Battling the Stigma of Mental Health

“Mental health” is a term often thrown around these days, and it covers everything from depression to addiction. There’s importance placed on mental health from all parts of society. But what is mental health, and how can we foster it?

Philadelphia psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Joy related mental wellbeing to a 3-legged stool. It is the relationship between your emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and it’s important to keep all three in balance. And that balance is different for everyone, “We all have different identities, and the way we move through the world… is going to affect our experiences very differently,” explained psychologist and board-certified art therapist Dr. Jeannine Cicco Barker. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It affects how we make decisions, how we handle stress, and relate to others. Dr. Michelle Joy, a Philadelphia based psychiatrist, stressed this, saying “just like physical health, everyone has mental health”. Mental health is neither good nor bad, it just simply is a part of you that you need to pay attention to.

When the phrase “mental health” is used, depression is often what comes to mind for most. It can be difficult to distinguish between normal sad feelings and clinical depression. Clinical Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is often described as prolonged feelings of relatively disproportionate isolation and hopelessness for more than 2 weeks.

According to a study from Harvard Medical School, over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and yet there still continue to be many misconceptions about what it is and how it is treated. Sadness touches our lives at different times, but usually comes and goes. Depression, in contrast, often has enormous depth and staying power. It is more than a passing bout of “the blues.” Depression can leave you feeling continuously burdened and can squash the joy you once got out of pleasurable activities,. Depression can cause someone to feel doomed, worthless, miserable. Because of this, depressives often suffer from mood swings, withdrawing from social interactions and hobbies. They may experience paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Often, people with mental health issues are confronting a heavy tide of pressure, internal and external. Dr. Joy said, “that you can just think your way out of it, it’s a very American idea, to just try harder and it’ll get better… but it’s not something you can think your way out of.” When people think of depression as just “feeling down” or being “lazy” it damages actual people who suffer from depression. Audrey Hausig, a board-certified music therapist serving the greater Philadelphia area holds this philosophy as a tenet of her practice.“People need to understand that many people have mental health issues and that they are not alone… people struggling with mental health issues are trying to recover”.

If you or someone you know is dealing with their own mental health issues and you want to help, there is plenty you can do.

First: hold a safe space. As much as we like to believe that people exist in environments that are open and accepting, this is not true for many communities. In many environments, mental health is simply not a discussion to be had. Dr. Barker stresses the importance of identity in treatment, stating that she has found it essential to treat someone under the lens of their identity.

Second: seek help. There is a lot you can try yourself, from exercise, diet, and lifestyle to vitamin supplements and meditation. However, this is not a replacement for professional help. A major obstacle to treatment is that it can be wildly expensive and often not covered by insurance. According to Simple Practice, the average cost per session of therapy in Pennsylvania is $120. There are programs like NAMI that can connect you to support groups and caseworkers that can retrofit treatment to your circumstances.

Three: be patient. Recognize that nobody can change overnight. The journey to a mindful, successful future is not a straight road.

Four: be proactive. Recognize triggers and risk behaviors. Track extreme changes in sleep cycle, or diet, or social interaction. Sleeping more than usual? Do your best to find an alternative to sleeping away the problems of the world. Exercise, no matter how non-intensive, has been proven to help alleviate some pressure. It’s extremely important to remember that your feelings are never invalid. NAMI teaches the importance of proactivity with their “Ending the Silence” program. “Knowing how to start the conversation is an important part of maintaining one’s mental health”.

Five: Remember that the only way out is always through. All of your problems are temporary and things will not be bad forever.
Becca Lane, coordinator of NAMI’s Ending The Silence, said it best: “With suicide, I always say it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem… There is hope.”