Dr. Melanie Watkins (@MWatkinsMD) is a psychiatrist who emphasizes the importance of making mental health a priority by minimizing the mystery — and sometimes the misery — of mental illness and addiction treatment.
The Cheat Sheet:
- Maintaining mental health is as serious as maintaining physical health — and there should be no shame in seeking help for either.
- What signs commonly signal a need to seek help from a mental health professional?
- Central nervous system depressants abused as an alternative to mental health maintenance usually exacerbate the symptoms of an illness rather than relieving them.
- What can we do to destigmatize the very act of seeking help from a mental health professional?
- What are the first steps we can take toward getting mental health treatment?
- And so much more…
Mental health maintenance isn’t a priority for a lot of people. As a result, a lot of us find ourselves dependent on various substances just to make it through life because we imagine it’s easier and less shameful than going on the record to seek help for whatever’s ailing us. But if you need 60 mg of adderall a day to stay up and function and focus at your job, and valium to get some sleep, and alcohol to deal with social anxiety at work, this needs to be explored.
In episode 511 of The Art of Charm, we talk to Dr. Melanie Watkins, a psychiatrist who wants those of us who find ourselves in this situation to know we don’t have to continue down this path. By putting our mental health first and reaching out for help, we can overcome the need for these substances and treat the underlying causes that drove us to them in the first place.
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When you’re physically injured or ill, there’s no shame in seeking help from a doctor to treat your injuries or illnesses. On the contrary, if you fell down a flight of stairs and broke your leg and didn’t seek medical attention, concerned friends and family would hound you until you did. You would get the help you need and get better — that’s perfectly normal.
But when it comes to mental health, there’s perceived stigma and shame associated with trying to seek help when we’re feeling less than 100 percent — so all too many of us suffer in silence. We internalize what’s bothering us and often try to self-medicate with external substances like drugs and alcohol to relieve the symptoms without treating the underlying cause.
Psychiatrist Dr. Melanie Watkins has been working for the past decade to educate people in the importance of treating mental health as seriously as physical health. “There shouldn’t be any shame in getting treatment,” she says. “In fact, I think it’s a sign of strength.”
But how do we know when we might be in need of help? Melanie points out these signs that might signify some of the more common mental health ailments (such as depression):
- Changes in sleep: Sleeping too much or sleeping too little.
- Changes in appetite: Eating too much or eating too little.
- Changes in energy level: Having very little energy and not being able to focus and concentrate.
- Suicidal thoughts: Even if a patient believes themselves incapable of acting on suicidal thoughts, he or she should know that such thoughts aren’t uncommon among people suffering from depression — and there are ways to work through them with proper attention from a professional.
Melanie says it’s important to have “an experienced therapist or psychiatrist who knows the types of questions to ask — and also can ask them in a way that’s not off-putting because it’s very scary to talk about these things. Many patients have never talked with anyone about this before and they don’t know what’s going on. And there may be people around them who have experienced the exact same thing, but they don’t talk about it because of the shame and the stigma.”
Beyond the obvious physical problems of abusing substances to cope with these feelings is the fact that a lot of these substances are central nervous system depressants and, as Melanie points out: “They actually make depression worse. And they affect sleep. Patients get sleepy after using alcohol, but they don’t get the quality sleep. Then they wake up feeling tired and that just adds to their already overwhelming depression symptoms.”
What Melanie believes is necessary to stem the tide of self-medication is a more open dialogue about mental health not just among people who are close — like friends and relatives — but among general practitioners and other medical professionals who are most likely to encounter people in need on the front lines.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to talk with a patient about seeing a psychiatrist because then the patient might think, ‘Whoah, was my depression that bad that I need to see someone like that? What are you saying? I can’t be treated by you? It’s hard enough talking with you about it!’ And that can keep the patient really stuck. There needs to be more education and discussion about how we can destigmatize the idea of people going to therapy and to psychiatrists and psychologists.”
Some people suffer for days, months, and years before seeking help with their mental health. Melanie says many wait so long because they ignore the signs — or just aren’t aware of them. Still others know there’s a problem, but just can’t bring themselves to talk to anyone about it and only do so as a last resort. And then, of course, there are those who never get help; friends and family find out only too late that their loved one was suffering alone for so long.
If we want to find a bright side, it’s that we’re recognizing signs and symptoms much earlier, according to Melanie. “It’s really exciting what’s going on in mental health treatment now,” she says. “For example, young people who might have what we call prodromal symptoms — right before developing schizophrenia — there will be some changes that we can recognize and there are actually interventions we can do early on that can make a difference in the young person’s prognosis.
“I think that we’re recognizing that we really need to hit this early and do what we can to help people to function the best that they can versus waiting, waiting, waiting and symptoms getting worse and worse.”
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to hear more about what we’ve learned about the impact of substance abuse, how celebrities and others in the limelight might help destigmatize mental health treatment by being open about their own experiences instead of trying to hide from the press, taking the first steps toward getting mental health help, understanding the consequences of waiting for help, how even Sigmund Freud — the father of psychoanalysis — was a substance abuser himself, why it’s important for mental health professionals to learn how to compartmentalize between their work and personal lives, and lots more.
THANKS, DR. MELANIE WATKINS!
Resources from this episode:
- Dr. Melanie Watkins’ website
- Dr. Melanie Watkins at Clarity
- Dr. Melanie Watkins at Facebook
- Dr. Melanie Watkins at Twitter
- Related: Kimberly Seltzer | How to Find a Therapist (Bonus episode of The Art of Charm)
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