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
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
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
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
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.