“Your feelings aren’t that important.” “No one cares how you feel.” “Just forget about it.” “Bury your emotions.” “Keep a stiff upper lip.” “There’s no point in being sad.” “What’s wrong with you anyway?” “Be strong.” “Keep calm and carry on.”
These are just a small sample of the thoughts that emerge from a choir of common excuses we make to dismiss our mental health each and every day. Think about it for a moment. What do you tell yourself when you feel bad? How often do you stop to consider your mental health? Do you regularly take the time to take care of yourself, to rest, relax, slow down, or talk to someone? Do you judge these actions as unimportant, indulgent, or selfish?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which makes it a good excuse to take the subject out of the shadows. However, what we really aim to highlight this time of year is just how important it is to keep mental health on our minds year round. Right now, Americans are experiencing peak levels of stress. The World Health Organization has reported an 18 percent rise in depression in the past decade. In the United States, teen depression in particular has been increasing, as has the teen suicide rate. These are not just numbers from a survey. These are real individuals of all ages struggling; these are our friends, relatives, co-workers…. and us. It’s time to talk about how we feel.
This year, many Americans may be inspired by the example of an effort being made in the United Kingdom. There, the young members of the historically private and restrained royal family have spearheaded a campaign to end stigma surrounding mental health. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Princess Catherine, have joined forces with Prince Harry to create Heads Together, which “aims to change the national conversation on mental health and wellbeing.” The campaign is encouraging all people to speak up about their mental health and to reject the idea that anyone should stifle and stay silent about their emotions.
One way the three royals are encouraging this effort is by opening up about their own struggles. Prince Harry spoke on a podcast about how he dealt with the grief he experienced after his mother’s death, and how trying to bury it for years took a toll on his mental health. The Telegraph journalist Bryony Gordon, who spoke to Prince Harry, said of the interview “It has always been a sign of strength and dignity to keep it all inside, and our Royal family have always been the embodiment of that… But Prince Harry just redefined strength and dignity for a new generation.” Prince William, who along with his wife has been speaking on the subject around the country, has further highlighted how hopeful he feels about “a generation coming up who find it normal to talk openly about emotions.”
In the United States, we may like to think of ourselves as more forthcoming about our feelings, but in truth, we deal with a huge amount of stigma and repression that keeps us from getting the good help we badly need. “In 2011, only 59.6% of individuals with a mental illness — including such conditions as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder — reported receiving treatment,” according to an article in Association for Psychological Science. In a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers concluded, “Treatments have been developed and tested to successfully reduce the symptoms and disabilities of many mental illnesses. Unfortunately, people distressed by these illnesses often do not seek out services or choose to fully engage in them. One factor that impedes care seeking and undermines the service system is mental illness stigma.”
The World Health Organization advises that we change the conversation by focusing on a “positive view of mental health rather than emphasizing mental illness and deficits.” Their aim is to engage with people and empower them to improve population health. Some of the ways they suggest going about this, include the following guidelines:
- Building healthy public policies
- Creating supportive environments
- Strengthening community action
- Reorienting health services
During his time in office Pres. Obama asked the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a “national conversation on mental health to reduce the shame and secrecy associated with mental illness.” As part of this initiative, they created a toolkit for communities to address issues of mental health. These conversations would include the sharing of personal experiences, discussion of challenges, ideas for how to respond, and community solutions. We all have an opportunity to start this type of conversation locally. In addition to some of the broader social changes we should strive to make in our communities and our country at large, there is a great deal we can do in our immediate circles to create a ripple effect around the discussion of mental health.
1. Talk about it openly and directly
The first step is to talk about it. We should not shy away from asking one another how we really feel, not just superficially in passing, but offering up the time, interest, and engagement necessary to invite a deluxe answer. We should also be willing to give an honest response to this question ourselves. We should not allow any sense of shame or any “critical inner voices” to talk us out of expressing what’s really going on inside us.
Psychologists suggest a method called “name it to tame it” to help children regulate and cope with their emotions and integrate their brain. The idea is that by identifying what we are feeling, we can make sense of our experiences in real time and regain a sense of calm. Opening up, whether to a friend, a therapist, or even honestly acknowledging how we feel to ourselves can be a first step to getting the help we need to feel better.
2. Always discuss seeking help as an act of strength
Most of us experience stress on a daily basis and will certainly undergo intense periods in which we struggle emotionally. Because these issues can arise at any time, we should always encourage and advocate seeking help. We should be careful not to use language or make jokes that insinuate that there is anything wrong or different about feeling bad and needing support. In fact, we should offer admiration and encouragement to one another and regard speaking up and seeking help as the strong and empowering acts they are.
3. Get to know the help that is available
We can all take a short amount of time to familiarize ourselves with the resources and services that are available in our area. Mental Health America provides a list of resources that can be used to help easily connect you to mental health treatment services in your community. These include affordable options for those without insurance. In addition, we should all know about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a 24/7 helpline for anyone in crisis or concerned about someone in crisis. It can be reached at 800-273-8255.
4. Participate in local events, volunteer, and speak out
Many communities have organized events to raise awareness and funds for various mental health issues and concerns. For example, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention organizes annual walks in large and small cities around the country. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has created a list of specific mental health Awareness Events that occur throughout the year to help you get started on getting involved. If you like to express yourself through writing, you can use these events as opportunities to write letters to local media. If you work in education or have kids in school, you can support workshops, discussions, and education initiatives that bring experts to your school, educating students and teachers about how to talk about mental health. If you have a leadership position at work, there are plenty of opportunities to promote mental health in the workplace, many of which can be found on American Psychiatric Association’s Partnership for Workplace Mental Health.
Whatever activities you participate in, share them, in person and on social media. These are not subjects we should be hiding. Talking about them should become the norm, so that when we experience a struggle, we instantly know we are not alone, and we can find the tools, resources, and support team we need to take care of our mental health and enhance our wellbeing.