As printed in the Blackfly Gazette 4/1/2015
Mental health is a difficult subject to broach for many people. There has been a stigma regarding this for as long as there has been an issue. But the truth is that all of us suffer from poor mental hygiene in one way or another. I only have to mention Robin Williams to evoke a strong association between someone whom we all love, yet someone who felt so alone and even unloved.
There is a stark contrast between the time we take for our physical health, compared to our mental health. We even train our children to brush their teeth, take baths, wash their hands. As an example of how we train our kids, I remember when my nephew when under 5 years old and playing outside, skinned his knee. He knew enough to come inside to the bathroom, wipe the grit out of the wound, then reach for a band-aid. He was protecting his body from infection. But how much time has his parents spent training him to understand how to handle issues such as loneliness or rejection?
Lets take the example of a 40 year old divorced woman who is going out on a date. She was so excited beforehand, she bought a new dress, coloured her hair, purchased new makeup pallets and felt the best she has in a long time. But halfway through the meal, the guy just stands up and says, “I’m just not able to do this” and walks out. She is frozen. Unable to get up she turns to a friend who says, “What are you thinking, going out with him? Why did you get your hopes up? Your hips are huge, you can’t hold an adult conversation… Why did you even try?”
Now, that is truly shocking thing to say, isn’t it? Hearing that you would scream at the top of your lungs, DISOWN THAT SO-CALLED FRIEND! But the truth is, if I told you that was what she was thinking about herself, you would understand her doing that. Our very minds and emotions are fickle, and can turn on us in a flash. Those were her first thoughts, and a huge telling of how much we lack in understanding of mental hygiene.
We suffer far more injuries mentally than than physically. Yet we tell depressed persons, it is all in your mind, shake it off. Now, imagine telling someone with a broken bone, walk it off, the pain is just in your leg. The more you use it, the less it will hurt. You just need to get out more. Just think positive.
My mom and I have always been very close. Not to say I was a momma’s boy, but we had actually had a really great friendship. We spoke on the phone, if not every day, then every-other. Then I moved to Alabama for collage, and she re-married about the same time, and this was before cell phones were common. We were reliant on her to call a payphone in the dorm, but we had a ritual worked out. She would call at a certain time every week. Only one day, I didn’t hear from her. Just, no call. I checked the phone, it worked fine. So I thought maybe something came up, she will likely call tomorrow. But the next day came and went, still no call. Then I figured, well, maybe she forgot this week, something came up, I’m sure she will call next week. Only next week came, and the phone rang many times, but it was never for me. So what did I think now? Maybe she just doesn’t miss me as much as I miss her. That was the start of a dark and lonely road. It was weeks. I was devastated.
Finally one of the Residential Advisers let me use his phone to call home, and when I did, I found out my mom was really upset too. The phone company changed the phone number to the payphone and disconnected the old one. There was a notice that went out, but I failed to get it. When I told my mom how devastated I was, she asked me, well, why didn’t you call collect, or ask to use another phone before? I didn’t have an answer for that.
Loneliness had crept in and gouged huge mental scars. Prolonged or chronic loneliness causes enormous problems. It creates a feeling that people care for us much less than they really do, and it is compounded by a feeling that we shouldn’t even try to reach out because we will only be setting ourselves up for more heartache, when our heart is already aching more than we can possibly bare. It is solely a feeling that we are disconnected with everyone.
Chronic Loneliness can cause death, just as cancer or cigarettes. It can cause hypertension, stress, our immune system to drop, and even make us 14% more likely to die. How are you at combating the feeling of loneliness?
Something else that we all face is failure, and we need to train ourselves to react to it properly. Take the example of three toddlers playing with identical toys. The toy is clear and has three buttons on it and a slide bar. If you slide the bar, it opens to give access to to the candy inside.
The first child notices the blue button and tries with all her might to pull on the button, to no avail. So then she pushes the button, over and over – still nothing. She sets it down and her bottom lip begins to quiver, and soon the tears are flowing. The second child sees all of this, looks at the toy and just shuts down and cries. Didn’t even try. The third child had done everything she could think of on the blue button, the yellow button and even tried to pry the lid off herself. Finally she grabs the red slide and gains access. The other two begin to really wail, seeing that the third actually got to her candy.
Three very different reactions to the same challenge, and to some degree, we all fit one of these temperaments. If we are convinced that we are going to fail, we only prove ourselves right. Many of us are functioning at a much lower level than our potential, simply because we have a mental expectation of what we can do, or how much we are willing to try. We have to fight the feeling that we can’t succeed, every day.
In all three examples above, there is one mental process that we find in common. In each case the most negativity came from a mental process called ruminating. It means to really chew on, or to go over and over in our mind. We question, over-analyze and calculate fault, usually with ourselves. And once you start that habit, it is extremely difficult to stop. We feel it is very important to process it, to analyze it more, compounding the issue. Then another situation comes up, and we find it is just like the other, only proving ourselves as at fault and it compounds again. We can try to do something else, but we keep falling back into those thoughts. The cycle makes that moment even more important, and so we must analyze it more.
If we find ourselves in this situation, we have to stop that process, it is toxic. A psychologist once helped me to understand that if we find something else to concentrate on for just 2 minutes, we can pull out of that moment. When it comes up again, concentrate on something else for at least 2 minutes. Then again and again, as often as you need to, and to this day I still need that advice.
Rumination is not always the issue, and stopping this is not a cure by any means, just something we can change to improve our mental hygiene. We do need to remove the stigma from mental health issues. Stop assuming that people are at fault for their own depression, and recognize that we all need help and support, especially when our minds turn on us.
In the past as personal hygiene – washing hands and brushing teeth – improved life expectancy increased by about 50% over a few decades. If we improve our own mental hygiene, how much more will our quality of life improve? If you are struggling with any of these issues, or just feel the need to talk to someone, we have a great resource right here in town. The Perth-Andover Mental Health Services has a great staff that can help – they certainly have helped me. If you need assistance, or would like to discuss options there are a few numbers for you. Addiction and Mental Health Services: 273-4701, Mobile Crisis After Hours Services: 1(888)667-0444, Kids Help Line: 1(800)668-6868