“Mental health” seems a scary subject for all of us. Having a mental health problem is often associated with “mental illness”, although it is a much broader term. Therefore, a discussion about mental health tends to find many of us unguarded and in denial, since it is so stigmatized in our society, a label that nobody wants to have. However, what is mental health?
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being”. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”
During our lifetime, we all face problems that affect our well-being. Relationship problems, workplace stress, financial struggles, loneliness, indecision, or health issues can destabilize our balance. Sometimes there are cumulated stressors that we need to deal with in the same time.
The mental health issues may come from present stressors, or they are caused by layers of challenging experiences over the years. That is why sometimes the root of the problem is obvious, sometimes it is not. It is usually hard to perceive when a life challenge went above our threshold of resilience; and when we see it, we may have gone already too far in trying to deal alone with this challenge. When problems are not successfully addressed, painful emotions may appear (anxiety, anger, fear, depression), life is “out of control”.
The line between healthy and unhealthy responses to stressors is very thin and sometimes we tend to deny it when we start to see small changes in our behaviour, until it impairs our life. Experiencing one or more of the following feelings or behaviors can be an early warning sign of a problem (retrieved from mentalhealth.gov):
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Pulling away from people and usual activities
- Having low or no energy
- Feeling numb or like nothing matters
- Having unexplained aches and pains
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
- Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
- Yelling or fighting more with family and friends
- Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- Having persistent thoughts and memories that you can't get out of your head
- Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
- Thinking of harming yourself or others
- Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school
The next step, when we see these new patterns in our life, is to seek help! Although we may think that the situation is not “so bad” to require therapy, do not forget that the sooner you start to understand how to develop healthy coping with adverse events in our life, the easier it is to go back to a balanced life. At the beginning, a few sessions with a therapist may be enough to get insight and build resilience. The more the problem persists, the longer the therapeutic process may be. Whenever you decide to start therapy, it is an act of courage. Although the therapeutic process is confidential, you may enter in the therapy room with biased thoughts about therapy: the feeling of being exposed, labeled, judged, not validated, and not understood. Therefore, there are a few aspects you may want to keep in mind:
- A mental health practitioner is there to help and this means no judging, no labeling, and fully respecting confidentiality. But we, as human beings, may resonate better with one therapist that with another: try a few and make a choice!
- There is free help. Online crisis or active listening centers, public clinics, and hospitals are resources that worth tried. And then, there are therapist offering reduced fees for groups and working on sliding scales for individuals. They are all only a click or phone call away.
- The sooner we take charge in seeking help, the less expensive and painful the process of restoring our well-being will be. The more we sit into psychological pain and spinning thoughts in our head, the more these negative connections will get stronger in our brain and the work to undo them will and build healthy strategies will be longer and complicate.
- Chances are that we already have the tools we need to improve our situation but negative emotions have gotten us stuck. That's where therapy can help. It just gives us the boost we need to trust in our strengths and go over the hard situations.
As a conclusion, it is important for each of us to acknowledge our limits and understand that sometimes we are facing hard times that may affect our feeling and thinking. There is nothing unusual in this, we are human, not perfect machines (and even they break!). Being less hard on ourselves and seeking help instead of trying to “fix” our problem alone could be an approach that prevents sliding down on a dangerous slope of helplessness and stigma.