How Baylor Scott & White Health is pioneering innovative ways to combat mental health issues

by David Buice | October 17, 2019

It’s not unusual to occasionally feel sad, lost, hopeless or anxious — everyone experiences these emotions sometimes, and they often pass with time. For many people, however, feelings of depression or anxiety don’t simply go away. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), 19.1 percent of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018.

And mental health issues are by no means confined to adults. In 2016, 16.5 percent of American youth ages 6-17 experienced some type of mental distress.

Clearly, people suffering from some form of mental disorder are not alone. Large swaths of our population, regardless of age, race or ethnic background or sexual orientation, experience mental health difficulties.

Depressive disorder and its symptoms

Though the causes of mental illness are many — ranging from childhood abuse and trauma to genetic factors, alcohol and drug abuse and changes in brain chemistry — one of its more common forms is depressive disorder, often referred to simply as depression.

There has been a progressive increase in the incidence of major depression over the past 70 years, with 17 percent of women and 9 percent of men in the U.S. reporting a major depressive disorder in their lifetime. Some will suffer only one such experience, but for most, depressive disorder reoccurs, and without treatment, these episodes may last anywhere from a few months to several years.

Some common symptoms of depressive disorder include:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness or guilt
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal thoughts

Talking to your doctor

Because of embarrassment and possibly the fear of being placed on a life-long regimen of medications, many people are hesitant to talk with their doctor about their ongoing feelings of anxiety, stress and depression.

Rather than holding back, however, we need to normalize conversations about these feelings. Your emotions do not mean there’s anything wrong with you — they merely indicate that you’re human, subject to the same anxieties that most of us feel at some point in our lives. You have absolutely nothing to lose and much to potentially gain from talking to a professional.

If adjustments to your lifestyle have not provided relief, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as a low-dose pill option to help regulate neurotransmitters from the brain. This will balance your chemicals and physiology and can help you through a period of particularly high anxiety. Additionally, your physician should explain the long-term impact and treatment plan beyond the period of regular medication.

A new form of help for military veterans

One of the harsh realities facing our society is the need of many current and former military personnel for treatment of what has been termed “the invisible wounds of war.” Since October 2001, 1.64 million service personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many returning with invisible wounds that include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

It was these invisible wounds that led Baylor Scott & White Health to establish the Warriors Research Institute (WRI) more than a decade ago. Based in Waco, the institute has conducted a wide array of empirical research studies to improve the quality of care for military veterans and first responders.

Research shows that 31 percent of returning service members report symptoms of some mental health condition, yet less than half receive any treatment. While mental health services are available to veterans, significant barriers stand in the way of accessing them. These include stigma, the logistics of time and distance and the availability of culturally aware, evidence-based providers in local communities — challenges that are particularly prevalent in Texas, where 75 of our counties are rural.

The Warriors Research Institute, headed by Director Suzy Bird Gulliver, PhD, and Associate Director Eric Meyer, PhD, seeks to overcome these barriers through the use of telehealth.

This novel approach to providing better mental health care for veterans and first responders enables the WRI to overcome the barriers of time and distance by allowing veterans, responders and their families to meet with qualified professionals using their smartphone or computer.

A pilot program conducted by WRI with support from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission captured feedback from over 30 veterans and family members, and the response was overwhelmingly positive, with 90 percent of participants saying they would recommend telehealth.

One of the many people who have benefitted from the telehealth program is an Army veteran who chooses to remain anonymous. He admits that seeking help for his mental health was not easy, but after returning from his fourth deployment, he noticed a number of personal changes. Once-a-week visits with his doctor at the WRI helped him get back on his feet by confronting his fears and emotions in a productive way, and teaching him healthy coping mechanisms.

If you’re a veteran, firefighter, EMT, paramedic or family member of a veteran dealing with depression, anger, substance use issues or post-traumatic stress, you may be eligible for no-cost telehealth treatment. Contact the Warriors Research Institute for additional information.

 

Methods of self-help

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should seek immediate medical help. Short of that, there are ways that each of us can promote our mental health through simple, daily acts of self-help.

  1. Take a break. As simple as it sounds, no matter the demands you’re facing, the mental health benefits of hitting the pause button far outweigh anything you think you’ll miss by taking a quick break.
  2. Relax. Taking a break is a good start, but you can also practice some real self-care by embracing stress management through the art of relaxation.
  3. Try a de-stressing exercise. Experts agree that exercise is one of the best ways to boost mental health. For non-impact exercise, consider yoga or tai chi
  4. Get outside. Hitting the gym is great if that’s your thing, but exercising outside can be even more beneficial to mental health than working out indoors.
  5. Feed your brain. Nutrition is important to your mood and mental health. Stress causes your body to produce high levels of the hormone cortisol which, in turn, contributes to elevated blood sugar, internal inflammation, indigestion and weight gain. As you practice methods of relaxation, also prepare meals rich in stress-fighting, anti-inflammatory foods like salmon and avocado.
  6. Get some sleep. Far too many of us don’t get the seven hours of sleep recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Both physical and mental health suffer from a lack of adequate sleep, so do what you need to do to get a good night’s sleep.
  7. Disconnect. It’s a difficult thing to do in the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, but it’s helpful each day to turn everything off for a few minutes to be alone with your own thoughts.

For better mental health, choose a few of these habits and make them part of your daily routine. If, despite your best efforts, you still feel overwhelmed emotionally, you should seek your doctor’s help.

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