Mental health is a vital element of overall health and an essential part of our individual well-being. It is important at every stage of life and can be described as much more than just the absence of disease. Mental health is the collective emotional, psychological, and social well-being that affects our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is a part of our ability as humans to think, handle stress, interact with others, and make choices. Our mental health can control or change our thinking, mood, and even our behavior.
There are many factors that can influence our mental health. Referred to as risk factors, these influences can increase the chances of developing mental illness. Risk factors for mental illness can include biological factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, and chronic diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Other risk factors include low self-esteem, poverty, alcohol/drug abuse, life experiences such as trauma or abuse, stressful life situations such as financial problems or divorce, and family history of mental health problems.
Mental illness, commonly referred to as mental health disorders, represents a wide range of mental health conditions that can affect a person’s mood, thinking, and behavior. Mental illness can impact mental health in a variety of ways and may cause unhappiness, relationship difficulties, isolation, substance abuse, legal or financial conflicts, self-harm, weakened immune system, and other medical and physical complications. Of course, everyone may experience mental health concerns from time to time, but mental illness occurs as these concerns are compounded over time with frequent stress caused by an individual’s risk factors. Mental illness can manifest in many ways; however, the most common mental health disorders are anxiety, depression, suicide, and eating disorders.
Anxiety is generally characterized by feelings of excessive uneasiness, worry, and fear which may cause rapid heart rate, sweating, and restlessness. Anxiety includes disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and many types of phobias. Treatment options for anxiety include psychotherapy, medication, support groups, and stress management techniques.
Depression is a common mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that can affect thoughts as well as daily activities like sleeping, eating, or working. There are many types of depression that include persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), postpartum depression, seasonal effective disorder, and bipolar disorder. Signs and symptoms include hopelessness, irritability, fatigue, appetite/weight changes, or thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Like anxiety, treatment options for depression include psychotherapy, medication, support groups, and stress management techniques.
Suicide is a major public health concern and is among the leading causes of death in the United States. A report prepared by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that in 2019, suicide claimed the lives of over 47,500 people, making it the second leading cause of death in individuals between the ages of 10 to 34 years and the fourth leading cause among individuals between the ages of 35 to 44 years. The report also indicated that almost five percent of adults 18 years of age and over had serious thoughts about committing suicide. Warning signs for suicide include increased drug or alcohol use, withdrawal from friends and family, mood swings, and impulsive or reckless behavior. As the condition progresses, individuals may begin collecting or saving pills, purchasing firearms or weapons, giving away possessions, tying up loose ends, or saying goodbye to friends or family. Friends or loved ones noticing these changes in an individual should get help for them immediately by contacting a licensed mental health professional for assistance.
Eating disorders are mental and physical illnesses, and can include disordered eating patterns like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating. Eating disorders affect both men and women and can cause serious, potentially life-threatening conditions affecting every organ system in the body. Anorexia nervosa often stems from distorted body image and is characterized by a restriction of food leading to excessive weight loss and difficulties maintaining appropriate weight for age and height. Bulimia nervosa is a lack of control while eating and is characterized by cycles of binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives to compensate for excess intake of food during a binge. Lastly, binge-eating is also marked by a loss of control while eating and is characterized as recurring episodes of ingesting large quantities of food followed by feelings of shame, distress, and guilt afterwards. Eating disorders are treatable and options for treatment include individual or group psychotherapy, medical care/monitoring, nutrition counseling, and medication.
Fortunately, numerous studies indicate that many individuals facing mental health problems recover completely and return to their work, communities, and daily activities. Friends and loved ones can influence an individual’s positive treatment outcomes by being available, treating them with respect, learning about mental health, and helping them access services. It is also possible to prevent mental illness. Prevention focuses on addressing risk factors and promotes social and emotional well-being which leads to productivity, improved relationships, better education, and improved quality of life.
Preventative measures for maintaining positive mental health include seeking professional help, identifying warning signs/triggers, eating healthy, exercising, helping others, getting adequate amounts of sleep, practicing positivity, and implementing hardship coping skills. There are also many self-help strategies that can help improve mental health. These include activities such as walking and exercising, reducing time spent on social media, avoiding substances such as alcohol and drugs, journaling, and spending time with friends or family.
Mental health is an important part of our overall health. If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline:
National Suicide Prevention Helpline:
Office of Population Affairs. (n.d.). Adolescent Health: HHS Office of Population Affairs. https://opa.hhs.gov.
US Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, May). Suicide. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov.
Written by Dietetic Intern Shane McMullen and MSU Extension Agent Ensley Howell.