It’s almost cliche to say … but one of the biggest challenges to more people thinking and acting on maintaining good mental health is of course the immense and dark stigma around it.
We worry about how other people will view us. We think we’ll be labeled and stereotyped, minimized and discounted. That there will be this cloud hanging over us forever that’ll affect our self image and worth, careers and relationships.
Most of us men think we’ll be viewed as soft or emotional. Because somehow engrained in us is the fact that we’re supposed to be protectors, breadwinners and yes, superheroes, without weakness, but always there to save the day. Impenetrable, strong, brave. That having “issues” will be a sign of weakness and considered “fragile.” We’re supposed to go and do, not “feel” and “talk” about our emotions or problems.
I know … because I’ve thought and felt all of these things. So you can change the “we” to “I” and me above.
It’s one of the first and greatest obstacles, of which I think there are many, I see to us getting and staying mentally healthy as a people. To not suffering in solitude, but seeking connection, support and help. To not feeling the loneliness and emptiness and meaninglessness in life.
And therefore, the first vital step to progress, I believe, is to start changing the message. How we think and talk about mental health.
So I want to challenge those stigmas, mindsets, perspectives and attitudes today by proposing new ones about mental health.
And I’d like to offer some of those here today in the form of mostly questions and ideas for a new way forward ….
So … what if …
- What if we had a better sense of what good mental health actually is all about, just like we do physical health? What if we could talk about it as positively and openly and part of our culture as diet and exercise?
- What if we knew some easy and practical practices and habits we could do regularly and consistently that would help us maintain health, just like we would readily admit eating a healthy diet and exercising will help us be physically healthy? Or even so, like we might recognize a cold or the flu, a deeper emotional issue inside us to seek help and guidance.
- What if we embrace those good mental health practices culturally like we do joining a gym, the 7-minute workout, or CrossFit to practice physical exertion and health? What if mindfulness became as common of a practice as driving a car, tying your shoes or brushing your teeth?
- What if we viewed therapists and counselors not as “shrinks” but as trainers and coaches, just like we do in organized sports? What if we looked at them as objective, experienced, trained and certified guides for help in navigating life’s challenges?
- What if we viewed having those counselors and making regular appointments with them, like we do having a primary care physicians and doing regularly annual checkups? Or knowing if something severe happens with our bodies, we would naturally go straight to the closest emergency room, but the same approach for an emotional one?
- What if we thought of mental health not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength and preparation in order to be resilient for life’s daily stresses and anxieties, and its’ tests and storms? And those practices helped us be better prepared, stronger, flexible, adaptive, happier, more successful, in addition to happier, healthier relationships when they inevitably hit? And dare I say, to be MORE “tough.”
- What if we prepared and even trained for the upheavals and disruptions of life like emergency readiness drills for natural disasters, like tornadoes? In Oklahoma, as kids in school we regularly practice fire and tornado drills. Our tornado sirens are tested every Saturday at noon becoming a fact of life most of us take for granted until a tornado happens. Yet in the middle of the night we know what it means and what to do.
- What if mental illness wasn’t shunned but embraced and supported those afflicted with them with love, care, understanding, and respectful treatment options? What if we didn’t ostracize them but honored them as having to carry a heavier burden?
- What if having emotions and feelings was accepted and valued as a part of the holistic human experience, like physical prowess or beauty and that not doing so would mean we’re not embracing the whole of our human experience? That hiding or buryin them would deny the fullest of our being?
These are just first ideas and a rough draft of what I’ve been thinking for a while now, and perhaps they will be viewed as deep and controversial to some. But I hope it gets the conversation started.
I readily acknowledge, they need tinkering and refining. But I’m offering them here, in the face of potential scrutiny, criticism and disagreement, simply because I think we drastically need new ways of looking at an age old problem yet essential part of our existence in life, and one often neglected, shunned, and covered over.
And I hope, perhaps, a better way forward for us all.