No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. On this first day of May, during the first hours of Mental Health Month, I actually have placed “celebrate” and “mental health” in the same sentence. I know this has not been the predominant message of our culture. Words more typically associated with “mental health” have traditionally included “shame,” “stigma,” “taboo,” and “secret.” Or think of the action words, which are really more about inaction: “avoid,” “deny,” or “ignore.” Our societal attitudes toward mental health have been unfortunate, because they have contributed to the lack of treatment in generations of persons who have dealt with symptoms of depression, or anxiety, or trauma, or substance abuse, or schizophrenia, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or any of a host of diagnoses. People like you and me. As you can see from the World Health Organization (WHO) quote above, mental illness affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. One in five of us will meet criteria for a mental illness at some point in our lifetimes. Even the other four of us will have family members, friends, and co-workers who struggle. Truth be told, we all struggle, whether it be with brain disease, academic performance, relationship difficulties, financial challenges, or some combination thereof. Sometimes life comes at us hard, and leaves us grappling with more than we can truly manage on our own.
So what are we celebrating, you may ask. We are celebrating the advancements made in the science and art of mental health care that allow persons with one or more mental illnesses to return to previous or improved levels of functioning. Just a few generations ago, persons suffering from mental illness would have likely been institutionalized. Some asylums or sanitoriums, as they were called back them, may have engaged in humane treatment, while other facilities were less likely to demonstrate compassionate care. Deinstitutionalization was not the magic bullet either, as it left adrift those in most need of more intensive forms of care. Then and now, human beings best blossom under the conditions of familial and social support, effective treatment standards in care, and appropriate levels of care given the severity of their conditions. Pharmacological treatment is not indicated for everyone, but often works well in tandem with psychotherapy to provide significant relief in a number of mental illnesses. So we are celebrating that Aunt Sally may be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, yet with the right treatment can raise a strong family and flourish in her career. We are celebrating the reality that Cousin Jamal, once entrenched in opioid addiction, can indeed recover and live a life that is both productive and inspiring. Finally, we are celebrating that this May, for all of Mental Health Month, we emphasize the “health” in “mental health” and pursue practices of wellness that go viral for the rest of the year!
Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.
Licensed Psychologist, Author, Vocalist