Susan Steen

Susan Steen

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” — Fred Rogers

Christmas songs came across the speaker. Elvis singing “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you” seemed to linger in the air. Thinking about all the people who will be without someone they love this holiday season — some temporarily, others permanently, I find myself filled with a little extra emotion.

The holidays do that to me in a normal year, and this year has been anything but normal. It has, however, been a wakeup call to the state of mental health throughout society. People who have managed to get by in the past are suddenly thrust into difficult moments as they struggle to keep it all together, so to speak.

In the United States, we focus on mental health during May, but here we are in December, and it seems we should keep talking about it. When we find our thoughts and emotions are out of our control, it can be really tempting to zip ourselves up tightly, fearing that people will think we are weird.

Mr. Rogers was right about so many things, and this is one of them. How you’re feeling right now will have much less control over you if you can talk about it. I can’t think of a better time than right now to mention what’s bothering us.

Every day, life seems to throw new challenges our way. If you’ve kept a job, kept a small group of people with whom to spend time, and had sunshine, there’s a chance you are in a good place mentally. But if your family is far away, your job has been put on hold or cancelled, or you feel nervous about paying bills (much less affording gifts for Christmas), there’s a really good chance that you are feeling emotions that have left you unsure what to do about them.

We need to talk about how people are feeling, and the latest numbers from “Mental Health First Aid” is confirmation that it’s not just a few people who are having a hard time.

  • · In late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use.
  • · One in six U.S. youth ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
  • · Half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
  • · Depression alone costs the nation about $210.5 billion annually.
  • · The average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.
  • · Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 in the U.S. and the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • · Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. In particular, depressive illnesses tend to co-occur with substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
  • · More than 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness.
  • · Transgender adults are nearly 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
  • · The most common mental illnesses in the U.S. are anxiety disorders, which affect 40 million adults (18.1% of the population).

Maybe if we talk about what mental illness is (and isn’t), we can break the stigma many of us have attributed to it.

Mental illness includes, and is not limited to, feelings of extreme sadness that you can’t seem to shake, with changes in your sleep, concentration, energy level; your stress or worry seems over the top based on the events being experienced;  manic highs and lows, with severe mood shifts lasting for days or months; impairment of your ability to think that affects your daily life; hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention; fear of germs or of things being out of order; memories of trauma in your life and possibly nightmares leaving you anxious or depressed.

Without giving you the names associated with the symptoms, I wonder how many of you saw something that describes how you’ve felt.

If this is the only time you nod your head in acknowledging that you might be experiencing mental illness, it’s a great start, and there are some things you can do to help yourself:

1. Move. Get moving, either walking, running, lifting weights ... anything that gets your body in motion.

2. Sleep. If you’ll start moving (suggestion one), you’ll sleep better.

3. Eat. Junk food might sound tasty and easy, but if you aren’t feeding your system with some nutritious choices, your mental health will suffer.

4. Play. Whether you start working a jigsaw puzzle, play a game with people in your house (if you have other people), or paint a silly picture, it’s important to do something to distract you.

5. Talk. Whether you reach out to a friend or a stranger (online therapist or helpline), when you can tell you aren’t feeling like yourself, it’s important to let someone else know. Being off kilter in your thinking can quickly escalate to bigger issues.

6. Disconnect. Social media is not helping for the most part. Comparing posts on Instagram to measure your value causes more problems than any help. If you are on a social media platform, look for places to encourage you, not to make you feel less worthy.

When we attach labels to people, when we behave as if being without problems is the only thing that makes someone a normal person we want to be around, we are shortchanging many wonderful people the opportunity to fully engage in life — possibly we are the ones being shortchanged. Imagine the gift of helping someone get through difficult days instead of avoiding or ignoring them.

And you, feeling alone, feeling you aren’t measuring up, feeling ashamed or guilty for needing to ask for help, you need to hear this message today and every day. Mr. Rogers wanted you to know that if you will talk about those feelings, they won’t overwhelm you so much. You are enough, just the way you are.

Maybe you need some help tweaking a few things, but it’s good you are here. The world would not be as wonderful without your unique perspective and humor.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.

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