However, the notion of a regular mental health checkup is less established, perhaps because of the historical stigma about mental illness. But taking periodic stock of your mental and emotional well-being may help identify warning signs of common ailments like excessive stress, depression or anxiety. Such illnesses are highly treatable and preventable, especially when they are identified in their early stages, before they get so severe that they precipitate some sort of personal — and perhaps financial — crisis.
About a quarter of the adult population suffers from some type of mental health problem each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and 6 percent suffer severe ailments, like schizophrenia, panic disorder or major depression. When left untreated, mental health illnesses are more likely to lead to hospitalisation — something that could mean time lost from work or study.
Ideally, doctors should ask patients about their moods as part of a regular wellness visit — there doesn’t necessarily need to be a special visit to gauge mental health. But if the doctor doesn’t bring it up, patients can educate themselves and start the conversation with their GP or psychologist.
Family doctors are usually trained to spot symptoms of mental illness, like depression, although the onus is on patients to bring in questions or concerns for discussion. But people don’t necessarily go to their family doctor and say they are depressed. Rather, they say they’re tired, or that they lack energy, that they’re having trouble concentrating, they feel tense, they have difficulty sleeping, or that their body aches — all of which may be symptoms of depression or anxiety.
There are some well-known “screening tools” that patients can use as a starting point to assess themselves, to help prompt a conversation with their doctor or a mental health professional. For instance a common tool used by Australian doctors to measure levels of psychological distress is the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10). Another commonly used by psychologists as a measure of negative emotional states including depression, anxiety and stress is the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (DASS 21) developed by the University of NSW.
Caution must taken not to self-diagnose using such forms — there are several other “screening tools” — but rather to self-assess, and then discuss your concerns with a professional.
Mental illnesses have specific signs and symptoms, much as a disease like diabetes does, and those symptoms can be identified and treated. Take depression, again, as an example. It’s normal to be sad for a while after a personal loss or a traumatic event. But when the effects linger and begin to affect your self-esteem, or interfere with your ability to do your job or handle other responsibilities, you may want to consider if you are suffering from a more serious depression that should be treated professionally — for instance with cognitive behavioural therapy, medication or combination of both.
Many large employers include mental health coverage with employee assistance programs (EAPs) which provide counselling and referrals — both over the phone and in person — to workers and members of their families who are suffering from personal crises. EAPs are an important way to screen for mental health problems.
For more comprehensive mental health checkups it may be worthwhile to visit a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist trained in mental health assessment, cognitive aptitude/intelligence testing, personality profiling and/or neuropsychology. A thorough assessment may initially involve a structured interview and selected battery of tests than can take anything from an hour to several hours. Such tests may help identify early signs of a mental health related problem such as a though disorder, memory concerns, behavioural issues, autism, or cognitive deficit. Follow-up checks may then be utilised to gauge the outcomes of treatment and progress over time.
Wouldn’t a mental health checkup have the potential to help nearly everyone to take better care of themselves? See more on this topic at PsychiatricTimes.
*For further information on the K10 please refer to www.crufad.org or Andrews, G Slade, T. Interpreting score on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10). Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health: 2001; 25:6: 494-497. **For more information about DASS, visit the website www.psy.unsw.edu.au/dass/