October 10th is the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Day and all week long is recognized as Mental Illness Awareness Week. Geared toward raising awareness and improving access to mental health care, this day reminds us of the importance of mental health in our daily lives. Unfortunately, many of us don’t think about taking care of mental health until there’s a problem.
Why Monitor Mental Health?
As it turns out — just like physical health — waiting until an issue arises is not always the best way to ensure your well-being. Here are three reasons why you should consider a yearly mental health checkup:
- Prevention: This year’s World Health Day theme — suicide prevention — highlights the need to head off problems before they feel insurmountable. A mental health checkup can identify potential problems or stressors early on, before they grow into a full-blown clinical condition. In addition, treatment is usually easier in the earlier stages of a problem.
- Education: A checkup also teaches you about your needs, so you have a better understanding of what’s normal for your particular circumstances. For example, people in their 20s might worry about meeting a partner or paying off student loans, while people in their 50s might be dealing with an empty nest and caring for aging parents. The more you know about what’s normal for your life stage and situation, the better prepared you are to deal with challenges.
- Monitoring: At different ages, our risk for certain conditions changes. Regular check-ins with a mental health professional help you be aware of transformations over time. For example, conditions like schizophrenia often present in the early 20s. Additionally, although we all experience some cognitive decline with age, some symptoms suggest problems such as dementia that need further evaluation. Those who have established mental health diagnoses also may need to be assessed for flare-ups. Just like chronic medical conditions such as arthritis or asthma, it’s helpful to check on mental health symptoms to make sure you’re doing ok.
What’s Involved in a Mental Health Checkup?
Unfortunately, unlike regular medical care, where you’re encouraged to get an annual physical, mental health care is often treated differently. Many people don’t seek help until a problem develops, but it’s OK to check on your mental health as a preventive measure, just as you would schedule a checkup with your physician.
While the format of a check-in may vary from provider to provider, there are several areas commonly addressed in a mental health interview. Below, are some of the common topics you might cover.
Sleep and appetite
Changes in sleep and appetite can be early symptoms of a mental health disorder. Similarly, if medical problems or life changes — a stressful new job, a breakup — disrupt these essential functions, mental health can suffer. While it may feel like a chicken-and-egg scenario to discover whether a life event is causing the mental health issue or vice versa, healthy sleep and appetite are important to overall well-being and, if there are significant changes to either, may indicate a mental health issue.
Mood disorder symptoms
Mood disorder symptoms might include sadness, irritability, loss of interest in usual activities, fatigue or extremely high energy, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or even thoughts of hurting yourself for others. Any of these symptoms should be discussed during a checkup.
People with anxiety disorders may experience symptoms such as: fear, panic, rapid breathing, or heart palpitations. If there is a history of trauma, they may experience intrusive thoughts or nightmares about the trauma, or feel constantly on guard. Anxiety can also cause people to engage in repetitive routines and checking behaviors. Like those above, talk with your mental health provider about these symptoms during you checkup.
Other mental health disorders
Symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia, confused thinking, or memory problems can reflect other disorders of perception or cognitive functioning. These disorders are less common, but tend to be more severe and can greatly impact a person’s life — let your provider know if you have these experiences.
The therapist will likely assess your use of alcohol or drugs, including how often and how much you use, and whether you’ve ever had any withdrawal symptoms. Therapists usually aren’t required to report illegal substance abuse; they can also explain confidentiality rules so you can feel comfortable being honest (important so they have the full picture of your overall wellness). It’s also vital to give as much specific detail as possible so a therapist can arrange the best treatment for these complex situations.
Stressors and coping skills
Things such as work, friends and family, money, and spiritual needs are also commonly assessed to identify areas for intervention. In addition, a therapist can assess your current coping strategies and their effectiveness, so you can make improvements if necessary.
Should You Get a Mental Health Check Up?
Our medical culture has only begun to turn the corner — to treat mental health as seriously as physical health — increasing efforts in wellness and prevention to improve our overall quality of life. Luckily, the medical community has come to understand that it’s easier and cheaper to prevent problems than to treat them after they develop, worsen, or become severe.
Mental health professionals know it’s just as important to be proactive with your mental health as with your physical. World Mental Health Day is a good place to start. So, if you’ve ever wondered if you should get a mental health check up, perhaps the answer is: why not?