May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And at some point in the future I hope it is irrelevant. Not that I think mental illness is going to go away, but that our ever-evolving understanding of the brain and the diseases that impact the brain become as medically mundane as a broken leg or an earache. I will say, in my 30-plus years of experience in the field, I’ve watched each new generation move forward the knowledge, acceptance, and support for mental illnesses, while at the same time reducing the stigma that often negatively impacts an individual’s decision to access treatment. This gives me hope that one day we will get there.
However, we still have some room for growth. What are some things you can practice this month and subsequently apply to your life during the other eleven months? Here are a few ideas.
1. Change “is” to “has.” When you talk about mental illness notice the difference in these two statements. My brother is Bi-Polar vs. My brother has Bi-Polar. The first defines a human as a disease, the second accepts a human with a disease.
2. Mental health is health. All people should have access to healthcare, and the ability to CHOOSE the care that best fits their need, including: informed decision making, treatment options, current best practices, and partnering with your health care provider in the recovery process.
3. Share your stories of recovery. Like all medical issues, sharing personal stories is entirely up to the individual, but, when you share it reduces: stigma, feelings of isolation, fear, misunderstanding, and isolation. It also INCREASES the likelihood that others will feel comfortable to seek support and treatment.
4. Mental illness is not a moral failing. There are multiple reasons mental illness manifests including genetics, substance misuse, brain injury, excessive stressors, and more. Remember, it’s a disease like any other, that can be treated, managed, and recovered from. Learning about mental illness is a great way to support friends and family.
5. Listen. One of the easiest things to do is be supportive and listen when someone tells you they are not feeling well. If someone says, “I’m depressed,” or “I’m anxious.” Don’t respond with, “Just think happy thoughts!” or “Don’t worry!” Instead, listen, offer support, and, if necessary, guide them toward a health care provider.
6. If you have an illness, be clear about the symptoms and how they impact you. It’s tempting to minimize things. When you talk to your support system or your health care provider, try to be specific. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’m sad every now and then,” try saying, “At least two days a week I’m late to school because it’s so hard to get out of bed.”
7. Get some sun. Sunshine, the corresponding Vitamin D boost, and increased serotonin are valuable to good mental health.
8. Talk to your kids. Especially if mental illness runs in your family— the same way you would prepare kids with a family history of breast cancer or heart disease. Talking with your kids early and often increases their willingness to reach out for support when they experience sadness or anxiety or mania.
9. Eat well and exercise. It seems this would go without saying, but the health of your brain is connected to the health of your body and vice versa. A sensible diet and a modicum of movement do wonders for health.
10. Recovery and treatment look different for everyone. Too often I’ve heard people lament, “Medication X worked wonders for my dad but did not help me.” Or “I went to therapy for a month and nothing got better.” The human brain is so complex that one size rarely fits all. Type of medication, dosage of medication, type of therapy, frequency of therapy, and other overarching conditions all impact the individuality of treatment and recovery.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list. But I hope it gives you something to think about and how you might approach the issue with your friends, your family, and your community. Mental wellness should never be an individual effort. Asking for help and support is not a weakness. It’s a strength.
Jay Bechtol is the CEO of South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services and a member of the MAPP Steering Committee.
MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships) is a local health improvement coalition with the vision of a proactive, resilient and innovative community.