Why I think the way we think about Mental Health is completely wrong

I have never known what it feels like to have depression. I have never personally dealt with self-injury. I don’t know what the experience of an anxiety attack really entails. I don’t know what it is like to be a slave to an addiction. I don’t know—but I care.

At the beginning of launching A Stitch in Time, I questioned seriously if I belonged here. How could I do anything to help others if I didn’t know exactly what it was like to walk through a fight within my own mind? It seemed like everyone I was speaking to with had gone through something so much bigger than them. They could offer firsthand experience and advice to anyone who asked for it. But how could I ask people to seek counselling when I had never walked into a counsellor’s office in my life? How could I share in someone else’s pain when I had never felt it to that degree? I felt like I was an outsider to this experience I could never truly understand. And yet, I was here. And I cared about our cause more than anything. There had to be a reason, there had to be a purpose.

We talk a lot about stories through A Stitch in Time, almost constantly. I know the stories of each one of our volunteers and individuals that are involved. If you ask them to tell theirs, they know exactly where to start. “This is what I battled, this is how I fought, this is how I got here.” That’s how it goes. I listen, and I listen. 

I am also a storyteller, because of the characters who share my journey with me. Early in my journey, I developed an identity as a listener and a confidant. It was my instinct to leave my heart open and let anyone rest there if they needed to. I approached every relationship with a hunger to learn people. I learned happiness and hope, but I also learned a lot more about pain and fear.

I am thankful for the pain I learned. By being allowed to know the whole of a person, I can take a chance and fight with them. I treasure each wall I have seen broken down. I hold each story I have heard as a part of my own. They are the most delicate and precious gifts I can ever hope to receive. Knowing the truth and honesty of those around me also means they are healing, and they are trusting me to be in their corner. There is nothing in this life I value more than that. Nothing.

My purpose here is to show people that you don’t necessarily have to encounter these issues directly to be involved in the fight against them. You can still show people who are struggling that they need to give others a chance to fight alongside them. You both deserve to know each other, to know what the other is feeling.

For those of you who are afraid of being a burden to others, especially to those who you think might not understand: I urge you to reconsider. Honesty and truth will strengthen your relationships more than silence ever can. A fake smile will never bring you closer to healing than the embrace of a friend. 

I know what it is like to love someone with depression. I know the feeling of hugging a friend who struggles through self-injury. I know the experience of watching a family member fight through an anxiety attack. I know what it is like to see someone battle with an addiction. I know the pain of hearing that someone I love would try to end his or her own life. But I have also seen people, in each of these situations, embrace and live in recovery. This has made my relationships meaningful, significant, and true. This has made me care about speaking up and breaking walls.

I care. I am here, because I care.

Now, I want to continue this theme and share a story that I strongly resonate with

Everyone has songs or albums they listen to on their best days and worst days? Like when you’re going through a break up or headed to the beach? 

Or there’s a fair chance you exert physical stress upon yourself to achieve a desired emotional effect…or lifting heavy!

I want you to consider why I think there is major problem within this mental health crisis. The way we react to and think about mental health is completely backwards.

A Gym For the Mind

In the offseason from the Perth Wildcats I attended a gym just around the corner from my house. Convenient in location, which contained all necessary items to achieve my goals. There was a woman at this gym who made an incredible transformation. One early morning whilst going through my normal routine I remarked, “I don’t mean this to sound weird, but the work you’ve put in at the gym has showed and I wanted to congratulate you on your hard effort. You should be really proud!” She grinned from ear to ear and thanked me, then explained how it’s been a long journey towards becoming healthy and how she still had more obstacles to overcome.

Whenever we see people putting in the effort towards their physical health, we applaud them. Whether they’re overweight — or even if they’re an athlete training for an Marathon or in their chosen Athletic field — we root for the men and women training their bodies. If you see someone who’s fit in the gym you never ask, “Why on earth are you working out? You’re already fit!” Everyone knows maintenance requires work.

But the exact opposite is true of mental fitness.

If you go see a counsellor people always assume something in your life is going horrendously wrong. If I were to comment that I see a psychologist as part of my preparation with the Perth Wildcats; would that raise alarm bells? Would it be considered that I was mentally weak? Could I be seen as a liability within the organisation and team. Or could I be seeing a psychology to check in and make sure I wasn’t missing any blind spots that could become potential issues. You take your car in for tune-ups to ensure it keeps running so why wouldn’t you do it for your mental and emotional health?

Yet, when most people talk about seeing a counsellor or growing mentally resilient, there’s a cloud of shame that seems to surround the conversation like smog. Just like exercise in the gym, I’ll only stay mentally fit if I keep exercising.

While the woman at my gym is making huge gains, what would happen if she made the progress she wanted but stopped exercising? Let’s say she starts to eat junk food? All her hard work would be lost.

The same is true when you go through struggles in life. If you don’t continually work at developing your mental health and grit, you may get healthy for a season, but if you don’t keep at it, you’ll fall apart. Those old demons can come rushing back, and maybe even worse than before.

None of this matters to a degree because the way we view mental health is like telling a morbidly obese person they should get on a treadmill. It’s reactive, and not proactive. We ignore the issue until it becomes life threatening.

We Don’t Care, Until We Care

After each celebrity suicide, mass shooting or reports of the bullying epidemic go viral, the world only then reacts to mental health. We demand change of our legislators and society while the public outcry runs something along the lines of “we need better access to mental health!” Yet no one can clarify what they mean by that statement.

However, this logic is partially flawed. Legislation won’t make someone more mentally resilient. More access to mental health solutions, counsellors, or products doesn’t mean people will use them. Take it from our organisation. We offer men and women, girls & boys access to community and mental health resources every day, but several people refuse them. A lot of that has to do with the way we talk about mental health as I explained. It’s a source of shame or condemnation as opposed to something we each actively exercise and promote. That’s due to the way we react to horrible events around the globe. Thus when we talk about mental health, it’s always carries the weight of someone taking their own life, or being seen as too weak to handle life. Whether subversively or subconsciously we’re communicating to our culture that if you need or want to become a mentally fit person, you better be pretty screwed up first.

That’s where the conversation has to shift in our culture. As social beings we have to lift each other up communally. Every bit of change we’ve seen in our community at A Stitch in Time has been because of community. It’s other men and women lifting the individual and encouraging them along the way. Studies from the World Health Organization have recognised this fact. They report:

“Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual solutions.”

If we continue to react to every bit of news we see as opposed to proactively shifting the conversation, stigmas, and solutions — then nothing changes. Instead, we must become a culture that encourages and spurs one another on to develop the resilience we each need to grow mentally fit. Imagine what that would look like if we accomplished it? Less depression and anxiety. Less Bullying. Less headlines asking for a call to action. Less keeping-up-with-the-joneses and more enjoyment of what you have. If we can teach our society to become proactive, as opposed to reactive then we might just see a difference.

Until that happens, I fear our news media cycle will continue to keep us outraged as we grow further isolated and ingrown, believing we are helpless until it’s too late when all the while we could have become resilient.

The conversation, however, has to begin with us. We need men and women sharing stories just like they would at a gym. We have to continue to break the stigmas while our communities and friends champion mental fitness..

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