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What does it mean to have good mental health?
Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Here’s how to protect your mental and emotional well-being — and what to do when it needs a boost.
It seems like every day we’re hearing more about the importance of mental health. That’s a good thing. Mental health problems are more common than you might think.
Each year, about 1 in 5 U.S. adults have some type of mental illness. About 1 in 20 have symptoms that make it hard to live their life. And more than half of us will be diagnosed with a mental health problem at some point in our lifetime. (Those statistics are from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).1)
It can happen to anyone, no matter what age, gender, income level or race. Luckily, mental health conditions are very treatable. With the right support, many people can not only get well but thrive.
Even if your mental well-being is excellent right now, it’s smart to take steps to protect it. Plus, friends or family may struggle at times. You can inspire them to seek help if you know what to watch for.
Read on to learn some basics about mental illness and how to foster mental well-being.
What is mental health?
Mental health is a state of mind. When you’re mentally healthy, your feelings, actions and relationships are in a good place.2 You’re able to love, learn, work and enjoy your downtime.
That doesn’t mean things are always rosy. You can have good mental health and still have stress and sadness from time to time. But when you’re mentally healthy, you’re able to cope with the ups and downs of life. And adapting to change comes easier, too.
What kind of habits support good mental health?
Many things impact mental health. Your physical health, work, school and home life all matter.3 The healthy habits below can play a role in your mental and emotional health:
Be active. Movement is good for the mind and body. A half hour of walking each day can be enough to boost your mood. (Break it into 10-minute bouts if you’re short on time.) Outdoor activities may offer extra benefits. Some studies suggest that spending time in nature can reduce stress and bring up energy levels. (Step up your workout routine with our two-week fitness challenge.)
Eat right. Getting the right balance of foods can improve mental energy and focus. People who eat mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and unsaturated fats (such as olive oil) are 30% less likely to be depressed than those who have meat and dairy more often.4 That’s according to research from Mental Health America.
Get enough shuteye. Sleep is essential for overall health. It’s the time when your body and mind recharge and repair. Learn more about healthy sleep habits. (For extra help, shop better-sleep products from the Optum Store.)
Limit screen time. Blue light from screens (such as on phones, TVs and tablets) can make it harder to fall asleep. But what you’re watching matters, too. Too many violent or upsetting TV shows can weigh on mental health. (The news is included.) Looking at social media can lead to worry, depression and loneliness. Taking a break from the media can sometimes help you reset.
Make time for mindfulness. Meditation, muscle relaxation and breathing exercises all work very well. Activities like yoga and tai chi are good examples of these. You can find them on apps or take in-person classes. You might also try keeping a journal. Jot down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and what you’re grateful for. Everyone is unique, so try different things until you find something you enjoy.
Focus on your relationships. When you feel connected to your family, friends and loved ones, hard times can be easier to bear. And the good times can feel that much better when you have people to share them with. In fact, having close relationships plays a big part in health overall.7
Good news: You don’t have to take a whole “mental health day” or even an hour to recharge. Taking bite-size stress breaks (5 to 10 minutes at a time) each day can help maintain or improve mental health.5
How does mental health change as you age?
Mental health problems can crop up at any age, but about 75% of them will appear by age 24. Still, each stage of life brings changes to our minds, bodies and emotions. Here’s how some of them can impact mental health.
Childhood. Good mental health helps kids reach milestones, grow social skills, learn and enjoy life. Because they’re still learning to manage emotions, children may overreact to even small changes. This is normal. If you’re worried, see “What are some signs of a mental illness?” below.
Teenage and young adult years. About half of people who have a mental illness in their lifetime will show signs of it before age 14. A few reasons:
- Changes in roles and responsibilities
- Peer pressure
- A deepening awareness of self and identity
All these things are in constant flux in the teen and young adult years. Anxiety is most common in this age group. Eating disorders and other serious mental health problems tend to show up in the late teens and early 20s. (Learn more about the rise in depression among college kids.)
Middle age. There’s a reason the term “midlife crisis” came into being. From the 40s through the 60s, adults face plenty of changes. They may be caring for their kids and their older parents. They may be restless or bored with their job or relationships. On the other hand, people in this age group often start caring less about what others think. That often leads to more confidence and happiness. Others may find new hobbies and interests as their kids grow up and move out or their income grows.
Older adulthood. Once people are in their 60s or older, there are a few common issues that raise the risk of mental illness:
- Health conditions
- Life events (such as divorce or death of loved ones)
In fact, about 15% of adults in their 60s and beyond have a mental illness. Depression is a common concern. Many times, mental health issues are viewed as mental decline or a “normal” sign of aging. They’re not. If you or a loved one is struggling, reach out to your doctor for help.
What is mental illness?
A mental illness is a health problem that has a large effect on thinking, actions, emotions and mood. It often impacts day-to-day life and relationships. And it can cause problems at work, at home and in social settings. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Like diabetes or heart disease, a mental illness is a medical problem. You’re not to blame, and it can be treated.
Several factors cause mental illnesses. Some include:
- Genes/family history
- Brain chemicals
- Something that happened in the womb (such as exposure to drugs or an illness)
- Physical trauma (such as a head injury)
- Physical or mental abuse
- Use or overuse of drugs or alcohol
Sometimes a major life event hits hard, like a job loss, divorce, cross-country move or new diagnosis. Other times, a medical problem can lead to symptoms of mental illness. Thyroid disease can lead to depression, for example. Any of these can change the brain chemicals that manage emotions and control thought patterns.
While people may struggle with mental health issues throughout their lifetime, symptoms can ebb and flow. The causes can be complex, so your doctor will likely look into your health history. They may also run some medical tests if they suspect a mental illness.
