“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.” –Wayne Dyer
May is Mental Health Month and even though this year marks the 70th anniversary, it seems as though only recently that I’ve seen/heard more people talking about mental health than in years past. I think people are finally starting to understand that people don’t choose to be depressed, or anxious, or sad. It just….happens. For so many different reasons, people are stricken with a mental health disorder, and it seems as though society is slowly catching on that we need to treat disorders with less stigma and more empathy. The problem is that we are never taught how to care for ourselves, or recover from, depression once it’s hit us. Only recently, have I heard more people discuss treating mental health illnesses like we would a body illness – proper medicine, rest, therapy, etc.
The cynic in me thinks that mental health disorders are getting more play in the news because there has been such a dramatic spike in suicides amongst older, white men. But, whatever it takes for the winds of change to sail in, I’m good with that because, over the past 15 years, the US is now one of the few countries experiencing an increased rate of suicide not found in other developed nations, and a majority of these can be attributed to firearms. It’s no coincidence that you’ll also notice a disturbing increase in mass shootings during the same time frame.
In more than half of all cases, the perpetrators had a prior history of mental health issues, and in about a quarter of the cases, it’s somewhat unclear. When you compare the data prior to 2004, against the data after 2004, the percentage of shootings committed by someone with a prior history of mental health issues actually decreased from 61% to 48%. To me, that negates the ongoing argument from the NRA that mental health is the problem and not the increased amount of weapons available, nor the impact of the expired assault weapons ban. They are likely factoring in those where it’s unclear if they had a prior history of mental health issues, to keep the percentages fairly flat.
Regardless, we need to commit more resources to help people cope with dis-ease. Without the ability to see a way out of the “rabbit hole”, as I have often referred to my own bouts of depression, people turn to a variety of methods to “self-medicate”. Here again, we see sharp increases in drug-related deaths, with the US having the highest mortality rate from drug overdoses globally.
Yet, we continue to chip away at funding for mental health services. In the 1970s, 11.1% of federal funding was allocated towards mental health services, down to 6% in 2011, and the number has decreased ever since. Other developed countries spend less on mental health services, yet don’t seem to be in the same crisis as the US. I agree with the theory that closing mental health institutions had a negative impact on treating people’s illnesses, because instead of getting the help they needed, people ended up in jail, homeless, or dead.
Dis-ease touches every facet of our daily lives, and if we don’t provide a clear way out of the rabbit hole, people will turn to any and every option to end their suffering – sometimes only hurting themselves, but most often by hurting/killing those around them. For years, I didn’t realize that I was masking my own pain with distractions like work, yoga, sex, and bad relationships. Depression expresses itself in sometimes nefarious ways, so to those around me I seemed “fine” on the surface. Hell, I thought I was doing “fine”, but then I lost my job, and the house of cards plummeted.
I am grateful to have had a support system there to catch me; people willing to see the state of suffering I was in. Although this was a collective of two people, they were enough to save my life. It took me a year of dedicated work to recover – a year of meds, weekly meetings with a counselor, a committed meditation practice, and A LOT of self-reflection. In order to alleviate my anxiety, I worked to reframe my thinking and change seemingly instinctual reactions to keep negative thought patterns from causing me so much harm. That meant I had to be willing to look deep into my past and see that I had been carrying this hurt for so long, it had become a part of me. Letting go of the anger was going to set me free, but, in ways, it felt like I lost a limb initially.
It took me a long time to get there, and a lot of work, but I finally realized that not only was I fighting against forgiveness, I was also fighting the idea that I could be “happy”. I didn’t grow up with an understanding of what that really meant, so I had to rely on other people and resources to teach me. I had to learn to let go of fighting with myself, to be kinder with myself, to accept that our perceived “flaws” are sometimes our greatest strengths. Children need to be taught coping mechanisms, especially the ones who aren’t provided a lot of opportunities in their every day lives – or the ones whose parents aren’t present in their lives – or the ones who are bullied so that they can accept themselves despite what the internal, or external, critics may say.
The best place to teach children is in school, to have time set aside each day for meditation and focused relaxation. While schools are strapped for all kinds of resources, there is talk about giving teachers guns as the solution to our current crisis. It’s a short-sighted treatment, symptomatic of a much more long-term epidemic and we seem to have this bad habit in America of weaponizing our approach to even the smallest of everyday problems. You can’t go to “battle” with depression, any more than you can “fight” a cold. Arming teachers doesn’t alleviate the cause, and may in fact only end up causing more harm than good. It’s also counterproductive to think that we can just keep burning the candle at both ends…the candle only melts away more quickly, and we are left collectively with fewer productive members of society.
We really need to rededicate funding and resources to help people recover from dis-ease and addiction. Schools need funding for mental health professionals, and children need to learn how to cope with so many thoughts, emotions, and problems that arise in their daily lives. Companies should allow employees more time away from work, to recharge their batteries, so that they aren’t so sleep deprived and burnout. And we need to be a little more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
Changing policy takes time, the movement of change is slow and often cumbersome, but we can all take charge of our own mental wellness, in the meantime. And we can help our friends and colleagues who may be struggling to do the same – we just have to be willing to “see” one another as “flawed” beings, and accept that this often just our natural state. Allow some time to unplug from the news, from your devices, and the freedom to explore, read, and play. Meditation allowed me to see the path out of the rabbit hole and gave me a safe space to cope with all of these feelings so that when I was strong enough, I kissed my anger kindly and set it free. I hope for you, the same.