When Should I Worry About...

Poor Mental Health: Fighting the Modern Epidemic

Aug. 5, 2022

By Ella Hohmann

Two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the effect on mental health remains the great unappreciated casualty.

People may have learned to co-exist with the virus, but there's no denying the widespread stress it still causes: isolation, burnout, fear, grief. And every time it seems to be waning, a new variant arises to discomfort us all over again.

Yet people mostly just worry about the physical symptoms of COVID-19.

In fact, now more than ever, it is important to stay informed about signs of poor mental health and how to combat it.

What the numbers say about poor mental health

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31.6% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of depression and anxiety in 2021.

Texas is above the national level, with 34.2% of adults reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. In comparison, prior to the pandemic in 2019, only 1 in 10 adults reported symptoms of mental health conditions.

Nor is the issue unique to adults.

According to the CDC, more than a third (37%) of high school students said they'd experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Compared to other states, Texas ranks 41st in youth mental health.

Texas also compares unfavorably with other states in young people's mental health conditions going untreated. Nearly three quarters of the state's youth (73.1%) fall into this category.

In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents (aged 12-17) in the US, and nearly 1 in 5 high school students (18.8%) said they'd seriously considered attempting suicide. Sadly, the pandemic has worsened mental health problems in youth even further.

But experts hope that the pandemic at least has focused more attention on mental health, possibly even reducing some of the stigma previously associated with mental illness.

Signs of poor mental health

Talking about signs and symptoms of poor mental health is paramount to ending the stigma.

Poor mental health conditions come in many shapes and sizes and symptoms vary between them. Generally, they affect your mood, thinking and ability to interact with others.

For instance, according to Dr. Ali Sawal, a primary care practitioner at Houston Methodist, symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

6 ways to improve mental health

All hope is not lost, as there are many things we can do in our daily lives to try and improve our mental health, including:

1. Start your day on a positive note with meaning and purpose

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a subject as broad as motivation and purpose, finding meaning and importance can be enough to help us endure even the most difficult of times.

2. Eat healthy, starting with breakfast

We've all heard it before: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

The first thing most people do after getting out of bed is to prepare something to eat or drink in order to start off the day energized. Nutrition is a core brain-health protective factor. While reaching for unhealthy comfort food is easy, it is important to remember that this can have detrimental effects on your brain health as well as your physical health.

3. Make time for exercise

Physical stimulation improves blood flow to and within the brain and thereby provides oxygen and nutrients that are vital for health and performance. In addition, physical activity has been shown to improve quality of sleep, make the brain more resilient and boost immunity.

The brain uses approximately 20% of the body's total oxygen. Therefore, not getting enough oxygen up there will no doubt lead to mental fog, and an unfocused, and unenergetic mood.

Exercise is also a great way to shake up your daily routine. Instead of scrolling through Instagram or TikTok during breaks at work, go outside. Even just a 30-minute walk greatly benefits mental clarity, productivity and mood, according to the Heart Foundation.

4. Socialize

Research has shown that social connectedness acts a buffer from negative mental health effects.

5. Take time for yourself

Pursuing an art project, listening to music, or watching a film have been shown to have positive effect.

Favored activities trigger the brain's reward system to make us feel happiness and pleasure, among other areas of the brain which play roles in emotion and memory.

6. Taking sleep seriously

There is a strong connection between getting a good night's sleep and our brain health.

Poor pre-bed habits can lead to difficulty sleeping. Give yourself time to wind down by turning off electronics and switching off all lights. Your sleep environment also matters — a comfortable, quiet and cool room leads to better shut-eye.

A consistent and regular sleep-and-wake schedule is also important in boosting brain health.

Finally, there are many resources available to help you and those you might know to cope with mental health issues. For instance, you can seek help from a medical health or mental health professional. A good place to start is your primary-care doctor.

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