Since 1949, May has been known as Mental Health Awareness Month. Each year, when May is over, I wonder why we’re not encouraged to be aware of our mental health all year, every year, just as we are for our so-called physical health. Given all we know about the effects of anxiety and depression on our bodies and immune systems, this question is vital. As Harvard Health pointed out in 2008, “Anxiety has now been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions.” These conditions are no joke, so why don’t we take mental health more seriously?
The answer, in part, can be a lack of understanding and sometimes fear. Both are reflected in the way we routinely belittle mental health, as part of our daily lexicon. How many times have you heard “I literally had a panic attack”, “She’s so bipolar”, or “He’s a little OCD, ha ha”? If you’ve never struggled with a mental health issue, you may not give these phrases a second thought. Those who do struggle, can get the message to battle in silence, given a lack understanding and compassion for their situation. This is particularly true of the most vulnerable in our midst, teens and tweens, who are often dealing with emerging mental health disorders.
Two of my adolescent clients with OCD, recently shared frustration about their Health Classes, in separate schools. Both teachers initiated discussions about people who are “a little OCD.” These conversations lacked any clinical information about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For these clients, OCD meant twice the time to complete homework, up at night cleaning the house, and disturbing, unwanted thoughts of harm coming to their parents. Their teachers missed a valuable opportunity for kids to learn about the true complexities of a mental health issue. This type of casual discussion can reinforce the notion that these are not serious concerns, with possible physical ramifications, if left untreated.
Just as we seem immune to comments about OCD, we can be equally detached from commonplace phrases like “worry wart”, “wallflower” and “scaredy cat.” All of which minimize the effects of living with untreated Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder and Specific Phobias. When we trivialize these issues, we throw them in the category of personality traits, to the realm of annoying quirks, without the possibility of change, rather than life altering issues, that are highly treatable with the proper help.
As mental health professionals, individuals who fight every day to manage symptoms, and those who love and support them, we can work to slowly turn the tide. By sharing with people, we trust. By gently, and thoughtfully educating our doctors, teachers, spiritual leaders, family and friends, we can make those around us more sensitive, and aware, all year round, of the importance of how we all talk about mental health, and how critical it is to our health in general, mind, body and spirit.
About the Author
Nina Rifkind, LCSW, ACS, Owner, Wellspring Counseling, Denville, NJ. Nina Rifkind is a licensed clinical social worker, practicing in Morris County NJ for almost 20 years. She specializes in treating Anxiety Disorders and OCD, in people of all ages, particularly connecting with adolescents and young adults. Bringing the most current, evidenced based treatment to her clients is a priority.