Preventive mental health care?
November 14, 2010 4:57 PM   Subscribe

What can I do for preventive mental health care?

Mental illness seems to run in my family. One of my parents has been treated for depression for years, and the other has generalized anxiety disorder. One of my cousins self-harms. As of last week, two of my aunts and uncles have now attempted suicide. And I'm not even close with my family -- those are just the people I know about!

I am currently in good mental health (mid 20s, male), but I worry that I'm genetically predisposed to take a turn for the worse. If it were, say, heart disease, I would know how to reduce risk, but what can I do for mental health?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Awareness, awareness, awareness. At least, that's how I've been managing it. My doctor knows about the many instances of mental illness in my family, my friends and SO know to look for certain signs, and I'm very honest with myself about what's normal and what's not. I've also accepted that, at least for me, medication isn't a cop out, and that it can help.
As far as actual prevention goes, meditation seems to keep me in a clearer state. Ultimately, though, I think it mostly comes down to knowing what signs to look for and to have strategies in place for help.
posted by OLechat at 5:02 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take stock of yourself every once in awhile, and be open to talking to a professional if you feel you're starting to show signs of anxiety or depression. I think it's also helpful to have trusted people (friends, family, etc.) around you with whom to compare your own self-evaluation. If you're open to someone saying, "You seem anxious a lot," or some other constructive observation, that can help keep denial in check, as well.
posted by xingcat at 5:10 PM on November 14, 2010

Actually, some of the same stuff as for heart disease. Healthy diet, exercise, getting enough sleep, minimizing drug and alcohol use, not exposing yourself to chronic physical or mental stress.

Then there's more specifically mental health things. Maintaining moderately large and active social circles, and actively participating in them. Maintaining a sense of contribution and utility to both those social circles and your wider community. Taking steps to minimize the impact from close personal relationships that aren't entirely functional or beneficial to your mental health. Making sure that you're able to express and address anything you need to in a reasonably timely fashion. Knowing some stress reduction and relaxation techniques. Being aware of what the warning signs might be for you, and being willing to seek professional help if necessary.
posted by Ahab at 5:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

To be preventive, I think the best thing would be to keep your life as uncomplicated as possible. Don't buy things you can't afford. Don't commit to more than you have time for. Don't hang out with people who are overly dramatic or needy.
posted by fritley at 5:26 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is serious mental illness in my family too. When my kids were in their early teens I told them that it would be a good idea if they did not do drugs and did not drink because I suspect that intoxication/highs of various kinds can trigger mental illness in people who are already genetically predisposed.

One of my sons did some drugs in college and got scared. He's in his mid-thirties now and does not do any mind-altering substances of any kind even though many of his friends drink and/or smoke pot.

Take good care of yourself, you'll probably be fine.
posted by mareli at 5:29 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Exercise regularly.
posted by sunshinesky at 5:32 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Let the people around you know about your family history. I missed obvious signs of my husband's rapid mental decline because every time I brought my concerns to his parents (suffering from the same mental illness...) they told me it was all in my head and all problems were obviously my fault.

It is also helpful to have an advocate that can prevent you from minimizing or (subconsciously) misrepresenting your symptoms when speaking to professionals.
posted by saucysault at 5:34 PM on November 14, 2010

Exercise, take b vitamins, have good sleep hygiene. Don't dwell on negative things. Avoid illicit drug use or excessive alcohol intake.

Although I'm thinking if you have made it this far without worrying symptoms, you are probably going to be just fine. Bear in mind that your aunt and uncle, for example, might have had some interpersonal or immediate family stressors that you did not have.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:46 PM on November 14, 2010

Exercise and healthy sleep are huge. The other thing is o be aware of your mental scripts. Look at Feeling Good for examples -- can you distinguish between what you control and what you can't? can you distinguish between setbacks and tragedies? If you have an arsenal of coping skills, you will be more able to recognize abnormal moods, and more able to deal with the onset of an episode of depression or anxiety.
posted by freshwater at 5:54 PM on November 14, 2010

Nthing that keeping yourself physically healthy will go a long way towards keeping you mentally healthy. Keeping stress to a manageable level will help; in particular, keep yourself out of situations where you'll be regularly judged negatively or against unrealistic standards.

If you have a friend or family member who's known you for a long time and whose opinion you trust, ask them if they've observed any patterns in you in the past, and to keep an eye out in the future. It's possible to slip into depression without realizing anything's wrong, and sometimes an outside observer can notice when you don't.

