Mental health concerns have become more normalized and accepted over the years, but stigmas surrounding mental illnesses remain a barrier to accessing quality care. Despite the process our society has made, many patients and providers are still uncomfortable discussing mental health struggles, which affects the outcomes of their treatment. Without a complete understanding of your patient’s overall wellness, it’s difficult to provide the best assistance and referrals possible.
Eliminating many of the challenges in healthcare starts with deconstructing mental health stigmas. In this article, we’ll discuss four ways that healthcare providers can express empathy and encourage more discussion surrounding mental health to provide better care.
Mental health concerns aren’t always caused by factors your patient can control. For example, your environment — which people of most income levels can’t easily control — can greatly influence your mental well-being. People who live in food deserts, which are communities with limited access to nutritious and affordable foods, are more likely to experience chronic illnesses that lead to a high risk for depression. Not knowing when or where you are going to get your next meal can also increase the likelihood of chronic anxiety.
As a healthcare professional, it’s important for you to understand common factors that can affect a patient’s mental health — including living environments and chemical imbalances in the brain — and encourage your peers to learn more, too. While your practice may focus on physical health, you can consider taking supplementary education courses that boost your understanding of mental illnesses, how it affects the body, and how they can occur or worsen.
Because of the stigmas associated with mental health, patients often don’t bring up their mental health struggles to healthcare professionals from the start. For example, deteriorating teeth may appear to be the result of laziness, when the root cause of their poor maintenance may be depression. Great healthcare providers identify potential signs of mental illness and encourage patients to open up about their struggles.
Getting patients to discuss their mental health requires plenty of trust. Put your empathy on display — perhaps by explaining how you understand the difficulties of self-care when facing struggles in life — and show that your office is a place where your patients won’t be judged. You can even offer examples of how you’ve helped patients work through their physical illnesses by understanding their mental health in the past (keeping their identities anonymous, of course).
When patients are going through something difficult, self-compassion can go a long way in improving mental and physical health. Studies have shown that higher levels of self-compassion correspond to less depression, anxiety, and shame in those with chronic illnesses. Plus, it can lead to measurable improvements in their blood sugar levels and other indicators of physical health.
As your patients start to open up to you about their mental health, it’s important to practice active listening and offer assistance when needed. Provide examples of how they can practice self-compassion — for instance, by letting oneself rest instead of work when experiencing pain. You can also offer tips for building a lifestyle that supports physical and mental health, like developing an exercise routine and increasing Vitamin B and C intake. Make sure you show encouragement, rather than judgment, if your patient initially fails to improve their lifestyle.
Of course, healthcare providers aren’t always qualified to deal with serious cases of mental illness. Don’t be afraid to offer referrals to mental health specialists for patients who can greatly benefit from the support of psychotherapy and other professional treatments.
Patients aren’t the only people who face mental health struggles in their lives. More physicians die by suicide than people in any other profession. When healthcare teams begin to show symptoms of depression, burnout, and other mental health concerns, it can lead to greater nursing shortages and a lack of empathy in care. Naturally, deconstructing mental health stigmas for patients starts with caring for the healthcare professionals on your team.
While healthcare professionals may feel the need to emotionally remove themselves from their careers — in which many regularly hear difficult stories or even witness death — it’s important to create a culture of care on your team. Be there for your peers and employees, and encourage them to express their needs to keep their mental health in tip-top shape.
Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. The more healthcare providers build their understanding of mental health and the factors involved in it, the better they can encourage their patients to discuss the big picture of their well-being. Put your empathy on display and encourage self-compassion and positive lifestyle changes in patients to provide more well-rounded and high-quality care — and don’t forget to check in on your colleagues along the way.
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Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, activism-related content. When she isn’t writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.