The United States was just reminded about the importance of mental health after Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic Team gymnastics competition citing mental health as the reason. Though there was some backlash over her decision, the support was much more prevalent. This is a huge step in the right direction because mental health has faced stigma since the rise of its awareness.
Unfortunately, despite the increasing advocacy for mental health, the United States lacks the resources to adequately treat all those who may require services, as there are many medically underserved areas. These medically underserved areas are facing mental health provider shortages despite the increase in awarded mental health-related degrees each year. Due to this discrepancy, it is now more vital than ever for researchers to look at interventions and tools that the general population can utilize to mitigate commonly experienced symptoms of mental health (e.g., inattention, anxiety, depression, insomnia).
These clusters of symptoms are sometimes referred to as transdiagnostic symptoms because they are common across a variety of mental health disorders. Researchers have found that it may be more helpful to target the cluster of transdiagnostic symptoms rather than focus on a rigid diagnosis to treat. With this reference in mind, what types of accessible tools can cut across these highly prevalent transdiagnostic symptoms?
Psychotherapy is always a recommended first-line treatment approach because clinicians are trained in evidence-based interventions to target these symptom clusters, but as we mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes psychotherapy is not accessible. One of the few good things that the pandemic brought was heightened telehealth or virtual therapy. Many state boards have relaxed their regulations to allow clinicians to meet the ever-growing need for services. Thus, clinicians have served more and more people without the location barriers. Unfortunately, there is another huge barrier that prevents people from receiving adequate mental health care: insurance.
Even with quality insurance, one can still struggle to attain mental health services given the cost. Insurance companies seem to prioritize physical health while leaving mental health care out of the equation. Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of insurance companies that have mental health care coverage, but there is also a substantial portion that does not cover mental health.
With the rising prevalence of mental health concerns, insurance coverage should not be a barrier to services, but here we are. In these circumstances where one is uninsured or underinsured, there are still options for services, but the location is key here. Some universities and colleges have training clinics where one could seek services from a professional in training at a reduced cost. Other options include finding a provider with a sliding scale fee.
To our knowledge, the telehealth industry is either insurance-based or pay-out-of-pocket, so to benefit from these low-cost services, you would need to have availability and transportation to the location, which isn’t always feasible. So, what happens when you are in this “C” category where you are un- or underinsured and live in a remote area with little resources? People in this category rely more on “self-help” tips to mitigate mental health challenges. Some self-help tips and tools are great and have empirical support.
The problem: motivation. Someone with moderate to severe major depressive disorder may struggle with motivation and struggle just to get out of bed. Finding the motivation to work through a self-help guide is going to come with major obstacles. You can quickly see that there is no golden solution for category C, efforts for accessible, self-help tools come down to harm reduction rather than complete treatment. Accessible tools should be just that, accessible. When people are struggling to find the motivation to complete the simplest of tasks, they are not going to read through a book and implement changes into their lives. We will caveat by saying that some people with moderate to severe mental illness have utilized self-help books and techniques and have returned to baseline functioning.
What works for those in Medically Underserved areas?
All of this being said, we don’t want to leave you with nothing, so we’ve listed the top three tools that can help mitigate one or more common symptoms of mental health issues.
Weighted Blankets helps insomnia and anxiety
We say this over and over across almost all of our articles, but it’s because weighted blankets take the least amount of effort. Simply adding an extra layer to your bed and allowing the pressure to do its work, is about as easy as the self-help tips get. Weighted blankets are a tool that you don’t have to actively think about. Though simple, the science says that weighted blankets can help reduce the time to fall asleep and increase restful sleep. Additionally, weighted blankets suppress the sympathetic nervous system’s response, which helps mitigate symptoms of anxiety. Both benefits are great news for people who want symptom relief without much effort.
Gratitude helps with anxiety and depression
This one takes a bit more effort, but research shows that practicing gratitude, or naming things you are thankful for, helps rewire the brain in those who experience depression and anxiety. Your brain will start to look at the positives in life rather than focus on the negatives. This doesn’t have to be monumental, but maybe you’re grateful that it didn’t rain while you were walking into work, or maybe you are grateful that you have a pet in your life.
Exercise helps with anxiety, depression, and insomnia
Exercise is a tip that you’ve probably heard over and over, but there’s a reason for that – it’s effective. Exercise releases endorphins which are a feel-good chemical in your brain. Research has found that walking in nature has protective factors against depression.
With all of these tips, we recognize that they will not be effective for everyone. We also recognize that mental health symptoms can range in severity, diminishing one’s ability to find enough motivation to feed themselves, let alone take a walk or think about gratitude. As mentioned above, the first-line treatment is psychotherapy, but if that’s not an option for whatever reason, then there are some evidence-based alternatives. The alternatives require a bit more self-motivation, though.