(Nearly) Free Treatment for Mental Illness

Mental illness can disable just about anyone. Some women experience depression after giving birth, some people like me are on what the doctors call “the schizophrenic spectrum” of disease and have serious disabilities throughout life. Treatment is important for mental illness, just as much as it is for physical problems. With treatment, some disabilities can be limited.

But there are barriers to treatment for mental illness. First, there is the cost. Doctor or counselor bills and the price of medications can add up even if a person has insurance coverage. In rural areas, it can be hard to find a psychiatrist willing to take on new patients. Persevering to get help is important – even crucial – to responding to the myriad of problems major mental illness can cause.
But there is one thing that’s free that can be useful. Regular exercise has been shown to help manage mental illnesses ranging from anxiety to depression and more. Personally, I exercise about six days a week. Some days I walk long distances (5 miles), a few days I swim laps (for 45 minutes). Once a week I do a weight workout. I keep active because exercise helps calm my brain.

Recently I was reading the spring issue of The Advocate, published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. An article by the clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert caught my eye. She points out that treatment by doctors is good, but it can be supplemented by exercise and help a range of mental disorders. Things like walking can be done by most mentally ill people, and walking doesn’t cost anything. Exercise is free from negative sigma – most of your friends and relatives will admire you for being active. Dr. Hibbert’s article says it’s been shown that exercise changes the concentrations of neurotransmitters in the brain. I guess that’s why I always feel better after I exercise. For those of you “into” brain chemicals, Dr. Hibbert states that research has shown serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine concentrations can all be improved with exercise.
Both Dr. Hibbert and I would say that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need the help of doctors and counselors. But you can supplement that help by exercising in any way your primary care physician okays for you. Walk if you can, swim if you have access to a pool, lift a dumbbell if you know how to work out with weights.

Personally I find it helpful to have a friend who is my “exercise buddy.” Becky and I often walk our dogs together over multiple-mile loops around town. While walking, we talk over all sorts of things and strengthen our bond of friendship. A couple of times a week, we get together to swim laps. Becky is better than I am about lifting weights, so she helps me get off my posterior and go to the gym where we do a little bit of free weights and more with resistance machines. Friends can be helpful in getting you going, but you can also exercise alone if that’s what suits you.

Now that the mornings start early and the evenings are long, it’s a great time to start walking if you can. If disabilities prevent walking, look for other ways to work out enough to reap the positive benefits of exercise. Your brain will thank you if you can keep active each day.