Mental Health in America in 2021
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health issue. These can range from moderate conditions, such as a mild depression or anxiety, to severe illnesses. In the case of the latter, mental illness can inhibit a person from performing day-to-day tasks like eating regular meals, getting to work on time, or properly caring for the kids. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that severe mental illness is much less common, impacting only about 1 in 20 adults in the United States.
Nonetheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that large outbreaks of disease—such as the COVID-19 pandemic—have been associated with mental health problems:
“The spread of disease and increase in deaths during large outbreaks of transmissible diseases is often associated with fear and grief,” the CDC said in a report this year. “Social restrictions, limits on operating nonessential businesses, and other measures to reduce pandemic-related mortality and morbidity can lead to isolation and unemployment or underemployment, further increasing the risk for mental health problems.”
That same report found that from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4 to 41.5 percent. The percentage of those “reporting an unmet mental health care need” increased from 9.2 to 11.7 percent.
Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, meanwhile, has found that the spike in mental health conditions, particularly depression, is “higher than . . . [any] recorded after previous mass traumatic events.” That includes the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001.
For others, the pandemic has also increased cases of eating disorders and substance-abuse disorders. The latter is especially troubling for the legal community, which even in the best of times has been plagued by drug and alcohol misuse problems. A famous study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
How to Take Back Your Mental Health for 2022
Seek the help of trusted professionals. First and foremost, seek the help of a trusted mental health professional no matter how minimal your symptoms appear. Certain conditions, such as those that fall in the severe category of mental health, need medical supervision to be treated properly. Even milder cases of things like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse can become worse if left unchecked.
Prior to visiting your healthcare professional, consider taking an online self-screening test from Anxiety & Depression Association of America. While a self-screening test should never be considered a replacement for professional medical advice, the simple act of taking one could be a way to familiarize yourself with some of the language and concepts involved. It could also get you a little more comfortable thinking and talking about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and even fears.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America also provides numerous resources for finding therapists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals in your area.
Always contact a doctor immediately if you have thoughts of harming yourself or another.
Consider workplace mental health plans. In the past, having a mental health issue was considered a stigma in the workplace. Slowly but surely, however, that is changing, and a growing number of companies now offer employee assistance plans (EAPs) for mental health. These plans usually provide employees with counseling sessions with no deductibles or copays.
At the same time, workers, especially in the Gen Z and Millennial categories, are asking for more robust mental health resources. According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work report, 68 percent of millennials and 81 percent of Gen Z individuals have left jobs partly for mental health reasons, compared with 50 percent of workers overall.
It can be difficult to overcome the lingering stigmas around mental health in the workplace. Discuss this with trusted friends or even with your doctor.
Build a Routine to Boost Mental Health
Our physical well-being is directly linked to our mental status. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the word “health” as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In other words, we can’t have optimal mental health without robust physical health and vice versa.
The best ways to take care of your physical health is to build a routine around the foods you eat and the exercise you engage in. But there are other less-obvious activities that can be very beneficial for mental health, too.
Prioritize exercise. Exercise should be a priority in your life. That doesn’t mean you have to become a bodybuilder or regularly run a marathon. Find an activity that fits with your lifestyle and personality regardless of how trendy or glamorous it sounds.
Perhaps you are an extrovert who feels most motivated when surrounded by others. Consider joining a fitness class or club. Many gyms offer a wide range of classes, from aerobics to dance to yoga. Allow yourself room to experiment and test out a few options to see what best suits you and what leaves you feeling invigorated and mentally uplifted.
On the other hand, you might prefer your own company when it comes time to work out. A basic gym membership can be of use here. You might even consider joining a virtual gym and working out from the comfort of your own home. Needless to say, the pandemic has made the virtual gym market a lucrative one, which means there are plenty of styles and options available nowadays.
Whether with friends or with yourself, the key to both approaches is routine. To the extent that it’s possible, try to exercise at the same time every day. This should be a time when you know you won’t be interrupted by the kids or in danger of someone booking a meeting on your calendar at work.
