Mental Health Blogs
SEPT | By Jody Serrano
When you start having mental health problems, no one tells you they might take years to resolve. It’s understandable—mental health professionals are often trying to help you get through the day, finish school, keep going to work, or deal with a variety of other struggles. Over the years, every time I went through a depression or felt my anxiety skyrocket again, I felt like there was something wrong with me. That I had failed.
This year, I especially struggled with depression. I was haunted by the treatment I had received at a toxic company. At home and online, I was plagued by the daily death, despair, and isolation brought on by the pandemic. Money played a role too, as I’ve been financially supporting my sick mom for years. Often, I would lie awake in my bed at night for hours worrying about one thing, and another, and another. In times like those, the weight on my shoulders felt unbearable.
“Maintaining good mental health is hard work and can take a long time, but you are not alone, and you have many options.”
On the day that I tearfully told my doctor and my therapist that I needed help again, I felt a little lighter afterwards. Maybe it was the experience from going through this so many times, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel guilty for being depressed and anxious. I was just relieved to be getting help. When I told my family and friends about my struggles, they weren’t exasperated, but instead offered their support.
Most importantly, on that day I realized that we are all a product of our life stories. I’m grateful to be where I am now, but it hasn’t been easy: From a young age, I’ve known hunger, abandonment, loneliness, and mockery. I’ve even had moments where I haven’t wanted to live. But instead of trying to ignore those chapters of my life, this year I’ve learned to accept that they are part of my journey, and they may always be. They’re just not the main story. This understanding, which is perhaps obvious to some, has made all the difference for me.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege of talking about their mental health journey because they’re not with us anymore. I was almost one of them. Mental illness is an important risk factor for suicide, which was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019, accounting for more 47,500 deaths. That year, 12 million Americans seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Over the years, I’ve put off getting help many times. At times, when I got help, I pushed back against it because I felt like getting help meant acknowledging that I was somehow “defective.”
Today, Sept. 10, is Suicide Prevention Day, so I want to share some lessons I’ve learned throughout my battle. And although everyone’s struggle is different, I hope this advice gives people some ideas to help them move forward. Overall, I want everyone who reads this to know that maintaining good mental health is hard work and can take a long time, but you are not alone, and you have many options.
Our society prides itself on pushing through at all costs, but that can sometimes lead people to postpone or decline getting help when they need it. Sometimes we can even receive these messages from friends and family who tell us to “tough it out” or to “get over it and appreciate what we have.” And while their intentions are good, you may get the message to keep quiet about your mental health struggles or try to get through them alone.
“I avoided using the words “depression” and “anxiety” for years because I didn’t want to be seen as different from other people.”
Over the years, I’ve put off getting help many times. At times, when I got help, I pushed back against it because I felt like getting help meant acknowledging that I was somehow “defective.” I’ve also isolated myself during periods where I was depressed because I didn’t want to “burden” or “scare” anyone. In the end, though, the person I was hurting most was myself. Today, I regularly count on my psychologist, psychiatrist, and family doctor. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.
It can take a while to find a therapist that you connect with and who gives the help you need. Even though it’s hard and frustrating, don’t give up on finding them. It took me years to find a good psychologist. I happened to find her in the historic Spanish city of Segovia when I studied abroad. From her, I received kindness, compassion, empathy, and a human compass that helps me find my way out of the dark and painful mazes in my head.
To this day, she celebrates my victories, offers comfort when I cry, and challenges the painful ideas and expectations in my head. She also taught me the most important lesson on my mental health journey: “The only person who’s going to be with you for the rest of your life is you, so your focus should always be on taking care of you.”
If your wrist was broken, you likely wouldn’t refuse painkillers or surgery. Yet, the choice to receive medical treatment for mental health problems is often difficult to make. But it shouldn’t be.
I resisted taking medication for my depression and anxiety for years because I didn’t want my friends and family to think I was “crazy” or that there was “something wrong with me.” A few months ago, I reached a point where I didn’t know what to do or how words could calm the storm in my head. I realized that I needed help, and I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. It’s been years since I’ve had the emotional stability that medication has given me, and I regret not being brave enough to accept that treatment as a possibility sooner, simply because I was scared of what others would think.
I know what it’s like to lose friends who can’t deal with your mental health issues. And you might not blame them; seeing someone they love in a bad place can be scary, especially when they don’t know what they can do to help.
Yet, that experience has also made me treasure the people who have stayed with me, even during the time when I wasn’t sure I wanted to wake up the next day. These are people who have seen me cry and wrestle with the demons in my head countless times and have still always responded with love and tried to help me. Surrounding yourself with these types of people makes it so much easier to focus on improving yourself and getting better. With my friends and family, I can talk freely and not worry about getting judged or being cut off.
I avoided using the words “depression” and “anxiety” for years because I didn’t want to be seen as different from other people. Recently, though, I’ve started to incorporate these words into my daily vocabulary. I don’t shout them to the sky—everyone has the right to privacy, after all—but I don’t shy away from them either, partially because being open about my own challenges can help reduce the stigma for all of us.
Last month, I started working out with a new personal trainer at the gym. As I suffered doing leg exercises, I listened to him talk about how his girlfriend was going through a hard time with her family and how he was worried about her. I shared some of my struggles with him and told him I talk with a therapist regularly and take medication for my depression and anxiety, and told him to think about having a conversation about mental health with his girlfriend. He appreciated my honesty. And if she’s struggling, maybe he’ll be able to encourage her to find the help she needs.
