Stigmas Around Mental Health- Dr. Megan McElheran

October 10 was World Mental Health Day and it was an important opportunity to pause and reflect.  I certainly came across many social media postings and messages with helpful ideas about how to tend to mental health, which were good reminders to me to make sure I maintain a daily mental health care plan.  I found myself reflecting, however, on how new an experience pausing to reflect on mental health and wellness is, in the context of our global community.  It’s not that long ago that talking about mental health was seen as inappropriate and often euphemism’s and hushed conversations occurred when someone was struggling with mental health difficulties, with the end result being that the person suffering often felt shamed and stigmatized.

I am so thankful we have evolved beyond this, and that we now leave space for discussions regarding mental health.  A recent statistic startled me, however, that showed that current results place Canada at third highest in terms of global rates of depression, anxiety and stress secondary to the COVID-19 pandemic.  So, it would seem that as much as we have made it ok for us to talk about mental health, we still have a ways to go in terms of being on top of what needs to be done to protect and enhance the mental health of Canadians.

If there are a few takeaways I can offer, from the perspective of taking action regarding mental health and wellness, the first would be just that:  take action.  One of the things I think is happening in the Canadian mental health crisis we are seeing is that we are still too reactive, versus being proactive in our approaches.  We need healthcare programing and systemic support to focus on mental health improvement efforts, versus simply having reactive supports in place to help people when they have already started to suffer.  So let’s adopt that approach personally and stop treating mental health as something we have or do not have.  Good mental health care should be practiced with the same frequency and consistency as which we brush our teeth:  twice a day at a minimum we should be doing things that attend to our emotional and mental health needs, regardless of how small the action.  There are many, many things we can do to monitor our mental health and find ways to slow down to take care of the emotional parts of ourselves and this needs to be a daily practice we all develop.

Second, it is important for all of us to accept that we are not going to feel happy and good all of the time.  I think that one of the very unfair myths that has been perpetuated in recent history is the idea that we should be happy all the time ( a myth often fueled by the illusion of happiness we are bombarded by on social media).  Good mental health is not about feeling good all the time.  Rather, it is about meeting ourselves and our circumstances with a clear perspective, free from distortion.  That means that sometimes we are going to feel sad, confused, hurt, angry, etc., and there is nothing wrong with that.  What we need to learn to do is cultivate more acceptance within ourselves for the range of emotions we all experience and to free ourselves from judging painful or difficult emotions as ‘bad’.

Finally, part of how we get through the difficult times is to have a firm grasp on the ‘why’ of our existence.  Many scholars and philosophers have written about the idea that we have incredible ability as human beings to overcome any number of adversities and to cope with incredibly adverse situations, so long as we have a reason or purpose for doing so.  This means that we need to get very clear about what it is that motivates us and what our values are that propel us through our daily lives.  If we understand the ‘why’ behind our actions, we will be able to cultivate more of a values-based existence that inherently can increase the meaning we find throughout our lives.