I feel such a mixture of puzzlement and sadness whenever I think about our country’s minimization of mental healthcare. It’s funny (but no one’s really laughing here…) because so many of us are self-proclaimed “health nuts” who value wellness and want to live happy, fulfilling lives. However, the reality is that many people, somewhere along the way (probably early in life), learned that when you feel a certain type of way, you “should” be able to change it or simply will yourself to feel differently. And if you aren’t able to do that, you must not be “strong enough,” right? If you can’t just flip the figurative “switch” in your own brain and motivate yourself out of a difficult emotion, something is “wrong” with you, according to this belief system. We therapists are here to remind people how warped and self-destructive that view can be. Let me explain…
When someone has a heart disease, you don’t say to them, “just stop having heart disease!” If you did, they’d either call your bullshit or, if they were a little more trusting initially, they’d sure find out pretty quickly that your advice is bogus! Without a real understanding of the healthy lifestyle choices and behavior changes necessary to improve cardiovascular health, a person cannot heal. That’s why cardiologists exist. Sometimes, something more is required, maybe a medication or medical intervention. Without the open-mindedness to see that something needs changing and the willingness to do what it takes to change it, we cannot heal.
Of course, we like to convince ourselves otherwise because change is uncomfortable. But the discomfort of facing the pain is usually nothing compared to the fancy mental tricks we play on ourselves to try to avoid facing the pain. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post, on the ACT concept called “experiential avoidance,” but it pretty much goes like this: If I have a toothache and I don’t go to the dentist because I’m afraid of the pain that might come with the drill, I’ll have a toothache indefinitely… and it probably will end up getting worse and causing more problems down the road. Plus, on top of having the tooth pain, I’ll also have the fears and worries that come along with ignoring it. So not only have I not “solved” the problem of my toothache, I have also made the problem a bigger and more central part of my daily life.
Pretending something doesn’t exist has never worked out when it comes to our health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Let’s make it okay to seek treatment.
The Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago (MHAGC) is an organization that basically counteracts the logic of “just get over it” by raising awareness of mental health conditions and working to decrease stigma. I think what’s coolest about MHAGC is that they intervene early with 9th graders to help educate them on mental health at the same time they are learning about physical health in school. I hope this will help reduce bullying in high schools by making kids more sensitive to mental health issues. I also believe learning about conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders can teach kids to recognize when they themselves might be struggling, and make it okay to seek help. MHAGC’s first-annual “Breakfast with the Stars” will be held on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, Veteran’s Day. To learn more about their powerful initiatives, or make a donation, visit http://www.mentalhealthchicago.org/mhagc/
Don’t you wish you had learned as a child that it’s normal and human to experience emotional pain, and that if it becomes overwhelming, you don’t have to go through the pain alone? I know I do.
If you are struggling or if someone you know is struggling, please visit the pages on this website to learn more about my practice and who I treat.