One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with over the years has been perfectionism. If something didn’t go the way I planned it, I would start to break down. With my therapist, I’ve worked on these issues, and it’s taken a while, but I’ve learned to step away from that expectation of perfection. (I believe this pressure is especially cruel to women, who are often expected to be successful, slim, well-dressed, mothers, wives, and forever young all at the same time.) You and your support system can come up with strategies for talking back to that voice in your head that demands perfection.
“It’s taken me almost 10 years to get to a good place with my mental health. I’ve felt like throwing in the towel many times, but I’m so glad that I didn’t.”
There have been times where I’ve avoided Twitter and Instagram for months at a time because of what I would find there. On Twitter, there was only success, people getting amazing jobs, and doing amazing things, with a side of its common toxicity. It gave me the impression that if I wasn’t doing great and amazing things, I was a loser. When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was worried about being bullied.
Meanwhile, on Instagram everything was perfect. Everyone was living a perfect life, even during a pandemic. Considering that I was working at home, hardly traveled, and preferred sweatpants to cute outfits, I felt my life sucked. But, of course, social media tells a unique type of lie that presents life stories that are glossed over, edited, and shared in the best light.
That doesn’t mean I avoid social media altogether, but I’m more aware of recognizing what I’m really seeing and try not to let other peoples’ posts make me feel bad.
Ever since I was little, I felt that people didn’t see me unless I was being impressive—winning a contest or ranking at the top of a class. The feeling stayed with me through high school, college, and into the work force. And while it has done some good in a way, I learned that when I think of my accomplishments as the only things that matter, not only is it exhausting, but also becomes heartbreaking when I can’t produce anything at all.
In Spain, where I’ve been living for five years, there’s a common saying that’s stuck with me: “We work to live. We don’t live to work.” I’m continuing to learn that my value comes from being a person, living my life, and continuing to grow.
It’s taken me almost 10 years to get to a good place with my mental health. I’ve felt like throwing in the towel many times, but I’m so glad that I didn’t. I wish I had known these things years earlier, but sometimes you have to learn in your own time, and in your own way. Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m cured, or that I won’t struggle. But it means that I’ll keep fighting, learning, and living. I hope you will, too.
SEPT 2021 | By Christine Saenz as told to Sarah Z. Wexler
I always knew I was different, but I had no idea why. By the time I was eight, I truly felt like something was wrong with me. I was always a moody kid, needed a lot of alone time, and was picked on by my cousins for being grouchy all the time.
When I was 10, my insomnia started, and that triggered my first bipolar episodes, although at that point I didn’t know what there was a name for them. No one talked about feelings or mental health in my house, and I didn’t want to tell my parents because I worried they’d think I was crazy (heck, I did).
I learned I had to hide my depressive episodes—and I did it well. I developed a defense mechanism by being a bubbly, approachable person. I pretended to be fun and laughed a lot in public while stowing away my dark feelings and the need to cry. I realized this was part of the reason I felt so worn out all the time, because after keeping up the facade of being someone else, I had to spend a lot of time alone to recharge. Yet when I was finally alone, dark and sad feelings quickly overcame me. Nobody knew what I was struggling with—not my teachers, boyfriend, or friends. It was incredibly draining to keep up the act, so I didn’t want to go to school and often skipped when I didn’t have it in me to pretend I was OK.
Because no one in my life knew the truth, no one was able to encourage me to get help.
This defense served me well over the years, in that it helped me develop relationships and friendships, and allowed me to keep a professional job. But it also really hurt me. Because no one in my life knew the truth, that also meant that no one was able to encourage me to get the help I really needed.
I got married in my early twenties, and kept my episodes hidden from my husband, too. I still didn’t even know what bipolar was, and I thought that if I told people how I actually felt—so depressed that I sometimes wanted to disappear—they’d think I was an awful person, because I had so much to be grateful for. That was especially true after I had my first two children. I cried constantly and couldn’t bond with my kids, and all the other moms I knew would say stuff like “this is the most beautiful and meaningful experience of my life.” Meanwhile, I was thinking things like, “I’m miserable and regret becoming a mom.” At the time I thought it was strictly postpartum depression (PPD), but now I think my undiagnosed bipolar was also a factor. In the end, my constant depressive periods took a toll on my marriage, and my husband and I got a divorce.
He refused to believe I was sick and said I was just being selfish. I again felt so alone.
In my early thirties, I married again and had two more children. Once again I suffered from terrible PPD. I had panic attacks in bed, and could never sleep because I was so busy worrying that I’d somehow harm my youngest child. I finally went to see a psychiatrist, who said I needed to be hospitalized for depression. My husband was completely opposed to the idea—he refused to believe I was sick and said I was just being selfish. Three months later, he left me.
I began seeing a psychiatrist regularly. He diagnosed me with depression and prescribed an antidepressant, which made me extremely manic: I went to the office at 4 am because I couldn’t sleep anyway, was hypersexual, and took on extra projects at work. When I told the doctor about my insomnia, he prescribed a sedative to take two or three times a day max. I found myself taking one every hour because I was so agitated. At my lowest, I was popping up to 20 pills in a day. Finally, I called my doctor and told him I felt like I wanted to jump out of my skin and run away from myself. He told me to go immediately to a psychiatric hospital. I’m so glad I actually listened.
At the psychiatric hospital, I was sedated and evaluated. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings with emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). Rather than feeling shame from the stigma of being mentally ill, at that moment I felt such sweet relief—finally, there’s a name for what I’ve felt my whole life!
I was in the hospital for 10 days, and the medication I was given made me feel childlike, innocent, and unashamed. Being on the proper medication in the hospital allowed me to feel vulnerable enough to call and reach out to people. I told everyone about my diagnosis.
