I learned this morning that today is Mental Health Day. What does that mean? Is this another Hallmark opportunity to sell stuff? If today is Mental Health Day does that mean the other 364 are not? Like February being Black history month implying that the other 11 months we can forget about the gruesome story of Black Americans in our country? Or is it something like a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) department in a large corporation? The fact that it exists giving people a false sense of satisfaction that they don’t have to do anything about justice, because someone else is being paid to.
I feel vaguely out of step. I’m working in a focused way as a Mental Health advocate these days and am actively “out” about my bipolar II brain. Shouldn’t I have known it was Mental Health Day? Shouldn’t I have blogged, or advertised, or podcasted about it? I missed that memo completely. (I guess I’m catching up now.)
OK, it’s World Mental Health Day. Will there be any teeth to that statement? Any funding for brain research, for new treatments, for increasing practitioners, for supporting families. I really have no idea.
Recently I read a NYT Op-Ed along the lines of, “I’m a therapist and I want people to stop using the term mental health.” That surprised me – isn’t it always good to raise awareness? And so I read on. The author argued that when everybody uses the term, it becomes watered down and loses its power. Like “sustainability” “diversity” and “carbon footprint” are all terms I know from my business social responsibility work. Terms so familiar, they risk becoming meaningless.
So should we celebrate World Mental Health Day and shout about it from the rooftops? Or not do that for risk of diluting the message to a point where it’s useless. My hunch is that like most things the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, I’m happy that my 20 year old kids and their friends – who came of age during the pandemic — routinely refer to their “mental health.” They are talking about all the good preventative behaviors it takes to stay resilient: going outside for fresh air, stretching, exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep. They’ve come to understand that they have the capacity to influence their mood by doing these things and supporting each other to do them, and that’s empowering. And they have no shame talking about it. Indeed they celebrate each other for naming and claiming their mental health. That’s all good! I’m doing something like this too with my youTube PECS channel, “practices for a healthy brain” that I believe are good for anyone with a brain, not just someone like me who has a bipolar one.
But on the other hand, it’s essential for people – who may have brain patterns that can benefit from medicine – to get the right diagnosis so they can get the lifesaving help they need. We need to name a thing to be able to address it. If you don’t call your sugar irregularities diabetes, you’re not going to get insulin. If I do call my low mood a “bad mental health day” I might be given Prozac which can make my bipolar brain worse. It’s essential to dig into the nuances of these diagnoses to get them right.
A challenge here is that the tougher psychiatric diagnoses –like Bipolar Spectrum, Major Depression, Borderline Personality, Schizophrenia and more– still carry vast social stigma. It’s a lot easier to say, “I’m working on my mental health and you can too,” than to “come out” that I have one of these diagnoses, one of these kinds of brains. But naming and claiming, is essential not only to get the right help, but also to fully release the shame that we carry.
What to do with these perspectives on World Mental Health Day? Share them I guess. Yes we want mental health to be a household term, a universal aspiration, on par in status with physical health. In the 60s, President Kennedy had a Physical Fitness challenge that kids had to strive for every week in Phys Ed. We could use a Presidential Mental Fitness challenge now!
And then, with the ground softened around the subject of mental health, we use that opening to go deeper in our research of the brain that is as vast as the universe and equally uncharted. To go broader in our investment in radical therapies. And to speak the truth and name the most mystifying brain patterns out loud. The ones that cause the most fear and pain: Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Borderline and more. Name them, claim them, de-shame them. All on the widening path to healing.
Sara Schley is the author of BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed in the Bipolar Spectrum. Reach out to Sara at www.saraschley.com