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KAUFMANN: Caring for our mental health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Perhaps the first thing to be aware of is that we all have it – mental health, that is.

What we think, how we feel and how we act are all manifestations of our personal mental health. An important part of our overall wellness, mental health is interconnected with our physical and social health.

Sleep is a great example of how the health of the mind and the body are intertwined. If we go without adequate sleep, we have difficulty thinking clearly. We may feel depressed or agitated and we may react negatively to others. Conversely, if we are anxious, we may have trouble falling asleep because our mind keeps cycling through our worries.

Sometimes our mental health suffers slight ups and downs due to a lack of rest or food, or a stressful life circumstance. Friends and family may suggest that we get some sleep, eat a good meal or do something to relax. Just like when our physical body gets a cold and we treat it with a nap and chicken soup, so also some self-care may indeed be just what the doctor ordered for slight deviations in our mood.

However, when symptoms are severe or prolonged and begin to interfere with our normal daily activities, we should seek medical care. For example, if we have been experiencing pains in our arm and tightness in our chest, then we should call 911. Similarly, if we are overwhelmed by despair, anxiety or anger that we cannot explain or control, we should also seek appropriate health care.

Let me pause for a moment for a clarification. Our brains are biological organs that can suffer from chemical imbalances. These imbalances can adversely affect how we think, feel and act. This does not mean that we are bad people or are weak – it simply means that we are humans who need healing assistance.

If a friend or family member is experiencing a severe or prolonged struggle with adverse thoughts, feelings and behavior, there are three main ways we could respond. One, we could ignore them and hope the problem goes away. Two, we could demand that they try harder to be “normal.” Third, we could express our concern and connect them with a health professional so that healing can begin.

If we are not yet convinced that option three is the best choice, let’s change the scenario: the family member or friend is diabetic. Their blood sugar is low and they need assistance. We have three choices: walk away, yell at them to stop being sick, or give them a glass of orange juice and take them to the doctor.

The bottom line: caring for mental health is just as legitimate as caring for physical health.

We have all been through a lot in the past year. We can take steps to help others and ourselves heal in both mind and body. Here are some practical things we can do: find out which mental health services (such as counseling) are covered by our insurance plan; talk with our primary health care provider about local resources; and access free tools, screenings and information at Mental Health America (mhanational.org) and the National Alliance for Mental Illness (nami.org).

And remember, your life matters. If you or someone you know is thinking of committing suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime day or night at 1(800) 273-8255 to talk with someone who cares.

Chrissie Kaufmann is a group fitness instructor at the YMCA of Greater Michiana.

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