People often reach crisis before seeking help

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series on mental health.

Contrary to popular belief, mental-health problems are not unusual occurrences.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four American adults is affected by some type of mental illness in any given year.

Unfortunately, it is just as common for many people with mental-health difficulties to delay or neglect seeking treatment.

Many people with mental-health difficulties have little or no insight or awareness into the fact that their thinking and/or behavior — or that of a relative or friend — is problematic.

Even people who possess that awareness may deny the problem. Confronting the reality of a mental-health or substance-abuse issue in oneself or a loved one is usually a very painful process. Avoiding and/or denying that reality is much easier to do.

The very real stigma that still surrounds mental-health and substance-abuse problems in this country is another unfortunate factor in why treatment is delayed or avoided altogether.

The fact that such stigma is unfair matters not. People still delay or avoid seeking necessary professional help for mental-health and/or substance-abuse disorders because of a fear of being branded, labeled and/or ostracized.

‘There is still stigma,” said Denis Navarro, a licensed psychologist with four decades of clinical counseling experience who is a retired UPMC Altoona Behavioral Health Services Department outpatient supervisor and clinical specialist, but who still does consulting work for UPMC Altoona.

Stigma should never become a barrier to people seeking mental-health treatment, especially in this day and age, when cutting-edge advances in psychotropic medications and skilled professional clinicians make recovery from mental-health difficulties much more the norm than the exception.

Medication isn’t the only answer, of course. People must often make changes in their lives to eliminate and overcome unhealthy, dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving and replace them with healthy, proactive patterns.

Problems must be dealt with, if not eliminated, and people must take responsibility for their own lives and their own happiness and well-being. But in order to do so, counseling — and, when appropriate, medication — can often help people to improve.

Unfortunately, situations often reach a crisis point before help is sought out.

“A lot of times when people get depressed or stressed, they don’t eat as well, they don’t sleep as well, they lose interest in activities that they’ve always enjoyed, and they start thinking negatively,” Navarro said. “(People) shouldn’t let it go too far, to the point where they’re not functioning. The point at which many people seek help is when they’re not functioning well, or when family members notice that they’re not doing well.”

Seeing a psychiatrist — a medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of mental disorders — is the exception rather than the rule today when common problems like depression and/or anxiety first surface.

Primary-care physicians are often the first line of defense. Primary-care physicians can prescribe medication for common, garden-variety problems, or provide a referral to a psychiatrist or other mental-health professional for more complex difficulties.

Dr. Anthony J. Maniglia — a practicing family physician for over 30 years who is with Blair Medical Associates of Altoona — has long recognized the correlation between physical and mental well-being in his patients.

“A person’s physical health affects their emotional health, and vice versa,” Maniglia said. “I don’t know that either stands alone. A lot of (family doctors) treat symptoms of depression and anxiety, and over the years, I’ve become better at recognizing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and hopefully (at) either helping people with these symptoms myself, or (referring) them (for) help.”

Coming Sunday: Accessing and financing treatment.