Start small. Forcing yourself to go from no exercise to five days a week at 6 a.m. sharp will likely backfire on you. Instead, choose a time a couple days per week and see if you can stick to that schedule for a bit. Once those times start to feel routine, you can add more days as your schedule allows.
Remember that physical movement can have a huge impact on mental health, and that when we choose to exercise, we are taking care of more than just our waistlines. Sometimes just this thought can be motivation enough to get us to the gym when we’re having an off day.
Embrace a food routine. Eating is another activity that can profoundly impact your mental well-being from day to day and even hour to hour.
At this time of year, dieting becomes popular as we try to shed the holiday pounds by reaching for the nearest fad diet, be it paleo, keto, or plant-based.
This year, instead of going for a diet, go for a food routine. Try to eat solid meals around the same time each day throughout the week. Intentionally taking time out of a day to refuel our bodies automatically connects our physical and mental health. Eating on a schedule can be a more consistent source of energy for your body from which the brain automatically benefits. It can also make you more conscious about the foods you are putting into your body, which can lead to healthier eating overall.
Try to stick to nutrient-dense foods, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Incorporate a variety of proteins, such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, legumes, eggs, and yogurt. Be sure to also include healthy fats from olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
The pandemic may have increased our appetite for snacking, but many of these snacks contain huge amounts of sodium, refined sugar, unhealthy fats, and other additives and artificial ingredients. These things are no better for our brains than they are for our bodies, so sample them sparingly.
If the idea of eating healthy meals on a set schedule is an automatic stressor for you, consider seeking the help of a nutrition professional. These individuals specialize in helping people design food routines and incorporate the right kinds of foods for their bodies.
You should never feel shame that you are unable to maintain a food routine on your own at first. American food companies thrive off of clever marketing schemes and packaging that make junk food irresistible for most consumers. Just as you would discuss your anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms with a qualified doctor, consider discussing your nutrition and food worries, challenges, and fears with someone trained to help you overcome these hurdles.
Try a hobby. Having a hobby might be a less-obvious mental health booster than many of us would at first think. But having a hobby can actually greatly improve your mental health.
For example, research has shown that having a meaningful hobby is linked to lower levels of depression. A concept known as “social prescribing,” where doctors ask patients with mild levels of depression to take up a hobby as a treatment, have shown these hobbies are beneficial to mental well-being.
A hobby can be anything you find rewarding and pleasurable, so long as it doesn’t come with negative health, financial, or social consequences. No doctor would recommend playing the slot machines as a hobby, for example. On the other hand, gardening, painting, a physical sport or discipline, and numerous types of arts and crafts could all bring some added mental well-being to your life if you enjoy those activities.
If you have trouble thinking of a hobby, consider the activities you enjoyed as a child. Riding your bike, tucking yourself in with a good book, and even constructing 3D models or jigsaw puzzles are all common activities in childhood we somehow leave by the wayside as adults. Take a moment to reintroduce one or more of these to your life in the new year.
Hobbies are like any other element of self-care: we have to consciously make time for them in our lives in order to reap their benefits. However, be wary of setting too strict a schedule around your hobby-related activities. Too much rigidity can take the pleasure out of the hobby and leave you feeling worse than before.
Don’t Be Ashamed to Make Time for YOU
Your number one goal in designing a routine to boost your mental health should be about making time to take care of yourself.
There is no “right” way to do this. For some, improving our day-to-day mental well-being might simply be a matter of finding a little more time for working out and spending a few hours in the garden. Others may need these things along with some professional assistance from a doctor, psychiatrist, nutrition coach, spiritual advisor, or mentor.
All of these needs are valid when they are in pursuit of caring for your mental well-being. The pandemic may still be here, and our version of “normal living” still in question, but as we head into the new year, there are endless possibilities when it comes to caring for your mind and body that will truly set you up for success in 2022.