Mental Health and Preventative Care: Treatment Before Symptoms Snowball 

If experiencing a fever, sore throat or persistent body ache, most wouldn’t think twice about visiting a doctor to address and treat their symptoms before the condition worsens. Why, then, do we so often fail to treat mental health in the same way? 

October is National Depression Awareness month and October 5 was National Depression Screening Day — an important reminder to treat mental health conditions just as you would any other physical ailment.  

One in five — or more than 50 million — U.S. adults experience a mental illness, but more than half of adults receive no treatment, according to Mental Health America’s “The State of Mental Health in America 2023” report. The data fares even worse among youth with major depression, with 60% saying they did not receive treatment last year.  

Despite a growing need, our country faces a severe shortage of mental health care providers exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are 350 individuals for every one mental health provider in the U.S., and many face long wait lists. Last year, 60 percent of psychologists reported no openings for new patients, and more than 40 percent had waitlists of 10 or more patients, according to a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association. This is all while our emergency departments (ED) are currently facing rising rates of mental health visits, especially among children with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts. ED visits for mental health conditions increased by 120% at children’s hospitals between 2007 and 2016, according to recent joint report by three leading medical associations.  

Fortunately, there are ways to help identify and address early warning signs of mental health conditions — and it starts with preventative care.  

What is preventative care? 

Preventative care means intervening before the onset of symptoms to minimize worsening health conditions. This can involve becoming familiar with various risk factors – depending on life circumstances and family history or among various racial or socioeconomic groups – conducting regular mental health check-ups and providing the tools for individuals to manage their health into the future.  

Prevention measures are critical for reducing new mental health conditions, treating those that may arise, and promoting the long-term recovery of those living with or experiencing mental health conditions.   

What are mental health “check-ups” and how are they preventative care? 

Just as one visits the doctor for annual physicals, a mental health “check-up” is a routine evaluation to screen for mental health conditions and concerns. It’s typically a set of standard questions that help a health care provider evaluate any changes in a patient’s mood, behavior, and life circumstances.  

Studies have shown that around 50% of lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24. Yet, the average time between the first appearance of symptoms and intervention is approximately 11 years. Mental health check-ups help identify and treat conditions early to help eliminate such delays in care.  

Early identification and treatment are proven to lead to better health outcomes and prevent long-term disabilities. At the early stages of mental health conditions, patients are the most vulnerable to worsening if they don’t receive care, but also have the best chance of recovery if intervention occurs.  

How can I access a mental health “check-up?” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all pediatricians screen youth for mental health conditions, so you may start to see mental health check-ups incorporated into routine physicals. Many K-12 schools are also starting to include mental health check-ups and training staff on how to identify conditions in their students early—but for many schools this is a new process, and refining it per school and community need is a necessity.  

Here are a few tips for patients to ask their physician for a mental health check-up: 

  • Be clear and direct with your doctor, saying “I think I may be experiencing anxiety or depression.”  
  • Be prepared to share what symptoms you’ve been experiencing, any troubling thoughts you’ve been having, the duration of your symptoms, any family history of mental health conditions, and your past mental health treatment. 
  • Bring notes or a trusted friend with you. Sometimes it’s helpful to have your symptoms and questions written down, and a supportive presence to help validate your concerns.  

Mental Health America also provides a free online mental health check-up tool for a variety of mental health conditions. It’s important to remember that this assessment is not a diagnosis, and to reach out to your doctor if you think you are experiencing a mental health illness.  

Mental illnesses aren’t always easy to see, which makes it even more critical to check-up on your mental health regularly to ensure any concerns are addressed before they get worse. Proper prevention is the first step toward recovery and advancing the mental well-being of all.  

Learn more about the benefits of receiving a mental health check-up.