I'd also recommend becoming familar with cognitive distortions and learning how to recognize and correct them. Feeling Good, which is recommended all the time here, talks about these; it might be a good book for you even though you're currently well. Generally speaking, I've found that if I can talk myself out of distorted negative thoughts, I'm doing okay; if I can't, it's time for me to seek or change treatment.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:07 PM on November 14, 2010

If you're in your mid-20s and symptom free you're actually in pretty good shape. Other than that I'd say to follow the advice you like here but not obsess too much over everything...if you worry too much, you might go someplace in your head that you're trying to avoid.
posted by hiteleven at 6:13 PM on November 14, 2010

Stress is a major risk factor for developing a mental illness. Do your best to minimize stress in your life (without stressing out about it, obviously), and learn what works to help you relieve stress, whether that's meditation or exercise or church or knitting or something else.
posted by vytae at 7:13 PM on November 14, 2010

Humor is a great buffer for all kinds of problems. Social support, as several people mention above. I'd also add that you should involve yourself in activities that are meaningful for you - hobbies, volunteer work, or a job. Having meaning in your life goes a long way toward sustaining you in the face of obstacles.
posted by jasper411 at 7:55 PM on November 14, 2010

I happily found Mindfulness training to be very helpful as a preventative course of action for me post-therapy. You are coming from a different starting point, but mindfulness practice is also well utilised by the healthy who wish to remain that way. Monash University (Melbourne Australia) includes it as a compulsory part of their MBBS to equip young doctors to survive common conditions in their career (burnout, stress etc.) Google Mindfulness Based Stress reduction or Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Although I don't have experience with it, I'm sure Buddhist meditation practices would be helpful in the same way.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 9:30 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also have mental health problems in the family and I try to make a point of looking after my own mental health. I observe what kinds of things make me feel down - dark nights, lack of routine - and try to avoid them. So for me the tricks are:

- Regular exercise
- Routine. Getting up, eating meals and going to bed at pretty much the same time every day.
- Daylight. I get up earlyish on weekends in the winter and try and do something outside.
- Looking after myself. I try to actively look after myself, in terms of cooking myself nice food, having long baths with nice smelling things, buying the paper and making time to read it. It's good to know that someone is looking out for me - even if it's me doing it.
- Avoiding drama and stress where possible.

Also, I've so far avoided living on my own, since I feel like I need a reasonable level of social activity in my life but that's usually the first thing to go if I'm stressed or feeling down.
posted by emilyw at 12:18 AM on November 15, 2010

yoga, nutrition, exercise. That's about all you can do.
posted by Sal and Richard at 12:52 AM on November 15, 2010

Don't discount the idea of seeing a psychologist every now and then. I have ADD and need to see my psychiatrist once every three months for the prescription, and it serves as a great mental health tune-up for me.

Besides that, these are great solutions. Especially:

- Daylight.
- Staying away from intoxicants.
posted by gjc at 5:37 AM on November 15, 2010

Oh, here's another thing I do without even thinking about it.

I live somewhere that makes it easy to maintain social contact, fitness, and so on.

For example, I often see my neighbours when I am gardening or going in and out of the house. If I had bought a big house with a built in garage and a long driveway I might never see them at all unless I hiked over there on purpose.

I live a walkable distance from shops and pubs and at least one friend, so it's easy to go somewhere where there are people, and get some exercise while I'm doing it. I'm 15 minutes drive from a bustling city.

I'd love a house in the middle of the countryside, but I wouldn't live in one if it made it too easy for me to accidentally turn into a hermit.
posted by emilyw at 6:44 AM on November 15, 2010

The fact that you are aware of this puts you in the driver's seat already. Just make sure not to let the family component become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it may be easy to read too much into things and think you're becoming unstable, when you are not. Take each day as it comes, know that you are going to have ups and downs, and pay attention to your mental state both in times of stress and in good times. You'll have a barometer to use if you become aware of your mental state while "at rest". When you are feeling calm, positive and at peace, record it. Keep a mantra in your head/purse/wallet/bathroom mirror to use as your grounding.

Remember that you cannot control everything and everyone. Accept people and situations as best you can and try to use control only in situations where the outcome looks promising and healthy. Don't let yourself be a victim, but use gentle firmness in your daily life.

On preview, my first sentence is the kicker: You are already aware of this. Use this knowledge wisely.
posted by sundrop at 7:12 AM on November 15, 2010

I'm n-millionthing "exercise" (and other health hygiene things, like good sleep and minimizing alcohol/caffeine). I want to expand that, to say that "exercise" in this context doesn't need to mean "45 minutes of a regimented class at the gym" unless that's what you enjoy. Going for a 45 minute walk in the sun daily will get you a lot of those same mental health benefits (if walking in the sun is what you enjoy).
posted by endless_forms at 7:24 AM on November 15, 2010

I am going to echo all of the suggestions for exercise. There is a lot of research on its ability to reduce/eliminate depression with great effect, moreso than anti-depressant medication (specifically, i think SSRI's). I'd suggest very regular, routined vigorous exercise like cardio/running/high impact training, etc.

As a survivor who is still in the healing process, I have noticed how powerful exercise can helping me feel better. Exercise has not cured my problems, but it's given me a sense of mastery which I think is one of the most important parts of being well. My moods are somewhat more stable, although I am still in the process of fine tuning my stability.

I am no clinician, nor do I know you personally, but given your current stable state in your mid-twenties I would say you are quite lucky. I wish you the best.
posted by GEB's fun world at 12:03 PM on November 17, 2010

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