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Local News

In their life: Dr. Varma

One in four adults in the United States lives with mental illness, according to National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Dr. Shalini Varma is an expert speaker for the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Lake County, and is a board certified psychiatrist of the American Board of psychiatry and Neurology. She educates families on depression, medications and mental illness.
Varma has two offices where she meets with clients – children, adolescents and adults. One office is in Vernon Hills and the other is in Kenosha, Wis. Varma talked with Lake County news editor Cassandra Dowell about the importance of utilizing mental health resources.

How long have you been practicing?
I have been practicing here [in Kenosha, Wis.] for about a year. Before this I worked at Wheaton Franciscan and also Milwaukee County Health. I am a very pro-active physician. I help patients in crisis and in maintaining wellness.

What is the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Lake County?
The best thing about NAMI is that they are patient advocates, so they do not have any slant. Otherwise, they would get extra funding from anybody else other than being patient advocates. They have a lot of resources in Lake County for patients to go to or for people who are just interested in mental health. Every month I get a flyer from them that I forward to my patients about different things in the area and different events including support group meetings. In addition to NAMI, [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous] are great groups that I encourage my patients to go to.

How do you identify mental illness?
Mental illness is any sort of behavior that affects you socially within your family unit. It's excessive to that point where it is affecting other things.

What are some of the causes of mental illness?
Definitely genetics, things that are nature versus nurture, and things that have happened to them as well. Whether it is a financial hit or trauma incident – being in a situation where you thought your life was in danger. Also, being able to develop the correct coping skills are key too [management]. Emotional regulation and stress tolerance are big things, because things are going to happen that are good and bad and you have to be able to stay in that middle range.

What are some of the most common mental illnesses you see in Lake County?
I think the patient population I have been studying the most in Lake County has a lot of depression, especially due to the problems with the economy. Anxiety over getting a job, anxiety over keeping a job, dealing with difficult people at work and things like that. I really keep people trying to get work, but also happy so they are able to resolve conflicts appropriately. I'm seeing a lot of concentration difficulties in the kid population, so attention deficit disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, as well as anxiety. Some kids with ADD or ADHD have told me it feels like they are spinning their wheels, like they are trying, and they're getting anywhere. Children are also having a difficult time at school, with so many pressures bombarding them at one time.

What are the biggest challenges for those with these problems?
Recognizing that someone needs help and also obtaining that help. A lot of people have misconceptions about psychiatry. I offer therapy and medications, so I think that is a unique treatment in patient care. I decrease the number of extra people involved, but if someone already has a psychologist or therapist and sees them just for medication reductions, I then just communicate and collaborate very well with his or her psychologist, therapist, or private health care provider. People don't want to seek out psychiatric help. They are trying to get help through other ways, but when those things are exhausted, then they go to me and say, 'Oh, I wished I had come earlier.'
People come to me and they say, 'Well, why can't I get through this on my own?' We really discuss everything with the medications, and one analogy I use is if you have diabetes. Would you say that just through diet and exercise– and if it is still not working enough and you are not getting your glucose down –would you just say, 'I'll will it down?' No, you wouldn't. You would need extra help like insulin.
I'd like to see more people getting help instead of hitting rock bottom and then coming here.

What are some signs someone should seek treatment?
Some of the biggest signs are: if you are feeling depressed or if you are having any thoughts of harming yourself or other people; if you are not eating well and you are not on a diet; if you are not sleeping well and it is affecting your daily practices; you are feeling guilty about other things you did in the past or worrying too much about the future; if your concentration is not where it use to be and you are unable to finish tasks on time.

What can happen to someone who needs help but doesn't reach out?
With severe mental illnesses a few things can happen. One is homelessness, not being able to hold a job. Another thing is severe social anxiety, where these people will socially isolate.
I always do a firearm screen for every patient – adult or child. You would be surprised how many people think their kid does not know where the gun is and I ask where the bullets are, because it's not just the gun it's also the bullets. Many will be surprised that their kid knows where the bullets are and how to get them.

What are some ways those who are depressed regarding their economic situation can find help?

Right now the biggest thing is just a lack of open positions and jobs. I really encourage my patients to get a job and have structure. A lot of problems arrive from unstructured time, because that is when a lot of depression and anxiety get worse – when you are looking at mounting bills for your mortgage, for your house, your gas… I actually use a lot of resources in the community, so I use NAMI, I use libraries' resources a lot as well, like the Lake Villa library and the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee. There are a lot of resources in there teaching people to use Excel, Powerpoint, or how to get a job.

Your office feels like I am in someone's living room rather than a medical office. How does that benefit the patient?
I wanted to be comfortable especially since I like having family members here as well. Mental illness is not something you measure objectively, like blood pressure or anything like that. A lot of times people are not prepared and don't even realize how bad they are doing or if they are getting any better, so I wanted it in an office that I can fit other people – husbands, wives, children, friends, and relatives. I have games for kids.

How important are physical movement and diet to overall well-being?
They are really important, but a lot of that is just structuring your day.

How do mentally healthy people benefit the community?
I really want people to be functioning and productive members of society. I want people to be working. I want them to be happy at their jobs and in a good mental state. Looking forward to their job makes them happy at home, and that makes them spend more money in the community and helps boost the economy.

Mental health resources
For information about Dr. Shalini Varma, visit
For information about NAMI of Lake County, visit
For information about Warren Township Youth and Family Services, visit
For information about Nicasa, visit
For information about Lake County Behavioral Health, visit

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