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Quality Time Vs. Play Dates

6 Aug

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Certain times in our lives are more flush with close connection. For me, elementary school, high school, and college were such periods. No one carried the adult responsibilities we do today, which made friendships easy to cultivate and maintain. Everyone was in close proximity, which made things convenient, particularly when living on the university campus. There was always someone around to share a meal with or to chat with. And it didn’t matter what time of day.

I also recall wonderful summers with my grandparents that were rich in social interaction. There was a slow lazy rhythm to the August days. My grandfather would go to work while my grandmother and I ran errands, baked cookies, and tended to all things domestic. Then when my grandfather came home, we’d eat dinner together. Afterward, we’d go for a walk or work in the garden. Sometimes we watched a show on television. Other times we read books together.

In my twenties, when living in Manhattan, my friends and I would take the city by storm. We spent hours verbalizing our dreams over glasses of wine and walks in Central part. Even in my thirties, I still had some single friends with whom I pondered the meaning of life while sharing meals and life together. Although my friends’ marriages altered the dynamics of our relationships, there were still incredibly meaningful moments spent together. When my friend’s son was an infant we’d take him in the stroller for long walks, cherishing him and each other. We lived in the same neighborhood so it was easy to get together on a regular basis.

But then there are the seasons where no one has time to do anything. When both parents are working and kids are hyper-scheduled, and no one’s children attend schools anywhere near their homes, which results in hours of chauffeuring time. That sentence is a mouthful for a reason. It’s exhausting and exhaustion doesn’t lend itself to intimacy.

But human beings need depth intimacy. Whether falling in love or maintaining friendships, relationships need time to grow. Without that time, there are gaps in connection.

Of course when people pair up and find a significant other, most of the relationship investment gets funneled into that union. But as a friend of mine said to me the other day, (and she happens to be married), “It’s unhealthy to make your spouse your only go to for companionship. It’s way too much of a burden on one person and it makes for a stale marriage. We need to feed our friendships too.”

Modern life doesn’t accommodate well for depth relationships. With everyone’s busy schedules, we pencil in “play dates.” These might consist of a coffee, a dinner, or if we can spare a few precious hours, maybe a movie. In an age when people rarely even talk on the phone anymore, play dates are welcome. But I miss the wonder of unstructured, spontaneous time when it was easy to cross the street and hang out with someone.

The more we indulge in a frenzy of hyper-scheduled activities, the more difficult it becomes to nurture quality time. Even people living under the same roof are not necessarily bonding well. We can’t stand to sit still for longer than a few minutes before looking away and grabbing our Smart phones.

The only way off the merry ground is to step off it, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, if everyone else is still on the ride. Loneliness settles in and we wonder if anyone else is feeling it too.

Years ago I worked in an outpatient program that served the high functioning, elderly population. Not many of our clients had a history of mental illness. However, many met criteria for situational depression and anxiety brought on by the death of a spouse or retirement or illness. People were lonely and little to do during the day. They came to our program in the morning, attended a psycho-education lecture, ate lunch and then attended two process groups. Within a few weeks most folks were thriving again thanks to the friendships created and a renewed sense of meaning.

I’m a fan of play dates. In fact, I have two today. But I’m even more a fan of quality time that emerges when there is no plan, no rush, and no strain. When intimacy just happens like the sun rising and setting each day.

It’s Not Always A Mental Illness!

7 Jul

I have worked in the mental health field for twenty-three years. I know the terrain extremely well. And although I am grateful that public knowledge of mental illness has increased, I grow weary when I frequently hear every societal problem attributed to mental illness.

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Not everything is a mental illness!

Sometimes we’re distraught because we’re going through something tough. Perhaps a death in the family, a divorce, or job loss triggers a challenging period. Or maybe we’re anxious because we haven’t learned to manage stress well and we’re going through significant life changes without much social support. These types of things greatly influence mood state and to a certain degree are a regular part of life. Human beings suffer terribly and we are all challenged by how to develop resiliency.

I invite us to consider the concept of mental wellness. How do we learn to function whether we’re ever given a mental health diagnosis or not? We all need to address mental wellness no different than we look after our physical health.

Mental health exists along a continuum. It is comparable to physical health. For instance, if I have a runny nose, am fatigued, and don’t feel well, I meet the criteria for a cold. After two weeks, when the symptoms have cleared, I no longer have the diagnosis. But if I have diabetes or a heart condition, I might have the diagnosis my entire life and then I learn to manage the symptoms. Mental illness is no different. Sometimes we’re given a diagnosis at one point in our lives but later, we may no longer meet criteria. With another illness, the diagnosis might persist. Or, we may never meet criteria for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, we still need to develop basic coping skills and to manage our emotions and stress in a healthy manner.

Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t the root cause of all sociological problems. It is actually the other way around. Sociological problems can put people at risk for developing mental illness. There are only a cluster of diagnoses whose etiologies are based in pure biology and genetics. More often than not, mental illnesses emerge from a combination of factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, environment, social isolation, family dynamics, relationship ruptures, abandonment, and abuse, etc.

If we want to reduce mental illness statistics, we also need to address bigger cosmic factors that contribute to it. We have to stop pointing fingers at “mental illness” as the cause for all and start looking at the impact of how we treat our fellow humans. TLC goes a long way in influencing mental wellness. So does social justice.

On the same token, just because we have risk factors doesn’t mean we’ll develop a mental illness. Likewise, even if we aren’t exposed to primary risk factors, we could still be vulnerable to developing a diagnosis. We could have all the support and advantages in the world and still live with schizophrenia or severe depression. Mental wellness is a complex issue because we humans are complex. We’re a unique blend of body, spirit, intellect, and emotions. We all have different temperaments and life experiences.

Finally, one of the greatest mythologies about mental health is that people with mental illness are all violent. It has become very vogue to explain every catastrophic event that occurs as a by-product of mental illness. If a crime is committed, we immediately assume the perpetrator had a mental illness. If a child or teen acts out, he or she must have a mental illness. Because who in his or her right mind would commit a crime if sane, right? Well, crimes are committed all the time by people who do not have a diagnosis. In fact, only four percent of gun homicides can be attributed to those with a mental illness. What then compels people to violence? Why do we hurt each other? Is it greed, entitlement, poor impulse control, no moral compass, ignorance, or evil? Who knows. But not everything is caused by mental illness alone.

But one thing is certain. We can all work on our mental wellness. We can challenge ourselves to engage in basic acts of self care. Exercise, get enough sleep, breathe, socialize, and relax. Explore feelings and get in touch with our inner selves. See a therapist or join a support group. Laugh. Reach out to others. Connect to something that endows life with meaning. Because we all need to feel like we have a purpose and like we’re in relation to others. That part isn’t rocket science. It’s fundamental to humanity.