From the outside, I had everything together, but on the inside, I was completely falling apart.
My coworkers were shocked. They’d known me as a polished, hard-working people pleaser. From the outside, I looked like I had everything together, but what they couldn’t see was that on the inside, I was completely falling apart.
Both friends and family came to visit me in the hospital to make sure I was OK. I felt this incredible freedom knowing that I didn’t need to keep my secret anymore. Everyone knew I wasn’t perfect and that I had bipolar—and they still loved me. Even my second ex-husband told me he regretted how he handled things, and we’re friends now.
My children went to live full-time with their dads so I could focus on my recovery. I took eight weeks off my job as a human resources manager.
With my doctor’s guidance, I tried several prescriptions, gave up drinking, made rigid routines around my sleep, and started cognitive-behavioral therapy to maintain my stability. My therapist suggested I try painting as a way to calm myself when I’m having an episode of anxiety and depression, and it really worked for me. I absolutely fell in love with the way painting allowed the inner child in me to run wild. I paint every day now. I still have my day job, but art has been a lifeline for me—one of the best tools in my tool belt of healthy coping mechanisms.
I also tried to join some support groups for people with bipolar, but I didn’t find a lot of other people who were in the same situation of being bipolar but still high-functioning enough to keep a professional job. So I decided to start Facebook and Instagram pages to honestly and openly share my journey, in hopes that I could find others like me, create a community, and trade resources. And it worked—I ended up getting DMs from people in all walks of life: a famous radio DJ, investment fund managers, lawyers, and so many others. I don’t go a day without getting contacted by someone telling me that they—or someone they love—is struggling.
We are sometimes each other’s lifeline in the form of a DM.
Now I’m 48, and I’ve been running my Facebook page for nine years and my Instagram for four. My online community is 40,000 people strong, filled with like-minded, bipolar individuals, or people who are affected by someone who has a bipolar diagnosis. We are sometimes each other’s lifeline in the form of a DM. We ask each other simple questions like Did you eat? Have you showered? Did you do one good thing for yourself today?
Today, I’m able to go weeks (and sometimes even several years) between manic episodes. I’m also now able to spot signs of the beginning of an episode. When that happens, I immediately reach out to my therapist to help settle me down and keep me from spiraling. Certain situations can trigger episodes as well. If I try to go out socially more than once a week, I can feel it happening. My body and mind tell me when I’m doing too much and not resting enough to recharge—the key for me is just listening to it.
I took two years off from dating, just to work on me, and I finally felt ready to jump in again earlier this year. On my first date with my now-boyfriend, I laid it all on the table and told him about my diagnosis and history. I expected him to run for the hills! But he said he saw me as a person who was honest, self-aware, and who liked who I was now. He and I have been together for eight months and are very much in love, and I feel better equipped to be in a relationship than I ever have before.
Looking back, it may have seemed intense that I told basically everyone I knew I had bipolar the minute I was diagnosed. But it was truly the best thing that I could’ve done. My honesty and vulnerability at the beginning of my treatment journey was immediately matched by the love and support of those around me. It’s that support that gave me the strength to tell the world, and to keep sharing my story. Hopefully that helps other people going through mental health issues to feel safe opening up about it, sans stigma or shame.
SEPT 2021 | Mental Health America
According to several studies and reports, teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in the country. The American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey found that 61 percent of teachers said their jobs were always or often stressful—more than double the rate of non-teaching working adults—and 58 percent said they had poor mental health due to stress levels . That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and since then, the transition to online learning, debates over reopening, and individual safety concerns are making teachers’ mental health worse. 
If you’re feeling tired and disengaged, there’s a good chance it’s related to trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and/or “battle fatigue.” Teachers are often focused on taking care of and supporting others, but without prioritizing your wellbeing, those stress levels won’t lift. Your mental health isn’t only important to you—teacher wellness is also linked to stability in schools and student achievement. 
Set boundaries early on – and hold them. Expressing your needs is necessary. Whether your school has gone virtual or not, you may be in more constant contact with parents that you’re used to. You can’t be on-the-clock at all times, so set office hours for remote teaching—even for young kids. A 2-hour block a few times a week lets students (and parents) know when they can reach you immediately and allows you to protect your free time. Schedule time to respond to other requests or let students’ families know that you’re unavailable after 5pm and will return any emails or calls the following day. If your school goes virtual, give yourself a dedicated workspace at home to signal to both yourself and others that you’re in work mode.
Focus on what you can control. COVID-19 has taken a lot of certainty away from everyone—controlling what you’re able to will help give you back structure and a sense of security that you’ve likely been craving. You’re in charge of how you spend your free time, your priorities, and your mindset. Check in with yourself: Are your news sources trustworthy? Do you need a break from media exposure? What can you do to boost your own sense of safety? Get involved in policy decisions in your district, attend school board meetings, and participate in your union to voice your opinions on school plans.
Move your body. Teachers are often on their feet all day and spend a lot of time moving around the classroom. It may not seem like much, but you’re actually releasing a lot of energy through that constant movement. If your school has gone virtual, you may be sitting a lot more. Set a timer to remind yourself to get up, even if it’s just for a 30-second stretch or walk around your house or apartment. If you want more consistent movement, think about using a yoga ball for a chair, get a standing desk, or buy a mini exercise bike for under your desk.
