I attempted to take my own life during my senior year of high school. Two months after I got out of the psychiatric ward, a psychologist came into my classroom to talk to students about mental illness. He told us about a patient with severe mental illness who thought he was Winnie the Pooh and another patient he picked up at an airport who was waiting for a plane to Venus.
As he told these stories, every student in my class was laughing. I had endured months of rumors, lost friends because of my attempt and been ridiculed for having bipolar disorder. I couldn't handle more laughter. I pulled my teacher into the hallway and told him that I didn't think mental illness was funny. He looked down at me and asked, "What are you going to do about it?"
That question inspired me to become a mental health advocate, but as I look at the current mental health crisis, my teacher's question still haunts me. Robin Williams' suicide was only one of the estimated 105 suicides that occur on average each day.
In honor of Robin, we did what anyone does in today's world. We took to social media in every way possible. After a few days the story faded. Outside of the one or two posts that live on, because they were, "the best," we moved on to whatever drive-by activism has been trending for the past couple of days. This pattern isn't working.
News feeds were flooded with personal stories, articles, videos, studies and advice. There are more people speaking up today than ever before. This phenomenon is resulting in people seeking help and opening up, but sharing all of this information sporadically isn't going to give people the tools they need to address mental health. We need to provide mental health education in a consistent manner.
Mental Health Needs to be Approachable
When people hear the words, "mental health," they often associate it with worst-case scenarios. They think of extreme mental illnesses, suicide, school shootings and other tragedies. Mental health isn't having a problem. Mental health is the overall state of our thoughts and feelings, and our ability to face the stresses and challenges that impact our well-being.
Mental health is as important as our physical health. Unfortunately, most people don't have a starting point when it comes to dealing with this issue. We exist in this dichotomy that you have a mental illness and need help or you are fine.
The stigma of mental illness is often believed to be that we don't talk about mental illness. The harsh reality is that people don't talk about their emotions period and a large percentage of people feel that mental illness isn't treatable. The separation of those ideas is important to note.
We need to have a clearer starting point and explanations of mental health for people to follow in order to find the help they need. This type of education has to be implemented in every classroom and business in the country.
Mental Health Curriculum and More
There are a lot of amazing organizations and programs targeting suicide prevention and mental illness education. Those concepts are beyond effective in helping people learn more about all of the problems that can affect a person. However, they don't often engage people in understanding the full spectrum of mental health or that good mental health is something we should all have. Whether you're stressed out or have bipolar disorder, your goal should be to have balanced mental health.
Mental health curriculum that lessens stigma, teaches about brain development, includes exercises to develop a vocabulary to talk about emotions, offers steps on how to change ineffective coping mechanisms and provides guidance on how to spot warning signs, as well as how to approach a friend in crisis is a vital missing component. We need to normalize the concept of mental health for everyone, by explaining the range of challenges people face and how those challenges impact their lives.
There are a lot of things you can do without a mental health curriculum. Instead of tagging a friend or family member in a post, go to their house. Ask them how they are doing. Hug someone. Call someone. Touch someone. Fight for someone. We can't continue this ineffective pattern of showing our compassion through a keyboard.
We can best honor Robin Williams and the 38,000 Americans who take their own lives each year by being willing to change these issues through face-to-face conversations, confrontations and inescapable acts that show we care. We need to do more. We need to do better. Mental health disorders are taking the lives of too many people.
What are you going to do about it?
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Follow Ross Szabo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rosseszabo