May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a time to recognize the impact of mental illness and break down stigma through education and awareness. One in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness, which means that even if you have never experienced mental illness yourself, there’s a good chance someone you care about has. Of those who experience mental illness, less than half seek treatment.  

As a psychiatrist, my job is to care for people who have mental illnesses—from anxiety to schizophrenia, depression to substance use disorders, ADHD to PTSD, and many things in between. My patients come from all walks of life, with unique experiences and cultures that impact how they understand and live with mental illness. Many mental illnesses, like physical illnesses, can respond well to medications. Some conditions are best treated with therapy and behavioral interventions. Often, the best approach is a mix of the two. In Amarillo, as in most parts of our country, there aren’t enough psychiatrists to treat all the patients who need care. 

That’s the bad news, but there is good news, too. Psychiatrists are only one component of whole teams of health care workers who can help patients struggling with mental illness. Primary care physicians like family medicine doctors, internists and pediatricians also are skilled at treating mental illnesses. Psychologists, therapists and counselors help patients understand how they experience their illness and the world around them, and also help them develop coping skills so they can thrive.  

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, please ask for help. Starting a conversation with your primary care doctor is a great jumping-off point. They can help you start treatment if needed, access specialists, and be an important part of your support system. Sometimes people aren’t sure if they need to talk to someone about their mental health. If you are worried about your mental health—even a little bit—that is a good enough reason to talk about it with someone.  

Changes in your usual patterns of behaviors can be good clues, too. Have you noticed changes in your sleep or appetite? Are you having a harder time functioning at work or at home? Have you noticed that you don’t want to do the things that you usually like to do? Have you noticed changes in your thought patterns? Any of these signs would be worth talking about with a professional. There are also signs and experiences that warrant more immediate treatment. If you or a loved one is in crisis, or struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, that can be an emergency. Help is available—you can call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 at any time.  

My message to my patients (and to you!) is that mental health is health. In today’s busy world, it’s easy to put ourselves on the backburner, but this is a great time to reflect on how we all keep ourselves well. Even if you don’t experience mental illness, prioritizing your mental wellness can go a long way in helping you stay well and thrive. There are so many things people can do in their personal lives that have a positive and powerful impact on mental health. Some of these things may sound easy, but putting them into consistent practice is the challenge.  

Pay attention to your sleep. Most adults need eight to 10 hours per night, and most of us don’t get it. That being said, everyone is different and you know your body. Pay attention to the days you feel particularly well-rested. How many hours did you sleep? Was anything different? Establishing a regular bedtime and wake-up time everyday can help you get into a good rhythm.  

Pay attention to how you fuel your body. Eat foods that nourish you and make you feel good. Of course, we want everyone to eat their fruits and veggies, but balance is key. Strive to make sustainable, healthy changes and avoid very strict diets that may leave you feeling deprived.

Get moving! Physical activity is one of the best things we can do for our physical and mental health. Find ways to move your body that bring you joy. Not everyone loves to pound out miles on the treadmill, and that’s OK! Find types of exercise that fit your lifestyle and you enjoy doing. And remember: Some is better than none. Even 15 minutes a day can have health benefits.

Make time for the things that bring you joy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our jobs and the stresses of everyday life, but make time to nurture the parts of yourself that make you feel whole. Protect time spent with family and friends and really connect. Resting and relaxing is productive, and we need that time to be at our best.

Mental Health Awareness Month provides us an opportunity to check in with ourselves, our loved ones and our community to make sure we are all getting the help and support we need. This month, take time to care for yourself and encourage those you love to do the same. 

Author

  • Amy Stark

    Dr. Stark is the regional chair of psychiatry at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in Amarillo. Her areas of expertise and professional interests include substance use disorders, harm reduction interventions and psychiatry for specialty populations, including peripartum women and the LGBTQIA community.

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