Caring for your mental health

How to stay sane and make the most of your genetic heritage

When a couple has been married 50 years, their lives are so intertwined they may be able to finish one another’s sentences. When one of them dies, the loss can be devastating. Normal grief can turn into depression—with life-threatening consequences.

“A lot of times their sense of purpose is totally changed,” explains Suzy Soliday, a licensed mental health counselor with The Bethany Center, an Auburndale grief counseling service by Good Shepherd Hospice. “They [the deceased spouses] were the mirrors that reflected back who they are.”

Who’s More Susceptible?

Learn more about how to help those in mental distress with a $25 Mental Health First Aid Course offered from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 13 at Temple Emanuel Education Building, 600 Lake Hollingsworth Drive, Lakeland. For more information, call (813) 740-4811, email or visit

Depression is higher than average among the elderly in Polk County, according to Healthy Tampa Bay which tracks regional health data. About 16 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were treated for depression in 2011; those over 60 generally have a rate of 10.7 percent, less than the overall rate of 16.9 percent, Healthy Tampa Bay reports. Data was based on information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the National Comorbidity Survey of Mental Health Disorders.

Dr. Rosemarie Lamm, executive director of Rath Senior ConNEXTions and Education Center, who studied the cause of depression among the elderly while a doctorate student at University of South Florida, says lack of communication with family members was a common cause.

In an area where many relocate away from family to retire, Rath Senior ConNEXTtions, a Lakeland non-profit connecting seniors to community resources, helps fill the void by referring people in volunteer organizations, their education program, or mental health agencies. Frequently, their initial call is for another purpose, rather than to seek help for depression, she says.

In 2012, some 9.6 million adults 18 and older suffered from a serious mental illness, according to a national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mental illnesses are genetically-based diseases. “If someone doesn’t have a genetic inheritance, then those social stresses play a much lesser role,” says Dr. Iftikhar Rasul, a psychiatrist with Winter Haven Hospital’s Center for Behavioral Health and a Polk County Medical Association member. He suggests that mothers avoid drinking, smoking and other substances during pregnancy, especially the first trimester, to lessen chances of passing on the disease. Children underweight at birth also may be susceptible to mental illnesses, he adds.

“In general, it’s not possible to prevent mental illness,” says Dr. Daniel Weinberg, a psychiatrist with Lakeland’s Watson Clinic and a Polk County Medical Association member. “Everybody has stress in their life. Some people handle that stress better than others.” Still, there are ways to minimize its impact.

Minimizing the Impact
Dr. Gaby Cora, a psychiatrist, wellness coach, speaker and leadership consultant in Miami, says eating right, getting enough sleep every night, good dental hygiene, and relaxation are important to physical—and mental—health. “We would decrease the chances of having depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more [by healthy habits],” she asserts. “We all have a predisposition for something. Our vulnerable spot is the one that is going to kick in.”

“It’s one body. It’s totally related,” agrees Teresa Even, director of outpatient for Bartow-based Peace River, a private non-profit agency providing community mental health services to 23,000 annually in Polk, Hardee, and Highlands counties. “Your mind needs certain nutrients to work appropriately.”

Besides maintaining physical health, she recommends having “positive relationships” and “people you can talk to and trust.” She adds, “Some people can have an entire bout of depression and never hit the mental health system because they have those coping skills already developed.” She also recommends a hobby, or activity you like that can buoy your spirits. Those in treatment are missing two, and often three ingredients, she says.

Dr. Vidyasagar Vangala, a psychiatrist at Davenport’s Mid-Florida Psychiatric Center, says stress is a common trigger for the older set who avoided mental illness earlier. “The elderly may complain, ‘I’m not enjoying things like before,’” he says.

“There are people that can be helped to avoid mental illness, especially when we’re talking about the elderly,” Dr. Vangala says. “We are susceptible to stress . . . We control ourselves. We cannot control the environment as much.”

Clinical Depression vs. Bipolar Disorder
Depression is a common form of mental illness. Its clinical form involves more than the common feeling known as the blues, which may last a couple of days. Clinical depression interferes with life, causing pain for the sick person and those who care for him or her. Men are less likely to seek help than women, making them more susceptible to severe symptoms. “When I give people medicines for depression, it doesn’t make them happy. It gives them back the ability to feel happiness,” Dr. Weinberg observes.

Bipolar disorder involves depression and its opposite, mania. One of the important signs to watch for is lack of sleep, says Dr. Cora, who studied bipolar disorder, depression, and anxieties during her fellowship training. She advises medication after the patient loses one night of sleep; if they still can’t sleep on the fifth night, she recommends the patient come in for a visit. “You may or may not be able to prevent a bipolar episode from happening. With pyscho-education, you can catch it earlier,” she says. Dr. Rasul says those with a genetic vulnerability to the disorder should avoid stimulants such as energy drinks, drugs, and caffeine, plus sleep deprivation.

Other Mental Disorders
Anxiety disorders can take different forms—everything from panic disorder to social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are more common in women, Dr. Rasul reports.

Those who develop panic disorders usually are predisposed to it, says Dr. Cora, and drinking alcohol can trigger it.

Attention deficit disorder/ attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) in adults tends to be overdiagnosed, according to Dr. Weinberg. Some may want stimulants. “They’ll come in saying what they have,” he explains. The disease is often diagnosed in childhood when children have problem focusing on schoolwork, experience behavioral problems or hyperactivity.

Eating disorders, including binging and forced vomiting, are primarily a female ailment. “They’re underweight and they still feel they’re obese in their mind,” Dr. Rasul says. “It is a very serious condition.”

Parents should watch for unusual behavior while youths are at home or in college. “The patient herself will not seek help. She will think she is doing the right thing and there is no problem with her,” he explains. Dr. Cora adds that external pressure and competition may trigger an episode. Sometimes abnormal eating behaviors are taught. When parents restrict food and tell children they need to lose weight, children will learn those habits, Dr. Weinberg cautions.

When seeking help for mental illness, the patient has to want to change, Dr. Weinberg points out. “What’s important is, when you identify someone that’s at risk, make resources available,” he adds.

“Overall, keeping a balance in life is the best thing to do,” advises Dr. Rasul. “There’s lots of things not in your control . . . As soon as you feel like something is not right, seek help—especially if you have a family history.”

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