You know when you meet someone for the first time and you just “click?” So do I. Meg and I just got back from a whirlwind tour of Calgary to go do something with one of these people. We flew out Tuesday morning and got back late last night. Driving back home, Meg even said, “We were here yesterday, it seems like such a long time ago!”
You see, this was a new experience for us. There were a series of firsts – the first time we’d sponsored an event in another province; the first time we’d travelled out of the province to provide a workshop together; the first time we’d tried to bring an art studio with us on a plane; the first time we did any of this with someone we’d only ever met once. All of this, because when we were told about the project and asked if we’d help, we said, “How can we help?”
The event was Let’s Talk Hope, with our new friends at National Hope Talks, and was a part of Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day. Aside from being a sponsor for the event, our role was to talk about what we’re noticing in our context with regard to mental health and to lead a workshop on resilience and hope and human connection and how to use art as a vehicle to bring hope to ourselves and others.
One of the focuses of the conference was getting beyond talking, and figuring out what to do about mental health, from all perspectives; from professionals in mental health to artists and creatives, to those struggling, and everything in between. All perspectives are welcomed and valued, and solutions are sought – even if they seem like pipe dreams.
I came home on a bit of a high (albeit an exhausted one) because I was so inspired by the crew we joined to make this conference happen, and by all of the over 200 participants and what they brought to the table. Writing this article today, however, is bittersweet for me because today marks the anniversary of a close childhood friend who we lost to suicide. A friend who was immensely talented, had personality in spades, left a child and family behind, and who I assume, could not see a way out or a way to have hope.
This is why hope matters. Mental illness is not just a clever advertising campaign or something for us to feel good about when we do something one day out of the year to raise some awareness. Mental illness can be a matter of life or death.
When we held conversations at the conference about what brings hope, the overwhelming common thread that was repeated time and time again, was the connection. Human connection trumps any other intervention in the books. I want to suggest three ways we can get beyond talking about mental health, and move toward action and creating a hope movement in our communities.
1. We need to get over ourselves and out of our comfort zones.
We’re all here, because we’re not all there, and that’s ok. There, I’ve said it. As someone who has struggled with mental health since the age of 6, I’ve known for a long time that something was different about my brain and body and how that showed up in terms of mental health. I’m now at a place where most days are ok, but this has not always been the case. In fact, there were many years where this was not the case.
Here’s the thing, if we have a mental illness and our belief is that we have to be okay, then we stop connecting with others and cut off the best “treatment” we’ve got. We also stop connecting with each other, which is an invaluable resource and a vital part of our community. If we push this further, even if we don’t struggle with a mental illness, we won’t connect with someone else who is hurting if we aren’t feeling 100% good ourselves for many reasons, not the least of which being our belief that it’s not ok to not be okay, and we can’t possibly help anyone else if we’re not at our best.
Let me tell you, there would be no mental health professionals in this world if this were true, myself included.
2. We have to stop believing that mental health professionals are the only ones who can help someone who is struggling with a mental illness.
Over and over again I was reminded of this while at the conference this week. On our team of presenters and organizers, we had rappers, hip hop artists, spoken word poets, dancers, motivational speakers, visual artists, brain scientists, pastors, business coaches, and more. Guess what? I learned a lot. Some of what others brought out were things that either I wouldn’t have thought of, or really needed reminding of.
Meg presented on using art and journaling to bring resilience and hope, and let me tell you – the feedback was phenomenal. We had one woman come up to us after and explain the role that journaling played for her in her recovery from abusive relationships; moving from wanting to burn all of the entries, to now using them as reminders of where she’s come from, the victories she’s had, and the hope she now has with her new life. It was unbelievably powerful to hear her story and those of many others.
3. We need to remember that there is not a single thing on earth more powerful in recovery from mental illness than relationships and healthy human connection.
This is one of the things that I have been reminded of over and over again in the past few weeks. We now have over 20 years of research proving this, much of it coming from the scientific studies of marriage and relationships from the likes of The Gottman Institute, ICEFFT and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, as well as the trauma research from people like Besel Van Der Kolk.
If we want to give people hope who are struggling with mental illness, we need to be willing to connect with them and be a safe relationship for them. We need to be willing to get down in the mud, or as I often say to clients, jump into the foxhole together. We have to be willing to not be okay with them, and even to suffer with them. This is the core of empathy, which drives connection and healing.
Now, I never said any of this was going to be easy. Being with someone in their hardest times is sometimes incredibly difficult. In fact, sometimes they won’t let us. But we have to keep trying. Our lives and the lives of our loved ones depend on it. We need each other.
One of my new friends reminded me this weekend of a very important principle that can help us with this. She reminded me, after being reminded by a mental health professional in her life, that when someone is hurting, we need to bring them closer, not push them farther away.
If we can all remember to bring the hurting closer, and be willing to suffer with them, and walk alongside them, then we can bring hope. We can give them, and ourselves hope. We can make a difference.
We were talking around the office this week about how there seems to be a week for everything. Admittedly, when we plan our calendar it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. Sometimes I wonder why we need a week for everything – and even, why we need a mental health week. To help us understand why we need a mental health week, I want to tell you a story.
