JRMC Psychiatrist, Abeer Washington, M.D., serves as an advocate and resource for those in Southeast Arkansas in need of mental health care.
We spoke with Dr. Washington recently, and she discussed the importance of mental health care in our society.
Mental Health Misconceptions
Although not everyone needs medical care for mental health, it is an ever-important topic and vital for healthy and happy living. In the South, Dr. Washington says that there are some serious misconceptions surrounding mental health.
“Often times, here in the South in the Bible belt, I run across people who believe that mental diseases aren’t real,” she said. “People believe it’s something that can be prayed away or that people are maybe just seeking attention.”
These misconceptions can be dangerous and damaging. “Sometimes there might be something really serious going on, and you don’t want to miss that or dismiss it just because you believe someone is seeking attention,” she said.
In addition, Dr. Washington said that although spiritual health is an important aspect of mental healing, recovery also calls for medical care. “The reality is, mental illness is a medical condition,” Dr. Washington said. “The spiritual aspect is very important, but there’s also the biological and the psychosocial aspects of it. Prayer is a part of recovery, but sometimes it takes additional help. The reality is, God has called me to be a psychiatrist, and God brings us physicians and people to help us whenever we are sick.”
Mental Habits to Take Up and Put Down
Be kind to yourself and others
If there were one mental habit Dr. Washington would encourage people to eliminate, it would be cultivating a negative state of mind. “Many times I see people with a lot of self doubt,” she said. “They talk down to themselves, second guess themselves and are really hard on themselves. I find that if we have a pattern of doing that, we may judge other people and find it hard to accept them. There are so many things we can do to improve our own mental health, but if I had to pick one, I would like to see people being more kind and gentle with themselves and with others.”
Dr. Washington said people have the ability to correct this harmful habit by practicing a technique called mindfulness. “Simply put, mindfulness is just being more aware of your thinking patterns and surroundings,” she said. “A lot of people don’t recognize when they’re doing something that’s mentally destructive because it’s so ingrained in them. But whenever the thought enters your mind, be aware of it, and at that point, work on changing it. Try to reframe the way of thinking. Maybe recognize that you’re being harsh with yourself and counterbalance that with a statement that’s loving and nurturing of yourself.”
For those who doubt that they can actually change their way of thinking, Dr. Washington says it’s possible. “Our brains develop these patterns that become almost permanent if we keep practicing them,” she said. “These negative patterns are almost a reflex, but the good news is, you can change your brain patterns and your actual brain structure by changing your way of thinking. The more you’re aware of it and take steps to change it, the easier it is to change. It takes a long time, but it’s very doable.”
Although many habits can improve your mental health, Dr. Washington mentioned one in particular that makes a big difference. “One of the most important things is being grateful and looking at the things that we have rather than focusing on the things that we don’t,” she said. “That’s not to minimize anything going on in anyone’s life, but somehow when you focus on the blessings and the things that you have that are in your life that some people don’t, it just makes them greater. And somehow, that makes the problem even smaller. So if I could give anyone any piece of advice to wake with or just to incorporate in your day, it’s to be grateful for the things that you do have.”
Healthy Social Media Use
Although many societal aspects affect our mental health, one is particularly prevalent: social media. Dr. Washington said many good things come out of social media, like connecting with people that you wouldn’t otherwise or keeping up with people. “But I find that adults can become a little dependent on what other people think, how many likes we have, what other people’s replies to our statements are, and social media can become a really stressful place,” she said. “There’s a lot of negativity on social media, and it becomes really frustrating to read things that may be offensive.”
Dr. Washington suggests maintaining healthy boundaries for social media use. “Sometimes I have to do this for myself, and I advise my patients to limit social media,” she said. “I would say that if you find you can’t participate in a kind of physical encounter without checking your page or constantly being on your phone, or if you find it difficult to wake up or go to sleep without checking your page, if you find yourself a little dependent on getting replies, it might be too much and you may need to limit your time on social media. It’s not all bad, but it’s just how it affects your life. How much of your life are you willing to give to this thing? It’s just a matter of maybe taking some control back.”
Healthy Living: Diet and Exercise
Dr. Washington said that having a healthy diet and exercising regularly greatly affects mental health, because how our bodies feel does, in fact, impact our thinking.
“I recommend exercise to everyone who can,” she said. “And even people who might not be able to run a marathon don’t have to do that. The ability to move your body in some way – either through yoga or other types of physical activity like running or walking – just makes you feel better. It releases chemicals that make your mind happier, your brain happier, and I think it’s something that we should all incorporate in our lives.”
Eating a healthy, balanced diet also impacts mental health. In fact, Dr. Washington has chosen to give up certain foods that don’t make her feel good. “This was a personal choice, so I don’t necessarily recommend it for everyone, but I found that I felt myself craving more sugar every time I ate it, and it made me feel kind of blah after I ate it,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with sugar in moderation, but it doesn’t have any nutritional value, so I gave it up, and I’ve been quite happy with my decision.”
Dr. Washington said the vast majority of people could benefit from counseling or mental health treatment at some point in their lives. “Counseling is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and everyone at some point in their life has needed to rely on someone for help,” she said. “Counseling is a wonderful thing, and it can be an excellent tool to get through something difficult or to reframe your thinking or figure things out.”
Asking for Help
Dr. Washington offered tips for knowing when to turn to medical professionals. Here are a few of the symptoms:
- If it’s interfering with your life, taking up a lot of your mental space and occupying many of your thoughts
- If you’re experiencing impaired sleep
- If you’re experiencing low mood
- If you’re having difficulty concentrating
- If you’re having any thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else
- Mental Health – Medical Condition
Dr. Washington said she wants to remind our community that mental health conditions are just as legitimate as physical health conditions. “Mental illness is a medical condition,” she said again. “If they had cancer, they would probably be viewed as neglecting their own needs if they didn’t seek treatment. If they had diabetes and they didn’t treat their high blood sugar, that would be neglectful. They should try to look at mental illness in the same way. If you have a mental illness, it’s really important that you make mental health a priority and seek treatment.”
Dr. Washington says it’s wrong that often, mental health issues are associated with shame and guilt. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Once upon a time, they were ashamed of breast cancer, and it wasn’t spoken of. Now, we have a parade once a year – the Susan G. Komen parade – and everyone runs around in pink with pride. I would love to see mental health treated in the same manner: nothing to be ashamed of. Get help if you need it.”