By Renée Barber, Office of Community Outreach, Engagement, and Equity, Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center
Mental Health America launched National Mental Health Month in 1949 to educate the public about mental health and to reduce the fear and stigma associated with mental illness. In 2023, these goals remain a priority as we recover from a worldwide pandemic and face the unique social challenges of our time.
Dr. Laura Howe-Martin, Director of Behavioral Sciences at UT Southwestern’s Moncrief Cancer Institute, emphasizes that mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to our overall well-being.
“Mental health is a measure of how we’re functioning psychologically, emotionally, and socially,” explains Dr. Howe-Martin. “Our ability to cope in these areas can affect our behavior, our relationships, even our physical health – both positively and negatively. In turn, our state of physical health can have positive and negative effects on our mental well-being.”
Research shows, for instance, that mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can raise a person’s risk for complications associated with physical illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. These illnesses – and others such as cancer or HIV/AIDS – are also known to prompt struggles with intense sadness and worry.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of mental distress, you are not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 23% of U.S. adults are living with a mental health condition. And an estimated 50% of U.S. adolescents have experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime.
Difficulties in school, work stress, caregiving, and loss of a loved one can challenge our ability to cope throughout life. Our biology – including chemical imbalances and brain diseases – can also disturb our mental well-being.
“The encouraging news,” says Dr. Howe-Martin, “is that mental health, like physical health, is treatable. There are things we can do regularly to strengthen and maintain our mental health. But when we feel overwhelmed and have trouble coping, one of the best things to do is visit with a licensed mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist. Even a brief conversation can bring relief.”
Below, Dr. Howe-Martin shares ways to care for our mental health and find help when we need it.
Take a mental health assessment.
A simple online survey offered by a reliable organization can let you know whether you might be experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. Mental Health America offers a “checkup from the neck up” at mhascreening.org. After you complete the test, you’ll receive tools and resources to help you understand and improve your mental health.
Nurture positive relationships.
Spending time with people who make us feel valued and cared for can be psychologically uplifting and healing, especially during a difficult time. Lending support to others can also feel good. Nurture your friendships with regular phone calls, a meal together, or a walk. If you’re having trouble making social connections, discuss the situation with your doctor or a licensed mental health professional.
Spend time in nature.
Take a break from screens, and head outdoors. Being in nature – surrounded by sunlight, fresh air, and green spaces – can sharpen our focus, reduce stress, and boost our mood. It can also foster gratitude and a sense of connectedness with our community. Search your city’s Parks and Recreation website for green spaces, trails, and gardens near you. Or bring the outdoors inside by purchasing a potted plant or two and opening the curtains to let in natural light.
Care for your body.
What’s good for the body is good for the mind. Exercise, a healthy diet, and a restful night’s sleep can go a long way toward supporting our mental well-being. Short spurts of exercise throughout the day can be as effective as a long workout at improving sleep, thinking, and learning. When it comes to healthy eating, our registered dietitians recommend trading refined sugar and processed foods for fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and lean meats. To improve brain performance, mood, and overall health, shoot for at least seven hours of sleep a night. Learn strategies for getting a better night’s sleep here.
Unwind your mind.
Mindfulness originated in the ancient Buddhist practice of meditation, which was designed to increase awareness and concentration. Both mindfulness and meditation are currently receiving attention for their ability to reduce stress. Essentially, mindfulness requires us to focus nonjudgmentally on what’s happening inside us and around us during the present moment, instead of obsessing about the past or the future. Mindfulness can be practiced during meditation, yoga, or prayer. And it can also be used to form healthy habits, such as mindful eating. Pick up some pointers for your mindfulness practice at Mindfulness and Mental Health | Moncrief Cancer Institute.
Seek help when you need it.
It’s important to know that it’s OK to discuss our problems with others and to seek help when we need it. By talking openly about our mental health, we can support each other in taking steps to feel better. If you’re having difficulty coping with life’s challenges, these organizations can help: