Finding mental health in a culture that misunderstands, stigmatizes, and sometimes views necessary life adaptations as a disease, is not an easy task. But it’s a good topic to explore this week of World Mental Health Day.
Before reading, please be advised it is not a how-to. It’s an exploration of the way we discuss and view mental health and the forces that make it hard to find.
Protecting and improving mental health will sometimes mean a fight against culturally accepted norms and established clinical protocol. And practicing good mental health daily will automatically put you at odds with the over-worked, over-obligated, under-still lifestyle we encourage in the US.
That’s a lot of momentum to overcome, even for those who are generally stable and balanced. For those of us who have no specific mental disease but have experienced neglect, abuse, violence, accidents, disasters, family loss, or other trauma that significantly affects how we move through life, it is often difficult to find trauma-informed care.
Someone can look perfectly normal on the outside and function well while struggling internally. They can do it for years. What you may not see is the toll it is taking.
Sometimes that will show up as physical symptoms. Other times, it may result in subtle depression that quietly diminishes a person’s ability to experience joy. Or it may sometimes lead to what appears to be a sudden breakdown.
Burnout, lashing out, perpetual anger, perpetual sadness, mood swings, multitudinous failed relationships, substance use, drinking, and overworking can all be indicators of a difficult inner life. But where we draw the line between adaptations that preserve sanity in unthinkable circumstances and mental disorders or illnesses is somewhat subjective. It’s also vulnerable to the unreliability of self-assessment.
Better definitions, more specific language, and more accurate expectations would be helpful in guiding all of us in finding mental health. Current discussions paint with such a large brush that what may be a normal response to the ups and downs of life seem to indicate poor mental health.
Have people struggled with the changes brought by a pandemic? Of course! But that doesn’t, by definition, mean a person is experiencing decreased mental health. It may mean I feel discomfort for a period of time while I adjust. During that time, I may feel a sense of loss. I may feel anxious or worried. I may feel frustrated or angry. I may need more rest. And, for a time, I may feel depressed. If I did not experience these “negative” emotions, I would not fully adjust and again find equilibrium.
Describing a healthy progression through negative emotions as decreased mental health feels dicey to me. It creates the idea of a problem where there would otherwise not be one. And the belief something is “wrong” can exacerbate the difficulty of moving through the process.
It can make one step along the way appear insurmountable. That may lead us to seek help. That help may diagnose an adjustment disorder. But is it really a disorder or did I fail to learn skills that would make adjustment tolerable? Should a lack of skill be characterized as a disorder?
This is the slippery slope we’ve been sliding down for years. Has that resulted in positive benefits overall?
Labeling with an inappropriate diagnosis can place the blame on victims and create social isolation or rejection. And it can cause practitioners to dismiss a patient’s experience.
Medicating for a short period may be helpful or it may prolong the healing process. It rarely solves an underlying problem without being combined with other therapies.
I saw a statement flash across my screen today that said reducing intimate partner violence will improve mental health. The way I read that, the victim of violence is the one with diminished mental health.
Obviously, a victim may have a negative response to abuse. (I hope so!) But that seems NORMAL and not in any way maladaptive in and of itself.
In that scenario, maladaptive behavior could include failing to report the violence and remaining in the situation. But staying for awhile until supports are in place may be the only way to safely exit.
How is it that we turn a victim’s experience of helplessness, hurt, betrayal, loss, anger, frustration, and resulting low self-esteem into an indicator that the victim has a mental health problem? Uh, no. The victim is a victim. And that doesn’t mean they’re weak.
The way we view this is bassakwards and stigmatizes the wrong party.
Do we need so badly to believe that could never happen to us that we need to put all victims in a “them,” not me category? Lobbing the mental health problem identifier at victims certainly accomplishes that.
Keeping the identity of victims secret also serves to create the illusion that they did something wrong. If we don’t believe a victim will be stigmatized, why do we need to keep their identity secret? Or asked another way: If we don’t believe our society will use the victim’s vulnerability against them, why keep their identity secret?
But the truth is, we do stigmatize and use vulnerability against victims all the time.
Is it possible to find mental health in the midst of the morass I’m exploring? Yes. But it may not look like what you expect. And that is a great place to begin. If you’re able to let go of expectation and willing to experience life as it comes, you’ll be much more likely to find mental health.
And it may look different for you than it does for your father, mother, spouse, or children. That is okay. It may look different today than it does tomorrow. That is normal.
The wonderful thing about humans is that we are each unique and capable of adapting and learning. These are things to be embraced, built on, and celebrated. Unfortunately, we create environments that often make us feel we must hide our best qualities in order to be considered “normal,” well-adjusted, and mentally healthy.
We can change that by keeping in mind, we are not the same. We don’t need to be. We can grant each other grace to find our own paths. We can be different and still deeply connect and understand each other.
Mental health has many faces waiting to be found. If we create safe environments in which to explore, we’ll be closer to finding mental health.