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Breaking Stigmas and Embracing Mental Health Awareness

Sad woman pressing her forehead against a screen door

Let’s talk about the state of our mental health.

Nationally, children and teenagers are more anxious than they’ve been. So much so that the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics have declared a state of emergency, citing increasing rates of youth mental health problems between 2010 and 2020.

In a 2023 report, Mental Health America reported that 21% of adults are experiencing some form of mental illness.

Kent Mathias, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at UF Health Psychiatry, sheds light on common barriers to care, coping strategies and treatment options for people struggling with mental health. Dr. Mathias encourages open conversations about mental health to help combat stigma, remove obstacles to care and improve awareness.

Addressing challenges, stigma and barriers

Access to mental health support remains a significant challenge in many communities today. Shortages of mental health providers, financial constraints, misconceptions and societal or cultural stigma create limitations for those who need care.

“I think the biggest misconception that we encounter is that you’re somehow weak or broken as a person if you seek help for mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, which we know now is not true,” Dr. Mathias said. “All these are recognized as a disease that has a treatment, and people get better. You are not alone.”

Stigma can keep people from seeking help when they need it. Younger generations tend to be more open to mental health conversations. However, the willingness to seek care for mental health is not shared everywhere, and it’s even looked down upon in some parts of the world.

“Wherever it’s perpetuated from, society, movies, friends or family, stigma only represents a small percentage of what actually occurs in mental health,” Dr. Mathias said. “But stigma is like an infectious disease that spreads very quickly.”

One issue is that severe cases seen in the media, whether it be through news, entertainment or social media, aren’t the norm. So, when major incidents or tragedies are attributed to mental illness, it can hinder some from seeking help for more minor problems, like anxiety or mild depression.

The belief that psychiatry is ineffective also deters some from seeking help.

The link between physical and mental health

“Study after study has shown that the No. 1 strategy is cardiovascular exercise,” Dr. Mathias said. “It’s almost as effective as an antidepressant. We encourage people to exercise three or four times a week for 30 minutes, with the goal being to sweat and get your heart rate up. That’s good enough.”

For people who are not used to it, exercising several times per week can seem daunting, but it is important to note that any amount of exercise can improve mental well-being. The first goal is simply to start.

The connection between mental and physical health is undeniable. Research has shown that poor mental health correlates with increased risks for conditions like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and compromised immune function. Additionally, it affects one’s perception of pain and disrupts sleep patterns, exacerbating chronic conditions. Prioritizing mental well-being can lead to improvements in physical health and vice versa.

Our approach to care

Dr. Mathias emphasizes that practicing self-care, including consuming a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, practicing stress management techniques and limiting alcohol and drug consumption can improve mental health. Self-care also includes getting help when needed.

At UF Health Psychiatry, treatment approaches are tailored to individual needs, with a case-by- case, holistic review of the patient.

“In some cases, we go after symptoms with medication, but while that’s important to address, it’s also important to know what’s going on in someone’s life and what’s going on in someone’s family,” Dr. Mathias said.

Psychiatrists at UF Health aim to find the best possible treatment for each person.

“Medications are only one component of the recipe for mental health,” he said. “We know that medications plus therapy, for instance, are more beneficial in some disorders than just medication alone. At the end of the day, we have a good ability to meet people where they’re at and continue to support and work with them until they reach their goal.”

Psychological services such as psychotherapy and lifestyle intervention can also have a significant positive impact.

Specialized services

For those with treatment-resistant depression and other conditions, specialized treatments offer effective alternatives.

UF Health Psychiatry offers options such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, a new therapy for refractory depression — cases where traditional medications haven’t been effective. TMS is performed on an outpatient basis and has shown remarkable efficacy with minimal side effects.

Additionally, we offer both outpatient and inpatient electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, a highly controlled procedure used for various conditions, including severe depression and psychosis. Despite misconceptions, ECT is administered under general anesthesia, ensuring patient safety and comfort.

In response to the growing influence of digital technology, UF Health Psychiatry has embraced telehealth services to ensure accessibility and continuity of care. Telehealth has proven instrumental in reaching those who have geographical or other logistical barriers to in-person care. By leveraging technology, we continue to expand access to mental health services.

Seeking help shows strength

Looking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a proactive step toward healing and resilience. UF Health Psychiatry offers comprehensive resources and support, including free 24/7 walk-in and phone evaluations at the UF Health Psychiatric Hospital, to guide individuals on their path to mental wellness.

“If you think you need help, ask for help, and do your best not to believe the stigma,” Dr. Mathias said. “We are always here for anyone who thinks they need help.”

About the author

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620