Q: I understand that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, but what does that mean?

A: National Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in American’s lives. Each year the President makes a proclamation of this important month, showing the country the value in understanding and supporting people’s mental health. It is also a time to thank professionals in the field who provide support and vital services to the people who need them.

Historically, discussion of mental health often comes with a stigma, causing people to hide their concerns, ignore them and not seek the treatment they may need to thrive in their daily lives. Hopefully, in 2022 more people understand that mental health is just as important as physical health and is vital to a person’s overall health.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many people’s feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. No one can completely avoid uncomfortable feelings; they are a part of life. The ups and down of mood may be based on what is going on in your life, hormones, or even change in routine. Sometimes we can surf those feelings, understand them, and not let them get in the way of our overall functioning.

However, these feelings become a problem when they interfere with our daily functioning and success. Perhaps you stop bathing, or start sleeping too much, or avoid talking to friends. These may be signs that you need to seek help to manage your emotions and strengthen your mental health.

Seeking outside support is a sign of great strength. Knowing when you have the tools within you already, and when you need to reach out for professionals to strengthen your tools is important. If you have high blood pressure you would look for a doctor to help you learn how to lower it, either through lifestyle change or through medication. Seeking help from a mental health professional is the same concept. You may need a therapist to help you work through your feelings, and medications may also be necessary. The goal is to have a healthy and strong body and mind.

The current rate of depression in Americans has more than tripled compared to rates in 2019. That is staggering. Yet, how many of those people have reached out for help? Often people who have lived to an older age without ever having sought mental health support will assume that it’s not meant for them. The idea of bringing this up to their doctor or finding a therapist to talk to may feel foreign and uncomfortable.

We cannot ignore the need for mental health support for older adults. Although older adults are only 12% of the population, they make up approximately 18% of suicides. The highest overall rate of suicide is among men aged 65 and up. These high numbers may be due to loneliness, loss of a spouse, chronic illness, and financial stress.

If you or someone you know would benefit from mental health support, then reach out. You can start with your primary care doctor if you have one you trust. To seek a therapist or psychiatrist you can get a list through your insurance provide or ask for a referral from your doctor. You may find a support group is a good fit to help you connect with others in similar situations.

If you have Medi-Cal or no insurance, there are services available through County programs. In Ventura County you can call 1-866-998-2243 and in Los Angeles County call 1-800- 854-7771. There is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24/7 for anyone who is in need at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Mental health is a spectrum ranging from mild symptoms to severe chronic issues. What is important to remember is that everyone deserves to live a happy and confident lifestyle. No one should feel their symptoms are so mild that they do not deserve help or should not seek it due to shame. We all deserve support and care to thrive at every age.

Martha Shapiro can be reached at Senior Concerns at 805-497-0189 or by email at mshapiro@seniorconcerns.org.

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