Column: Natural solutions to mental health issues should be treated as supplements — not treatments

When it comes to mental health, access to medical care is vital, but so is the recognition that lifestyle medicine is somewhat important to treatment.

Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

While great strides have been made for mental health awareness, there is still a lot that researchers and care providers don’t know. Mental health can be uniquely difficult to diagnose and treat. This lack of understanding has led to harmful stigmas and a community response that can be just as dangerous. While lifestyle medicine isn’t a cure, it is a supplemental way to support your mental wellness.

An important thing to understand is that mental health problems are very real and extremely stigmatized. The typical belief is that mental health can easily be fixed by growing thicker skin or bettering your life can create a big problem, which fails to see the complexity of mental health. Society can view mental health issues as a sign of weakness, but in reality, it’s just another part of people’s lives. However, the stigma around mental health can also extend to the actual treatment.

When someone with a mental health issue explains that they are taking medication, strangers like to explain possible alternatives. The popular ones are typically yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness. In religious families, mental health is often met with the responsibility to pray it away. Rather than recognizing that mental health issues aren’t just failed attempts at being a person, people will dole out advice about how to best fix the problem. These options aren’t offered as ways to help — they are offered as alternatives.

In addition, taking medication can be met with the belief that drugs turn people into zombies. If you’re the creative type and you start looking into treatment, the story of Vincent Van Gogh seems to become the main factor in each conversation. Many people believe that Van Gogh had to suffer to make such awe-inspiring work, but that isn’t true. Van Gogh created Starry Night, arguably his most famous painting, while in treatment for his mental health. At the time that it was created, Van Gogh was actually proving that suffering wasn’t required for art.

Being told to do anything except seek medical treatment can take its toll. It can feel like you’re always fighting just to feel normal. This is where the community creates its own problem. While medication and therapy are proven ways to help stabilize mental health, there is some validity to natural solutions. These solutions aren’t a replacement, but a supplement.

There is value in thinking positively and taking time to care for yourself. It doesn’t invalidate the progress and importance of medication or therapy. Mental health can take a toll on your body. For example, common symptoms of depression are a disruption of a healthy sleep schedule or a shift in appetite. Being mindful of the effect that mental health has on your body means you can shift your lifestyle to make up for the symptoms.

This is often referred to as lifestyle medicine. Mental health can make it difficult to pursue these changes in lifestyle. The shifts in focus and motivation that accompany mental health issues can sometimes be adjusted with medical intervention. By using that new level of focus or motivation to begin taking steps to become healthier, you are giving your body the time and resources it needs to heal. Thinking positive thoughts isn’t a cure for depression, but leaving a negative mindset behind can improve your health, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Enjoy time outside, exercising or working to naturally improve your life doesn’t mean that medication and therapy aren’t important. Sometimes medical intervention is the first step, and by working to enjoy the small things in life, you are taking the next step.

People with mental health issues deserve better. Access to therapy and medication in a non-stigmatized environment is important, but so is the act of working to better your life. This doesn’t mean you have to take sunrise yoga at MizzouRec, but it does mean paying attention to when you're being negative or too hard on yourself. Mental health issues can build habits that prevent treatment from working fully, but breaking habits is just as important as correcting stereotypes when it comes to mental health awareness.

Edited by Bryce Kolk | bkolk@themaneater.com

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