A patient, we'll call her Nicole, came in for a psychiatric evaluation. She was 14 years old, attractive, intelligent, with long eyelashes protecting cobalt eyes that could pierce steel. She also had a variety of scars, varying in shade from their age, up and down her arms, which she typically hid from the general public, but not today. Today Nicole's mother had forced her to wear a t-shirt so that us at the hospital could see her scars. Nicole had long suffered horrific types of abuse that we won't even get into here for years at the hands of a distant relative. For a while, she was able to stuff her emotions down. About 7 months after the abuse ended, she started having nightmares about it. Sometimes the nightmares were so real that she would wake up crying in bed and not know why. She started having trouble sleeping, started withdrawing from her friends, started to feel depressed all the time, started arguing more and more with her mom who stayed up nights wondering what to do. Her grades started to drop. After her first D on the report card came, Nicole was in the bathroom one night shaving her leg and cut her knee. She felt pain. The pain pushed some of the sadness out of the way, if only for an instant. Nicole became a cutter. Twenty seven times she would cut herself that night, cuts so small that they healed almost instantly. Paper cuts. This continued to develop, along with her overall deterioration. One lonely summer night, Nicole cut herself so deep that it wouldn't stop bleeding. She started to panic. She ran downstairs, nearly hyperventilating, to show her mother who was soon nearly hyperventilating as well as they hurried on shoes, grabbed purses, ID's, a towel to soak up the blood which had not stopped, and slammed the car doors to the green 98' Ford Explorer while screeching out of the driveway. Nicole was taken to a local hospital in Dallas, stitched up, and transferred to the psychiatric hospital, where we asked her if she had ever seen a counselor or a psychiatrist. Her eyes never lifted as she shook her head no.
Nicole was lucky and lived. Others aren't so lucky. But it never had to get to that point. What if she had a mental health check up a year ago when she started cutting, or when she started having trouble sleeping? Would she have progressed to the point of needing inpatient care at a psychiatric hospital at the age of 14?
What one major concept separates mental health from general medicine? Take a second to think about it. Ready? Regular checkups! Yearly exams! Annual physicals! And why do we do this? Why should a completely healthy person go in, take money out of their pocket, and order the doctor to give them the once over? It's not just because it's in keeping with good health, it's because getting checked by the doctor can potentially catch something that could become a larger problem if not diagnosed early.
The same is even more true with mental health problems. The danger here is that these mental health problems will also cause physical health problems. Hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity from not having the motivation to keep yourself in shape, heart disease. These conditions all can be brought on by unchecked mental health problems. There is absolutely no reason to neglect your mind. It is by far the most important organ in your body.
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