physically safe, peaceful and secure,” says Dr. Choiniere. “The people who live there should be respectful and seek harmonious relationships and, ideally, each person should have a space of their own.”
Your neighborhood is also part of your living environment, and neighborhoods that foster a sense of safety, interpersonal connection and purpose can also support your mental health. These factors, along with others like access to health care and education, the quality of family and social relationships and economic conditions are all considered “social determinants of health” (SDOH).
“It can be very difficult to overcome social determinants of health for those embedded in communities that are chronically unsafe or unhealthy, or for those who have limited opportunities to improve their economic situation,” says Dr. Choiniere.
So, what should you do if your living environment doesn’t support your mental health needs? Though much of the answer depends on your unique situation and larger societal factors beyond individual control, there are steps you can take. If safety is not a concern, you can start with simple steps like cleaning and organizing your home to make it feel calmer and more tranquil. If you are dealing with family issues, a difficult relationship or financial issues, talking to a mental health provider can help you find a path forward.
Focus on what you have the power to change
The past few years have proven that we can’t always control the situations that impact our mental health. But there are ways we can strengthen our overall wellbeing so we are better prepared for life’s challenges.
Dr. Choiniere suggests the following:
Take care of the physical: practice good nutrition, get regular exercise and make time for adequate rest
Take care of the mental: practice mindfulness and gratitude, and be sure to engage your curiosities and interests
Be social: seek new relationships, work on improving existing relationships and engage in activities that you enjoy and that involve other people
Contribute to the greater good: volunteer, support a cause, be part of something larger than yourself and engage in your preferred religious or spiritual practice
“I am hopeful that we will, as a society, come to understand that the roots of good mental health are about more than genetics or access to causes of mental distress we can help more people, including the people we love.”
Learn more and find a provider
To learn more about the mental health resources available to you, contact Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.