* Trigger Warning- This post is about mental health with words such as depression, self-harm, suicide, substance abuse, etc. Please take care of yourself at all times. If this subject is too much for your mental state, please refrain from reading on. Your safety is my number one concern.
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop titled Mental Health First Aid. It was offered through the school I am currently enrolled in. The topic intrigues me on many levels. For one, there are many people in my circle of trust that are effected by depression, addiction, self-harm and suicide. In 2016 I started talk therapy as a way to learn better communication skills to improve my relationships with my circle of trust. And while those relationships have improved, I continue talk therapy each week because it allows me an opportunity to work through my own emotions and feelings of every day life. Secondly, while I study gerontology, I am learning how prevalent mental health is in the aging population.
I thought this course would be a great chance to learn how to spot when someone might be in need of help and to provide tools and resources until they are in a safe environment.
With words such as mental health, self-harm, suicide, substance abuse, depression, and trauma becoming a little more mainstream, there is still a big stigma attached. In one exercise over the day, we were asked as a group to write the alphabet on a piece of paper. From there, going through the whole list from A-Z, shout out a word associated with mental health. Words like-
It didn’t take more than 60 seconds to get through the whole alphabet. Because they roll so easily off of our tongue. Yet, we hold a lot of shame to these words, whether because we experience them ourselves or we don’t want guilt by association. The more we hold open conversations around mental health, the more people in our lives are likely to seek help.
One thing that I have realized over the years is that health is health. There is no separation between physical health and mental health. When the body is feeling sluggish, stiff, lethargic and blah, there is a great chance the mind will have many of the same qualities. When the mind feels clear, calm, we tend to physically move with much more ease. As the great Nikki Myers, one of my teachers likes to say, “our issues live in our tissues.”
Another real eye opening experience for me during the training was that the instructor had about 15 different illnesses, ailments, and health issues on separate pieces of paper. Our goal was to put them in order of least invasive to most invasive. A few of them included: low back pain, non invasive breast cancer, sever dementia, PTSD, being legally blind, gingivitis, bipolar, Alzheimers, low grade depression, etc. As a whole, we did fairly well in putting them into the correct order. One participant made a great observation at the end. She stated that the least invasive often get the most attention and money when it comes to research. Back pain, breast cancer, the things that we can physically identify with. The mental ailments, don’t get the same attention.
And you might not agree with that. But here is something to think about. When was the last time you knew someone that was “physically ill?” Their family and friends surround their bedside, bring food to the home, help care for them. Now, when was the last time you stood at someone’s bedside because they were struggling with PTSD? Or brought a home cooked meal to someone with sever grade depression? As a society, we struggle with how we react to physical and mental health.
Moving toward the later part of the day, this is when some of the real work started for me. We had learned some cues through role playing of signs and symptoms to look for when we suspect self-harm, suicide or substance abuse are at the front of their mind. Through role playing, we had to ask the hard question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” This was a real struggle at first. My relationship to this word has really shifted in many directions since I was 18 years old.
It was then that a dear friend from school took his own life. And that incident may have been the seed that was planted for me to get to where I am today. If I had taken this particular course back then, I may not have been emotionally ready to handle conversations with confidence, like I can today. Many of us think that if we ask such questions like “Are you thinking of self-harm or suicide?” that we increase their risk of following through. But in fact, it is just the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, that wouldn’t be the first blatant question I ask. There are many steps and observations that lead up to the question. Using an acronym of assessing the situation, listening without judgement, giving resources for help, encouraging seeking professional care and encouraging self care are all about the process. And the process may not be a linear line. Just as our health ebbs and flows, so do conversations around our health.
Sometimes the most important question to begin with is Can we chat?
Resources for Help-
National Suicide Prevention Line 1-800-273-8255
SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 1-800-662-4357