Every day, Google finds articles with the words “mental health” in them and posts them neatly at the bottom of my home screen. Since the first of May, I’ve been waiting to read about mental health. It is, after all, Mental Health Month. What inevitably seems to pop up is “mental illness.” Stories of “mental health crisis,” programs to help people recover from “mental illness” and the need for more “mental health” workers. It’s all about fixing something that’s wrong with people. The words crisis, recover, more workers are give aways.
I admit I am more than somewhat Pollyanna-ish.
As a person who is pickled in Trauma-Informed Care and in the creation of Trauma Responsive Systems, I’m looking for words like “strengths,” and phrases like “improvement” in skills,” changes in how people cope.” Or maybe the headline that reads, “Community Engages in Increasing Connections Among Neighbors,” or “Department of Fun Has Day Long Laugh-In,” or maybe “Mayor Declares Day of Hugging! ” and “Breakthrough! Drug Helps People Reframe Negative in Positive Ways–Instantly!” Now that’s Mental Health! No diagnosis, no stigma, no awfulness–just fests and initiatives that promote the behavior we know fosters mental health.
In other words, I want there to be as much press about the present-focused, strengths based world–and how many people are going about creating it–as there is about the illness-based, pathologically-focused world. And, I want there to be money for working in this way. Here are four reasons that’s so important.
1. Frame drives funding: illness and danger, the need to control others’ behavior, awfulness will get you money. Health improvement? Prevention? Been struggling for years. Media coverage and focus will help begin a necessary shift.
2.Only so many new counselors and clinicians graduate each year. If we continue with the present frame, there will never be enough people to “fix” the people who are “ill.” Cost, time, and need don’t balance the scales on this one. At the current rates of reported distress, we will never–never–have enough clinicians. People won’t have enough to see the ever-in-demand private practitioners, and sooner or later, folks will quit relying on psychotropic medication.
3. Moving from “What’s wrong” to “What happened” requires shifts in language, thought, feeling and deeds. Almost everyone has experienced something that overwhelmed them, some many more than others. Those to whom the world responded in such a way as to support emotional reregulation, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of strong positive connection? Likely to be far less negatively impacted–far less likely to end up with brains and behavior changed in such ways as to risk the label of “mentally ill.”
4. Whatever you talk about shows where your real concern is. Is it mending and fixing others –a mental illness approach–or is it improving the whole through different learning, a mental health approach?
May. Mental Illness Month. Articles about people who are unable to manage their own behavior, programs, better training as a source of improving outcomes, making sure people can get help when they need it, people getting shot by the police having histories of mental illness, college student anxiety straining college resources, funding cuts, closures, and ideas about destigmatizing concocted by folks who probably haven’t read some of the classics, like Erving Goffman’s “Stigma: the Management of Spoiled Identity” which I believe to be one of the best social sciences books of the 20th century.
May. Mental Health Month. How would it look different? National competitions for creative solutions to everyday stresses, videos gone viral. Happiness practices taught taught daily in advertising. Magical rewards for “catching people doing something right.” Take a cookie to your neighbors day. Good ads about how to recognize connection, and what you can do with it. Forget mental illness for a little while. Look at the strengths of the present. Brief videos about breathing and calming. More community gardens. Skill building embedded in daily living in a thousand different ways.
Yes. May is Mental Health Month, and we should all celebrate the mental health we have and help others increase theirs.