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Q&A: Surgeon General Jerome Adams on maintaining mental health during challenging times

Q&A: Surgeon General Jerome Adams on maintaining mental health during challenging times

While we continue to navigate challenging times, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH – the 20th Surgeon General of the United States – shares the importance of mental health to overall health and well being. Dr. Adams’ motto as Surgeon General is “better health through better partnerships.”

In the below Q&A with, Dr. Adams discusses why mental health is such an important topic to him personally, the increased need to look after our mental health during these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and offers advice on how to help remove the stigma associated with mental health and the barriers that stigma creates to prevent people from seeking the help they need.

* * * How would you define mental health?

Vice Admiral Adams: I define mental health as a combination of our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and is crucial in every stage of life – from childhood to adulthood. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It helps determine everything from how we handle stress and relate to others, to the choices we make every second of every day.

Can you share why mental health is an important topic to you personally?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 50 percent of individuals will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, and my own family is no exception.

I often share the story of my younger brother Phillip, who has struggled with a substance use disorder (SUD). His struggles are in large part the consequence of long unrecognized and untreated anxiety and depression symptoms. Unfortunately many people attempt to self-medicate their mental health conditions with tobacco products, alcohol, and drugs, and my brother progressed through all three categories of substances.

I share Phillip’s story, to underscore that mental health issues, including SUD, can happen to anyone – even the brother of the Surgeon General. These issues have no bounds.

You talk a lot about the importance of mental health to overall health and well-being – can you help explain?

Most people, even children, understand the need to eat right and exercise to promote physical health, but the importance of our mental health is frequently overlooked, or downplayed. Mental wellness helps people to make appropriate choices and engage in productive behaviors when coping with the stresses of life. People who are healthy both physically and mentally are better able to realize their full potential – in school, on the basketball court, at work, and in life.

Just as we recommend you have an annual medical exam where we examine your heart, lungs, etc., it’s important for you and your healthcare provider to have regular discussions and assessments about your mental health. Any medical visit, including a telehealth visit, can be an opportunity to check in on your mental health and well-being and for you to raise any concerns or questions you might have.

Studies from the CDC have shown that increased mental wellness is even associated with a decreased risk of diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. And inversely, untreated mental health issues can make other health conditions, like diabetes, worse. Taking care of our mental health is a component of taking care of our overall health.

People with higher levels of well-being – that is both mental and physical health – are even more productive at work and more likely to contribute to their communities – a point I highlight in an upcoming Surgeon General’s Report on the linkage between community health and economic prosperity. Fully healthy employees help businesses thrive, and create vibrant communities.

What are some actions Americans can take during this challenging time to look after their mental health?

Health is personal, but the good news is that there are a variety of things that you can do to take good care of your mental health.

First of all, it’s important to remember social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation – part of mental wellness is staying connected with others. My own family has kept in touch with many friends and relatives virtually, and my kids have been writing good old fashioned hand-written letters to people they care about. In many ways, this unprecedented time has actually made us closer.

Mental health is also about keeping your mind and body occupied, to alleviate boredom and decrease stress. My wife likes reading books and doing puzzles. For me, it means making sure I get in some physical activity – a walk or run outside or shooting hoops with my kids. For others, it might be listening to or playing music, crafting, or trying out a new recipe. I’ve even been trying out yoga and meditation, and they really do work for me!

Regardless of what you choose to help promote your mental health, it’s important to take good care of your body too. Eating healthy and well-balanced meals, drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol and beverages high in caffeine or sugar, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep are all things that will improve overall health – including your mental health. Don’t forget to take medications as directed and to keep watch over any on-going medical conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

It’s also important to take a time out from activities that you know bring you down, cause angst or stress. For many people right now, that might mean taking a break from social media, or watching the news.

What is your advice to Americans who are fearful to seek help because of the stigma still associated with it?

To those who are struggling with mental illness, I want you to know that you are not your illness. And talking about it does not show weakness or shame. It shows that you are in tune with your personal health and are managing a condition that many others experience at some point in their lifetimes.

One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year. Chances are that you have a friend or family member who is currently struggling or has struggled with their mental health. When we open up, we often find out that we’re not alone in our struggles or challenges.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to today – whether it’s to find treatment or just to get a little support, I encourage you to call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It’s confidential, free, and available 24/7 and 365 days a year.

I also encourage everyone to visit the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) hub for mental health resources in the wake of COVID-19. There you’ll find free and confidential resources, tips for coping with stress and anxiety, and can get connected with a trained counselor in your area. If you’re looking for help talking to a loved one about their mental health, you’ll also find tips on how to start the dialogue and let them know you care.

How can we help remove the barriers that prevent people from getting the care they may need?

I serve on the Executive Committee of the National Action Alliance to End Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance), and we are currently working to address this very question. While the Action Alliance is largely focused on suicide prevention, many central themes of their work are rooted in broader mental health conditions. In this modern era, it’s critical we improve access to care, reduce the conditions that can lead to suicide, and open up a public dialogue on this subject.

Just as we have been working to change the conversation about suicide prevention, we must also eliminate policies that reinforce stigma about seeking mental health treatment. I advocate daily to eradicate stigma, whether related to a physical or mental health condition, substance misuse, socioeconomic status or other causes, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

Stigma keeps people in the shadows. It keeps people from getting help. But by opening up and sharing our stories, and by seeking support when we need it, we can shatter stigma and all that it represents. The single most important thing we can do to promote mental health, is to talk openly and often about it, and encourage those with mental health symptoms to seek care!

How do you think public perception of mental health has changed or advanced over the last 5 years?

I am glad that the perception of mental health has been changing. Organizations like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) – as well as their players – are talking about it. Military leaders now recognize mental wellness as critical to the health of our soldiers and the security of our Nation. Communities are taking action to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness and its treatment, and our young people are recognizing and speaking about mental health in ways we’ve never seen before. By pairing spokespeople like NBA stars Kevin Love and Keyon Dooling with social media and the ability to reach millions in milliseconds, I think our country is really starting to understand that mental health is key to our broader well-being.

Unfortunately we’ve also seen far too many high profile overdoses and suicides among celebrities. This has shown us that money, fame, and resources don’t guarantee good mental health, and can’t protect you if you don’t seek help.

That’s why one of the most powerful actions we can take to empower people to seek help if needed and reduce stigma is to use our voices – to speak up and speak out against stigma when we hear it, tell our own stories, and to provide space for others to do the same.

The federal government, including CDC, the National Institutes of Health , and SAMHSA, offer a wealth of programs and resources to help Americans improve their mental health. I currently serve as an ambassador on the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) Task Force, an effort arising from President Trump’s executive order. Together, the task force is using a multipronged public health approach to change the way all Americans think about, talk about and address mental health broadly – and suicide in particular. It also focuses on identifying and promoting effective evidence-based programs in communities across the nation while expanding the suicide prevention research ecosystem. These are important conversations that can have a meaningful impact on the future of mental health.