Michael Shapiro, M.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and medical director of UF Health Child Psychiatry and Psychology at UF Health Springhill, provides an expert’s perspective on mental health to increase awareness and decrease the stigma for those with a mental illness.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Why is it important to take care of your mental health?
Physical and mental health are so tied together. Imagine what it is like to go a day without good sleep or a day without eating. That affects your whole experience. We should treat our brain like any other body part. For example, if your leg was injured it would be much more obvious to rest it. We do not do that with our brains. When it is a mental issue we tell people to push through, and we would never say that to someone with a broken leg.
What are some strategies people can take to improve their mental health?
Try as much as possible to live your typical life, whatever that may be. Know what you can do to feel worthwhile and purposeful. The more you keep aspects of your typical life, the more that helps you get by on a day-to-day basis.
I would also say, know who your go-to people are and know that it is OK to ask for support. Having social connections and emotionally supported relationships is a huge protective factor for people with mental illness. When you are having a bad day or a bad time, have a person you can go to, someone you can say, “Hey, I’m having a hard day today and I could use someone to vent to.”
What are signs that I should reach out to someone?
Changes in behavior that are different than what is expected for that person. This can include: they are more irritable than usual, more isolated, showing up late if they are usually on time, sleeping more or sleeping less, spending more time alone or the things that they used to care about do not seem to matter to them as much anymore.
There is nothing wrong with asking someone, “Are you OK?” The first step is being curious and trying to understand. Part of the package is not being judgmental or blaming. Focus on listening and understanding instead of trying to “fix their problem.”
What would you tell those with mental illness, their families and friends?
Sometimes we make people with a mental illness work harder than they have to. We may put pressure on the patient by saying, “What happened? Did you take your medicine? Are you eating right? Why are you having a bad day?” This is basically saying, “You shouldn’t feel bad if you are doing what you’re supposed to.” Everybody has bad days, including people with mental illness. There’s a lot of help in just having a nonjudgmental, listening attitude and that works for people with or without mental illness.
One thing that stops people from getting help is they blame themselves for their symptoms or they worry they are going to upset other people by telling them they have a mental illness. Mental illness is nobody’s fault. Nobody wants to have a mental illness. Nobody wants to have a family member with a mental illness. No one is trying to be sick. Everyone is doing the best they can. The difference with mental illness compared to physical illnesses is people with physical illnesses don’t feel blamed.
If you or a loved one are struggling, call any of the numbers below for help.
• UF Health Mental Health Evaluation Line: 352.265.5481 • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255 • Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741 • Alachua County Crisis Center: 352.264.6789