Stay in touch with friends and family. Social connection is crucial during times of hardship, so lean on your support network. You aren’t the only one trying to adjust. Feeling isolated or unsupported can make things worse. Reach out to that colleague who seems to “get” you, the person who always makes you laugh, or someone else who you can count on to validate your feelings. A short conversation can go a long way in helping you feel less alone.
Keep up with the self-care. One of the best ways to ensure mental wellness is by having a strong foundation. Make sure you get at least 7 hours of sleep, eat a nutritious diet, spend time outside, and exercise regularly. Don’t forget to work in some other self-care activities like journaling or meditation—write it into your schedule so you don’t make excuses! Self-care can be hard to do in between creating lesson plans, teaching, communicating with parents and taking care of other responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, but it’s important.
Maintain reasonable expectations. Life isn’t “business as usual” right now, no matter how much you may want it to be. Work on shifting your expectations—don’t frame current experiences as “terrible,” look at them as “different.” Give yourself time and space to adjust to your new normal instead of pressuring yourself to act how you did before COVID-19. Be patient with others—some of your students have probably been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and have their minds on things other than school. And set small, realistic goals for yourself, especially with distance learning. Remember that you don’t have control over your students’ environment, background noise, workspace, or parental support. But you can still help make sure every student has the opportunity to succeed, by giving students access to you and the necessary materials.
Check in on each other. Just a genuine “how are you doing?” can really help a fellow teacher feel supported and more connected to the people around them. Vulnerability can be hard, so you may need to open up first to show you’re sincere. If someone tells you they’re struggling, let them know they have your support and if you can’t talk then, that you’ll reach out soon. When you follow up, make sure to listen to what they need; some people may need help finding resources, while others may want some time to vent with someone who gets it.
Keep each other accountable for self-care. Just a genuine “how are you doing?” can really help a fellow teacher feel supported and more connected to the people around them. Vulnerability can be hard, so you may need to open up first to show you’re sincere. If someone tells you they’re struggling, let them know they have your support and if you can’t talk then, that you’ll reach out soon. When you follow up, make sure to listen to what they need; some people may need help finding resources, while others may want some time to vent with someone who gets it.
Express gratitude. Practicing gratitude is a great way to give yourself a more positive outlook. Try to name three things you’re thankful for each day. Thank your coworkers when they do something to help you out or make your day a bit easier and let your students and their parents know you appreciate their hard work and flexibility. It’s a win-win: it will boost your mood, make others feel appreciated and noticed, and help you all feel more connected to your community.
Take time to laugh. Humor can be an effective coping tool during scary and tense times. Don’t be afraid to lighten the mood by sending memes or sharing a funny story—just be mindful of your timing and audience.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues. A lot of people have trouble opening up about how they’re feeling, and others may not even realize that they’re struggling if their mind is constantly focused on work. If you’re at school in-person, you can probably pick up on which of your colleagues or students are having a harder time than others. Typical body language varies, but if you notice a change like less eye contact or moving or talking slower, it’s worth bringing up. If your school is virtual, think about who you haven’t heard from lately that you may have expected to. Reach out to those individuals—there’s no need for anyone to suffer alone. If you aren’t comfortable doing so, mention what you’ve noticed to a colleague that they are closer with or a supervisor.
Lend each other support. There is a lot of power in shared experiences. People need social connection, and mutual feelings of vulnerability and stress often create some of the strongest social bonds.  Start up a weekly support call with a group of friends, grade-level teachers across your district, or all teachers at your school. Planning for this makes it a priority and gives you all a safe space to vent, listen, and problem-solve together. You can also help each other with work logistics—if you love teaching a certain subject or unit, offer to share your lesson plan with other grade level teachers and they can share theirs with you to split up the burden.
If you still feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and feel as though your stress is affecting how you function every day, you may be experiencing signs of a mental health condition, like depression or anxiety.
Take a screen at MHAScreening.org to see if you may be at risk. Once you get the results, MHA will provide you with more information and help you to figure out next steps.
1. American Federation of Teachers. (2017). 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf
2. Mader, J. (2020, August 6). As we talk about reopening schools, are the teachers ok? The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/as-we-talk-about-reopening-schools-are-the-teachers-ok/
3. Cox, A., Solomon, B., & Parris, D. (2018, May 8). Teacher well-being is a critical and often overlooked part of school health. https://www.childtrends.org/blog/teacher-well-being-is-a-critical-and-often-overlooked-part-of-school-health
4. Seppala, E. (2012). How the stress of disaster brings people together. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-stress-of-disaster-brings-people-together/
SEPT 10, 2021 | By Joe Dibert
On February 17, 2020, I was at a crossroads, deciding whether I wanted to live or die. After contemplating suicide for two days, it seemed like that was the only answer. I had battled depression for years, but I never told anyone how I was feeling.
I was raised to believe that discussing mental health — or any feelings at all — was a sign of weakness. I was told that the only way to address emotional issues was to “get over it.” So that is what I did. But burying the pain and ignoring my feelings, I would come to learn, was not the answer to my recovery or inner peace.
I internalized my pain and “got by” for years. I got married, raised a beautiful daughter and began work as a probation officer, which I loved. But in the Fall of 2019, I began to feel different, both physically and emotionally. I withdrew from everyone around me, becoming visibly distant, but always pretending that nothing was wrong.
My wife would ask me if I was all right, and I would say yes and come up with an excuse about work or something else. My symptoms, however, continued to intensify; I could feel something was going on in my brain, but I just couldn’t explain it. I was profoundly sad, and I had recurring thoughts of worthlessness. I experienced a constant internal monologue of negative self-talk affirming my low opinion of myself.
About two weeks prior to reaching my crisis point, I told my wife for the first time that I wasn’t feeling “right,” and I had made an appointment with a counselor. Due to the counselor’s schedule, I would have to wait for weeks for my appointment.
I told myself I would hold on — but, again, I was lying to myself. The thoughts of suicide became more intense as the days went by, and I waited for the “miracle” of seeing a counselor. The weekend before my appointment, I became so consumed by thoughts of ending my life that I developed a plan to harm myself.
On February 17, 2020, my wife left for work. It was a government holiday, so I stayed home. My daughter was leaving to return to college after visiting home for the weekend. As I watched her drive down the street, I believed that this was going to be the last time I saw her. I started to cry and begged God to help me. I struggled with both wanting and not wanting everything to end.
As I grappled with this inner conflict, a voice told me to call someone. I picked up the phone and called the Indiana University Health psychiatric floor. I told the person on the other line that I was in trouble, and he responded by telling me they did not have any beds and to call outpatient services.
I followed his instructions, but my call to outpatient services went to voicemail. I called the psychiatric floor back and insisted that I desperately needed help, only to be referred to the local emergency room. Finally, I called my wife and told her that I was suicidal. She came home and took me to the hospital.
At the hospital, I completed an evaluation and was admitted to a psychiatric care facility for four days. I was ashamed and humiliated at first. But after the hospitalization and participating in a month-long outpatient treatment program for my depression, I gained a whole new perspective.
Being in a support group with others struggling with the same issue was eye-opening — and, frankly, a relief. With the help of this new community, I was able to cope with my symptoms and learn to pay attention to my feelings. For the first time, I truly understood that I had resources and people who cared about me who were willing to help.
This new perspective, and my subsequent recovery, would not have been possible if I had chosen to end my life. I took a chance on asking for help, and, as a result, I am still here today. I did more than survive — my life has become enjoyable and fulfilling.
Being vulnerable and asking for help is scary, but with the help from the right people, that feeling is short-lived. I hope that by sharing my story of recovery, anyone experiencing symptoms of depression will feel empowered to seek help. I found a way back, and so can you.
SEPT 2021 | Kelly Douglas
If you’re a parent to a child with a health condition, you may worry that you can’t meet all of their needs. When your child struggles with their symptoms, you may feel like a failure because you can’t stop them or access “better” treatment. But no matter how old your child is or what they’re facing, you are doing enough, and that’s your greatest success.
You may have fought for your child, paving the way for inclusion wherever they go. You may have faced professional recommendations with which you disagree or had to listen to your child’s weaknesses spelled out in meetings with their care team. You may have seen your child experience discrimination or bullying and felt absolutely powerless to stop it. But even though you may have struggled silently with how best to help your child and address their challenges in a way that empowers them, you fought back — sharing their potential, coming up with plans to involve them in activities and insisting that their schools and programs listen to you. You may feel like you’re losing the constant fight to give your child the most fulfilling life, but no matter the outcome, you’re victorious because you care enough about your child’s well-being to make their world easier to navigate.
You may have seen your child turn from happy to despondent as they battle their conditions — and feel powerless to help them. You may have witnessed them turn to reckless behavior or harmful coping mechanisms and want nothing more than for your child to be as carefree and innocent as they were when they were younger. You may have tried to curb their destructive impulses or seek help for them, only for your child to revert back to the same behavior that makes you fear for them. You may have beaten yourself up again and again for not being able to make them happy again, turn them away from their vices, or force them into accepting help, but no matter what, your willingness to listen to your child, connect them with resources and love them when they may feel disconnected and unlovable is powerful — and it could even save your child.
FEB. 26, 2021 | By Claire Nana
Substance use is no small problem. It affects a vast amount of people in lasting and pervasive ways. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 27 million people are problem drug users. Chances are, you are more likely than not to have a loved one who either has, or is currently coping with, addiction.
The cornerstone of addiction is that it continues despite harmful social, interpersonal problems that are exacerbated by substance use. This may also mean that activities like sports, work and time with friends are often cast aside as the addiction becomes worse.
Because of the encompassing nature of addiction and the fact that it draws a person away from friends and family, it also takes them away from the very support system they need to recover. According to Yohan Hari, the author of Chasing the Scream, addiction isn’t just a substance abuse problem. It is also a social problem. Hari goes on to say that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.
This is precisely why reaching out to someone facing addiction can be so important, but also so difficult. Many of us have no idea where to start, and if the person is close to us, they have likely also done things that have been hurtful to us. So, how do we reach out to them?
One of the most pervasive feelings someone with substance use disorder experiences is shame. They know what they are doing is hurtful, and they also know that, because of this, friends and family look at them differently than they once did. This is also why they keep using, to drown out these feelings. To reach them then, the first step is to avoid judgment. Do not tell them that what they are doing is wrong, stupid or hurtful. Don’t ask them why they are doing it. Just simply let them know that you would like to connect with them.
As Hari notes, those facing addiction can feel incredibly alone and isolated. They are poignantly aware of how they have become more attached to their substance than they have to the people around them. Although they desire connection, they are also afraid of it. Connection brings with it responsibility and consistency, which can feel impossible when battling substance use.
If a person has already lost many friends and family, they may be afraid of losing more, and are always “on the lookout” for signs of abandonment. For this reason, one of the most important things you can do when reaching out to someone is to provide reassurance that you are there for them.
Because recovery from a substance use disorder can be a long and messy process, it is normal for someone to fear abandonment should they relapse. Relapse, however, is part of recovery. When reaching out to someone facing substance use, it can be incredibly powerful to state that, even if they relapse on their way to recovery, you will continue to support them.
For people who have not experienced substance use issues personally, it can defy logic. A person continues to do something that causes harm to themselves and those around them, and yet they will not stop. It is simply hard to understand. Moreover, because they have probably experienced judgment and criticism, some may feel that sober friends and family can’t understand.
However, a powerful way to begin the process of understanding what underlies an addiction is simply to use curiosity. Statements like, “I’m not sure if I can understand, but I’d like to know what it is like for you when you use your drug, and how it makes you feel,” or “I wonder if it is like anything in my life that may help me understand.” Using curiosity in this way opens the door for communication, empathy and connection.
It is possible that even after trying to understand what underlies your loved one’s addiction, you still won’t understand. However, this does not mean that you cannot support them. Understanding is helpful and can be incredibly powerful, but it is not requisite for support. Many facing addiction feel that if you don’t “get it” you can’t, or won’t, help them. So, it is important that you tell them directly that you will support them despite not understanding their substance use.
Coping with a loved one’s substance use can be a trying and messy process. It is filled with ups and downs, unexpected challenges and hurt feelings. Yet even given all of that, it is an incredible opportunity to connect with your loved one in a profound way. By supporting them throughout their mental health journey, you lay the groundwork for both recovery and connection.
Claire Nana, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in post-traumatic growth, optimal performance and wellness. She has worked with the recovery population developing wellness programs, in residential fitness camps as a clinical therapist, and in private practice counseling individuals and families. Shas written over 30 continuing education courses on a variety of topics, including nutrition and mental health, wound care, post-traumatic growth, motivation and stigma.
May 21, 2021 | By Karen Richards, Writer, and Mental Health First Aider
In December 2020, I took a Youth Mental Health First Aid class. This training teaches parents, teachers and other adults how to support young people with mental health challenges, including how to use nonjudgmental listening skills and how to approach a young person and encourage them to seek treatment if needed.
One of the first things we learned is the difference just one person can make in a teen’s life by simply asking, “Are you OK?” Sometimes, it’s all you can do to calm your own internal storm long enough to connect and hold space for them, but the effort can truly make a difference.
In the training, we talked about a quote from the movie “The Replacements:” “Like a duck on a pond. On the surface everything looks calm, but beneath the water those little feet are churning a mile a minute.” This is how parents and caregivers often need to be when talking to a teen about mental health. This is now what I try to do when talking to my teenage son, Gabe.
Gabe has depression and anxiety. When Gabe treads into territory that scares me — his feelings of despair and discontent — when he threatens with an ardent rush of words to convince both of us nothing matters and nothing will ever get better, I take a deep breath and present my carefully arranged features to him, holding my hands in my lap so he will not see them quivering. I ask him, “What can I do?” and wait in the silence for the answer.
Because of COVID-19, I took Youth MHFA virtually. During the training, I wrote bullet points in my notebook, each marked with a star:
The training reminds me that Gabe is more than the sum of his challenges — though that is sometimes difficult for both of us to see or believe. Often his sadness and stubborn anxiety take up all the space in the room. There’s nothing left for laughter, lightness, or the faint memory of the blond boy he once was, the one who ran through the neighborhood with a plastic sword and eye patch singing, “What do you do with a scurvy pirate?”
We split into breakout rooms for a role-playing exercise on suicide prevention. Each of us is paired with another participant. We must ask one another a single question, from the heart, gazing through the surreal lens of the computer’s camera. A question we are not to answer, just to pose. One I have been asked before, but never asked anyone else: Are you thinking about killing yourself?
I speak it as soft as a prayer, the way I spoke in the dark confessional as a child. I feel like I might faint. My partner’s kind eyes regard me from the Zoom window until we return to the larger group to share our experiences. I begin, “I’ve never asked this question before, even though I have a son who struggled with an episode of severe depression. I wasn’t sure how to do it.” But then I stop myself. That’s not true. Or it’s a half-truth.
“I was afraid to ask,” I tell the group of kind strangers. “Because I was afraid to hear the answer. I wish I knew then what I know now. I feel like now I could ask it, no matter what.”
I take another deep breath and turn off my video as people share their experiences. “The truth will make you stronger,” I tell myself.
We end the day-long session reviewing guidelines about delivering reassurance to teenagers, the importance of offering both facts and hope. In this country, an adolescent dies of suicide once every hour and 29 minutes — the time it takes to watch a movie on Netflix or bake a cake from scratch. The conditions of the pandemic have increased loneliness and depression for teens, isolating them further from the world around them, from the face-to-face peer interactions they need to develop and thrive. Knowledge can take them only so far. They need to know things, but they also need to feel. Enter hope — an invisible protective cloak — a bit like a superpower: the ability to envision a different, better future that does not currently exist.
I remember saying to Gabe once, “I know you might not believe it, but you won’t feel this way forever. You have things ahead of you, a whole life you can’t see or imagine yet. But it’s there waiting for you.” He just looked at me and went back to his phone.
But I keep saying the kinds of words I now know plant seeds for him of the life he could have. It’s my job to keep the lights on when he comes home late, make his favorite meals, bring the puppy to his bedroom in the mornings before school.
It’s as if I’m saying, “See, life is still here for you, even if you don’t want it or don’t care. Just reach out your hand. Let me show you. I’ll stay with you as long as it takes.”
June 25, 2020 | By: Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, MSHS, FAAP & Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP
Given the tragic and racially-charged current events, many parents are wrestling with their own feelings, the hopes they have for their children, and the difficulty of helping those children thrive in a world full of racial bias.
