Mental Health May

Week 1: break the silence, break the stigma

Since 1949, the month of May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month. This Mental Health May, I would like to take the opportunity to speak about mental health, mental illness and emotional well-being as well as celebrate the great complexity of our bodies and minds!

Mental health is exactly what it sounds like — it is the health of an individual’s mind. This includes the decisions we make, our behaviors, our relationships, the way we interact with others, the way we think, how we feel about the world around us, and how we feel about ourselves.

The goal of Mental Health Month is reduce the stigma of mental health issues and talk more openly about mental health and mental illness. The more we all know about mental health and wellness, the deeper we can understand and help each other.

“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” — Ian Stewart

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Mental health, much like our physical health, is determined by genetics, habits, and environment. While mental health is something that applies to every person, not every person has a mental illness. A mental illness is a chronic condition that alters an individual’s brain chemistry and can severely impact their life and well-being. Everyone has some degree of fluctuation in their own mental health, but those with a mental illness may experience those fluctuations more severely and more frequently than others.

How can you can practice good mental health?

Personally, I try and stay well by:

  • Following the instructions of my health professionals
  • (Attempting to) maintain order and consistency
  • Being honest with those around me
  • Knowing my personal patterns and warning signs
  • And having these guys ⇣ around is tremendously helpful as well.
Having pets can decrease feelings of loneliness as well as lower blood pressure and triglyceride and cholesterol levels

I also a firm believer in the importance of healthy distractions, my personal favorites being — making lists, looking up quotes, drawing, and if all else fails, napping.

General guidelines for maintaining good mental health:

  • Be healthy! — Practice good habits, get enough sleep, stay well hydrated, get enough exercise, eat your vegetables
  • Listen to your body — If you start having trouble sleeping, sleeping too much, feel run down or don’t feel like yourself, these are all signs that you need to step back or slow down
  • Validate your thoughts — Not to say that all of your thoughts are useful (far from it), but that still doesn’t mean you should ignore or belittle the way that you are feeling
  • Know your worth and fight for what you deserve
  • Talk — As difficult as it can be sometimes, it is incredibly helpful to talk about how you feel with someone you trust
  • On that same thought — Listen and help others! If you notice someone around you struggling, or if someone tells you that they are, listen and help as best you can.

And for those who have a mental illness:

  • Learn about your illness — both how you and others experience having the illness and how medical professionals understand it
  • Know your triggers and learn how to notice and avoid them
  • Know your habits (both good and bad)
  • Stand up for yourself and your needs — nobody knows YOU the way that YOU do and not everyone needs the same things
  • Be honest with your family, friends, and your doctor
  • If you are on medication — Take it!
  • Find simple pleasures and comforts that you can rely on — something like a bath or a shower, tea, a song, a nap, etc.
  • Learn what works for you and know that not every strategy works for the same person — even if they have the same illness!!

Final thoughts:

Growing up, I remember thinking that people who had a serious mental illness were scary and weird. I remember being taught by my peers and the adults around me not to look, avert your eyes, move past them and forget. As a result of this, not only was I apprehensive to seek help myself, but when I was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, I was incredibly afraid of others finding out. I was afraid people would think that I was crazy and would expect less of me.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear — mental illness is absolutely not weird. Mental illness is not “normal” but it is certainly not uncommon. We should not ostracize people who suffer from serious mental illness just like we shouldn’t shut out someone with a physical illness if they were unable to find, access, or afford the proper treatment

That being said, mental illness IS scary. Both for those experiencing mental illness firsthand and for those around them, mental illness can be a confusing, terrifying and tumultuous journey. How we as a society have changed our perceptions of mental illness and every person’s mental health is wonderful, but we have still only scratched the surface of the issue. To really help, we need to talk about mental health and mental illness like we would talk about physical health and wellness. We need to provide adequate mental health care for people of all socio-economic backgrounds. We need to start talking with each other about ourselves and we need to start listening without judgement.

I invite you to join me in this discussion the next four Mondays of May as I explore topics relating to mental illness in an effort to talk more openly about and better understand mental health and wellness as a whole!

Graphic from Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh