We'd all like to experience optimal mental health, but how do we go about it? It involves much more than just seeing a psychiatrist or other medical professional and popping the right “magic pill.” (By the way, that doesn’t exist!) Optimal mental health also involves more than therapy and support groups. First, we must address our basic needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, usually depicted as a pyramid, illustrates several levels of human needs. At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs: oxygen, water, food, sleep, shelter and sex (assuming we wish our species to continue!).
Thankfully, most of us don’t have to think much about oxygen or sex (though some folks think a lot about sex!). So I'll focus on the issues most important to cope with a mental illness.
Water – Some folks with diagnoses need considerably more water because many psychotropic medications dry out the mouth. Also, people who take lithium really need to keep hydrated so they can reduce how much medication reaches the kidneys at any one time.
Food – What we consume can also affect our mental health. No special diet prevents a mental illness, but there is evidence that a Mediterranean diet can help, which involves eating:
It's also crucial to eat regularly. Folks with mood disorders sometimes forget to eat when manic or refuse to eat when depressed. Some try to “self-medicate” with food during depression. Overeating is especially dangerous when taking psychotropic medications because a number them increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Alcohol and illegal drugs interfere with most any medication, so it’s best to refrain from drinking when taking meds – or at the very least, to have no more than one drink a day. Follow the doctor's advice. And illegal drugs are never a good idea! Many doctors also suggest avoiding or limiting caffeine. This includes not only coffee and tea but most soft drinks and chocolate (bummer!).
Sleep – The first question my psychiatrist always asks is “How is your sleep?” The lack of restful sleep interferes with anyone’s mental health, however temporarily. But severely depressed people often sleep to escape or may be unable to get out of bed, even to use the bathroom. Medications can sometimes drain one's energy, so they should be carefully monitored and adjusted with a doctor's help. Mania, on the other hand, usually brings too little sleep, even to the point of total exhaustion or if not well treated, even death!
Shelter – Optimal mental health also requires more than a roof over one’s head and protection from the elements. We all need to feel safe, secure and free from fear. These needs appear on the second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Until all of these needs are met, one’s mental health will be in jeopardy.
Exercise – One important need that Maslow did not address is exercise. Studies have shown that aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, running, bicycling and swimming can help reduce depression by releasing "feel good" endorphins. Exercising also helps burn off the excess energy that comes with mania or with anger and rage.
Spirituality – A further need for optimal mental health is some sort of spiritual life. Although a psychiatrist who reviewed Bipolar Disorder Demystified claimed that spirituality has nothing to do with mental health, I strongly disagree. My life became much more balanced when I quit resisting and finally began paying attention to my spiritual needs.
For some people, this might mean mindfulness and meditation alone, but that works perfectly well too. That's one reason why so many of my blogs focus on on mindfulness and meditation.
What do you really know about mental illness? Not every form means losing complete touch with reality, as many people think. Those of us with a mental illness may exhibit signs or symptoms part of the time and appear perfectly "normal" at others.
Displaying one or more such signs or symptoms does not always indicate mental illness. Much depends upon their severity and duration. A proper diagnosis needs to come from a medical professional such as a psychiatrist – a medical doctor who specializes in the mind.
Because my expertise lies with Depression and Bipolar Disorder rather than with a Thought Disorder such as Schizophrenia, I'll focus on Mood Disorders.
Both bipolar disorder and depression are classified as Mood Disorders. A major difference is that bipolar disorder involves two "poles" – mania or a slightly less evident form called hypomania, as well as depression, which sometimes can involve suicidal thoughts and often attempts.
Psychiatrists describe Depression alone as Unipolar (having just one pole).
For me, living with bipolar disorder is like walking a tightrope. For a description of how this feels to me, read the introduction to Bipolar Disorder Demystified by clicking here.
Although the signs and symptoms of mania and hypomania are the same, a diagnosis depends on how intense they are (or have been) and whether they require (or required) hospitalization.
Asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal or thinking of taking their life won't make them do it. They may have already been considering suicide for quite some time. Sometimes, they just need to talk.