I had good intentions at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month to rededicate myself to writing and posting about mental health. We all have mental health and we all need to be thinking and talking about it. We need to take care of ourselves, and, if we have the wherewithal, encourage our friends and loved ones to do the same. More than ever, we need to look out for one another.
On May 1st, I devised a list of hashtags to use each day for posting, things like #spiritualitysunday, #mediahealthmonday, and #talkaboutittuesday, and I thought about blogs I could write. I fine tuned a Creativity Corner post featuring a therapist, and I planned to share more about the events that precipitated my book’s postponement. I expected to really dig in.
Then, I didn’t.
I couldn’t muster the energy to carry through on those good intentions.
As the days passed, I did what I always do and gave myself a good thought tongue-lashing. Lazy. What’s wrong with you? You should be doing more. Get your shit together. Knowing about this suboptimal pattern of mine—“shoulding” all over myself for failing to be productive “enough”—hasn’t been enough to break it, but over time and with dedicated effort I reminded myself to cut me some slack. I replaced those harsh thoughts with kinder ones. It’s okay. You’re doing the best you can. I accepted my limitations because I am doing my best.
Yes, I am. I’ve been prioritizing my wellness by returning to therapy to address some of my deepest rooted suboptimal patterns. I’m still regularly engaging in the creative process, connecting to my community, and, bit by bit, figuring out how to move forward with my book. In other words, looking back over the month, I realize that I ended up celebrating this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month by focusing on my own mental health. I know how privileged I am to have dedicated time and resources for my healing journey.
But events from the last few months make it impossible to remain silent.
What’s been happening
The deaths by suicide of Naomi Judd and collegiate athletes (our neighbor Oak Park’s) Sarah Shulze, Katie Meyer and Lauren Bernett (among many others) shocked us. There was The New York Times piece on The Mental Health Crisis Among Teens, a war, the general state of our national political “discourse,” and, of course, the utterly horrific, soul crushing mass shootings in New York, Texas, California, and more. What can one possibly say? Except, it’s no surprise that most of us are experiencing disturbances in our mental health.
(Note: We must be careful not to buy into rhetoric that oversimplifies a complex issue like mass shootings to a ridiculously reductive statement like “mental illness made him do it.” More HERE.)
Some days, the physical symptoms manifesting inside me—pressure in my chest, confusion in my brain, tightness in my throat—evoke an apocalyptic dread that’s hard to quell.
What, I keep wondering, can we do in the face of so much overwhelming pain and confusion? Such powerlessness?
One answer that is 100 percent within our control is to do our own work.
Some people are destined to make huge, system-changing impacts on our country and the world. Most of us aren’t. Most of us live normal lives and conduct normal business and interact with regular folks. So then, you may be thinking, “Isn’t it just as reductive to say, ‘do your own work?'” I don’t think so and here’s why:
There are many ways to do your own work
Earlier this year, I took the Be There Certificate program to learn more about being an informed friend, family member, and mental health advocate. Be There’s primary directive is: If you see something say something. That means, do your own work to get educated and not remain silent if you see a friend or loved one (or you yourself) struggling with mental health. Saying something can be scary. Saying nothing can be deadly. We don’t always know when someone is struggling, but if you notice behavior changes it’s imperative not to ignore those warning signs. (Find warning signs of mental health conditions HERE.)
The average delay between symptom onset and treatment currently is 11 years. 11 YEARS! This figure is shocking and horrifying. Imagine how much damage is done to someone’s mind, body, and spirit by not getting treatment for a decade after symptom onset. (If you got diagnosed with cancer or diabetes would you wait ten years to get treatment?) I highly recommend the Be There program. It’s online, easy to navigate, takes less than two hours to complete, and can be finished piecemeal or at one time. And it’s available in French, Spanish, and English.
Do Your Own Work
Build mental health awareness socially
Find moments to consciously incorporate dialogue about mental health into your routine with family members, friends, and work associates. Again. We all have mental health. A loved one, friend or co-worker may secretly be longing for someone safe to talk to about a struggle they are experiencing. Opening the door can be just what someone needs to start healing.
Especially important is to do so with your kids. It’s never too early or too late to start talking to kids about mental health. Ask them how they’re feeling and give them the time and space to answer. And then validate, validate, validate. (More HERE.) If you feel ill-equipped, and let’s face it, most of us do feel that way because this type of communication wasn’t modeled for us when we were young, get a book or, if the situation warrants, enter your own therapy. Conversation combined with acceptance is the path to reducing the stigma that prevents people from reaching out for help.
Make time and space for your own mental health
Prioritize your mental health, wellness, and self-care. Self-care has gotten a bad rap over the last decade or so and I get it. Most self-help gurus and wellness craze conglomerates tout expensive plans, potions, or programs or readymade, quick solutions to life’s serious hurdles. I prefer to characterize self-care as a point of view, one that’s a two-way street from the outside in AND (what people often forget) from the inside out.
Sure, self-care can look like a luxurious massage or an expensive mani/pedi or it can look like setting aside time to complete important chores or flossing every night or ensuring adequate rest and some exercising, but it’s also something more—something that burrows down into you to soothe your mind and heart, that maybe even changes your fundamental relationship with yourself. Things like therapy, meditation, creativity, a gratitude practice, mindfulness, or community building can fit that bill. At the top of my list, as I had to practice this month, is changing how I talk to myself. What works as self-care is as personal to us as our fingerprint. Find the things that work for you, and use them to create your self-care tool kit.
From my lived experience almost a decade ago, sitting in a mental health residential treatment center next to my teenage daughter who was hurting and struggling with depression, I was forced by circumstance to come face to face with my powerlessness. (Read more HERE.) If I could have switched places with her and taken away her pain I would have. But I’d done for her what I could–educating myself about her diagnoses, getting her treatment, and providing a safe environment. Sitting next to her, I stared at a therapeutic exercise on a piece of paper and saw how very little I thought of myself. In that moment, I knew I had to do my own work.
This is to say that I understand to my core that it may seem too hard or downright impossible to do your own work. I didn’t know what to do or where to start or how to help myself. Everything felt too big and too hard and too scary. I only knew that I was driven to do my work because that was the only course of action left to me. It was the only course of action I could control to help myself grow and heal, to help change my relationship with my daughter, and with the other people in my life. Because of that moment so much has changed for us for the better.
Mental health awareness: a plea
The plea from me to you is for you to believe that you’re not powerless, that your mental health is worth the effort, that you are worth the effort, that it is okay, even better than okay to “do you.” Becoming the best version of ourselves and raising our vibration is our most important job on this planet. It’s how we take the best care of our families, friends, everyone we come into contact with, and the world.
Put your hand over heart, close your eyes, and say, “I’m enough.” You have the permission you need to make yourself, your health, and your wellness your priority. In this way, we carry mental health awareness month with us into every month of the year.
Click HERE to read Creativity Corner, featuring therapist and actor Kimberly Prendergast.
Click HERE for a full list of mental health resources.
Mental health is health. Click HERE to read more on the NAMI blog.
Learn about Everytown For Gun Safety.