I didn’t understand mental health until this year.
My parents didn’t teach me about mental health. I haven’t thought too much about the roots of their parenting philosophies and whatnot; but my mom doesn’t have much faith in therapy, for example. She’s a fan of self-reliance, of suppressing destructive things in your mindspace and finding new replacements, rather than spending time on it directly.
I think there is virtue to this. Tech culture loves stoicism, for example. Practice gratitude and perspective, too; tell yourself that there’s nothing wrong, that things are okay, that you’ll get through it. The end goal is the same as any other mental health technique, I suppose: find people to support you. Find a purpose to rally yourself behind.
There are limitations, though, and I think there’s a lot of overlooked value to being aware of them. Thinking about mental health as mental health and drawing parallels to physical health provides valuable illustrations.
To me, heads-down stoicism is like improving your physical health through training for a sport. You’re not primarily worried about how healthy you are, you’re worried about how well you’re performing, and they just happen to be aligned. This kind of physical health care is awesome, because you’re doing things that feel good and productive, and you also don’t have to waste any time purely thinking about or maintaining your health.
Sometimes, though, exercise isn’t enough, or can even get destructive. If you injure yourself, if you’re ill, or if you have a chronic condition you can’t just push through: in these situations, it’d be foolish to think only of continuing to train. You should seek expert consultation, get medical treatment, and take time to rest and recover.
The same goes for mental health. Most of the time, the best way to take care of your mental health is to not think about it directly. If we have sufficient social support around us, and make progress towards our goals in life, our mental health may be effectively maintained. Given the right circumstances, many people can make it through large chunks of life without ever thinking specifically about their mental health. They may even be able to recover from trauma or dips in mental health only through this passive care.
The danger that comes from this is being unaware of how to assess and take care of your mental health when this passive care isn’t enough. If you’re going through stretches of depression or anxiety, or dealing with trauma, sometimes your normal stoicism and gratitude doesn’t do the trick. Maybe your condition doesn’t worsen, but it’s not improving, either. Maybe you can “think your way out of it,” but that’s like managing a serious infection through diet rather than professional diagnosis and medication. If your condition is genetic or chronic, it’d be like trying to cure cancer purely through diet.
In these cases, just like visiting a doctor early when symptoms arise, being aware of your mental health and seeking help – from your own resources, or a therapist or other professional – can save lives, and be crucial to long-term health. Mental health education trains us to take our own, and others’, symptoms seriously rather than brushing them under the rug; or to know to take time and energy to prioritize yourself and heal, and not feel guilty about it. It may not seem valuable to you now, but these things could make the difference if you or someone in your life runs into serious mental health problems.
I’m writing this as someone currently setting aside time and energy to take care of my mental health. Mental health education initiatives have made a lot of progress in normalizing mental health awareness and care. At least to me, though, there’s still a palpable stigma that hovers around openly prioritizing my mental wellbeing, or seeking professional help and treatment for it. This stigma is present in my upbringing, in the tech culture I’ve immersed myself in, and in society at large. Fortunately, with the help of some amazing friends, it’s a stigma that hasn’t prevented me from getting the help I’ve needed, if a little late. That’s not true in many cases, though.
Some of you likely didn’t experience any relevations reading this post. Others probably still don’t see the value in dedicated mental health care. That’s okay – with all the messaging that I got about mental health, I didn’t understand what issues that warranted seeking help were like until I encountered them myself. Maybe one day mental health awareness will be de-stigmatized enough for this recognition to come sooner.
For now, I’m immensely grateful for the friends who have supported me and shared their experiences, urging me to seek care for myself; and for being lucky enough to have access to appropriate care. Where I can, I hope to be that supportive friend for others. And to all the readers of this post, I hope it will urge you to prioritize yourself, take care, and seek help if the situation calls for it.