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Healthy for life: Mental health

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Here’s what you need to know.

  1. What is mental health?
  2. What can I do to maintain good mental health?
  3. What is a mental illness?
  4. What are some common mental illnesses?
  5. When should I get help for mental illness?
  6. How does my doctor diagnose a mental illness?
  7. How does my doctor treat a mental illness?
  8. Who can treat mental illness?
  9. Will my insurance cover my mental health care?

When you think of all the things that make you healthy, good mental health might not be among the first ones that come to mind. But your mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to living a long and healthy life.

Mental health can be hard to talk about. It might feel too personal, or like something you have to deal with on your own.

But mental health problems can be treated and managed just like any other health problem. Here’s how to understand your mental health and take care of it.

Some health plans can help you take care of both your physical and mental health. Call a licensed insurance agent today at 1-844-211-7730 for more information.

1. What is mental health?

“Mental health is essentially the underlying processes that control your everyday life. It’s your emotions, your stress tolerance, your appetite, your sleep patterns. All these things are considered mental health,” says Caleb Jordan, M.D., a psychiatrist with Heading Health in Austin, Texas.

We tend to think of physical and mental health as 2 different things. But they’re actually closely related, says psychologist Bertrina Olivia West Al-Mahdi, Ph.D. She’s the founder of Out of the Box Counseling, Coaching and Consulting in Berkeley Lake, Georgia.

“There’s various mental health disorders that can definitely impact your physical health,” she says. For example, chronic stress increases the risk of high blood pressure. And your physical health can impact your mental health. For example, living with a chronic illness, such as diabetes, can increase your risk of depression.

2. What can I do to maintain good mental health?

You can maintain your mental health by taking care of your physical, emotional and social needs. Here are some key strategies to stay happy and healthy:

Stay active. A great way to maintain your mental health is to take care of your body. Numerous studies have shown that physically active people are less likely to have depression and anxiety. So hit the gym, take a yoga class or simply take a walk around the neighborhood or a local park. Choose the way to stay active that best works for you and your schedule.

Eat well. Eating healthy food is also important. For example, Dr. Jordan says that there’s evidence that the Mediterranean diet can help people improve their depressed moods without having to take medication. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains, olive oil, fresh produce, plenty of seafood and little red meat and sugar. It can also reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Be social. Surround yourself with family and friends who lift you up. They can improve your well-being — and they may be the first to notice when you’re in trouble. “If you have someone who’s close to you, they can see that this is abnormal behavior,” Dr. Jordan says.

Get in touch with your emotions. Dr. Al-Mahdi says meditation and spirituality can also help. And she recommends learning techniques that help you get in touch with your feelings. “Gratitude journals are very good,” she says. Gratitude journaling is simply writing down things that you are grateful for in your life. “Journaling in general is very good and a healthy way to get your thoughts out.”

Get enough sleep. One study found that people who don’t get enough sleep are nearly 3 times more likely to experience mental distress. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

Find healthy ways to cope with stress and sadness. Many people turn to drugs, alcohol or stress eating during tough times. Those things may make you feel better in the short term, but they won’t make your problems go away. What’s more, they can lead to other problems, such as addiction and weight gain.

The best way to get the treatment you need is by talking to your doctor. They’ll be able to help you get to the right steps, medicine or treatments to put you on healthier path.

3. What is a mental illness?

Everyone has bad days from time to time. But when those bad days happen all the time, or they get in the way of your life, it could be a sign of something more serious. It could be that you have a mental illness.

Mental illness is a condition that affects your emotions, thinking, mood and/or behavior. It can range from mild to severe. Serious mental illnesses can have a big impact on your life, and that can be scary. It can make it harder to do things such as:

  • Maintain a job
  • Maintain social and romantic relationships
  • Take care of yourself

But mental illness isn’t something rare that only affects certain people. It’s pretty common. In 2020, nearly 1 in 5 American adults had some mental illness. A smaller group, about 6% of American adults, had a serious mental illness. Serious mental illnesses significantly interfere with your life. They include things such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (more on these below).

Mental illness is more common in women and younger adults (18 to 25 years old). It’s also very common in adolescents. According to one survey, about half of teenagers experience a mental illness. And more than 20% have a serious mental illness. Tragically, dying by suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 in 2020.

4. What are some common mental illnesses?

Mental illness can take different forms and have a range of symptoms. Experts often group mental illnesses into these categories:

Anxiety disorders: These are when you respond to situations with persistent feelings of worry, fear or dread. Examples include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorders
  • Phobias (an intense fear of something, usually a specific object or situation)

Behavioral disorders: Common in children, these are disruptive patterns of behavior that cause problems with school, home life or social situations. Examples include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder

Eating disorders: These involve severe thoughts and emotions around weight, body image and food. Examples include:

  • Anorexia (extreme anxiety around food and weight gain)
  • Binge eating
  • Bulimia (an eating disorder in which someone binges followed by self-induced vomiting)

Mood disorders: These disorders may involve constant feelings of sadness. Or they could be shifts from extreme happiness to extreme sadness. Examples include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Seasonal affective disorder

Personality disorders: These involve patterns of behavior, feelings, and thinking that can cause problems with school, work or relationships. Examples include:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

Psychotic disorders: These can include a range of extreme symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions.

