Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. It was established in 1992 to promote global mental health awareness, education and advocacy. I only learned about the day a few years ago but I’m glad to see mental health getting its proper due. There are few subjects more important.
There are many different aspects to mental health, which can be explored by searching the #WorldMentalHealthDay hashtag on social media or looking at the list of themes in previous years. Mental health is one of those topics that impacts every area of our lives, both on the individual and societal levels. It impacts how we see ourselves. How we see others. How we see the world.
When people think about mental health, they might think only of mental illness, depression, or suicide. And those are important aspects of the discussion. However, mental health is so much more than that. It is not something you think about much when life is going well, but you notice it acutely when life goes astray, as it has in the last few years. The constant stress, worry and anxiety all add up. It eats away at our well-being and capacity to cope.
So many are struggling nowadays. It is hard to read an article about senseless violence or an outburst in public without wondering the role mental health plays, especially since the upheaval of the pandemic. Social media has warped and changed our brains, offering the illusion of connection while making us lonelier than ever. We live in a society of frayed bonds and suppressed feelings. Too often that leads to tragic results. Everyone’s mental health has been affected, exacerbating existing mental health issues and spawning new ones altogether. I don’t know of a single person who hasn’t struggled in some way in the last few years.
Fortunately, mental health is also something that can be promoted and cultivated in a positive way, similar to how eating well and exercising promotes positive physical health. They are both sides of the same coin.
So how can we improve our mental health? There are many ways, but we can start by how we treat others. Study after study has shown the positive impact that volunteering, building relationships, and lending a helping hand to someone in need can have on our well-being. Rebuilding social connections helps others and it helps ourselves.
If there’s one takeaway from World Mental Health Day I’d like to see, it is a greater awareness of the fact that, to some extent, we all are hurting inside. Not everyone will admit it – some definitely won’t – but all you have to do is look around. We are all carrying burdens and suffering in silence.
This suffering is manifested when someone lashes out at you at work, or cuts you off in traffic, or tears you apart on social media. Before you respond to that person – and this is easier said than done – take a quick second to think about what might be lurking beneath the surface in that person’s mind and heart. It doesn’t excuse them acting in that way, but this awareness can help build the habit of perceiving that there is often more to the story. There is always more to the story. We are so quick to judge others and bucket people into categories without grappling with the complexities of the human condition. Some people might ultimately deserve the scorn we want to heap on them, but not everyone.
After all, I can relate to those who feel jaded by life, who think the world is against them. Early on in my rare disease journey, when I was 21 years old and could feel myself weakening day after day, I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around. I got mad. I lashed out. I took out my frustrations and rage on those closest to me who just wanted to help. Ashamed of who I was becoming, I learned to hide my burdens and frustrations from others until a panic attack landed me in the hospital.
That was a wake-up call.
Life is still a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, but my experience has forced me to find ways to deal with the hand I’ve been dealt, cultivate strategies to improve my inner resilience, strengthen my faith and find a reason for being. It was only when I finally learned how to open up, first to a therapist and then to my family and friends (including you the reader) that I found a purpose for what I was going through. Helping others navigate the ups and downs of life has introduced me to so many wonderful people who are now good friends. In helping to ease the burdens of others, I learned how to let go of my own.
That’s my hope for everyone today. Connect. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to strangers, especially those you are not inclined to agree with. Talk even to a Yankees fan.
If talking is difficult at the moment, if you are struggling and not in a social mood, that’s ok. I get it. As I shared before, there was a time when talking to someone about my troubles was the last thing I wanted to do. But despite what society or social media might suggest, help is available. Good people are still out there. People who want to lend an ear and assist in any way possible.
And if you see someone else struggling, don’t be afraid to be the kind soul they might very well need. The burdens we carry are often hiding in plain sight.
“I found that with depression, one of the most important things you can realize is that you’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through it, you’re not gonna be the last to go through it.” — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson