This May, Carolyn Ewing, President of the Board of Directors for the Mental Health Association of the Eastern Shore, has issued a challenge for Mental Health Month: Create a mentally healthy community.
We are all painfully aware that in recent years the incidence of suicide, drug misuse, and anxiety and depression has increased. This unpleasant reality poses a challenge not just for those working in the mental health field, but for the entire community.
The key to developing a mentally healthy community is to increase awareness of the prevalence of mental health problems and an understanding that mental health problems are treatable. More than 50% of all mental illnesses present prior to age 24, but only 20% of children and adolescents receive treatment. One of the reasons is the stigma of acknowledging a mental health problem, but another major obstacle is the failure of parents, friends, colleagues, and employers to identify the warning signs and provide support and encouragement to seek help. A third obstacle is that many people perceive seeking help as being weak and vulnerable.
What are some of the behavioral changes that should be red flags? Sudden lack of interest in an activity a person has previously enjoyed, increased isolation or major changes in social interaction, deterioration of academic performance, poor job performance, dramatic changes in eating and sleeping habits, sullenness or oppositional or unusually aggressive behavior. Sometimes, parents are tempted to dismiss such behaviors as “normal” adolescent behavior and friends perceive behavioral changes as a predictable result of a break-up, a new boss, or other life event, if they notice.
Just because one can identify a possible cause of behavioral changes does not mean the family member or friend has the skills to cope with the problem. If problematic behavior persists, the responsible act is to encourage the person to seek help.
Unfortunately, with the advent of cell phones, social media and lots of structured activities, many families and friends spend less time interacting face to face. One result is that people lose the ability to “read” other people, to note body language, intonation, facial expressions, all those cues that tell us what is going on behind the texted words. As people become more isolated, they are less willing than ever to acknowledge their vulnerability. Without that acknowledgement, people do not seek help, and the problems simply become more entrenched.
Ideally, mentally healthy communities begin with a strong family structure where problems can be observed, where coping skills can be learned, and where one develops a sense of confidence. In the absence of that family structure, schools, friends, places of worship need to be trained in the skills to recognize mental health problems, be knowledgeable about the resources in the community and provide activities and discussions that encourage developing healthy coping skills. We need more training in the community in achieving and maintaining mental wellness.
Each of us needs to be aware that, despite differences, we share a common humanity and life journey that inevitably encompasses pain, doubt and loss along with joy, excitement and contentment. We rarely know when we encounter people which part of the journey that day represents, but we do know that how we interact with people impacts their sense of wellbeing. We are the community; we are the instruments of change.
To learn more and to view upcoming events, visit the Mental Health Association of the Eastern Shore website at www.mhamdes.org.