Mike Matthews photo

Mike Matthews

Around here, the month of May represents many good things. Festive Kentucky Derby events, graduation ceremonies, delicious strawberry picking, and a welcome transition from cold and dreary weather to warm and sunny weather.

The Kentucky Derby lasts two minutes, graduations last about two hours or so, strawberry picking is available for a month, and pleasant spring weather quickly gives way to our Ohio Valley three H’s: hazy, hot, and humid. Unfortunately, many people are experiencing an extended emotional winter of their lives as they battle mental health issues.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and its purpose, beyond raising awareness, is to educate the public, fight stigma, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. As I write this, news is breaking that we have just lost Kentucky-born country music legend Naomi Judd to mental illness at age 76. A statement by her family reads: “Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness.”

The vision for mental health awareness is to eliminate preventable tragedies such as this and to assist those affected by mental illness to receive appropriate support and live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Mental health is an essential component of overall health and shocking statistics reveal that 21% of adults in the United States live with a mental health condition and that 46% will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in life.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides a five-axis system of understanding mental disorders and it is important to seek licensed professional help if needed to be able to name and tame a disorder you may be experiencing. I call it a check-up from the neck up, and the need has increased during the over two years we have been dealing with COVID. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) states that 1 in 5 people report that the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on their mental health.

There is also increasing awareness of the need for more mental health care for our children and NAMI reports that depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people are at a record level. The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and The Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national children’s mental health emergency last year, which is a call to action for all of us to work to create a legacy of good mental health for the generations that follow us.

We can advocate for increased mental health services in our schools while exercising the ultimate responsibility for our children’s overall health and education at home by actively engaging them in age-appropriate conversations about the state of our world and how to still find joy and meaning in times of chaos. Smooth seas produce poor sailors and it takes teamwork between parents, the schools and the community to help children and all our vulnerable citizens to navigate the difficult waters in life that we are all traversing.

In the very best of times, our biologically evolved brains are superglue for the negative and Teflon for the positive because of our evolutionary fight, flight, or freeze response that helped our ancestors live another day to have lunch instead of being lunch for predators.

We are living in a mean-spirited age with too many of us choosing to walk over each other’s hearts with football cleats and infusing nasty and toxic reactions to our cascade of challenging just when we should be supporting each other more than ever and it is so easy for us to immerse in the negative. Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” But I would argue that it is our duty to stay supportive, compassionate, loving, hopeful, and even positive alongside what seems to be a great acceleration toward giant leaps off the cliff of civility to help change our society. The macro changes always start with all of us individually in the micro and it takes courage to be proactive.

During this month of May and all year, it is important to do what we can to support those among us who are struggling with mental health challenges and continue to develop inner resources inside ourselves to be able to best handle the daily crises of epic proportions and the self-inflicted tiny tortures we are facing. The challenge is to regain equilibrium and create a sustainable and responsible outlook to weather our current zeitgeist with wholehearted love and compassion and caring for others.

In the myth of Pandora, hope only appears after all possible troubles have been unleashed upon the world. It will take ongoing daily commitment to actively pull weeds and plant flowers in the gardens of our minds and support and encourage others to do the same.

Mental Health Awareness Month is about doing what we can to befriend ourselves and others, especially during these threshold times. Faith is the profound acceptance that life is ultimately good. May you be granted the acceptance of things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference and then take action and do what is necessary for ourselves and others.

The National Alliance on Mental Health Helpline is 1-800-950-6264 and its website is https://nami.org/Home. Like any other disease, it is imperative to treat the disease of mental illness in the early stage before it progresses.

Mike Matthews is a retired teacher, counselor and mental health administrator with a mission of creating a healthy and cohesive community. He can be contacted at drstmatt@yahoo.com.

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