(Right. You’d think I could have thought to write this one already. Like, last fall, when I was writing “something” every day for my own mental health.)
May, as you’ve likely already seen or heard, is Mental Health Awareness Month. You’ve likely already seen or heard about it because, thanks to the pandemic, mental health is getting a lot more public attention. And that’s a good thing. But just to be clear here: The pandemic put a spotlight on mental health, but mental health, like physical health, is important on its own, with or without a pandemic (and all of the general chaos and upheaval in recent years).
So what is mental health, anyway?
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
“Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world.”(Source: World Health Organization, 2018)
Written well before the pandemic began, this simple definition of mental health as “a state of well-being” puts mental health in the context of physical health. When we are healthy we are well — in body and in mind.
Now would be a terrific time for attitudes about mental health to line up with attitudes toward physical health. The physical benefits of regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and preventative care are universally recognized even if they’re not universally put into individual practice. How often do you hear (or maybe even say) something like, “I’m going to eat healthy today (this week… this year…).” After decades of research, public policy work, and public awareness campaigns, we understand and accept the general concept that physical behaviors, including eating and exercise, affect physical health. Are we now ready to understand a nd accept the same about mental health?
“I regularly wished aloud for a mental health version of Dr. Fauci to give daily briefings,” said Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “I tried to normalize the wide range of intense emotions people felt; some thought they were truly going crazy.”(Source: “Why 1320 Therapists Are Worried About Mental Health in America Right Now.” Tara Parker-Pope, Christina Caron, and Mónica Cordero Sancho; The New York Times, December 17, 2021.)
The early pandemic months were stressful to the point of making me feel completely nuts. My surge capacity was depleted, but the wear-and-tear continued. And then the roller-coaster ride that followed those stressful early months made things feel even crazier.
I was in good company. In 2020 and 2021 demand for mental health-related services increased by double digits, and people were talking publicly about the mental and emotional strain.
As one psychologist put it, in a New York Times survey about mental health in America, the pandemic functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities that were already present. Even for high-functioning, well-resourced people, pandemic-related stress had a way of finding every chink in our emotional armor.
Let’s not let this crisis go to waste, now that the pandemic is moving into the endemic phase (bringing new and different stressors in tow). Talking widely, publicly, and often about mental health and mental wellness is one of the very few positive developments from an otherwise shitty, black swan event (looking at you, COVID…).
When the masks are long gone, we’d do well to have kept, and even strengthened, the current attention to mental well-being.
How? Here are three, top-of-mind thoughts:
Accept that mental health is health.
One extension of this idea would be to change accepted practice among insurance providers so that preventative mental health care is covered. Right now, only some insurance carriers and policies cover mental health at all. Those who do cover mental health will cover expenses (visits) only when there is a diagnosis of illness. Insurance will cover a visit for anxiety or depression but not for a pre-college check-up, for example.
Like preventative annual check-ups in the physical health care world, annual mental check-ups, if accepted as a universal practice, would help normalize talking about mental health and would also – just like their annual physical equivalents – start to identify issues in early stages.
A connecting thread is that overall health is health in body, mind, and spirit. When we are well in all dimensions of health, our physical health supports our mental health and vice versa. Mental health is health.
Understand that emotions are normal, natural aspects of being human.
Anger, sadness, anxiousness, loneliness, rage, and frustration (among so many others) are all normal, natural human emotions. Name them. Acknowledge them. Befriend them.
Emotions, like thoughts, are not “right” or “wrong.” How we handle those emotions, how we identify them within ourselves, how we communicate what we are feeling, and so on — all of that work around emotions starts with accepting that emotions are normal and natural aspects of being human.
Helping children learn to identify and name feelings is as fundamentally important to health as their learning how to identify and name body parts. Likewise, it’s OK to give feelings nicknames, too, just like it’s OK to say “tallywhacker” as long as you know – and your child knows – that the proper anatomical term is penis. Call depression by any other name, and it’s still depression. Being afraid to say a word only strengthens feelings of shame.
Feelings – even the one named “depression” – are normal. What’s not normal is when feelings are out of balance, unmanageable, and getting in the way of interacting with others and enjoying life. Identifying feelings is a starting place. Learning techniques to manage and express feelings is a solid next step. Parents can – and should – help children learn to identify feelings and then how to manage and express them in healthy ways. Parents who don’t have the skills to help their children in that particular way can learn the skills (through classes, working with clinical professionals, and even online). In the process, parents may find opportunities for their own emotional growth. That’s a win-win.
Get professional help, even if you’re not sure you “need” it.
Hey, listen up: Facebook is not a therapist.
Also: Could you go on YouTube and learn from videos how to rewire your house? Probably. Would that be a good idea? Definitely not.
Talking to a trained professional (I’ll get to what that means in a minute) can help you see yourself in a new and different way. Working with someone who is dedicated to helping you find the right solutions and answers for you, not for anyone else, is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give yourself. Doing that bit of self-care pays dividends in every one of your relationships and in every endeavor, whether personal or business.
Who are these trained professionals? For full descriptions, here’s a great resource from NAMI. In broadest, overly-simple terms:
A psychiatrist is a physician – a medical doctor with all of the basic medical training and psychiatric training on top of that. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.
A psychologist is a doctoral-level professional with advanced degrees in counseling or psychology. Though regulations vary from state to state, some types of assessments must be performed by licensed psychologists, not master-level therapists/clinicians.
A clinical counselor is a master’s level professional trained to evaluate mental health and to use therapeutic techniques.
A clinical social worker is also a master’s level professional trained to evaluate mental health and to use therapeutic techniques, usually from a case management approach.
Other types of professionals, including pastoral counselors, bachelor’s level social workers, certified meditation teachers or coaches, etc., also do work in the general area of mental wellness, but all of that work is different from clinical, therapeutic care.
Coaching is not counseling. Two different professions – each with value, but very different from one another.
Facebook is definitely not counseling. Don’t even.
(Side note: Remember this one from 2019? “She Is not Your Rehab: Barbershop Movement Inspires Men to Heal Their Pain and Not Ask Women to Fix It.“)
A final note here, and then I’ve got to get busy with some mental housekeeping of my own (in the form of meditation and yoga, on a day that I’m taking away from my work-work and in the middle of being otherwise overcommitted in other areas of my life):
Several weeks ago I attended a funeral service for a child who died by suicide. A physician family member, speaking with great passion and love, beseeched the full church: There is tremendous sitting in these pews. Use it. Talk about mental health. Do something to change the way we respond to and help people who are different.
Much has been written in the last two years about mental health and teen mental health in particular. The headlines are most often to the effect of “Teens in mental health crisis.”
It is a crisis, and not a new one. Now that the spotlight is shining more brightly on the issue, let us act on what we know. Mental health is health. It’s the health that supports civil discourse, critical thinking, peaceful transfers of power, explorations and creativity. It’s the life force behind our physical, bodily actions.
Mental health is health. May we embrace that truth and all be well.
P.S. If you’re a long-time reader here then you already know that I’m a Dan Harris/Ten Percent Happier fan. The podcasts this month are focused on different aspects of mental health. Bonus: mental health professionals can sign up for 12 months of free access to the Ten Percent Happier app (also a favorite, for meditation). Check it out here: https://www.tenpercent.com/mentalhealth.