Hamilton Health Network aims to do its part during Mental Health Awareness Month

FLINT, Michigan — Since 1949, the month of May has been observed in the U.S. as Mental Health Awareness Month which helps to raise awareness about behavioral health and supports those who may struggle with mental illness. With this year's theme being "More Than Enough," organizations around the country are doing the work to help break the stigmas that surround mental health.

On the homefront, the staff at Flint’s Hamilton Community Health Network (HCHN) is doing its part to spread awareness and improve mental healthcare in the community. Albert Ujkaj serves as Director of Behavioral Health for HCHN and explained to Flintside how raising awareness is central to the mission of providing care to those suffering from mental illnesses.

The deeply-ingrained stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the major barriers that can prevent individuals from accessing care, so fostering conversations on the topic is the first step towards connecting patients with available resources.

Ujkaj takes that task seriously and makes sure that HCHN staff are comfortable speaking to him about their own mental health. “They come to me and they let me know. It’s an open-door policy,” said Ujkaj.

In addition, Ujkaj will lead a weekly lecture for the rest of the staff at HCHN throughout the month of May, with each session focused on a particular area of mental health. This week’s topic will be bipolar disorder. The goal is for these conversations to help doctors provide even better care to their patients, who may be coming to see them about an entirely different issue, but may also be experiencing mental health problems.

In Flint, many patients enter the healthcare system with co-occurring disorders. HCHN has a handful of certified Community Health Workers on staff whose job is to learn a patient’s full story and then connect them with a wide variety of services and providers in the community.

Those without health insurance need not worry as HCHN never turns a patient away due to their insurance status. They also have an insurance specialist and a Michigan Department of Health & Human Services worker on-site to help individuals find coverage that works for them.

Meditation or a simple technique called diaphragmatic breathing (also called "abdominal breathing" or "belly breathing") can help to calm the mind and nervous system. Ujkaj explained that the vast majority of people with mental health issues suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Occasionally, those symptoms can cause a patient to self-medicate, creating a substance abuse problem as well. “Everybody’s got some form of anxiety and depression,” he said. “We all have different levels of that throughout our lifespan, and some times are worse than others.”

Ujkaj explained how these issues can manifest within an individual. “We each have an average of 70,000 to 100,000 thoughts per day, and as many as 90% of those thoughts can be repetitive, negative, or false.”

Those negative thoughts are very powerful and can do severe damage to a person’s self-esteem. Our mental and emotional state can also cause physical symptoms, including insomnia, heart disease, and many more. With treatment, those thoughts can be overcome. “I train people how to stop that voice, to change the dialogue, or to concentrate on the body, letting go of the voice.”

Another potential deterrent that would prevent someone from seeking care is a misunderstanding about what mental healthcare actually looks like. “They automatically assume they’re going to put you on some heavy-duty medications, and that’s just not the case,” said Ujkaj. “We always go the therapy route before we go the medication route.”

Another set of tools that can be extremely helpful in exercising more control over one’s thoughts is mindfulness and meditation. “People go to the gym and invest in the body all day long, but don’t invest in the mind,” said Ujkaj. “Why not go to a mind gym for an hour rather than Planet Fitness?”

Meditation can be intimidating for some, so he recommends a simple technique called diaphragmatic breathing (also called "abdominal breathing" or "belly breathing") that helps to calm the mind and nervous system. Dozens of tutorials on how to do this simple yet effective breathing technique can be found on YouTube.

Ujkaj, along with the staff at Hamilton, encourage Genesee County residents to check on their mental health status this month and remember that help is just a call or click away. 

For more information about resources available at Hamilton Community Health Network, visit: hamiltonchn.org
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Read more articles by Katy Kildee.