May is Mental Health Awareness month. In light of this, we felt compelled to share a few facts here from the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
These statistics tell us that mental illness is common, yet there's a powerful stigma that makes it really hard to talk about (a stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person). You're more likely to have a mental illness than you are to get the flu in any given year, but which topic of conversation is most common at the grocery store? On the news? At the dinner table? Paolo del Vecchio of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services sums this up well:
Mental health problems affect nearly every family. Yet as a nation, we too often struggle to have an open and honest conversation about these issues. Misperceptions, fears of social consequences, discomfort associated with talking about these issues with others, and discrimination all tend to keep people silent. Meanwhile, if they get help, most people with mental illnesses can and do recover and lead happy, productive, and full lives.
The more our mental health issues are swept under the rug or stigmatized, the more power they wield over us and the people we love. As del Vecchio notes, there is a huge network of support out there if people are willing to ask for help. We are writing this to encourage everyone (ourselves included) to speak up, reach out, and listen when it comes to mental health.
It can be helpful to understand that, just like our physical health, our mental health exists on a spectrum. While not everyone will experience a mental illness, we will all encounter mental health challenges throughout our lives. For those who identify as mentally sound, it’s very common to “other” or create a distinct separation between oneself and “mentally ill people”. However, this black and white way of thinking is misleading and only fuels the stigma around mental illness. One of the things that’s most painful for people experiencing mental illness is the sense of being separate or ostracized by their communities, alone and defined by their struggles. Yes, there are serious degrees of mental illness, but the illness shouldn’t define the person, just as someone with cancer isn’t defined by the disease. It’s also important to know that having a mental illness doesn't mean a poor quality of life. Mental illnesses are often episodic – there are times of poor health and times of good health, and they fluctuate given a number of circumstances. When we label someone as “mentally ill,” it may perpetuate their sense of being stuck and defined by their illness. Instead, it’s more accurate and supportive to say: “a person with a mental illness.”
The American Psychiatric Association offers the following definition for mental illness:
Health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses – such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors – are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. A mental illness is present when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect one’s ability to function in everyday life.
It’s common for people to overlook or even ignore these signs (in themselves or in a loved one), in large part because of the stigma, and also because of the complex and somewhat obscure nature of our minds. While we can take our temperature to see if we have a fever, there is no thermometer for the mind. This means that we need to take extra care when it comes to our mental wellbeing and to seek help from professionals when we notice signs of ongoing imbalance.
We also want to acknowledge that good mental health doesn't mean people feel joyful and confident all the time. It means being able to effectively cope with the challenges that arise. We may go through periods where we feel healthy and are taking good care of ourselves, and then there will be times when we don’t feel our best. This ebb and flow is a natural part of the human experience, and good mental health helps us maintain an overall sense of balance.
One of the things we appreciate so much about meditation is the ability it gives us to work with this ebb and flow. In practice, we create a safe container to ask: how am I really doing today? Is there deep sadness? Doubt? Fear? The worry-go-round that never stops? This can feel daunting at first, but when we bring these feelings into awareness, we can start to work with them instead of stuffing or ignoring them.
Meditation helps us bring compassion to our low moments. Regardless of where we are on the mental health spectrum, the practice helps us learn to relate to ourselves and our struggles without beating ourselves up or making things worse. We may also begin to recognize and rewire the mental patterns that keep us feeling stuck and unbalanced.
Through the preventative care lens, meditation helps prevent mental illness by laying a foundation of healthy thinking, perceiving, and behaving that we can rely on. The practice also boosts our mental resilience, so when we hit the inevitable rough patches, we have a reservoir of inner resources to help get us through.
Lastly, meditation helps us develop an attitude of kindness toward our own struggles, which in turn can open the door to sharing them with others. A key element of compassion is recognizing our common humanity. When we open up, we give others permission to do the same, and may discover a sense of profound connection and relief, even with people we hardly know.
We invite you throughout the rest of this month to consider the following questions and perhaps bring them up in conversation with friends or family, maybe even your kids, if that feels right for you:
What ideas or beliefs do you have about people with mental illness? Are there emotions connected with these beliefs (fear, anger, sadness)?
How has mental health or mental illness played a role in your life thus far?
What experiences in your life, your work or your family inform your thinking about mental health?
How might you encourage yourself or others to feel more open and able to talk about mental health challenges?
About the Author
Ryan Kenny, LCSW is a mental health professional and qualified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction instructor with over twelve years of meditation experience. As a mindfulness consultant, Ryan facilitates trainings and mindful leadership programs for corporations, nonprofit organizations, schools, and hospitals across the US.