The Importance of Mental Health Awareness
The topic of mental health awareness is undeniably huge. How can the status of this phenomenon be raised to a level that changes the world culture to prioritize people’s mental health? The number of opinions and initiatives to make that happen are staggering, yet, the pervasive cultural narrative remains that mental health is secondary to almost everything else in life. As a counselor for roughly 15 years, I tell people to “start small.” So, as each of us tells our own story, we begin to see the themes that become important to address. My experience in the field has informed me of some of the issues that stand out and deserve some attention.
“It's almost as if a demon might have passed from one host to another.”
--John Forbes Nash, Jr., whose life was depicted in the motion picture, A Beautiful Mind.
Mental health is a topic in the forefront of my life, and not because I am a counselor. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, anxiety, and addiction have been a staple of my environment and upbringing. I have vivid memories of the sights and smells of the old Southeast Hospital, because my aunt developed paranoid schizophrenia when she was a young woman, and my mother and I would make the trek across the Causeway to visit her. The hospital was bare, and as I remember it, drab. It was less like a hospital and more like a jail. My sweet, gentle aunt saw and heard demons. Imagine that. No, really. Please try to imagine that. Your life turning into a horror movie, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it from happening.
Episodes of mania by various members of my family were like extraordinary, mind-boggling spells that made the person in front of me a stranger. Episodes of depression for some were so severe and pervasive that methods like electroshock therapy were used to treat it. Easing the suffering of all this madness is where addiction lived.
“I went to a doctor and told him I felt normal on acid, that I was a light bulb in a world of moths. That is what the manic state is like.”
After I graduated from my master’s program, I worked at an agency that provided services to people recently discharged from inpatient psychiatric facilities. I remember the first time I had to call 911 and being surprised at how cool I remained given that there was a client smashing the big screen television in a rage because he did not want to be there. I remember one woman who so affectionately could never say my name correctly. Too often, I would see people handcuffed and put in the paddy wagon of the mobile crisis unit because there was no other way to get them a hospital bed.
I went back to school for my doctorate a few years into working at that agency. I started to realize the systemic problems within the mental health field, and I was getting frustrated. There were never enough beds, never enough doctors, never enough family members, never enough services available. I was burned out and thought I could do more good if I could conduct research and help to train new counselors.
I was on the cusp of starting my dissertation when Hurricane Katrina threw my life into a complete tailspin. I recall the building crescendo of anxiety, acute stress, trauma, and depression that was on the horizon, ready to tumble into the streets and homes of the people recovering from one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever hit the United States. Bodies were being pulled from the rank and stifling landscape of grey; people were committing suicide in unprecedented numbers; and prescriptions for anti-anxiety and depression medications were becoming more and more commonly prescribed. I specifically recall hearing two people comparing the medicine they had been given for their depression like it was the latest hairstyle. The shortage of mental health professionals and physicians to treat it still prevails.
Realizing I had to “start small” to try and make a difference in people’s lives. In 2008, I started working in private practice. I counseled hundreds of people, and I still hear stories about how mental health has affected their individual lives. What I have heard, that is unacceptable, is the idea that emotional health is just not important. School budgets continue to cut counselors, hospitals are little more than holding facilities, employers rarely offer employee assistance programs, or their health insurance plans have large deductibles. The culture is not moving in a direction that promotes mental health. It is moving in a direction that continues to relegate its importance to a secondary issue.
“When I look at the world I'm pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.”
We need more awareness of the issues that are plaguing us. We need compassion and the ability to look beyond the outside of people to see that they are in pain on the inside and need help. Early childhood programs can foster emotional regulation and empathy lasting a lifetime. Normalizing things like counseling and going to the doctor for a mental health checkup may help to change the world culture. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to talk about your experience or that family member who suffers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help even if you are not sure you need it. And lastly, when you look at someone who is suffering, do not cower in fear, for they are likely far more afraid of their own lives than you.