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8 Ways to Actually Be ‘Aware’ This Mental Health Awareness Month

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I’ve never liked awareness months because they encourage us to see something difficult as if it were a pebble in the driveway. They encourage us to care for a moment, to hope we don’t get it, and to have temporary sympathy for people who suffer.

I suffer, and here’s how I want you to be aware:

1. Mental health is physical health.

How we treat our bodies includes how we treat our minds. How we treat our emotions includes how we treat our bodies. Mental health requires daily attention. Chronic ignorance can lead to acute illness. Failure to process emotions every day is to your mental health as what failing to eat vegetables or avoiding exercise is to your physical health. A little bit goes a long way. And, in the absence of it, acute episodes are likely and chronic disfunction is too.

2. Mental illness can and does look different in different people.

It looks different for the same person on different days, and different from what the public decides it looks like. Depression can look like wanting to die. It can look like fatigue. It can look like self-critique. It can look like self-neglect. And when we are pretending we aren’t depressed, like so many of us have become so good at, it can look like incredible success and happiness.

3. Mental illness is expensive to treat.

Getting better can mean going on medication that, in the United States, costs hundreds of dollars each month. It can mean seeing a psychiatrist and therapist regularly, many of whom (and I’d argue the best of whom) do not take insurance and charge fees that can leave you paying $400 to $800 each month. Getting better can mean going to the hospital, a trip that will cost thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars per episode. The sheer cost of it can keep you from seeking or continuing help.

4. Mental illness can cost a lot more than money.

It can cost you your job when you are so chronically ill you can no longer live up to your boss’ expectations. It can cost you your relationships when you shut down, unable to meaningfully connect, or when you behave in ways that are not aligned with your true self or intentions. It can cost you your sense of safety when you become untrusting of helpers, of your circumstances, of your higher power, of yourself. It can cost you your very self as you sink deeper into a person you no longer recognize or know how to connect to. It can cost you your life.

5. Mental health issues can arrive undetected.

They can go for years without care, leaving it harder to treat once you learn about it. They can be slow-growing, where symptoms can start out feeling like just a hard day, or a little tiredness, or frustration that’s hard to recover from, or stress, or situational anxiety, or shame. It can look like a whole lot of other, really “normal” and healthy things look. Until one day, someone who loves you says: “maybe this isn’t ‘normal’ anymore.”

6. Mental health issues come with stigma.

No awareness month can erase the reactions you get when people narrow their eyes, lean backward, tilt their heads, start to act carefully around you because they’re afraid or stop talking about their problems with you like you’re fragile. They say it’s just like a physical illness, or a trick ankle. But socially, it is not. Socially, it does not belong in conversation with a stranger. It does not belong in the chit-chat before Monday’s management team meeting. It does not belong on a first date. And while many of us who struggle wish the stigma would go away, we may never want it to belong in these places because those who don’t get it may never treat it with the care, courage and compassion it deserves.

7. Mental illness can give you a sensitivity to yourself like you’ve never had before.

It can help you pay attention to the tiniest nuances of how your body feels today. How intense your emotions are and what the name is for them and what might be behind them speaking to you. It can help you pay attention to what helps you, what keeps your feet on the ground as the waves start crashing. It can give you patience with yourself because you learn that healing takes time. It can help you look at yourself with an open mind, ready to feel better when the healing begins, or ready to face the truth when you’re not well for the fiftieth time this year. It can help you see others with greater sensitivity, picking up on cues that they might be struggling too and feeling kind instead of judgy about them. It can help you build an ability to reflect, to process. It can build your imagination about what better days might look like, or what other people might be going through, or even how much worse it could be. It can help you appreciate mystery, that there are things you can know about yourself, and there are things you will never know, things that are un-seeable, unconscious, unfathomably complex. It can help you learn how to protect yourself against danger, against all that threatens your well-being, including alcohol or working too much or friends who don’t really act like it.

8. It can become a gift.

A gift that you learn to welcome because resisting it makes it grow ugly thorns that will hurt you.

If we want to have Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s let ourselves be aware of all of it. Not just that it exists. Not just that one in however-many-people have it. Not just that suicide is happening a lot. Let’s become aware of it like you become aware of a new baby in your house. Let’s become aware of her beauty and her needs and her sounds, even the screams and the cries. Let’s become aware of her hunger and her mess and her responses to stimuli. Let’s become aware of the people with whom she is safe and the people who don’t get the privilege of her company. Let’s become aware of how we hold her, and let us hold her with a gaze that says: welcome, teacher. We’ve got each other. We can do this.

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

Originally published: May 25, 2021
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