May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time for promoting education, raising awareness, and reducing stigma around mental health.
This year’s theme is More Than Enough highlighting the importance of encouraging all people to show up – fully themselves – with less shame or doubt.
This is especially important for people who are struggling with mental illness, and may feel that their struggles define them or that by speaking up they risk being seen by others as less-capable or merely 2-dimensional.
Taking part in a vision of people and communities that are more mentally well requires collective effort. As we kick off this important month, we asked our providers what it means to help people thrive. We also wanted to know what our providers wished everyone knew about mental health, and asked them to to share simple tools they suggest to support mental wellness. Throughout the month we’ll share their answers. Here’s what they had to say to start:
Mental Health Must Be A Priority
“As a mental health care provider, I envision a world in which mental health is prioritized and openly discussed,” said Patricia Hernandez LCSW who offers virtual therapy to patients across Texas.
While attitudes towards mental health are changing, stigma is still a huge barrier. In fact a World Health Organization survey reported that people wait, on average, 11 years (and often more) before seeking help. Adding to the urgency in reducing stigma, and increasing access, is the fact that depression is a leading cause of disability and missed days at work. As employment interruption grows, the symptoms a person is experiencing can increase, feelings of self-worth and quality of life can diminish, and a person’s financial ability to address the problem and find appropriate support increases – thus accelerating the cycle.
Mental health care providers play a critical role in reducing stigma by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their mental health struggles without fear of judgment or discrimination. By offering compassionate, non-judgmental care, providers can help individuals feel seen and heard, which is essential for building trust and promoting healing.
However, the responsibility is not all theirs. Everyone can take part in reducing stigma, and since each person will be affected personally or know someone they love who is affected by mental illness, the importance of prioritizing mental health cannot be understated.
Anxiety and Depression Symptoms Aren’t Clear Cut
“I wish everyone understood that emotions are complex and often difficult to pinpoint. [For example] you can be anxious, but perhaps not recognize yourself as anxious emotionally,” explained Tyson Lippe, MD, a leading psychiatrist at Heading Health based in Austin, Texas.
Mental health struggles are often invisible and can be challenging to describe or identify, and they aren’t ‘all in the head.’ Unlike an x-ray that might clearly show a broken bone mental health symptoms aren’t always so obvious.
“Something that is often misunderstood about mental illness is that it presents so differently for everyone. For some it may be avoidance, others self neglect, etc. It can also be tricky to see and easy to miss even with close family members,” noted Ryan McWhiter, psychiatric nurse who works with Dr. Lippe at Heading’s Austin Texas center.
By promoting mental health literacy and helping individuals recognize and name their emotions, providers can help reduce the shame and isolation that often accompanies mental health challenges.
Physicality and Physical Spaces Matter
While a physical change is not a ‘fix-all’ for mental health concerns, and appropriate treatment is always recommended, mental health care providers recognize that mental health is not just about addressing what’s going on between the ears. Physical sensations and physical experiences have an impact on overall wellbeing.
“Personally, I think it’s helpful to recognize the physical side of mental health, and I like to approach mental health from the physical side. If you’re feeling anxious, you can touch something cold like a bowl of ice, or do box-breathing (there are so many videos [on the internet] for help). Focusing on how what you can sense really helps,” shared Ryan.
“While the physical connection to mental health is discussed more often now, I truly want people to know that regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleep are just as important for mental health as they are for other parts of your health,” Dr. Lippe shared.
Being physical means considering the inner environment of the body, and it also means the external environment and surroundings. Research agrees. Stress management is not simply getting control of thoughts, but also acknowledging that stress responses exist in the physical body. Physical activity has a positive impact in the reduction of symptoms of depression and anxiety in both near and long term ways, from improving stamina, cognitive function, and healthy sleep patterns.
What the physical body senses, takes in, and observes is also impactful. While not everyone has the ability to completely overhaul their physical space at home, and at work, there are simple changes that can be made. Physical space can influence mood and creativity, and purposeful use of space can be a simple way to boost feelings of positivity and wellbeing. “Chaotic environments make it harder to think and process. Take charge of what you can. Soothing colors. Declutter your space. Allow the doorbell and phone to be tools, rather than notices that demand your attention,” suggested Sunne Hogan, LPC who offers virtual therapy to patients in Texas.
Patricia agreed,”Nurture a plant. Choose the mug you love. Play and dance to music. Use candles and aromatherapy that stimulate your senses. Declutter your space. These are all ways you can improve the environment around you, and promote better mental wellbeing.”
Addressing Mental Health Isn’t Just For Those Who Struggle
Mental wellness is not just about avoiding illness, but also about promoting a sense of thriving and flourishing. Most people at some point in their lives will be directly impacted by mental illness, be it their own health or someone’s close to them. Learning tools to support mental wellbeing can be a lifelong if and when struggles do arise.
“Mental wellness is not just the absence of mental illness but also the presence of positive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors,” shared Kirsten Jarvis, Psychiatric Nurse at Heading Health in Austin, Texas.
She continued, “Mental wellness is essential for overall health and is a critical component of a fulfilling and productive life. To me, mental wellness is developing the skill to ride the waves of life.”
Like any other skill, it takes practice.
Seeking Help is Strong
“Seeking help does not mean that you are weak or ‘crazy.’ It just means that you know that something’s happening in your brain and body, and you may not have the energy or understanding to get yourself through it alone. Help is available,” explained Sunne.
The work that is done in psychiatry and counseling sessions can be deep and challenging. There’s nothing ‘weak’ about addressing vulnerabilities and difficult emotions. Counselors, like Bonnie Morphew LCSW, wholeheartedly agree. Bonnie said, “A former patient of mine once told me to tell every new patient this: It’s hard work – but it’s always worth it in the end. And I couldn’t agree more!”
By promoting help-seeking behaviors and reducing the shame and stigma around mental health struggles, providers and lay people alike can help individuals feel supported and empowered to take charge of their mental health. Reducing stigma not only encourages more people to seek the help that they need, but it also amplifies the personhood of all people struggling with mental illness. No one deserves to be defined by their struggles. Rather they should be seen as a whole person, with struggles, and also with strengths, values, goals, dreams, skills, and ambition.
What is clear, this Mental Health Awareness Month is that embracing the concept of More Than Enough is not just an inside job – it’s everyone’s job.
If you or someone you love is struggling please know that help is available! You can contact a practice, like Heading, to scheduled an appoint. If you are in crisis call or text 988, or call 911.