By Alicia Wallace
Last weekend, I spent several hours at a book club meeting. We chose Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman as our February read, and it gave us more to think and talk about than we expected. Half of us did not even expect to like the book, but quickly realised it was a reflection of some of our own experiences, far-fetched as it seemed at first glance. Mental health was a dominant theme and it was easy to talk, at length, about the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the urgent need to address the inadequacies of health services, family support and often debilitating stigma.
What is mental health?
Mental health is the level of emotional, psychological and social well-being and our ability to manage stress. Like physical health, it can change over time, and conditions can be transient or chronic. They are sometimes biological, but can also be triggered by life experiences or trauma.
Two conditions resulting from life experience or trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression. Many people heavily and personally impacted by recent hurricanes now deal with PTSD, some of them triggered by the sounds of rain or wind. Experiences of postpartum depression are not often shared, but in recent years, celebrities have shared their experiences to help women going through it and to sensitise family members and community members to the experiences of new mothers who must also contend with a condition they cannot control on their own.
We are quick to call people “crazy,” and make assumptions about their lives, particularly when their mental health conditions do not allow them to fully function, or they are homeless or under-housed. Maybe worse, some of us use neuroatypical people as a source of entertainment, recording videos of them and sharing them on social media.
People’s everyday lives become a joke, and we ignore their humanity. We forget they are people with histories, families and daily challenges to overcome. To us, they are just “crazy” and we assume their situations are their own fault.
In our careless commentary and self-serving entertainment, we can unknowingly alienate and offend people who may be high-functioning while dealing with mental health challenges. Even worse, when made aware of the offensive nature of our language — and interpretation of what have become common words and phrases — our reaction, far too often, is to become defensive, or reject the idea that we could ever unintentionally harm someone.
It’s difficult to change the way we speak, but becomes easier when we work on one thing at a time. With a few years of practice, I’ve taken “crazy” out of my vocabulary. It was not easy, but it was important to me, especially as a human rights supporter, a family member and friend of people with mental health challenges and a person who is not vaccinated against mental health challenges.
Support loved ones
Videos have been circulating of a man named Jeremy. Members of his family have said his life changed as a result of a laced joint. He walks the streets and, every now and then, they are able to get him to return home, but never for a long time. He has tried to get professional help, but like many patients, he does not like the way the medication makes him feel.
Medication for mental health conditions alter the chemistry of the brain. It can sometimes cause people to feel numb, or like they are losing parts of themselves. It is rare for a person to be prescribed the best possible medication the first time around. It can take a few tries to find the medication that helps a person to function without making them feel less than human, or even making their condition worse.
There is little support available for people facing mental health challenges, especially if they do not have the money to pay for care. Imagine having a health challenge, saving enough money to see a doctor, then saving enough money to purchase medication only to find that it is not the right one for you. You have to go back to the doctor, pay for the visit and purchase another medication. It is already not easy to get well. Think about how much harder is it to navigate all of this without support, or while seeing and hearing discriminatory remarks that aren’t even meant to hurt you, but they do anyway.
We all know people with mental health challenges. We may not know it, or know exactly what those challenges are, but they exist. The stigma around mental illness is more than inconvenient or sad. It can keep us from seeking the help we know and feel we need.
Because it so difficult for people to admit to struggles with mental health, seeking professional help and asking for support from family members and friends, it is important for us to pay attention to our loved ones. We often notice changes in people or the way they interact with us, but find easy answers to our own questions. “She got problems,” or “He got a bad attitude,” become our diagnoses. “Something wrong with them.” Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a health issue, but assume people have made conscious decisions to behave differently.
Seeing the signs
We need to learn to see the signs of mental health challenges and how to address them. Pay attention to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, energy levels and interest in hobbies. Listen to the ways loved ones describe how they are feeling. If they feel numb, hopeless, helpless, like nothing matters, or think about harming themselves or others, do not ignore or conclude that they are being dramatic. It’s time to listen. It’s time to find the necessary resources to help your loved one to get well.
Seeing a general practitioner is a good start as they are able to make referrals and, if you have a relationship with your GP, they may have a better idea of your personality and which psychologists and psychiatrists would be able to work best with you.
Mental health, like physical health, is not static. It does not stay the same over the course of your life. Just as important as recognising and addressing mental health challenges is practicing good mental hygiene. Take time to take care of yourself. Conduct regular mental scans. How are you feeling? Are you tired? Unmotivated? Wanting to be alone more than usual? Diving into work to avoid thinking or feeling? Pay attention to your coping mechanisms.
A lot of us find ways to take care of our mental health, whether through unscheduled days off, exercise, or regular practices like yoga or meditation. Some of us, however, need help with maintaining our mental health - and it does not mean we are “crazy.” It means we are self-aware and willing to commit to improving our lives.
Whether weekly therapy sessions or medication, there are options available to us, but mostly to those who can afford it. If you’re interested in group therapy, reach out to The Family - People Helping People which offers free sessions in communities all over New Providence. While we work to combat the stigma around mental health challenges, we also need to raise our voices to ensure it is included in national health initiatives. The mind is no less important than the body, and it needs care too.