Parents may better face today’s challenges with an understanding of how racial bias works in children, as well as strategies to help them deal with and react to racial differences.
Children learn about racial differences and racial bias from an early age and learn from their first teachers—their parents—how to deal with and react to these differences.
The process of learning racial bias is a lot like learning a new language (e.g., a child raised bilingual vs. a child who starts learning Spanish in junior high). Biology determines a critical early learning period as well as a later window where learning is much harder.
But like language immersion, children exposed to society will gain fluency in racial bias even if their parents do nothing.
There are three strategies that parents can use to help their children deal with racial bias:
What Racism Felt Like to a 7-Year-Old:
“You can’t be Han Solo…you’re black.” It hit me out of nowhere. I so was confused. I mean, my skin was certainly darker than anyone else in the group, but since when was that going to stop the game about space aliens? I assumed they sensed my confusion and offered me the role as Lando instead, because “…he looked more like you.” It was the day that my mother explained racism to me.
Parents must first confront their own biases, so that their example is consistent with messages of racial and ethnic tolerance.
Talking about race is not racist. It’s OK—and important. From a young age, children may have questions about racial differences and parents must be prepared to answer them. But, it’s important to keep your child’s developmental readiness in mind.
These conversations begin to lay the groundwork for your child to accept and respect everyone’s differences and similarities. As children mature, the answers to questions will become more complex. These are moments to learn what your child understands or is struggling to understand about racial bias.
To create a culture of inclusiveness, we all must look at and acknowledge our biases, so we can do something about the ones that are unfair or cause harm to others—like racial bias. Understanding the way people feel about and behave toward those outside their own group can help communities heal after a tragedy, as well as prevent future ones.
January 28, 2021 | by Charlotte Grainger
We can’t stress enough what a major role stress plays in our everyday lives, yet we seldom talk about it. Finding the energy and courage to speak out during a stressful period can feel impossible, but ignoring stress can lead to a whole host of health problems. Since April marks the annual Stress Awareness Month, it’s time we talked about the “S” word.
Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), National Stress Awareness Month is an annual campaign that began back in 1992 and has taken place every April since.
During this month, health care professionals unite to raise awareness of what effects stress has on people’s everyday wellness, and what can be done to combat it. Public forums, discussion groups, and other informative community events are employed to shed more light on the health impacts of stress.
If you’re hoping to get involved with this year’s events, look at local groups to see what activities they have planned. For example, you may find that fundraising events are going on near you. Take the time to consider what you could offer.
If you prefer not to get involved in organized events – perhaps because you find them stressful – there are still some things you can do as an individual to manage your own stress and to reduce the stress of those around you. Here are a few ideas:
If you experience stress or anxiety, April could be a good time to share your story, perhaps via social media. Mental health issues have been considered taboo for far too long, but this is changing, and you can help to change it too.
If you think that stress is harming your health, but you’ve been putting off doing anything about it, now could be a good time to seek some support. Talk to your doctor and (if necessary) let them refer you to the right professional for the right care.
Regardless of whether you want to share your story with the whole world, and even if you seek (and get) professional support, there’s no time like the present to engage with your close social circle. As the old saying goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved.”
We’re all unique and, as individuals, we all cope with stressful situations in different ways. If you’ve suffered from stress before, you may already know what you need to do to take the edge off your stress responses. Now could be the time to perfect your personal coping mechanisms, perhaps by getting ideas from other people and sharing your stress-reduction techniques with them.
Kindness seems to be something more people are talking about in regards to stress. It costs nothing but could make a huge difference in people’s lives. By being kind to each other in April – and every month before and after that – we could reduce stress all round. This can only be a good thing.
Stress can affect you physically as well as mentally, so let’s look at some of the physical manifestations of failing to effectively manage your stress.
Having a healthy heart should always be a top priority. The American Heart Association says that more research is needed to determine the part that stress plays in your heart health. However, experts agree that periods of stress can lead to behaviors that increase the risk of developing heart disease. Maybe you eat more, drink more alcohol, or smoke more when you’re stressed. None of these things are good for your cardiovascular health.
Do you know that your gut is lined with more than 100 million neurons, meaning that – in a sense – it has its own brain? So if stress can affect the mental health of your main brain, maybe it can affect your digestive mental health too. According to Harvard Health, psychological stress can cause ongoing digestive problems, such as constipation or (at the other end of the scale) diarrhea.
If you experience such symptoms for no obvious reason, you should see a doctor sooner rather than later to see if the cause could be psychological rather than physiological.
One of the most visible ways that stress can affect your health is through weight gain. Research published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal suggests that everyday stressors can cause your body to metabolize substances slower, which means you burn fewer calories throughout the day.
According to the National Health Service, obesity and even simply being overweight have been linked to a myriad of health concerns, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, certain kinds of cancers, and strokes. To avoid these things, there is one clear course of action: look for the signs of stress and start taking the steps to control it.
We all experience some form of stress from time to time. Mental and physical problems arise when this occasional “acute” stress turns into long-term “chronic” stress. Learning to spot the signs of stress could help you keep it in check. According to the Mental Health Foundation, we should be looking out for the following signs of stress:
Some of the physical manifestations of stress are headaches, sickness, and indigestion. You may also experience weight loss or gain. While all these things could be symptomatic of something else, it could be worth consulting with a doctor if you experience a combination of these physical changes.
