Mental Health Awareness in 3 Stigma-Smashing Steps
What do you think of when you hear the words “mental health?”
Do you feel anxious, uncomfortable — scared even?
Do you feel empowered?
Do you feel hopeful? Or do you feel hopeless?
“Mental health” is a loaded term. It can trigger a dizzying array of reactions when we hear it.
This is partly because we all have unique backgrounds — so when we hear the words “mental health,” we draw from our experiences in an effort to make sense of what that means to us.
Another part — and a significant part at that — is the tremendous stigma attached to the words “mental health.”
In fact, if “mental health” comes up in conversation at all, it’s likely to be preceded or followed by mention of the stigma that is pervasive in the United States.
Fortunately, there are three changes that we could make to positively alter our perceptions of the amorphous blob of societal emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that is “mental health.”
Let’s take a look at them all at once, and then we’ll break them down one by one.
Here they are:
1. Move from the esoteric to the accessible
2. Move from fear to love
3. Move from “talking at” to “being with”
Let’s start with the first one — “Move from the esoteric to the accessible.”
Moving from the esoteric and confusing to the accessible and relatable
What if I told you that I live with mental health issues?
Would that scare you? Would it surprise you?
I bet it would bring up some kind of emotion, right?
Even for me it felt kind of strange to write the first line of this section.
But why is that?
Because “mental health” as a concept is laden with heavy baggage.
I was taught very little about mental health issues in school. When I thought about mental health, I thought about images of people experiencing homelessness. I pictured extreme behaviors — men and women shouting out and cursing at “normal” people walking by.
It’s obvious to me now — I had a very basic understanding of mental health.
What if I told you I’ve had anxiety my whole life?
Now that you’ve gotten to know me a bit, do you have a slightly different picture of what that might mean for me? For you?
If your feelings have changed, why have they changed?
What I’m getting at is this: we come to know another person by listening to his or her stories. If we feel connected to that person and a safe space has been created, we may begin to share stories of our own.
Once this process gets into motion and we begin to swap stories, something fascinating happens.
We begin to create new stories — narratives that now include us and the previously unknown “other person.” These stories become new templates upon which we imprint our always changing thoughts and emotions.
It’s like a blank piece of paper shared between two individuals. At first glance, the blank sheet is intimidating.
What are we going to put on here?
Should I write first or should he?
Little by little, we take turns writing. We exchange words.
Then we see handwriting that is recognizable. We realize we can make out the words. In fact, we see familiar words — even familiar stories.
After a while, the paper is full of writing — our words. It’s wrinkled and sloppy for having been tugged and pushed, pulled and twisted by two individuals sharing the space, sharing their words.
Eventually, one of us may suggest we get another piece of paper because we have so much more to say.
What if I told you that my anxiety caused me to have insomnia for close to five months?
How would you feel about that?
Would you run away? Or would you look at all of the work we’ve done on that piece of paper and offer a listening ear and a helping hand?
If you would, you’re moving on to my next point.
From being driven by fear to being compelled to act with love
At this point, we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit.
As all relationships unfold and more trust is built up, the individuals getting to know each other share more about their lives.
As this happens, an innate tendency to care for — and about — the other person begins to blossom.
But here’s a question.
Can you blame us for not trusting each other at first? It’s our human brains that, in the beginning, struggle to keep us apart.
Our ancestors survived not because they hugged and kissed every living thing that came into view — but because their brains placed higher value on their capacity to discern and quickly judge if a stranger was friend or foe. In other words, their brains helped them to immediately decide if the stranger would aid in their survival or have a hand in their imminent demise.
With stakes that high, it’s no wonder that our brains lead us to judge people we don’t know and understand.
And that’s just it. We judge mental health because it’s difficult to understand — at first.
Here are two questions I really want you to consider.
How do you feel when someone you’re getting to know shares something personal about his or her childhood?
Or shares with you a thought that he or she has told only a few other people before?
You’d feel good, right?
Vulnerability fosters sharing, sharing leads to connection, and connection widens the circle.
What I mean by that is this: creating a relationship with someone else based on sharing and connection inevitably leads to a bond. It leads to adding a link on a chain of relationships that hopefully grows longer and more durable over time.
A chain of only one or two links does not a strong support make.
But once you have five, six, or seven links in your chain — well, that’s something you can work with. You can use that chain for support. You can tether that chain to other objects. You can create a circle with your chain, even.
It’s totally up to you.
But if you approach with fear, you’ll rarely, if ever, develop strong links.
If depression always scares you, you’ll never learn about the unbelievable power of the individuals who have lived through depression. You won’t hear about their ability to listen closely to concerns and empathize with others’ pain. Individuals who have experienced emotional pain have wisdom and skill born from their struggle.
But if your story of depression is made up of only a few experiences — such as that one time when your friend was depressed and not a lot of fun to be around — you might get fed up, go away, and refuse to learn more of the story.
Taking time to learn another’s story requires love.
And it brings me to my final point.
The journey from “talking at” to “being with”
There comes a time when what we know only goes so far.
At first, it’s fun to impress others with our knowledge.
But telling tales of our own feats often leads down a long and winding path to loneliness. The path looks promising when we first set out, but at some point we will stop to rest and look about to get our bearings. We turn around and see that the group following us is much smaller than when we first set out. The more we do most of the talking, the more the group dwindles in size.
Until, one day, we’ve talked ourselves right out of our relationships.
This is what happens when we treat others as mere receptacles of our wise words.
It boosts our ego, but it doesn’t do much for our learning and development.
The real journey begins when we stop talking and wait for a response instead.
And that’s the terrifying part, isn’t it? Pausing to listen means that we are guaranteed to receive feedback on what we just said.
We might think:
Did what I say sink in?
What will she think of it?
What will she think of ME?
All we know is that learning can only take place in the space that is created when two hearts wait for the next person to speak.
A lot of the time we think that we need to have the perfect thing to say when a person we know is dealing with mental health issues. If only we could say the one right thing or take the one right action — then maybe we could fix this person who is in front of us.
What if we don’t need to fix another person? If it were that easy, don’t you think the other person would have figured that out by now? Don’t you think that person would have tried that already? If all that was needed was a simple repair?
Mental health doesn’t mean that someone is broken. It’s an imbalance in the mind and body. It’s a lack of connection. It’s a devastating loss. It’s simple and complex all at once.
And it doesn’t need to be fixed.
What it does need is to be recognized and validated.
It might not make any sense, but neither does cancer. Neither does a blood disorder or brittle bones.
Mental health resides in each and every one of us.
Behavior that is “normal” today may one day fall out of favor.
The problem with behaviors that scare us is that we have a tendency to personalize them. But scary behaviors don’t get up in the morning and decide that they want us to have bad days. They’re just behaviors. It’s the stories we tell ourselves about others’ behaviors that cause the damage.
And if we’ve created stories of fear and stigma, we have the power to create new stories.
Mental health issues exists on a continuum — always in flux, never as stable as we imagine them to be.
How many different kinds of emotions do you have in a day?
The answer? It depends.
Life always depends — and on that tenuous balance rests our mental health.
But if you do these three things — make mental health issues accessible, act with love rather than fear, and “be with” rather than “talk at” — you’ll find that the unfamiliar becomes less and less frightening.
You’ll find — when you reach that quiet, contemplative place — that you have an opportunity to take in what you’re thinking and feeling.
And from the dark well of the unfamiliar will spring a chance to begin anew.
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