Trauma and stress-related disorders: One of the top related disorders is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is caused by living through or seeing an extremely traumatic event. Things like war, natural disasters and abusive relationships can cause PTSD.

Mental health disorders often appear alongside substance use disorders such as alcoholism. In fact, a quarter of people with serious mental illnesses also misuse alcohol or drugs.

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5. When should I get help for mental illness?

It can be hard to tell the difference between a “bad time” and a treatable mental illness. Dr. Jordan says a good rule of thumb is to seek help when your issues start affecting your everyday life.

For example, if your performance at work or school begins to slip. Or you find yourself avoiding social gatherings. “These are factors that show that something is interfering or causing dysfunction in your everyday life,” he says.

Being anxious because you have a big presentation coming up at work is normal. But being so anxious you can’t leave the house is not. It’s easy to talk casually about being anxious or depressed. But that’s not the same as having a depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder.

Time is also a factor. For example, it’s normal to feel depressed after a sad event like a breakup or a death in the family. But if your feelings don’t improve over time and you can’t get back to normal activities, it may be time to seek professional help.

Mental health emergencies can happen, too. If you are considering suicide or self-harm, seek help immediately. You can get help through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Simply call or text 988, and you will be connected to a trained crisis counselor who can help. You can also visit, where a chat service is available.

The Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) offers free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States.

6. How does my doctor diagnose a mental illness?

Your doctor won’t diagnose a mental illness the same way they do high blood pressure or a broken bone. They might start off by doing a mental health screening where they’ll ask you questions about:

  • Your appetite
  • Your feelings
  • Your mood
  • Your sleep patterns
  • Other aspects of your life

They may ask you these questions verbally or have you fill out a questionnaire. It’s important to be open and honest with your answers.

Depending on the results, you may need more tests or evaluations. Your doctor may be able to diagnose and treat you. Or they might refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist (more on the difference between those providers below).

Your doctor may also run some blood tests to rule out physical problems that can cause mental health issues. For example, low levels of thyroid hormone, called hypothyroidism, can cause a depression-like syndrome, says Dr. Jordan. “So, you have to make sure that you have that measured.”

Find the care you need with the right health plan for you. Call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for your options.

7. How does my doctor treat a mental illness?

How your doctor treats mental illness will depend on the individual and the diagnosis. It typically includes psychotherapy, which involves talking to a therapist, taking medication or both.

Dr. Al-Mahdi points out that mental illness is often the result of unresolved trauma earlier in life. Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is good for working through those issues.

An example would be a child who’s told they’re worthless every time they do something wrong. “Those negative beliefs from their early childhood become a core belief,” she says. That can make it harder to bounce back from everyday stressful situations as an adult.

Medications are usually used to target more specific illnesses. For example, your doctor might prescribe an antidepressant for depression or an antianxiety medication for a panic disorder. These are often used alongside talk therapy.

“For pretty much all psychiatric disorders, the dual approach with therapy and medication is going to give you the best results,” Dr. Jordan says.

8. Who can treat mental illness?

Depending on the problem you’re facing, you can get help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist or another mental health professional. Here’s what each one does:

  • Psychiatrists. These are medical doctors who specialize in mental illness, much like a cardiologist specializes in heart problems. They can prescribe medications and provide talk therapy.
  • Psychologists. These professionals have doctoral degrees and focus on talk therapy. Psychologists typically cannot prescribe medications. But in a few states, those who complete extra training can also prescribe medications.
  • Counselors and therapists. These professionals often hold master’s degrees in mental health fields such as psychology or therapy. They work with individuals, families and groups. And they often specialize in a specific area, such as family counseling or addiction recovery. Types of licensed counselors include:
    • Licensed professional counselor
    • Licensed clinical social worker
    • Licensed marriage and family therapist

These different providers will often work together. For example, the psychiatrist who prescribes your medication might work with a psychologist who provides talk therapy. Your doctor will also be part of your care team.

9. Will my insurance cover my mental health care?

Medicare and Medicaid cover mental health services. So do individual and group health plans sold on federal or state marketplaces. Those plans are regulated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Under the ACA, mental health and substance use disorder services are considered essential services, along with behavioral health treatment, including counseling and psychotherapy. That means you have some coverage in these areas if you have an ACA health plan.

If you have an ACA health plan, you can check your health plan’s summary of benefits for more details on the coverage you have. If you need an ACA health plan, you can call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to find out what’s available where you live.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act also requires most health plans or insurers that offer mental health coverage to treat mental health benefits the same way that they treat medical and surgical health benefits. If your plan covers mental health care, it must be covered like any other physical health care.

You can’t, for example, be charged different copays when you see a psychologist versus a cardiologist. “I’m very happy that has come about, because mental health has not been taken as seriously as physical health,” Dr. Al-Mahdi says.

For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthcare and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.



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