Stress will impact your mental state. You could find yourself becoming irritable, inflexible, short-tempered, or snapping at people. Stress can also be linked to a lack of sleep and (subsequently) difficulty concentrating. Seek some help if this becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Similar to the mental changes, stress can wreak havoc with your emotional state, and you could start feeling anxious, fearful, frustrated, angry, or sad for no apparent reason. Search for some professional answers if your feelings lead you to be oversensitive and emotional.
Out-of-control emotions can lead to unusual behavior, such as becoming overly reliant on substances such as caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs. Changes to your appetite and sleep patterns could also indicate an issue. Be aware of how you usually – or used to – behave, and ask for advice if anyone tells you you’re not acting like “you.”
Having determined if you are susceptible to stress or are already stressed (as if you didn’t know), are you ready to reduce your stress? Many of the stress tests we’ve listed come with recommendations on how to keep your stress in check. Here are a few stress safety tips that you can include in your stress management toolkit:
Keep a Journal: It can help to write things down. So, if you’re experiencing a broad range of emotions and struggling to cope, buy a notebook to try journaling. Research from the University of Rochester suggests that spending ten minutes per day jotting down how you feel can help lower stress, relieve anxiety, and allow you to better cope with depression.
Exercise: Don’t discount the power of exercise. Physical activity causes your body to produce powerful endorphins. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, these hormones can help you sleep and (in turn) lower your stress levels. Whether hitting the gym or simply walking to work, try to incorporate regular exercise into your daily life.
Talk to Your Friends: When you’re stressed out, it can feel as though the whole world is against you, which is certainly not the case. Take the time to express how you feel to the people around you. Opening up about your struggles might mean you get some extra social support, clarity on the situation, and advice from the people who matter the most.
Here’s our takeaway to help take away your stress:
If you experience stress in your own life – like most of us do – or you know other people who are stressed, you should take the time to make a positive change. This could include getting involved with events or simply talking to those around you about this important subject.
Stress Awareness Month is an opportunity to start some serious conversations about stress, but you shouldn’t stop talking about it when April has come and gone.
Stress Awareness Month: https://stressawarenessmonth.com
The American Institute of Stress: https://www.stress.org/
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/
Harvard Health, Articles on Stress: https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/stress
APRIL 9, 2021 | by Armin Brott
April is National Minority Health Month, making it the perfect time to focus on the often-significant disparities in health and well-being that affect racial and ethnic minorities across our country. But it’s important to remember that these inequities exist every single day of the year, not just in April.
What do we mean by “disparities” and “inequities”? Well, according to the Commonwealth Fund (commonwealthfund.org), compared with the general population, members of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive preventive health services and often receive lower-quality care. They also have worse health outcomes for certain conditions.”
Here are just a few examples. Black Americans are more likely than the general population to have hypertension (high blood pressure) or asthma, to be overweight or obese, and to develop cancer. They’re also less likely to have health insurance, which means that they’re less likely to get the treatment they need to improve their health. Similarly, Hispanic Americans and American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely than the general population to have diabetes and hypertension, but less likely to have insurance.
And let’s not overlook the health issue that’s been on everyone’s mind for the past 13 months: COVID-19, which has killed more than 550,000 Americans. But COVID hasn’t affected all communities equally. While one in 1,040 Asian Americans and one in 665 White Americans has died from the virus, one in 565 Pacific Islander Americans, one in 555 Black Americans, and one in 390 Indigenous Americans have died, according to APM Research Lab’s “Color of Coronavirus” project (apmresearchlab.org), which tracks the differences in how COVID-19 affects different communities. Put another way, Indigenous, Black, and Pacific Islander Americans are more than twice as likely as the general public to die from COVID.
What causes these disproportionate outcomes from COVID-19 and other causes? Certainly, access to health care (which is in part driven by whether one has health insurance or not) plays a role. But so do poverty, lack of education, unemployment, housing problems, unsafe neighborhoods, shortage of playgrounds and full-service supermarkets (where people can buy healthy food) and other factors. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI. pcori.org) has funded more than 100 studies related to these and other disparities.
As we focus on the disparities in health care experienced by many minorities, Men’s Health Network (MHN, menshealthnetwork.org) points out one minority that’s often overlooked: males. While there’s no question that certain ethnic and racial groups do better, health-wise, than others, there’s also no question that within every one of those ethnic and racial groups, boys and men do far worse than girls and women.
For example, on average (counting all racial and ethnic groups), women’s life expectancy is a bit over 81 years; men’s is just 76. Among African and Native Americans, women’s life expectancy is over 78 years, while men’s is around 72.
Focusing just on COVID-19, According to GlobalHealth5050.org, men are less likely than women to be tested, to test positive, and be vaccinated, but they’re more likely than women to require hospitalization and admission to intensive care units (ICUs), and to die. This is true in nearly every age group.
The good news is that many communities around the country are trying to address some of these inequities by doing special outreach—and making vaccines available—to those minority communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID. The bad news is that boys and men—who are more severely affected than females—aren’t given priority.
To celebrate National Minority Health Month, we urge you to let your elected officials know about the health inequities—including the ones that disproportionately affect men—that exist in nearly every community in this country. But you can’t just wait around for everyone else to act, which is why MHN urges you and your family to take the first step: try to get more exercise, eat more fresh fruits and veggies, cut back on red meat, limit your alcohol and quit smoking.
And if you’re male, pick up the phone and make an appointment for a complete physical. At the same time, as long as COVID is an issue, wear your mask when you go out, wash your hands, and get vaccinated. The life you save may be your own.
If you are having a crisis, please dial 911, or call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Sisters Taking On the Prevention of Suicide does not provide its own crisis hotline nor its own counseling services.
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