Mental Health: The Women’s Health Issue We Don’t Talk About (But Should)
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental health concerns often affect women differently than men. This is particularly true in cases of depression and anxiety, which can be tied to times of significant hormone changes such as before or after childbirth or menopause. In fact, 1 of 5 women in America will experience depression their lifetime—that’s double the rate experienced by men.
So, with mental health becoming such a common health concern among women, it begs the question: why are we often reluctant to bring up these concerns with our doctors?
Is it denial? Fear? Embarrassment? All of the above? The fact is, talking about mental health is never something you should be embarrassed about—and you should never be afraid to talk about it, either.
Starting the Conversation About Your Mental Health
While you can always turn to your friends, family, or social support group to confide in and discuss your concerns, a great resource available to you is your primary care physician (or whichever physician you have the most regular contact with, such as your OB/GYN).
The University of Michigan Depression Center recommends the following tips for patients to help get the answers you need while staying comfortable and confident during the discussion:
- Set Realistic Expectations, and Be Patient: If you recognize that you may be experiencing issues with depression, anxiety or another mental health concern, remember that diagnosing and treating these types of issues takes time. Instead of expecting an immediate “cure,” think about this discussion as the first step in your journey to improved mental health.
- Plan Ahead: While you should always leave the diagnosis of any health concern to a doctor or other health professional, it never hurts to be an informed patient. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of a mental health issue, do some research and homework ahead of time (i.e. journaling) to help you best explain the feelings you are experiencing to your doctor.
- Stay Focused: If you plan to discuss your mental health concerns with your primary care doctor, you should try to do so at a dedicated visit, not as an “add-on” to a visit addressing another health issue. If you absolutely need to combine this conversation with a visit addressing another issue, make it the first topic of conversation rather than leaving it to address at the end of the visit.
- Be Direct: Remember, your doctor can’t read your mind. That’s why it is so important to communicate your feelings as directly and as clearly as you can.
- Be Accountable: It can be easy to forget to fill that prescription or schedule that next visit, but skipping that next step could have a negative impact on your ability to get a diagnosis or treat an issue. Be your own personal mental healthcare advocate by staying on top of your follow-up needs and making sure that your providers (and payers, where necessary) are communicating with each other.
When to Seek Help Urgently
While mental health concerns can make themselves apparent in a variety of forms, some subtler than others, there are a handful of warning signs that may signal a more serious issue that needs to be addressed. These signs, include:
- Long-lasting feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Dramatic changes in sleeping habits
- Significant changes in appetite, eating habits, and/or weight.
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Experiencing increased fear or anxiety
- Hallucinating (seeing or hearing things that aren't really there)
- Experiencing an “emotional roller-coaster” (extreme highs and lows in mood)
- Aches, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear cause
- Increased irritability
- Isolation and social withdrawal
- Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Thoughts or attempts of suicide, self-harm (i.e. “cutting”), or violence