In Honor of Mental Health Awareness Month: How Mental Health Can Change As We Age

May 23, 2019

If you were asked what “mental health” means, what would you say? Mental health is a broad term, that doesn’t just encompass our emotions, but also our psychological and social well-being. This includes how we think, feel, perceive, and react to different situations.

Equally important as physical health, mental health evolves over our entire life span, sometimes through positive development, and other times through digression and illness. Dr. Najmun Riyaz, Psychiatrist at Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital, explains when, why, and how this occurs.

Intertwined with mental health is our cognitive development, or our ability to absorb, comprehend, and apply new information, which begins at birth.

“Typically, young children are more capable of remembering new information, such as languages. Of course, they are still very dependent on adults to function,” said Dr. Riyaz. “During adolescence, we can detect relationships and more complex sources of information. As adults, we gain a truer sense of our purpose as a human being, and an understanding of global consequence. This helps us be successful.”

Comprehension depends greatly on stress and anxiety levels. In other words, mental illnesses may cause cognitive deficits.

Mental illness may result from environmental exposures, genetic predisposition, brain chemistry, or a combination of these. While anyone can develop a mental illness, studies show that at certain ages and stages of life, you may be more prone to one.

“Because of today’s intense societal pressures, school-aged children and young adults are experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression than a few decades ago,” explained Dr. Riyaz. “Other illnesses can have specific ages of onset, such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, which usually develop around age 20-25. Individuals over the age of 60 are at risk for different dementias and depression, as they start to experience more physical problems.”

If not dealt with properly, trauma can also have an impact on our mental health.

“Trauma causes coping mechanisms to develop or kick in, which are shaped and strengthened by love and support,” explained Dr. Riyaz. “When we are young, this helps us develop resilience and trust, allowing us later in life to have healthy ways of dealing with failures, dangers, or conflicts.”

Everyone will react differently to trauma, but generally, anxiety is an outcome. For a young child, this may cause a loss of cognitive skills that were already acquired, such as reading and writing. When adults are traumatized, there is a higher likelihood of a quick onset of mental illness.

“It’s important to realize that trauma can sometimes have a positive impact,” continued Dr. Riyaz. “New research has shown the truth behind post-traumatic growth, which can make the victim feel empowered, resilient, and more empathetic.”

For anyone struggling to manage or improve their mental health, there are two primary ways to help:

1 – Find a support system, either of family, friends, or both. Isolation will never help.  

2 – Take care of yourself.

“As adults, self-care should be a number one priority,” said Dr. Riyaz. “We talk about compassion, but we don’t talk enough about self-compassion. It’s important to understand ourselves and our needs.”

For young children who can’t yet comprehend how to take care of themselves, parents should recognize any signs of mental illness. Early intervention, with love and education, can prevent full development, or decrease the intensity and duration of the illness.

Dr. Riyaz also suggests that we take time to prioritize, learn to control stress, develop healthy hobbies, eat healthy foods, be physically active during the day, sleep properly at night, stay away from substance abuse, and limit screen time. These, along with support from a therapist if needed, can all be extremely beneficial to our mental health.

For more information on Behavioral Health services offered at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE