Healthy Tahoe: Understanding mental and behavioral health issues

Dr. Tracy Protell

Many people with a mental health disorder don’t get treatment. They may think it won’t help, or they don’t recognize the symptoms. Others may not be able to afford treatment. The social stigma of mental illness also stops people from getting help. This often means worsening symptoms, and in some cases, it leads to suicide.

Mental illnesses are as real as diseases such as heart disease or cancer. Understanding that mental illness isn’t a weakness or a character flaw can help people seek treatment.

Mental health problems may be passed down through the family. Or they can occur because of abnormal brain chemistry, substance abuse, or in response to traumatic events or an abusive environment. In other words, a mental illness isn’t the fault of the person who’s suffering.

Some of the more common mental health problems include depression, anxiety and panic disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, and schizophrenia.

Learning about symptoms of mental illness can help you recognize when you or a loved one need help. Symptoms include:

Feeling sad, burned out, or useless. Everyone feels down from time to time. But if that emotion continues for more than two weeks and you also have feelings of guilt and hopelessness, it could mean you’re depressed. Severe and persistent symptoms are what distinguish depression from normal sadness and mood changes. Other symptoms of depression are sleep problems, loss of self-esteem, and not enjoying things you once did.

Ongoing worries and fears. People who have unrealistic or extreme anxiety and worry about life circumstances could have an anxiety disorder.

Sudden, intense anxiety, fear, or panic. Heart palpitations, chest pain, feeling smothered, dizziness, trembling, and faintness can be signs of panic disorder.

Unexplained physical symptoms. Ongoing physical symptoms can signal emotional upset or stress overload. These symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, and chronic pain (especially backaches) with no clear cause.

Chronic fatigue and lack of energy. When your body can’t handle emotional overload, it can shut down. Feeling too tired to do the things you used to love can be a sign of emotional distress.

Staying away from other people. Spending all your time alone could be a sign of stress overload or a social phobia.

People who have emotional disorders don’t have to suffer without help. It’s very possible to heal the mind with therapy and support services. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

Dr. Tracy Protell is a board-certified psychiatrist providing care through Barton Health. One in eight people are affected by diagnosable mental illness, and only one third of our community will seek help. If you or a loved one need support, local resources are available. Ask your care provider for a referral to speak with a behavioral health specialist, or visit

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