Changing the Culture of Mental Health: Know the Five Signs

By Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D.

I don’t know when I learned the signs of a heart attack. It seems that I have always known them. I probably don’t know all of the actual signs — but I know enough to recognize a possible heart attack if I see it. And more important, I know that if I see these signs, I must take action. I just might save a life.

Similarly, I was well primed when it came time for me to have children. I was a conscientious mother-to-be who wanted to do everything possible to have a healthy, happy baby. When I was pregnant I did all I could to take care of myself so that my baby had the best environment possible. I ate a balanced diet, refrained from drinking alcohol, exercised moderately, got as much sleep as I could, and drank what seemed like gallons and gallons of water.

By the time Gracie was born, I already knew how important it was to take her in for “well-baby” visits. I dutifully followed the schedule my pediatrician provided for immunizations and checkups. When Gracie turned 3, I took her to see a pediatric dentist for the first of what would become her biannual checkups. These physical and dental checkups continued — despite periodic protests from Gracie — until she left for college.

We didn’t always take such good physical care of ourselves — or our children. I grew up in rural California, and I don’t remember annual visits to any doctor. The first time I went to a dentist was when I cracked my front tooth in half after I fell off my brother’s skateboard at the age of 7. By the way, there were no bike or skateboard helmets back then.

And we haven’t always been comfortable talking about physical illnesses or medical procedures. Women and girls didn’t talk about going to the gynecologist — it was too embarrassing. And I’m old enough to remember when people talked in hush tones about the “C” word (cancer). Today it isn’t unusual for people to talk openly about all variety of medical conditions and treatments, including procedures that most of us wish we could avoid, like colonoscopies.

It seems that in most Western cultures, we have moved into an age of enlightenment when it comes to our physical health. While we still have progress to make — especially when it comes to the inclusion of nontraditional forms of treatment and greater involvement of the “patient” in his or her care — we have, for the most part, accepted the importance of prevention, screening, and early intervention for our physical and dental care. Changes in attitudes and practice have resulted in better health and longer lives.

We are, however, still in the dark ages when it comes to caring for our emotional well-being. Despite the fact that one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental-health condition, we don’t talk openly about our mental health, and most of us don’t know the signs that tell us that someone we love is in emotional pain. We don’t share strategies or success stories, and most of us don’t know much about the factors that affect our moods or our thought processes.

Indeed, there continues to be tremendous shame, guilt, and misinformation associated with emotional pain. Most people believe — inaccurately — that individuals can control conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse through force of will. Most people believe that an individual can or should be able to “snap out of it” or “suck it up” and move through the suffering. Is it any wonder that more people die by suicide in America than in car accidents? What choice does someone have if his or her thinking is impaired by depression, the suffering feels unbearable, and the shame is too great to reach out for help.

Fortunately, there is a movement underway to change the culture of mental health in America. The Campaign to Change Direction encourages all of us to pay attention to our emotional well-being so that those in need seek and receive the care and support they deserve.

Even though I am neither a nurse nor a physician, I learned the signs of a heart attack that equipped me with the knowledge to save someone who might be suffering physically. Similarly, we can all learn the signs of emotional suffering: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, lack of personal care, and hopelessness. Visit www.changedirection.org to join the Campaign to Change Direction. Learn the Five Signs; teach your kids, family members, and friends. You just might save a life.


Image courtesy of Benjamin Combs/Unsplash