I pose the question: “What is the difference between the phrase “mental health” and the phrase “physical health?” I mean, besides the one innocent word preceding the term “health,” of course. Let’s be honest here, if I were to initiate a conversation about physical health, I could expect an immediate understanding, and lively discussion about priorities, trends, and different ideas about how to reach your optimum physical health. The conversation, I imagine, would be full of questions, personal experiences and debates about the many aspects of physical fitness, almost completely without stigma, judgement, or shame. Now imagine a different conversation. When someone says the words “mental health.” The aura changes immediately. Body language stiffens, facial expressions reflect uneasiness; the chatter stops as if you were buzzed in Taboo for saying a word on the no-go list. How can a difference in one word change the entire feel of someone’s conversation? How can work on your biceps, quads, or hamstrings be applauded and deeply sought out but work on your brain, the organ that outperforms all others and is in charge of all bodily functions, be shamed and judged? The neural pathways that send signals to your brain are just as important, if not more intricate, sensitive, and worthy of focus than muscular circuitry. Why are there hundreds of resources offered, discussed, and available for increasing muscular strength and corrective exercises for improving physical problems, yet such limited resources for mental health issues most of which are cost prohibitive? I have so many questions about this physical/mental health dichotomy. Unfortunately, I have come to realize that this is not a topic I can easily discuss with many people because their discomfort is so clear.
The fact that the mere suggestion of having a mental health issue creates a suffocating silence is one of the reasons that so many people suffer. The fear of being judged becomes emotionally paralyzing, and the person then begins to feel too ashamed to speak up about their emotional conflicts and isolation. The feeling of needing to keep quiet about emotional pain is one of the reasons people often delay, or flatly refuse, to seek help.
A few months ago, two suicides shocked the world. NBC News reported that Gregory Eells, the head of counseling and psychological services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jarrid Wilson, a California megachurch pastor who was an outspoken mental health advocate, both suffered from mental health struggles and ended their lives tragically. In July of 2018, Destiny’s Child member, Michelle Williams came out with her struggle with depression and suicidal ideation trying to normalize the discussion and expose the reality of our shared silence when she stated, “so many people are walking around acting like they’ve got it all together when they’re suffering.”
Something must be done. I wholeheartedly agree with Elizabeth Chuck in the NBC article when she states, “When something like this happens, it humbles me that we’re up against something really big, and we need to work harder.”1 There is much more work to be done. What is it about mental health that makes people so uneasy? I know that a lack of knowledge or understanding makes it hard to feel like you are able to be there for someone, but a little bit goes a long way. Does this uncertainty prevent us from having the ability to discuss, empathize, or try to understand?
The silent sufferer. People who struggle with violence have similar inner struggles. People kill and we think gun control is the answer. I am 100% not saying it is not a worthy cause for discussion and voting attention because I think it allows the wrong people with murder weapons, nor am I saying that people should/shouldn’t have a right to carry a firearm, but I challenge us to look much deeper as a society at many of the horrific societal occurrences. The question becomes, how do you know who will abuse the right to carry or not? This is completely timely with the exposing of police brutality and racism that is coming to light right now. No, not all police officers are bad and yes, there are so many that have wholeheartedly vowed to protect their people. Notice, it doesnt say their “white people,” but THE people-that means everyone! How do you know which officer will kneel on someone’s neck until their last dying breath without question, or knock a 75-year old to the ground and walk right by him never wondering if he is ok? To me, this is against what it means to be HUMAN. I don’t think these men grew up knowing they commit such heinous crimes, do you? There is an awareness built into that action the stems from somewhere.
Reports speculate on the cause of crimes, but consistently fail to offer solutions that prevent such crimes from happening. Shootings in recent years, such as in Newtown, CT where 20 first graders and six school employees were murdered, have flooded the news. Reports stated that Lanza had “significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others. However, mental-health professionals who had worked with him “did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior.” This is a huge problem. There is something very large out there, very invisible, and very dangerous. The majority of these murderers, convicts, and criminals, appear to be angry, antisocial individuals — with access to guns — whom the mental health system probably could not have spotted in advance. As we know, people are not born angry or lonely with deep seeded intentions to hurt people. There is something that happens; a switch gets flicked; a trigger set off. Our society must provide resources to explore these triggers, educate families and others on how to recognize these patterns and behaviors, and provide safe spaces for people to connect with others, professionals, and loved ones to express their feelings and thoughts.
To me, this represents a failure with the mental health professionals and with our country’s screening system at large. Much like the healthcare system where our focus has shifted to maintenance of diseases rather than prevention or treatment, mental health professionals and families still often fail to see any indication of a patient’s poor mental health. Yes, mental health is a complicated, and often an invisible struggle, making screening and diagnosis very difficult. However, if you look closely, the signs are there. If parents, even individuals, were educated on identifying signs and provided tools on how to respond to certain signs, if it was normalized to talk about and admit when things feel “off,” and if education and resources were available at all stages of life, allowing people to feel safe to speak up, many people would be able to realize the shift in their natural self and would feel more confident in seeking help.
I, myself, have dealt with severe mental health issues. My struggles have ranged from two panic attacks to severe depression gripped with suicidal ideation. I can speak from personal pain that the mind is one of the most powerful, all-consuming organs that, without strengthening and training, can become injured just like any other body part. I can speak from personal experience and say that suicidal ideation can produce some of the most real urges someone has ever experienced. How can something you know is so horrible and tragic feel so desirable and so calming? This is where the danger hits. I, personally, had internalized so much hurt, pain, and confusion that I drove people away, and had no idea who I was or what I wanted from life anymore. It felt like I had assumed a new identify-a mask of depression and loneliness, and albeit foreign to me, it was comfortable, and recently, the only identity I knew. My “new identity” of indecision, fear of judgement, lack of adventure, and apathy about life didn’t match the carefree, social, light-hearted person whose values of love and loyalty stretched beyond the heart’s capacity. After about five years of crippling loneliness, depression, and anxiety, in 2010, I was put on medication to balance out my mood. Some people fight the ingestion of chemicals, wanting to be able to use natural measures, but I knew I needed something to help readjust the chemical imbalance back towards an equilibrium. Another 5 years later, in 2016, during my first real exposure to the most love my heart had ever felt, my struggles peaked to a severe mental torture chamber, where all of those negative emotions spiked again but this time coupled with severe anxiety, doubt, and paralyzing fear, later diagnosed as OCD. It had taken about ten years, far too many failed therapy visits, horrible experiences of behavioral therapy to “solve” issues rather than uncover the reason why I was feeling and behaving the way I was, to diagnose me with a mental health disorder where I could actually get the specialized help I needed.
Had I not fought my demons and had the insight to know something was wrong when my actions did not meet my innermost feelings and desires, I would still be in the throes of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (perhaps worse). Had I not been brave enough to speak up and say what was going on in my mind because deep down I knew it felt wrong, or felt strong enough to take on the rollercoaster ride of emotions and painful exposures of past hurt and self beratement, I am not sure I would have been able to fend off my thoughts. Unfortunately, there are many who are consumed by their thoughts; many that do not understand how much awareness and courage contributes to mental stability. Unfortunately, I can say the stigmas are still there; the lack of support from others is paired with uncertainty of how to respond, and the courage to know when to speak up and to feel comfortable speaking up is not widespread.
It becomes hard to open up and be vulnerable when the doubt of someone understanding is so evident. How do we change this pattern and support people for speaking up for themselves? How do we encourage the sharing of thoughts no matter how “wrong” they are, making people feel strong for sharing instead of weak for struggling? Perhaps the most critical point of agreement in the asylum debate is that money is lacking in a nation that puts mental health at the bottom of the health budget. According to the Mental Health America, 1 in 5 or over 40 million Americans are living with a mental health condition and 56% of those Americans do not receive treatment. There are many Americans still living without insurance and therefore treatment is out of their reach, so it’s hard to expect anything to change when access is a top barrier and funding is the bottom priority. I believe, if we can look at it upside down and fund mental health at the top, many other societal problems would require much less money. We have failed as a society to be problem solvers in the less obvious way. Rather than see issues such as crime, drug use, shootings, and abuse, and put millions of dollars into directly solving it without long term consequences, we need to be thinking about the root cause of these issues.
Much like obesity, which I will add is also a pandemic occurring right now, we must focus on the prevention side of the coin rather than the treatment. Billions of dollars are spent treating people with hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other comorbid conditions, all which are preventable! Yes, it is a complicated paradigm (right word?) and there are many factors that impact obesity rates, but these factors impact livelihood. Food insecurity, income disparities, food deserts, access to affordable healthcare, and more are all factors that are worthy of exploration in an effort to turn the obesity trend around.
I wholeheartedly believe that we need to shift the direction of our country by looking at the core issues as the main issues. Obesity and crimes are the effect of core issues that have been part of our country’s history for centuries and we continue to look at the surface level. Mental health, food security, and affordable healthcare are preventative solutions instead of an issue, a go-to thought not an afterthought, and a strength that people talk about not a weakness, judgment, or burden. It is time to focus on ways of prevention-prevention from disease, prevention from suicide and death, and prevention from inequality as the trends that will change America forever.
NPR article titled Ala. Attorney General Talks About Late Wife’s Mental Health And Dependence Struggles stated, Some 45 thousand people lost their lives to suicide in 2016.
Laura Joseph, a mental health advocate and life coach, is the author of this article.