I have a courageous young friend who has battled mental health for many years. This has involved many different treatments, counsellors, psychiatrists, medications, trips to the hospital, and more. This friend has an incredible family, many supportive friends, and others in the community who have been there to help and encourage. When things first began at a very young age, it was tough. For many years things were not stable, and treatments didn’t seem to help. Then, things changed. Life got better, treatments started helping, and things became stable for a number of years. Lately, things have been more difficult again, and life has come to a bit of a standstill. It’s discouraging. It’s disconcerting. It’s heartbreaking. On the upside, the family, friends, and community are still here, but it’s back to square one with treatment planning.
As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is exactly why we need a Mental Health Week. It further occurs to me that the things I feel my friend may need to hear right now may also be what others struggling with the mental health need to hear. This may also be true in terms of what we all need to hear about mental health.
Mental health issues are physiological issues that are no less physiological than cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or any other physical illness.
Often, we hear that mental health is “just in our heads.” This is neither biologically accurate, nor helpful. Mental health is in our head, in our bodies, and in our spirits. Mental health difficulties may involve imbalances in neurotransmitters, physical changes in the structures in the brain, changes in our central and autonomic nervous system, and even changes in function in just about every organ in our body; in addition, it may involve changes in our view of ourselves, our identity, our spirituality, and our belief systems.
What mental health is not, is a result of an individual being a categorical failure as a human being, because they’re not strong enough, because they aren’t trying hard enough, or because they don’t measure up. We don’t say these things of someone with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or otherwise; we need to stop saying these things to ourselves, and others who struggle with mental health.
We are not defined by our illness.
There is a strange phenomenon, it seems, that when someone struggles with mental illness they become defined by it, both in their own minds and especially in the minds of the public. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say in conversation, “Oh, they’re a schizophrenic,” or, “he’s just an addict,” or similar. Sometimes, however, it’s us saying the same things about ourselves. The problem is that in both cases, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the struggle becomes perpetuated.
See, if we’re reduced to being a schizophrenic, an addict, or simply someone who is mentally ill, we lose our true identity. We are no longer a brother, a mother, a father, a sister, a CEO, a firefighter, or an accountant. We are no longer the beloved child of our parents, the one who wears his or her heart on their sleeve, or the one who uses art to enliven the lives of ourselves and others.
If we’re reduced to our illness, we have no identity other than that – the illness. This causes us to lose our perspective on ourselves, our loved ones, and those around us who are in the midst of some of the most difficult times in our lives. If we are reduced to our illness, then there is no hope, we are simply sick, or weak, or worse.
There is always hope.
I don’t believe in hopeless cases. There, I said it. If I did, quite frankly, I’d have the worst job in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone will recover fully and not have to deal with whatever mental health issue it is that plagues them; it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have the grand life that we see everyone around us having on Instagram (which isn’t true anyway, but that’s another article); and it doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy all the time.
What it means, is that although we struggle with mental health, we have not lost our identity; rather, both we and those around us may have lost sight of who it is that we are, and now our job is to get back to our core. It is time to get back to having lived a life worth living and to get back to the essence of what makes us unique.
We are born with natural gifts and abilities, and usually, they are the first things to go when we struggle with mental health or other issues. A little-known fact about me is that I’m a classically trained pianist. I played piano for many years, training with the Royal Conservatory of Music and then training in jazz and blues. Now I play a number of different instruments when I make the time. I love music, it’s one of the few things that no matter what place I’m in, brings me joy. This is true whether I’m playing it myself or listening to one of the greats on a recording.
Music is what has kept me balanced throughout my life when I’ve let it. When I was at my worst, struggling with depression and anxiety, I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to music. It was too much effort, it didn’t seem worth it, I just couldn’t. See, music is a double-edged sword for me – I also have had very high expectations of myself, and historically, I expected to be the best, to never make mistakes, etc., etc., etc. My identity at times became my ability to perform. I’d lost my way.
The truth, however, is that music is part of the core of who I am. When I was trained in The Birkman Method, this came out in spades – right at the top of my interests and passions. I knew this already, however, because when I was able to play music in my recovery, for the joy of it, and the emotional processing of it, and not for the expectation to perform, it helped my recovery more than anything else.
“Music gives me hope.”
Sometimes I work with clients who have lost hope, and I can understand why they have. Their depression is unrelenting, they’ve just discovered their partner has had an affair for the past 10 years, their teenage son is addicted to heroin, or otherwise. Life can be incredibly painful.
Sometimes my job as a counsellor is to hold hope for my clients and to hold hope for those who are struggling until they can hold it themselves.
One thing that I have learned in over a decade of doing this work is that there are no hopeless cases – there is always hope. If you’re reading this and you’re the one struggling, hold on. If you don’t have hope, find someone who can hold it for you. If you’re the one who cares for someone in the struggle, hold hope for them. Encourage them daily. Don’t give up, life can get better for them, and for you.
This is why we need a Mental Health Week. We need a reminder that mental illness is real, and it is physiological, and it is not because we’re weak. We need a reminder that we are no more defined by our illness than we are the size of our shoes. We need a reminder that there is always hope for us and always hope for those we love.
We need a reminder that life can be worth living once again if we keep going.