Tag Archives: mental health

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.

 

 

Prison of Shame

22 Aug

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. In the year and a half she was there, I never visited her. During her first month at Chowchilla, she sent me forms to fill out for visitation rights. The procedure was more complex than the one at the local jail. You had to request visitation dates weeks in advance and wait to get approval. My mom’s friend Bob, who was in love with her, pressured me to make the trip but I refused. Although he offered, I felt uncomfortable making the ten-hour drive with him. And I felt incompetent to make it alone.

Years later, when I was teaching a public mental health course nation wide, I spent one week in Modesto, California. To get there I flew into Fresno and rented a car. When you walk from the gate towards baggage claim, you pass a replica of a Sequoia. It gives you the feeling that you have just arrived at Disneyland instead of near Yosemite National Park.

As I maneuvered my rental vehicle towards the highway, I gave a sigh of relief as I adjusted to the various gadgets of the unfamiliar car and found a station on the radio I enjoyed. An hour into the drive, I saw that the town of Chowchilla was a few exits away. I had never looked on a map to see where it was. Now I saw the barbed wire fence of the prison along the side of the highway. A flight from San Diego to Fresno was inexpensive. I hadn’t realized. Yet at the time, new in my career, I was struggling to make ends meet. The cost of a flight, car rental, and hotel would have all gone onto a credit card.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

She had pleaded with me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in. I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a pain in the ass. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

Blessed Are They Who Mourn…

11 Jul

As I was reading 1 Samuel 1 this morning, I was struck by the sheer idiocy of the people around Hannah who didn’t know how to support her in her grief over not having a child. The bible is actually full of such examples… Yet despite this, I wonder if we’ve learned anything at all when it comes to witnessing other people’s grief.

In the text, we discover that Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives. His wife, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1:2). We learn that Elkanah loves Hannah dearly, despite her not being able to conceive. “On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1:5).

Elkanah knows enough to treat his wife tenderly and with compassion. Yet he doesn’t fully understand her plight. He asks, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” His statement is a beautiful reminder that she is not completely barren, having his love indeed. Yet for a woman living in that particularly time period, having children was the primary function of her gender. Failure in this area was devastating to one’s identity and Peninnah, knowing this, drives the knife in, instead of offering solace to Hannah. “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1:6). Let’s hear it for girl power! Way to kick a woman when she’s down.

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Hannah is clearly in pain. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (1:10). But she also makes a vow to the Lord that if he will give her a child, she will present him as a servant of the temple when he is but a babe.

Now here is the real kicker. When Hannah goes to the temple to make her request before the Lord she is witnessed by the priest Eli who accuses her of being drunk because he sees her lips moving in prayer yet hears no words. He says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine” (1:14). Now even if Hannah had been drunk, I’m not certain that is the ideal way for a priest to respond but she answers, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time” (1:15-16).

Thankfully, Eli comes around and blesses her but how typical this scenario is. How often do we cite someone who is labile as hysterical, crazy or self-indulgent? And in the church world, how common is it for folks to say that someone who is anxious or depressed doesn’t have enough faith in God? How many times have we heard something like, “Don’t worry. It will all be okay.” Sometimes it’s not okay.

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Grief is messy and ugly and forces us to look at our pain. So if someone else is grieving, sometimes it’s easier to look the other way. In the powerful film, “The Bridge,” Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt jumping off of the Golden Gate bridge recounts that he spent an hour walking along the bridge crying. Not one person asked him if he was okay. In fact, some European tourists asked if he could take their photo. People, hello!!!!!!!! A dude is standing on a bridge notorious as a suicide site and you aren’t curious or alarmed as to why he is crying?

So, yes, blessed are those who mourn for we all mourn at various times in our lives. “We get to carry each other. Carry each other…”

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Creative Types – Are We All a Wee Bit Crazy?

2 Feb

As both an artist and psychotherapist, I have long been frustrated by the myth that in order to be creative, we have to be just a wee bit crazy. First off, I don’t like the word “crazy” because it’s stigmatizing. It lumps mental illness into one big stereotype and marginalizes those who suffer from symptoms of a disorder. But besides that issue, why the belief that in order to be creative, we have to suffer from emotional instability or mania?

It is my firm bias that we are all inherently creative. We simply live in a world that beats this impulse out of most of us. We stop drawing when we’re scolded for coloring on the wall or are told that the dog we drew looks like a space ship. Or we’re told to become an engineer and not a writer because writing won’t take us anywhere… Not to mention that art and music programs are the first to be deemed irrelevant and cut from school budgets.

I also have a strong bias that if we are suffering from any type of adversity, creativity helps affirm life.

So perhaps here is where the myth comes from. Creativity is a fire energy. It’s strong, active and borders on manic properties. But like all fire, it needs to be channeled for constructive use. The high voltage is of no use to us if it blows out our system. Rather than sensationalize this phenomenon, glamorizing it as a necessary ingredient in the creative process, what if instead we learned how to channel it for its most effective use? What if we mastered the art of integration, bringing it into balance with all other facets of our lives?

Creativity is a balance of fire and ice. Yin and Yang. Ideally, we want to soar to great heights while simultaneously staying grounded. What is crazy is to mute that divine life force. But what keeps me grounded is to remember where that force actually comes from. Thoughts? What keeps you both grounded and creative? What gives you divine inspiration + motivation?

The Tipping Point

15 Dec

Here is a tragic irony. On Wednesday, in response to the Oregon mall shooting, I posted on my FB page: “Seriously. When will the gun violence in this country abate? I know humans pull the triggers but still. Assault weapons? Seriously. We should be ashamed. I am. Life is not a &*^% Hollywood action film.” Two days later, news breaks out that a gunman opened fire in a Connecticut school massacring twenty-seven people, twenty of whom where children under the age of ten.

As someone who has invested well over twenty years of my personal and professional life to exploring the ramifications of trauma, I know a thing or two about the subject. And trauma is indeed personal and political. It makes no difference whether we’re talking about war, sexual abuse, rape, gun violence, human trafficking, or even natural disasters. The underlying causes and/or responses to events, whether on the individual or collective level, are deeply intertwined.

It has taken a long time for the public to become outraged over gun violence. But perhaps we’re at a tipping point. I certainly hope so. Because ultimately we collude with violence when we sit back passively wringing our hands saying, “People will always be evil.”

As commentary started flying yesterday, a faction on the internet condescendingly rebuked those expressing feelings about the event because – well, shit happens everyday. “Why be so upset over this but not give a fuck about other injustices happening all around the world?” I also saw patronizing statements in response to posts about gun control. “Today is not the day. We need to respect the victims and allow them to grieve. It’s not time to push your political agenda. Show more tact and sensitivity.” I noticed cool disdain towards those expressing righteous indignation, which of course was labeled as “reactive, emotional and not based in reason.” So tell me, is there anything reasonable about trauma – whatever the horror – be it a shooting or otherwise? Trauma does evoke an emotional response even if that response is numbness. It is after all – TRAUMA. Finally, there were the comments inferring that gun violence only occurs at the hands of those mentally ill. But here’s a little factoid folks. Statistically, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes vs. perpetrators of ones.

I know that gun control alone will not prevent random (or not so random) acts of violence. There are complex sociological issues at play that need to be addressed just as fervently as gun control. I also know that humans pull the triggers. That guns themselves don’t spontaneously ejaculate.

But people, let’s stop making excuses for our moral laziness. All movements for the well being of society require courage, action, intelligence, legislation, and a deep commitment to a higher vision for all.