A suicide attempt at the age of 16 years old left varsity cheerleader, Emma Benoit paralyzed. She shot herself in the chest while on the phone with her mom… No one saw it coming…
I had the incredible privilege of speaking at the same event as Emma in February. The event was called AZ Breakthrough in Chandler, Arizona and it focused on supporting and resourcing teenagers and their parents.
When I was asked to speak I kept thinking… “I am a therapist not a speaker….” I was wracked with nerves as I prepared to stand in front of hundreds of teens and parents. I found myself wrestling with a deep desire to be as effective and helpful as possible. A few days before the event I showed up to do a run through. Emma was there also… As she rolled out onto the stage in her wheelchair to do her mic check I watched a beautiful young woman full of courage share her heart…
There are no words to describe how powerful her story is…
It was my turn to do a mic check after Emma… I wanted to show my slides and the info I’d be presenting with the directors of the event to make sure it was what they were wanting. I quickly read through my slides and highlighted the important info. When I finished we realized that Emma was still on the stage with me sitting in her wheelchair… I turned to look at her… she looked right into my eyes and said, “I feel so validated right now… this explains exactly what I was going through… If only my parents would of known what you just shared….”
It took my breath away…
I had nothing to be nervous about… none of this was about me and how well I spoke. This event was about awareness and giving as much info as and education as possible about the effects of trauma on mental health. This event was about giving support and resources to hurting teenagers and parents who did not know what to do. In that moment Emma shifted everything into perspective for me and my nerves disappeared.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Bloggers, influencers, professionals and the like will be posting all month about mental health and working at creating “awareness.” This is so important… crucial… the difference between life and death for some. But we have to begin somewhere. So I’d like to begin by answering the question what is mental health actually?
According to www.mentalhealth.gov, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Mental health “awareness” is the recognition that our psychological health and well-being is just as important as our physical health and well-being. By increasing awareness we can help people better understand their symptoms, find professional help and most importantly break stigma that leaves so many suffering without asking for help
According to the WHO, suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 and adults ages 25-34. 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children experience serious mental illness each year. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability in adults in the US today. These numbers are devastating! And also these numbers are so important. This information helps us understand how vital it is that we raise public awareness, create stigma busting resources and advocate for better health care. Most importantly we have to SHOW that no one is alone (www.nami.com).
So what causes mental health issues?
Unmanaged and chronic stress, brain damage as a result of a TBI, traumatic, and life threatening experiences can all cause mental health issues. Other issues such as social isolation, social disadvantage or poverty, complicated grief, unmanaged, chronic stress, and long-term physical health conditions are also examples of what can lead to mental health issues. We can also experience traumatic responses when there is too much for too long, too little for too long, chronic stress without the resources to cope, pervasive neglect, emotional, physical, mental or sexual abuse. The important thing to remember is that two different individuals can have the same experience and can have two very different responses. Our brains, bodies, and nervous systems are all wired uniquely and we do not always get to choose how they will respond.
What are some warning signs that your mental health is suffering?
One warning sign is excessive worry or anxiety. Worry can be a useful human emotion. It makes us vigilant, which can help prompt survival instincts and protection of ourselves and those we love. We all have concerns and stress that come in and out of our lives on a daily basis. However, if you are finding yourself stuck in pervasive worry and anxiety or that worry and anxiety are stopping you from functioning in your daily life, this is a warning sign that you might need some additional help.
A second warning sign is long lasting sadness or irritability. Sadness is another helpful human emotion… it informs us that something is wrong, it can also be an emotion that draws us towards connection. When sadness and/or irritability is prolonged and doesn’t resolve with time, resources and connection this may be sign that professional intervention is needed.
A third warning sign is extreme changes in mood. If you notice moments of feeling euphoric or invincible, or notice swings of deep depression, irritability and/or rage this may be a sign of a deeper mental health issue. Contacting your primary care provider for guidance towards a psychiatrist and/or mental health therapist for further resources and help is important.
A fourth warning sign is social withdrawal. If you find yourself or someone you know isolating and withdrawing from their normal activities, calling in sick, skipping school, not answering calls or text messages, this is a warning sign that something deeper may be happening. Being honest with someone you trust or reaching toward a person who is noticeably withdrawing could save a life.
Last but not least, another important warning sign that there may be mental health issues that need some extra support is a dramatic change in eating or sleeping patterns. Deprivation of both sleep and nutrition can actually cause many serious physical and mental health issues.
What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?
Mental health refers to anyone’s state of mental and emotional well-being, mental illnesses are diagnosed conditions that affect thoughts, mood and behavior in a pervasive way. Although anyone can have moments of poor mental health, not everyone has a mental illness.
There is NO health without mental health, it is an integral part of overall health and well-being.
So what are some examples of mental health issues?
There are six major categories of mental health issues that can come in all shapes and sizes.
- Mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder)
- Anxiety disorders (including obsessive compulsive disorder and phobias)
- Personality disorders (such as borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic)
- Eating disorders
- Trauma-related disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder & dissociative disorders)
- Substance abuse and addiction disorders (alcoholism, drugs, gambling, and sex)
Who does mental health issues affect?
Mental health does not discriminate! It can affect anyone regardless of your age, gender, geography, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, or culture. There is NO shame in struggling… every life is precious and worthy of support and care.
How can we take care of our mental health?
I teach 9 Pillars of mental wellness, each of these pillars are important in creating a holistic wellness to our body, mind and soul.
- Proper sleep
- Gut health and nutrition
- Silent reflection
- Community and Connection
- Play & Movement
- Lifelong Learning
- Creative outlets
Don’t let this list feel overwhelming! Start with one… then add another… you will be amazed at how different you feel. Please see my blog “9 Pillars of Mental Health” for more information, support and resources about how to take steps in making these 9 pillars part of your daily life.
It is important to remember that mental wellness is not the absence of difficult emotions or stressful circumstances. We know we are mentally in a healthy space when have the ability to feel, express and manage a range of both positive and negative emotions. Mental health wellness is also evident when we’re able to cope and manage change and uncertainty, and we’re able to maintain healthy relationships.
Lastly, I’d like to give you some ideas of ways you can raise community awareness during mental health month!
- Open up about your own experience - Just as Emma’s story has saved lives, your story can inspire and encourage others. Never allow your story to be something that you hide or feel shame about. There is power in sharing and bringing light and hope to dark places!
- Encourage kind language - The we speak is SO important. Use care, be KIND, and be a conduit for safety and empathy. If you are a teen be an example for your friend group. If you are a parent teach your children how to use kind language.
- Educate yourself about mental illness - Just by reading this blog you are educating yourself! Follow mental health blogs and professionals on social media so you can learn more, stay up to date and share! A good rule of thumb is to not judge an experience but see to understand.
- Be an example of self care for your friends and family - The best thing we can do is take care of ourselves. YOU are an example! YOU are a conduit of love, and that starts with taking care of YOU.
- Use your platform - Whether on line, at school, your faith community, or work, use your platform. When you learn something new share what you’ve learned!
The National Alliance of Mental Illness www.nami.org
The World Health Organization www.who.int