May is Global Mental Health Awareness Month in USA and this is Mental Awareness Week in UK.
To highlight the complexities around this topic we asked Dr Méli Noël at IMC Jelita about what types of mental health issues she sees in the clinic and explain more about this year’s theme – Depression.
Q. Dr Meli, what do we mean by ‘mental health’? What does the term cover?
Mental health is a broad term that includes someone’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. The state of our mental health affects how we think, feel and act. It influences how we handle daily stressors or major life events, how we relate to others, how we make decisions for ourselves or our loved ones. When we experience mental health issues, our mood, way of thinking and behavior can be affected. Mental health is influenced by many factors including lifestyle (exercise, sleep, diet, alcohol, smoking and drug consumption), biochemical factors (genes, brain chemistry, anemia, under functioning thyroid, etc.), and life stressors (work, relationships, major trauma or bereavement, etc.).
Q. How often do you see patients with mental health challenges in your clinic?
I find that as a general rule, people don’t like to talk to each other about mental health. Despite all the awareness efforts that have been focused on mental health in the past years, it is still very taboo. It shouldn’t be! Suffering from mental health issues is not more shameful or a sign of weakness than being diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure. Also, if everyone could be in the shoes of a family doctor for a day, they would see how common mental health issues are. They can affect everyone from children to the elderly, and I would say that I see at least two to three patients per day who currently are struggling with or have had mental health issues in the past.
Q. What are the most common mental health issues you see?
I would say that in Singapore, the most common mental health issues that people will come and see me for are depression and anxiety. The stress of relocating to a new country, a new continent often with being away from family and friends, changing job or having to stop working to follow our spouse, having to settle the kids in a new routine, can take a toll on someone’s mental health. I also see a lot of teenagers with anxiety or depression triggered by intense pressure to perform in international schools, best friends leaving the country, or bullying.
Q. What are the main symptoms of depression?
Everyone can experience days of feeling blue, whether it’s because it’s been cloudy for a while, or because of missing loved ones who live halfway around the world, or without any identifiable cause. This is normal. Mood swings do happen and they can act as a useful little voice in our heads saying “it’s time to take care of myself a little better, to take some time to do things that I enjoy and be with the people that I love.” But for some people, the mood just does not swing back up. The days turn into weeks or months, and this is when we start thinking about major depressive disorder, or clinical depression.
Depression is a disease. It is caused by changes in chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. It is not a choice, and it does not mean you are weak, bad or going crazy. Depression is characterized by different symptoms that are present for at least 2 weeks and represent a change from how someone normally functions. These symptoms are: depressed mood most of the day every day (feeling sad or empty, being tearful), loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy, changes in appetite, changes in sleep pattern (either insomnia or sleeping more than usual), loss of energy or fatigue, inappropriate feelings of guilt or worthlessness, difficulty thinking or concentrating, and recurrent thoughts about death and suicide.
Q. After diagnosis, what support is available for someone suffering from depression?
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with depression, it is really important to maintain close contact and attend frequent follow ups with your family doctor. Family doctors are well equipped to support you and help you navigate the health care system while you are recovering from depression. Sometimes just having an open chat with your family doctor can go a long way, and we can give you useful lifestyle advice, do basic blood work to rule out a physical cause behind the depression and even prescribe medication if it does become apparent that it is needed. In Singapore, we are very fortunate to have amazing psychologist and counselors that can help you and support you on your road to recovery as well. Again, your family doctor can help connect you with the right person for you. There are also psychiatrists that can help us navigate the more complex and severe cases or when we might not be sure of the correct diagnosis.
Q. Is there are certain demographic that is more susceptible to depression?
First of all, women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. But it might be because more women actually seek help for their symptoms. People who have a close relative who suffers from depression are also more at risk to experience it themselves. Other risk factors or potential triggers include having recently experienced a major life event (changing or losing a job, divorce, moving, death of a loved one, major medical diagnosis, etc.), lack of social support, using drugs or alcohol in excess, and having had depression in the past.
Q. What is your advice to someone reading this article who thinks they, or a loved one, may be suffering from depression?
If you are experiencing some of the symptoms of depression and are wondering if that diagnosis could fit you, you should talk to your family doctor. We are a great first step on the road to recovery. If making an appointment with your doctor feels like a huge task, reach out to a loved one and ask them to help you and bring you to the appoimtnet. Depression feels like it is untreatable and like it will never end, but it is neither. There are many effective treatments, and by seeking help you are making the first step towards recovery, and eventually happiness and contentment.