May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of a mental awareness health month. I understand that it’s a public relations tool to encourage people to recognize that mental health issues are significant, still I can’t help but wonder if it reinforces the idea of ignoring them for the other 11 months.
I’m in favor of “mental health awareness life”. As a psychiatrist with over 50 years of practice, I’m convinced that we too often ignore early signs of stress and difficulty coping and don’t seek out help until we recognize significant symptoms. Unfortunately, our health and educational systems facilitate this. Prevention is a relatively new concept in our health system for medical illness and almost unheard of in psychiatry. Some health insurance companies will pay for a gym membership but I haven’t heard of many that pay for yoga or mindfulness training or supportive group therapy before there is a formal mental health diagnosis. And all those modalities might be considered too controversial and too political to entertain in our public school systems.
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No, all too often in the mental health arena we wait until it’s broken, so we have something to fix. We then try to fix it as rapidly as possible to control the symptoms. Never mind taking the time to get the tools to reduce the chances of future symptoms. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Ginger.io, a virtual mental health provider, which, in conjunction with Headspace, provides comprehensive mental health services that include and encourage self awareness and self help modalities. Hopefully this broad approach will become a trend and more available to anyone.
Of course, there have been major breakthroughs in the biological understanding of psychiatric problems and many people have benefited from them. But these are all people who were self aware enough to get the help, or were pressured into it. And this self awareness is not taught but often comes after some negative experience resulting in symptoms. We need more education about day to day coping skills as well as training for our societal care takers and first responders to recognise early signs of distress and how to intervene.
The alternative isn’t easy either. My wife is a family therapist, so we often discussed mental health issues at the dinner table. Just ask our four (now adult) children how much they enjoyed that, or how often they shouted “don’t analyze me!”. But we did keep the subject of emotional issues open and available. We demonstrated the value of being in therapy ourselves and of never ignoring the aches and pains of the mind just as you don’t ignore the aches and pains of the body.
So let’s keep mental health awareness month as a public relations tool, but let’s pursue all that it takes to have a mental health awareness life.
Kenneth Wetcher is an MD based in Naples.