May is Mental Health Awareness Month, with experts from across the country sounding alarm clocks about a growing mental health crisis.
More than 94 million Americans have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in the past four weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Jake Goodman, a psychiatry resident who advocates for mental health awareness on social media, described the numbers as “staggering,” telling ABC News, “We need to talk about this.”
Goodman and other mental health professionals have said that one of the keys to mental well-being is prevention: making sure you’re taking care of yourself every day.
ABC News polled mental health professionals to learn their best coping strategies for extra difficult days when anxiety and depression feel out of control.
1. Find a therapist or mental health professional.
Mental health professionals have said finding a trusted mental health therapist is the first step.
Ideally, this is someone you can turn to for advice on particularly difficult days, the experts said.
“It’s important to cast a wide net, as the most important factors to a therapeutic relationship are trust and safety,” Dr. Kali Hobson, an Atlanta-based adult and adolescent psychiatrist, told ABC News.
Anyone with a mental health emergency should call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Experts said there are many hurdles to starting therapy. For one thing, it can be expensive, especially for people without insurance coverage.
“In an effort to address insurance barriers and access, some therapists offer an income-based ‘sliding scale’ cost: ask about it.” said Hobson.
MORE: As New Data Shows Kids in a Mental Health Crisis, Parents Ask, Where’s the Help?
Stigma can be another barrier to seeking mental health help, even for professionals.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get the therapy sooner,” Goodman said. “I had my own stigma about therapy. I thought therapy was only for people with severe mental health issues.”
Dr. Osose Oboh, an internal medicine physician-in-residence based in Maryland, said some of her patients initially worry about being stereotyped as crazy, being misunderstood, or coming from different cultures and having to educate as they seek to heal.
Therapy is not a quick fix and you may need to meet with a few therapists to find the best match. But experts have said the long-term payoff can be significant.
“You’re investing in yourself by giving yourself time to sort through the things you’ve been through in this life,” Oboh said.
Experts have recommended approaching therapy with an open mind, clear written goals, and a willingness to hear about things you may need to work on.
Goodman also said it’s best not to share your therapist with friends or family.
2. Identify healthy coping strategies that work for you
There are many positive coping strategies that can help people get through tough days, experts say.
“For some people, pulling it off may feel like running a marathon, and for others, it may feel like watching a show in bed,” Hobson said. “Don’t compare your coping skills to others. If it helps, it helps.”
Oboh said running, journaling or listening to music helped her when she didn’t have the words to express how she was feeling.
As for finding time in your schedule, Oboh said to pay attention to how you divide your time, especially time spent scrolling across devices.
“If you’re not giving yourself time, then who are you giving it to?” she said.
Social media can be a helpful way to find community, but it can also be harmful.
Oboh and other experts recommend that if you’re depressed or anxious, or constantly comparing yourself to other people in your life, take a break from social media.
3. Know your adverse childhood experiences
Many people have experiences in childhood that include traumatic events, neglect or abuse that could have contributed to mental health diagnoses later in life, experts told ABC News.
By better understanding yourself, experts say this self-awareness about past traumas can help people cope with their toughest days.
Knowing about potential trigger events won’t eliminate bad days, but when people have a better understanding of why they’re feeling so upset, it can help them remember to practice coping mechanisms, according to Oboh.
“[Think] about your childhood experiences that still make you cry… they bring out strong emotions… anger,” Oboh said, explaining that those are the things that need healing.
4. Know when to seek professional help
In an emergency, seek qualified professional help, experts said
It can be difficult to know when to seek help, but there are some good indicators that you may need immediate assistance.
If you are experiencing any of the following conditions, trouble sleeping, less interest in activities you love, feelings of worthlessness, less energy, difficulty concentrating, increased or decreased desire to eat, easy anger, or a feeling of not wanting to live or want to harm others, so talk to your doctor, according to Oboh.
Oboh noted that if you’ve ever wondered if anyone would care if your car flipped a median, it can be classified as passive suicidal thoughts and should be taken seriously.
“Typically, if your symptoms are impacting your functioning at school, work, social life, relationships…it is at the point that therapy and medication consideration would be recommended,” Hobson added.
In an emergency, Goodman says: “[Go] to the emergency room and let a doctor know what you are going through”
Oboh, Goodman, and Hobson agree that getting help sooner rather than later is very important because your mental health can decline rapidly.
5. Don’t be afraid to take medication
According to Hobson, behavioral and therapeutic strategies are used before turning to medication, but for some people, therapy plus medication is the best route to mental well-being.
Before starting a treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. In the end, it’s your decision.
People who are having a difficult day should never self-medicate with drugs or other substances that are not prescribed by a doctor. Instead, call a psychiatrist to explain how you feel. If it looks like a crisis, people can find a nearby emergency room or emergency psychiatric care center for same-day medical care, according to Oboh, Goodman and Hobson.
As we emerge from the pandemic and continue to seek a normal life, experts say some days will be harder than others, but it’s okay to have bad days.
If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline on 988 for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Sotonye Douglas, MD, MS, is a general surgery resident and member of the ABC News Medical Unit.
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