By Kathryn Kehoe-Biggs, L.C.S.W, Ph.D
Humans like to create categories. These categories simplify and make sense of the world, which helps us feel safe and secure. For example, when we hear the word “apple,” a cylindrical fruit, which can be red or green and grows on trees comes to mind. However, the constructs we frequently use to examine and understand mental health can instill discomfort, and even invoke intense fear. It just doesn’t fit neatly into a category. My hope is this article calms you down a bit and makes the subject more accessible.
The brain is a lot like outer space. We know something about about it, more than we have in the past, but there is still a lot left to learn and explore. Compared to other organs in our body, the brain remains a mystery. For some, this is exciting. For others, it can be terrifying. My chosen profession requires me to help people understand their brain and find ways to mange it. While astronauts face their own fears of the unknown when moving through space, psychotherapists are required to be brave when entering the dark emotional places of their patients, hearing their uncomfortable thoughts without knowing what they will find, or how deep they will go. Parenting is also not for the faint of heart. If we do not feel strong or brave enough to hear the whole truth when we ask our kids how their day was, we will probably not get a truthful answer.
When broaching the subject of mental health, the “Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear itself.” It is fear which rigidly places others into the categories of “crazy” or “sane”. These barriers between us stifle logical and pragmatic dialogue. Instead of defined categories, mental health falls on a continuum, with most people somewhere in the middle. Like any other part of our body there is no “perfect” brain, and therefore none of us have “perfect” mental health. There are those people who are at the very top of the continuum, who have a serious mental illness and need regular medical treatment. Unfortunately, some of the most seriously ill die of mental illness or kill others. Some fall toward the bottom and appear quite logical, stable, joyful and content. The level of intervention necessary depends on where a person falls on the continuum. However, none of us are completely mentally healthy, and therefore cannot completely separate from those who are suffering. This can be frightening for some and result in a “ that would never be me” mentality. This inhibits open dialogue and can foster shame.
If we embrace our common struggle to be human, there is an opportunity to be close instead of far away from one another. Live long enough and we will all feel anxious, depressed, rage, jealousy and guilt, as well as joy and love. And there are moments where the thoughts associated with these feelings irrationally drive our actions. Hearts are broken, hurtful deeds are done, tempers are lost and words are said that we wish we could take back. Mental health is more about how we mange these thoughts and feelings, instead of fighting them. People who act as if all their thoughts are ‘pure’ and cannot understand all those OTHER people who are so angry, sad or afraid are lying to you and themselves. In fact those people are more likely to act out what they are afraid to acknowledge.
The brain can get sick like any other organ in our body. There are some who are born with a brain which places them higher on the continuum. Environmental factors such as chronic abuse or neglect, or a combination of genetics and external stressors, can result in moving higher up the continuum and toward a more significant mental illness. This is where the mystery enters the conversation. Science knows something about how the brain works, but there is still a lot to learn. Research shows that trauma can actually change the brain, but so can love, safety and nurturing. It is often humans who inflict the trauma, but it is also human interaction which starts the healing. Exactly how this happens is still being explored. Science offers us hope that new neural pathways can be created, even during adulthood. Maybe an old dog CAN learn new tricks after all.
Your child comes home from school clearly limping. You inquire about what caused the injury and look closely at the part of the body which is hurt. That same child comes home from school with downcast eyes and slouched shoulders, and without a word retreats behind a closed bedroom door. Through the door you ask, “are you okay?” and receive an exhausted and slightly angry response of “I am fine”. Do not let that be the end of the conversation. This is your opportunity to find a way to take a closer look at the hurt. Be brave and keep looking and asking with patience and love. Let your child know you can handle any answer. Powerful feelings and thoughts are a part of being human. We weep when someone dies. We are hurt when rejected. We become angry when we are treated unfairly. We are ashamed and frustrated when we make a mistake or fail. There is no ‘cure’ for the human condition, but sometimes the difference between moving up or down on the continuum of mental health is having someone in your life brave enough to feel your pain instead of looking away. It may help us feel safer to place others into neat categories which separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, but historically, positive change usually does not occur by playing it safe. The first step toward improving mental health in our society is by facing our own fears of being human.
Dr. Kehoe-Biggs, is a psychotherapist in Pelham, NY firstname.lastname@example.org