As a mom and a psychologist, my daughters have been interested and curious about the work I do. When I first went back to work after children, my twins were seven, and my third daughter was almost one year. For the twins, they were confused about what I did for work. They understood, I am called ‘Dr,’ but I am not a physician. They knew I could help people to feel better and heal, but I don’t give shots or medicine or fix broken bones.
Preparing to transition back to work, I found a concrete way to help them understand my work. I shared: I am ‘Dr’ who helps people solve problems and a teacher who teaches people how to take care of themselves. They understood it! Because no matter what age you are, we all can understand and relate to having problems and needing to take care of ourselves!
While this may seem an overly simple way of describing the work of a psychologist or mental health provider, they understood the work I do. And since that time, adding a fourth daughter to our family, one thing I am sure of, my daughters understand the importance of taking care mental health and well-being because of our commitment as a family to talk about our mental health. And twin teenagers, the conversations about mental health are far from simple, as it was, so many years ago!
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and as a psychologist, writer, and mom, I spend a lot of time talking about, advocating and normalizing mental health issues. It is my life’s calling to be part of a shift in our culture, to see mental health not as something separate, but part of the whole experience of what it means to be human.
As a society, we are quite comfortable embracing the physical aspects of ourselves, and less comfortable with mental health. And the reality is, the physical, mental, emotional parts of ourselves are so intertwined, influencing and impacting each dimension. The encouraging shift I have seen in the past twenty years is the progress of research, therapy treatments and information shared, making mental health less of a stigma. But there continues to be more work we can do.
Here are seven mental health facts I hope help you shift the way you understand mental health and well-being:
1.We Suffer from Symptoms Before We Get Help. On average, by the time a person reaches out and share psychological health symptoms to a primary care physician or a mental health professional, the symptom has been present and part of a person’s life for approximately 18 months-yes, you heard this correctly! In other words, a vast majority of clients who share mental health symptoms with a medical provider, have had those symptoms such as worry, depression, anger, phobias for example, and learned to live with those symptoms, for a year and a half!!! The impact of living with distressing symptoms can impact work (and/ or school), social relationships and overall enjoyment of day-to-day activities.
2. Mental Issues are Common. Chances are you, or a family member or friend have experienced a mental health issue at some point in your life. Statistically, at some point in your life, you will experience a mental health issue. Here are some basic facts about mental health:
- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.
- Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
- Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
- 6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias.
- Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.
3. More Mental Health Research is Needed. Behavioral health, mental health, and psychology are relatively new fields in applied sciences. Even as early as sixty years ago, mental health issues were seen not as biological or stress related issues or lack of support, but rather CHARACTER issues. Meaning, if a person had mental health issues, it was seen as a character weakness, such as not being ‘strong’ or ‘disciplined’ or having solid ‘morals.’ Thankfully, through research, medical advances and understanding of the brain-science, we understand mental health issues have little to do with character and more to do with science, genetics and life experiences, coping strategies, and emotional support.
4. Treating Symptoms or Teaching Behaviors to Increase Well-Being? When I started graduate school in 1994, the focus in graduate school training programs (clinical and counseling psychology) was treating the symptoms of mental health disorders and diagnosis; the goal was to take away the symptom. Positive Psychology, started in 1998 by Dr. Seligman, is a branch of psychology that has gained a lot of attention in the past decade, with a focus on what keeps people healthy, happy, enjoying life. Positive Psychologists shifted the paradigm symptoms in mental health by focusing on the traits, behaviors, and habits that keep people healthy and happy. I believe the science of psychology is most effective as a combination: treating mental health issues/symptoms and bringing in habits, skills and attention to increase happiness and well-being. If you want to read more about Positive Psychology, please go here.
5. You Can Help to Break the Stigma of Mental Health Issues. Progress has certainly been made normalizing and supporting mental health issues. But, more work needs to be done. I love there is an entire month dedicated to Mental Health Awareness! I also am encouraged to see programs in school curricula such as teaching children emotional coping skills, communication skills and mindfulness techniques and meditation. In addition to the work being done in our schools, we as moms, can work on helping to teach and support our children throughout their development how to be aware of, and take care of, their mental health. I would love to see a universal shift in mental health, seeing it as an important skill to teach our children, just as we prepare our children to brush teeth and bathe independently, read, solve problems, take standardized tests, and teach them how to drive!
6. Seeking Therapy is a Sign of Strength, Not Failure. Going to therapy is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength, vulnerability and a desire to take care of yourself. In my two decades plus of experience, I have observed, those who seek therapy, throughout their lifetime for stress, or life transitions, or self-growth, are mentally strong, healthy and happier. There is a belief that if you need therapy or go to therapy, this means you have a weakness or something wrong with you. I have also heard often from parents, feeling a sense of failure when their child needs therapy, believing they have failed as a parent. As a therapist with twenty plus years of experience, I completely disagree! I have seen in my years of practice, that those who seek therapy and engage in the process have strengths, vulnerability and a willingness to improve their well-being. We as moms need to be the role models to support our children and understand the importance of understanding mental health and seeking support and treatment when needed. To read more about therapy and teenagers, please read: Seeking Therapy for Your Teen Doesn’t Equal Failure: Here Are Some Signs They May Need It.
7. Therapy is Individualized. Many people have a false belief that therapy is something that requires years and years of sessions. There are some theoretical orientations and philosophies (and mental health issues) requiring more intensive treatment. The amount of therapy a person needs to treat a problem is varied and individualized for the client. For example, a person who has a simple phobia and is not able to drive over bridges is going to have a different treatment plan compared to a client who is coming into therapy to work through sexual trauma or another who recently lost a spouse. Therapy is influenced by many factors: the symptoms and diagnosis, the goals of the client, access to services and out-of-pocket costs vs. insurance coverage to name a few. Not to mention, many people engage in therapy because of curiosity to understand oneself better, which I frame as a self-growth model of therapy.
Please take care of your mental health and well-being, for yourself and your family. And remember, YOU are the most important teacher your child will ever have! I hope this post has inspired and encouraged you to think differently, and more positively about mental health!
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2018