For 70 years, our country has celebrated Mental Health Awareness Month, in May, to raise awareness about mental health conditions and the importance of mental wellness for all. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, there has never been a more appropriate time to raise awareness about mental health.
This year the theme is "Tools 2 Thrive" and there are two goals: Sharing comprehensive, helpful and informative mental health awareness resources; and reducing stigma around mental health disorders.
Two months into the battle with the novel coronavirus, we have all been touched by mental health challenges of anxiety, grief, isolation and stress, whether by the direct assault of the virus on our personal lives, or its impact on our livelihood and day-to-day welfare.
It's important for everyone to recognize there's no shame in having a mental health problem. We all struggle with mental or emotional issues at some point during our lives, whether those issues are with self-esteem, stress, sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety or depression. Some of us experience a combination of all of them.
When you struggle with emotions, it's always best to talk to someone. We all know that. Talking helps. Getting help for an emotional or mood disorder is no different. It's advanced talking to someone. It's talking to someone who's an expert in helping people with the issue you face. Nothing makes more sense than that.
Getting help for a mental health disorder is also no different than getting help with a physical issue. When something goes wrong, you see a doctor. When you find out exactly what's wrong, you see a specialist. That's exactly how mental health treatment works. First, you get a screening. If your screening indicates an underlying mental health issue, then you receive a referral to a specialist. It's simple. There's no reason for shame or embarrassment, and there's no reason to avoid treatment when it's recommended.
I want to talk briefly about the stigma around mental health in the U.S. Historically, mental illness has been viewed as something bad, as though the person who has mental illness could have prevented it in some way or chosen a different path. Even today, with all the advancements in every aspect of our culture, when someone discloses they have a mental illness or "looks" like they have a mental illness, the general public turns the other cheek and typically does not want to interact.
Public perception about mental health disorders must change. If we have a heart condition, cancer or some other medical condition, we seek help right away. We need to get to a point where we think of getting assistance with mental illness in the same light as a physical illness.
The stigma associated with mental illness often leads people to be too embarrassed to speak to their doctor about it, causing a delay or failure in receiving treatment. My hope is that people gain a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of mental health issues, have openness to recognizing mental health concerns and can take the first step to getting help.
One in 4 American adults who live with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition and the fact is they can go on to live full and productive lives. Mental illness is more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease, making it the leading cause of disability in the United States.
Pandemic stress management
The current pandemic is the source of a great deal of stress for the entire country. It's all justified. There are scores of reasons why COVID-19 increases stress. According to Mental Health America, people are worried about getting sick, their loved ones getting sick, unintentionally passing the virus to a vulnerable individual, adjusting to life under shelter-in-place orders, adjusting to virtual school and work, financial hardship, not being able to connect with family, and running out of food, water and common household supplies.
Those concerns are all real and all valid. Mental Health America offers practical advice about these worries: Realize what you can control and let go of what you can't.
Things you can control include:
— Your mind and body. You can eat well, get enough sleep and get plenty of exercise.
— Your environment. You can control who comes and goes in your home, where you go, and the health precautions you take at home and when you go out.
— Things you consume. You can control the news you watch and the information you read. Tip: Listen to the health experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization.
The list of things you can't control is virtually endless. Suffice it to say that you can't control what anyone else does or says. Nor can you determine when we'll discover a vaccine or when things will return to normal. In fact, no one really knows what the "new normal" will look like. Until then, we practice controlling what we can and letting go of what we can't: easy to say, everyone's challenge to do.
For your own well-being
It's easy to talk about mental health, but it's not always easy to handle psychological and emotional problems when they arise. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month 2020, Mental Health America created a list of five things that everyone can do to support strong mental health:
1. Own the feelings. The ability to recognize, identify and talk about your feelings is the first step toward managing the most difficult ones.
2. Find the positive. The best way to do this is to make a list of the things in life for which you are grateful. Positivity will follow from gratitude
3. Connect with others. During this time of isolation and social distance, it's important to reach out to family, friends and peers via telephone, messaging or video chat. Social contact can lift your spirits; and sometimes, having a real heart-to-heart with a friend can make all the difference.
4. Eliminate toxic influences. This is a time when you can identify the things in your life that are toxic, and remove them from your life, one by one. This includes toxic people, toxic habits and toxic patterns of thought.
5. Create healthy routines. The COVID lockdown means most of us have extra time on our hands — and we need to fill that time with things that support mental health. This is a great time to start small and build on incremental, daily successes. You can do this with food, exercise, sleep habits and media consumption, all of which can either support or undermine mental health. Make proactive choices to create routines that support positive mental health and leave the routines that undermine mental health behind, along with all the things you deemed toxic.
If you need to seek the help of a specialist, help is available and I encourage people who are pushed to their limit to not suffer in silence. The Dale Association has been providing mental health services since 1974 and has a long history of helping people achieve wellness.
Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .