May is mental health awareness month and I’d like to make you aware of two special themes this year. First, did you know that 1 in 4 Americans live with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition? It’s true. And yet, like my patients who have such conditions, most live full and productive lives.
Second, many people carry mental/emotional “wounds” from prior traumatic life events. Healing from these events requires support from not only the people closest to you, but from the community at large and making mental health services available. The following is information about mental health awareness and what you can do to help a loved one, or neighbor, who face these particular challenges.
Do More For 1 in 4
The first issue is basically a call to action to help the 1 in 4 Americans, or roughly 60 million people, who are afflicted with a mental health condition. According to Mental Health America, mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability in the United States today. Their initiative to help people with mental health conditions involves:
- Removing the stigma of mental health diagnoses
- Encouraging help-seeking behavior
- Education about mental health disorders so people are able to recognize symptoms in themselves or a loved one, and get help
- Education about the most common mental (can also have physical causes) health disorders that include: stress/anxiety, depression, bipolar (manic/depressive) disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse
- Making resources available for treatment. Many people do not seek help for mental health issues because they simply cannot afford it and/or do not have adequate health insurance that will cover it
Healing Emotional Wounds
Like several of my patients, you may have suffered emotional “wounds” from some sort of traumatic life experience that may have left you with a mental health disorder – most often stress, chronic anxiety or depression. These wounds can be hard to deal with and require support from loved ones and people you come in contact with on a daily basis such as co-workers, friends and even neighbors. It’s even tougher to deal with these wounds if there are limited funds, or no medical insurance coverage with which to seek treatment. Here are some things I suggest to my patients who have been affected by traumatic life experiences as a kind of self-help until they can get professional help.
- Recognize and accept the trauma. As I tell my patients, it’s never fun to revisit unhappy events from the past. But in order to get rid of the “baggage” left behind that you are carrying every day, it’s important to go back to it in your mind and allow yourself to grieve for the pain and loss it has caused you. Often times, mental (and even physical) health disorders arise from the fact that people block grieving.
- Assign a neutral position to the trauma. Removing the “bad” label from something that happened allows you to look objectively at it and not let guilt set in. If there was something you did that perhaps brought the trauma on, vow to change your behavior so it will not happen again. However, you must also accept that life is random and things happen that you often have no control over.
- Count your blessings. Try stopping everyday and think about all the good things in your life. In doing so, you will likely be more willing to let go of this trauma as just an unhappy something that occurred in your mostly happy and good life.
- Ask for/accept help. We often don’t tell people around us that we need a little help to get over some traumatic event. We tend to put on a happy face to make others feel comfortable around us. However, this only buries your grief and doesn’t help you heal. Let people know that you’re not up to emotional par these days and need their support until you’re feeling better. Similarly, if you have a friend or loved one going through a traumatic event support them through phone calls, cards, or by doing something nice for them. It can go a long way to making someone get their bearings again.
- Forgiveness. Traumatic life events can cause a lot of anger that causes stress and anxiety if we hold onto it. From here it festers like a dirty wound that never heals. Try to find it in your heart to forgive whomever, whatever caused the trauma to begin with. This process helps you “cleanse” the emotional wound and move on. Then mentally put the trauma, and people associated with it, in a “locked room” in your mind/heart and move away from it.
- Strengthen yourself. There’s an old saying that goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, this may be a little dramatic, but there is truth in it. You’ve suffered some traumatic event but you’ve also survived it. Give yourself credit for that and realize that you can survive other such events in life. This helps you develop coping skills that will help you to survive anything else that comes along in life. Keeping strong physically through regular exercise helps you feel better by releasing “feel good” serotonin.
As I tell my patients, if you are wrestling with a mental health disorder, don’t suffer in silence. If you don’t have insurance, or money for a doctor, talk to a clergyman, friend, or even a grief counselor at your local hospital. Often times, just putting stressful feelings into words helps lift an emotional burden. Or, during the Mental Health Awareness month of May, perhaps volunteer some of your time to a shelter, or hospital, or your church’s grief centers.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.