What are some signs of mental illness?
Each type of mental illness can have its own symptoms, but these are some common signs to watch for, according to NAMI. Keep in mind that children have limited ways to talk about or deal with emotions and problems. They often have different symptoms than adults do.
Possible symptoms during childhood:
- Changes in schoolwork (study habits and grades)
- Changes in behavior (being more hyper, difficult or angry than usual)
- An increase in tantrums
- Having a lot of nightmares
Possible symptoms during adolescence and adulthood:
- Trouble going about daily life and coping with everyday stress
- Changes in emotions (strong feelings of worry, fear, sadness or anger, mood swings or losing interest in things you used to enjoy)
- Changes in habits (sleeping or eating more or less than usual, avoiding social settings and using drugs or alcohol more often)
- Changes in thinking (being confused, having trouble concentrating or remembering, or hallucinating or having paranoid thoughts)
- Physical issues without a clear cause (headaches, stomachaches and generic aches and pains)
Different people may have different levels of these symptoms. Don’t wait until they’re severe to seek help. As with most health issues, the sooner you see a doctor, the better. If you don’t have one or are looking for someone new, we can help.
What are the most common types of mental illness?
There are more than 200 types of mental health disorders.6 Some of the more common types are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders and psychotic disorders.
Anxiety disorders. These include general anxiety, panic disorder and social anxiety. People tend to feel extreme fear or dread. People with anxiety disorders aren’t just stressed. They have unusually strong reactions to situations. Those reactions are so strong they can affect everyday life.
Mood disorders. As you’d expect, mood disorders affect emotions. Two of the most common are:
- Depression (ongoing sadness)
- Bipolar disorder (swings from extreme happiness to extreme depression)
Learn more about the difference between sadness and depression.
Eating disorders. These involve an unusual need to control eating habits. These disorders could include:
- Eating far too little (anorexia)
- Going to extremes to get rid of calories after eating (bulimia)
- Eating to excess, then feeling deep regret (binge eating)
People with anxiety and mood disorders are at greater risk of eating disorders.
Psychotic disorders. People with these illnesses can have different perceptions of reality. Schizophrenia usually involves an abnormal interpretation of reality. Other signs may include:
- False beliefs (delusions)
- Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
- Physically and/or emotionally zoning out (catatonia)
- Strong feelings of fear and suspicion (paranoia)
Many people once thought schizophrenia meant having multiple personalities. That’s actually a different type of mental illness. It’s called dissociative identity disorder.
How is a mental illness diagnosed?
When you go to the doctor for a checkup, they’ll often begin with screenings. They ask questions about your habits and symptoms and do blood tests and other physical exams. This can help them find issues, ideally before they grow into bigger problems.
Mental health screenings are done for the same reason. Doctors may do mental health screenings during an annual exam. You can also find quizzes online to help identify a mental health problem and see if it’s time to seek help. (Look for ones on websites with .org, .edu or .gov in their web address.)
How are mental illnesses treated?
Each person’s treatment is personalized to their symptoms and goals. There is a wide array of treatment options available. Many people will use more than one at a time.
The most common approaches used today are talk therapy, medications and support groups. They tend to work well for a variety of mental health issues.
Psychotherapy (talk therapy). This means a person talks with a trained therapist to address specific mental health issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types. It’s used to take care of all types of mental health issues. CBT focuses on helping people identify negative or false beliefs. Then they learn to replace them with positive ones. It not only improves thought patterns but brain chemistry, too.
You can also explore working with a virtual therapist or using digital self-care tools to support your mental health. Explore mental health support and resources that fit with your life.
Medications. There are many medications that help with a mental health problem. They each work in a different way.
Medicines can work quickly, or they may take time (days or weeks) to fully kick in. It may take a few tries to find the right brand and amount for you, so don’t give up. Most come in pill or capsule form and are taken daily. But you can ask about liquids, patches and other types if you have trouble swallowing pills. And as with any medication, there can be side effects. Let your doctor know if you’re having any new symptoms.
Some people take medications only for a short time, and some people take them for years or a lifetime. Your needs may change over time, too, and your doctor may switch you to something else. Never change or stop taking a medicine without your doctor’s OK and direction.
If your doctor prescribes medication for your illness, download the Optum Perks discount card. It could help you save up to 80% on your medications.
Support groups. Sharing stories with others can help you with your mental health problems. Going to a support group may help keep grief from turning into ongoing depression. Most support groups are focused on a specific topic. There are plenty of options both online and in person. If the first one doesn’t click for you, try another. Look to national organizations (.org websites) or ask your health care team for suggestions.
If you’re worried about your own mental health or someone else’s don’t hesitate to seek help. Doctors and mental health professionals have dedicated their lives to helping people just like you. They can get patients on track to feeling better.
Learn more about resources for mental health on our Until It’s Fixed podcast
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health conditions. Accessed May 23, 2022.
- American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed May 23, 2022.
- Mental Health America. Staying mentally healthy. Accessed May 23, 2022.
- Mental Health America. Healthy diet: Eating with mental health in mind. Accessed May 23, 2022.
- Cleveland Clinic. Survey: Nearly half of Americans prioritize mental health with daily “mindful moments.” 2022. Accessed May 23, 2022.
- Mental Health America. Mental illness and the family: Recognizing warning signs and how to cope. N.D. Accessed July 27, 2022.
- American Psychological Association. Speaking of Psychology: How close relationships keep us healthy and happy, with Richard Slater, Ph.D. November 2021. Accessed June 19, 2022.
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