May is Mental Health Awareness month.
An entire month aimed to create positive awareness for mental health.
A healthy step forward, right?
Personally, I believe this is an important first step on a long winding road, but merely a starting point. My feelings about this cause are deeply personal, rooted in my own complicated mental health history. I invite you to follow along as I unpack some of my thoughts for you in hopes of shining a light on a different path.
To begin, let’s acknowledge that all of us has mental health. Each person has a brain and therefore mental health. It has been described many ways, but according to the recent Let’s Talk Colorado campaign, “Mental health is a state of balance in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Positive mental health allows us to feel good about life, supporting our ability to participate in daily activities and accomplish our goals.”
“Everyone, regardless of gender, race, income, or religion, faces challenges with their mood, emotions and behaviors from time to time. Some of us, through no fault of our own, face greater challenges than others. It’s important to talk about our mental health with someone we trust, and seek professional care when we need it, just as we would with a physical injury or ailment.”
Based on these broad descriptions, mental health feels like an approachable topic we all should feel comfortable talking about. Yet, that simply is not the case. Healthy dialogue for a cause that affects us all should by now be commonplace. Instead, it is mostly still discussed in hushed tones among those who are affected.
Why are we narrowly limiting the conversation on something that affects us all?
From my perspective, as a professional devoted to the positive promotion of mental health, there are some key reasons. Unfortunately, mental health is an oft used synonym for mental illness, which is a dangerous comparison to make considering the two DO NOT have the same meaning. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes mental illness as “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood.”
Statistically, NAMI claims one in five adults will be affected by a serious mental health condition in the course of a lifetime. ONE IN FIVE. Think about that statistic. In my own state of Colorado, that is approximately one million Coloradans. Given those staggering numbers, each of us will somehow be affected, directly or indirectly.
We speak freely about other illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. Yet, mental illness is still often discussed in ‘us vs. them’ language. Mental illness does not discriminate. It knows no boundaries and can affect anyone at anytime. Let’s Talk Colorado has identified some contributing factors that can negatively impact one’s positive mental health. They are:
Stress, Anxiety, Trauma, Chemical Imbalance, Genetics, Environment
At various times one or more of these has adversely impacted me. Can you relate?
I share about this topic from lived experience and only learned more after it hit my own home. Not so many years ago, life became unmanageable and my mental health completely unraveled. This happened in an unexpected way. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. There were days, weeks, and months where my future felt uncertain, left to sort through the ash.
A lifetime of privileged experience had insulated me and could not have prepared me for what lie ahead. I felt exposed and alone, facing a great unknown. One of the toughest challenges was revisiting the labels my former life had placed on me.
Arrogant. Entitled. Spoiled. Unaware.
At first, I believed I deserved this plight and the associated punishments. A new self-imposed narrative replaced those unkind labels with others that were perhaps even more harmful.
Unworthy. Ashamed. Disgraced. Humiliated. And now, ‘one in five.’
From that place, beginning again was a slow and tedious process. It felt like climbing a mountain without appropriate gear. Many days, I barely found the strength to forge ahead, but fortunately clung to a mustard seed of hope. From that tiny seed, I became focused and determined to rebuild my life, which wasn’t easy. In fact, it was more challenging than anything I’d faced. In time and with considerable effort, I began to pack those negative labels away, replacing them with others that felt more aligned.
Authentic. Accomplished. Compassionate. Empathetic. Worthy. Helpful.
Today, I am most honored to put each label in its appropriate place and most proud to be ‘one in five.’ I am humbled to count myself among the brave warriors who boldly struggled before me. This incredibly painful journey brought me to my knees, only to realize that the only labels that matter are the ones you subscribe to.
Of course, I wish some of the collateral damage was different, but I have no regrets.
Mental health doesn’t care about where we come from, who we are, who we know, how much money we have, our education, or the successes we’ve achieved. It’s a great equalizer that can level just about any playing field. Isn’t it time we shed light on the truth?
Shouldn’t we approach mental health for what it is, something we all have?
Each of us has a personal choice that can start with a new understanding, making clear distinctions between mental health and mental illness. From that place, we can begin to depart from our ‘us vs. them’ culture. I realize we have a long way to go to achieve this ideal state, but each us has a role.
It’s time we start seeing each other as individuals having a human experience. Reality shows that EVERYONE STRUGGLES WITH SOMETHING. Everyone! For me, it was mental health, for you it may be addiction, low self-esteem, illness, or anything else. It doesn’t matter. Struggle is struggle. It is painful and interrupts our lives. It can break us down and force us to find the courage to rebuild ourselves. Regardless, it changes you.
My sincere desire is that this month can be a starting point for new awareness within each of us. Maybe we begin by replacing judgment with understanding, criticism with kindness and divisiveness with empathy. I encourage each of you to take one next step, like:
- Reframing your perspective about mental health
- Speaking more kindly to yourself and others
- Acknowledging a personal struggle
- Lending a hand to someone in need
Regardless of your choice, every step will lead us beyond where we are. Together, we can forge a new path, which hopefully leads us all somewhere more inclusive. By facing our individual struggle, we begin to come out of the shadows and in turn, become more accepting of the struggle in others.
The first steps are often the hardest, but can be the sweetest. I encourage you to make the investment even as the outcome is coming into focus.
Will you join me in taking one next step?
Jason C Hopcus is President and CEO of NAMI Arapahoe/Douglas Counties