It is widely accepted that if you have a health problem, you would see a medical professional who specializes in that problem’s proper treatment. If you have high cholesterol or are at risk of a heart attack, you see a cardiologist. If you have digestive problems, you see a gastroenterologist. If you have acne or other skin problems, you see a dermatologist.
But if you are faced with a mental health problem, is your first instinct to see a mental health professional?
Society has taught many of us to answer no. At least, this was the case for me when I was away at college. At the time, I attempted to balance academics, extracurricular activities and a part-time job—all while neglecting my own well-being. My solo circus act eventually came to a head one day in my foreign language class. I felt anxiety taking over my body, and I began crying uncontrollably. When my professor walked in, I rushed up to him and felt my throat tightening. Somehow, I managed to speak through my tears.
“I can’t be in class today,” I said between sobs. He nodded and encouraged me to speak with him during his office hours later that day. When we met, everything that had been going on in my mind poured out. I told my professor that my friend wanted to die and had attempted suicide over the weekend. I felt powerless and out of control. I couldn’t think straight. Then, my professor told me something that had honestly not occurred to me until that very moment.
“I am sorry to hear this. I really think you should go to the counseling center on campus. I think they can help you,” he recommended.
It was as if a wave of clarity hit me. Why didn’t I think of that? Why had I been isolating myself in my dorm room, sitting alone in fear? I hadn’t even considered going to the health center, let alone the counseling center. Looking back, I realize that it was because I never considered my mental health to be a health problem. I didn’t realize that my brain was just as important as the rest of the organs in my body.
The Brain and Mental Health
The brain is the most complex organ in our body and we’re constantly learning about how mental health conditions “live,” function and develop inside our brains. Additionally, mental health conditions can be hard to treat, as there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Two individuals with bipolar disorder may respond very differently to the same medication. Mental illnesses are often far more nuanced than physical illnesses—they’re not a perfected science. Perhaps this is why society has a hard time considering mental health conditions “actual” health conditions.
What is indisputable is that mental health conditions are in fact legitimate health conditions, just like physical illnesses. Additionally, half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. That is why early engagement and support are crucial to improving outcomes and increasing the promise of recovery. Additionally, mental health conditions can be lifelong conditions. However, with the right treatment plan, living well is possible.
Myself? After several years of pretending that I didn’t need help anymore, I decided to seek out a therapist. I’ve since been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And with the support of loved ones, I go to therapy every week and am getting the treatment I need. I now see the importance of addressing any concerns with my health, especially my mental health, before they become serious.
Isn’t it time we all saw mental health conditions as legitimate health conditions?
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.