An exclusive interview with Dr. Murali Rao by Lauren Bailey Roach
Mental health issues are under-discussed and over-stigmatized. While often the subject is brushed under the rug, it is a fact that 46.4% of American adults experience the effects of mental illness within their lifetime. Dr. Murali Rao, MD, is working to strip away the negative stigmas that are associated with mental health and mental illness. In his new book, 50+ and Healthy: What You Need to Know About Mental Health and Healthy Aging - for You and Your Loved Ones, Dr. Rao discusses the facts, reputations, identifications, and approaches to mental health in aging adults.
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” - Mark Twain
Dr. Rao believes that mental health issues are considered taboo in our society because of the general public’s lack of awareness. “The common person is very aware of physical issues—they are familiar with symptoms and what to expect. But they are not aware of the symptoms of mental illness. Thousands of those with diagnosable mental conditions do not seek treatment at all. But education is the counterfactor for the stigmas against mental health. Stigma is addressed through fear or rejection of the person with the illness. For example, with someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, there could be a nuance of symptoms, as well as new and unpredictable behaviors. If the person’s family and lifelong friends start staying away from this individual, it will contribute to their social isolation. Many times, when people hear that a friend is depressed, or is having some type of mental issue, people in their close circle start falling off, which further causes social-familial rejection. We need to make the patients aware, the families aware, and society aware. There is often an emotional shame that comes with having a mental disorder. And through education, we can destigmatize the connotations of mental health.”
There are four parts to 50+ and Healthy—What You Need to Know:
Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness, Identifying & Understanding the Illnesses, Practical Approaches for First Aid and Later Interventions, and Your Own Healthy Aging. “This book is for public reading; it is written in very simple language and no-nonsense stumps. I included facts, studies, and research in Part 1. Part 2 helps the reader understand what could be going on. I discuss many issues—Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive impairment, confusion, dementia, depression, panic attacks, psychosis, schizophrenia, and suicidal thoughts/behaviors—with these issues, I provide an overview of the causes and treatments. In Chapter 7, six case studies are exemplified regarding the patient, situation, and outcome.” Part 3 discusses myths, realities, and what you can control; there are practical approaches, as well as the do’s and don’ts of taking care of a mentally ill loved one. The final part reviews our healthy aging. “We are holistic beings. Not just a body. Not just a mind. Our physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral aspects entwine, entangle, and combine in ways unique to each of us. Knowledge, acted upon, is your power to heal and be healthy.”
Dr. Rao was inspired to write this book after his own experience with aging parents. His father, who was well and healthy until the age of 92, became very confused and suffered from slight memory loss after an infection. “He was a happy person who could recognize his grandchildren and every one by name. Then, it started falling off. He could only remember the names of those he had known the longest. We took him into intermediate care, but from there his condition deteriorated, and we realized that even though we loved him, he would be unable to come home. We were all going there every day; pushing him around in the wheelchair, bringing him to the front yard, and talking to people at the desk. He was happy there and very comfortable.”
Geriatric medicine was funded by Congress during the 1970s and slowly grew into a formal academic program by 1988 when the geriatric board certification was initiated. “I have been a geriatrics specialist from the very inception of the subspecialty. Having been in psychiatry for 40+ years, I thought I should spend the rest of my time in the field, writing, publishing, and researching scientific data. I said, ‘What is the idea of education if it is not percolated down to people who need it?’ So I have been writing volumes and training manuals about mental health.”
The NNDC-IF, or National Network of Depression Centers India Foundation, was founded by Dr. Rao in 2018. The non-profit organization was established to improve the quality of life of the Indian population affected by depressive disorders, with a focus on creating scientific awareness among healthcare professionals and communities across the country. Its goal is to enhance mental health literacy and eradicate the stigma around mental health disorders. “The lack of awareness and misinformation was impacting the number of suicides and the number of families broken. We have progressed in Western countries, but the stigma in India was still very heavy. So, John Greden and I decided to open an office for the NNDC in Dehli, India. We are doing mental health awareness creation in schools, colleges, and universities. We are now considering opening chapters in different regions. The success will come from people becoming aware and asking for mental health treatment.”
What to do if your parent is mentally ill?
If you are struggling with a parent with mental health issues, Dr. Rao suggests learning about the symptoms that they are struggling with and being able to recognize them. “Take it lightly. Get them help and give them the support. A common scenario is that the person will keep repeating the same things. Don’t get angry; this is not something that they are doing on purpose. They are likely forgetting that they asked. Many times they are asking for insignificant things. My common advice is to give them whatever they are asking for. I had a patient whose son was taking care of him. The man wanted to go to the bar and drink beer every day, so I told the son to get in contact with the bartender and begin serving the father non-alcoholic beer. It worked! There needs to be a team to protect the individual. There is no pill that geriatric psychologists have—it’s always about teamwork. The family, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and occupational therapists build a whole team. Accept help from outside. You are not alone.”
This book will help those struggling with mental issues, their caregivers, or simply those who want to know more about healthy aging. “Pick up a copy of 50+ and Healthy. The awareness created could change your life.” Dr. Rao is a psychiatrist, professor, and Psychiatric and Behavioral Neurosciences department chairperson at Loyola University in Chicago. You can find more of his qualifications at Loyola Medicine, and purchase his book, 50+ and Healthy: What You Need to Know About Mental Health and Healthy Aging - for You and Your Loved Ones, on Amazon.