DocIsIn_croppedMay is Mental Health Awareness month. It is a challenging month to raise any type of awareness since it already harbors Star Wars day (May 4), Cinco de Mayo (what day is that again?) and Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9), but I’m sure we can think of some way to bring all these concepts together in a concise, coherent and thoroughly mind-numbing way.

Mental health encompasses a wide range of conditions from simply feeling a little “stressed” to a serious disease like schizophrenia where patients lose connection to reality and experience severe paranoia.

On our campus, anxiety and depression are by far the most common mental health conditions we see and treat. At any given time, about 20 percent of our student population is feeling depressed and over a third are feeling anxious enough to have difficulty functioning.

On our campus, anxiety and depression are by far the most common mental health conditions we see and treat.

in the classic elimination setup, look to your left, look to your right. One of you is likely to get anxiety at some point during your college career — unless you’re sitting in a eucalyptus grove all alone in which case, never mind. Eucalypti are the happiest trees in existence.

Despite the tremendous progress made in diagnosing and treating anxiety and depression, a stigma still lingers around it. Some people may see mental illness as a sign of “weakness,” and cultural attitudes may reinforce this. Others find it hard to accept that medication may be needed for anxiety and depression.

However, there are clear biochemical and genetic components to mental illness. Much the same way that we have no control over our eye color or the amount of hair on our forearms, we have no control over the biochemical predisposition for mental illness we inherit from our ancestors.

Mental illness can affect virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Simple things like getting out of bed, brushing one’s teeth or showing up for class become insurmountable obstacles when one is burdened by mental illness. Mundane, routine tasks become insurmountable obstacles.

Mental illness can affect virtually every aspect of a person’s life.

In effect, people with mental illness are some of the strongest individuals around. They are hiking a mountain barefoot and carrying a 50-pound backpack while those without mental illness are doing the same hike with just their shirts on their backs and top-of-the-line hiking boots.

Thankfully, we have treatment options available for anxiety and depression. Medications such as sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), buproprion (Wellbutrin) and venlafaxine (Effexor) can help address the underlying biochemical aspect of mental illness.

Counseling is very effective in changing the thought patterns that bring about anxiety and depression, and in fact, the best outcomes occur with a combination of medication and counseling. Exercise has been shown to have a dramatic effect on mood, as have sleep, keeping a journal and meditating.

Art by Emily Zhang / Daily Nexus

Art by Emily Zhang / Daily Nexus

Those who are able to control their mental illness the best are those who engage in all the above modalities.

The irony is that someone who is suffering from depression can lack enough motivation to simply get out of bed, much less go to a counseling or a medical appointment. People with anxiety often feel so overwhelmed that setting aside time to exercise and meditate is just one more thing they have to do on top of an unmanageable task list.

Breaking that cycle is very difficult. However, at any given moment, thousands of factors are driving the anxiety and depression which means that there are thousands of factors that can be adjusted to turn the tide.

Many people with anxiety and depression suffer in silence. Through years of living with this daily burden, they have developed tremendous skills at putting up a good front. There may be a risk of suicide — the most tragic outcome — when depressed people are not connected to help.

Sometimes the smallest of gestures can be tremendously powerful.

Many people are surprised when they hear about a friend who has anxiety or depression because they seemed happy, relaxed and social on the outside. Some may seem aloof, rude, condescending or irritable as a result of their anxiety and depression.

Sometimes the smallest of gestures can be tremendously powerful. Someone who is starting down a spiral of depression can respond dramatically to a smile from a stranger, a hug from a friend or an honest inquiry as to how they’re feeling.

So as we walk around with zinc oxide on our noses on May 27 (National Sunscreen Day) whilst nursing our injuries from May 14 (Dance Like a Chicken Day), let’s extend a warm smile smile and a friendly gesture and genuinely ask how our fellow Gauchos are feeling. It may not cure their depression or anxiety, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Dr. Ali Javanbakht is the UCSB Student Health Medical Director.