Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Let’s talk about mental health and illnesses. Seriously, let’s talk. Mental health issues run rampant in society, resulting in all sorts of problems and heartaches. The current contentious conflicts in our country cause many to feel overwhemled, fearful, and stressed. Unresolved stress takes a toll on our mental health. One of the biggest problems society faces is that we don’t understand mental illness. This leads to inadequate support for people struggling with these conditions, as well as their families who don’t know how to helpfully respond. Additionally, people with mental health challenges still run into shame and ignorance around mental health problems.

I’ve known periods of debilitating depression. Not the gloomy, too-many-gray-days-in-a-row sort of down mood. Rather, the sort of depression that made it difficult to get out of bed, get dressed, or bother to eat, let alone actually accomplish anything. I have also struggled with relatively mild bouts of anxiety and panic. Fortunately, at those times, I was in situations where compassionate family, friends and colleagues, along with professionals, helped me. Their help helped. Today I rarely have a down mood that lasts more than a day or two and most days range from good to great.

Mental Health and Family Trees

Various members of my extended family have dealt with one of these: alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, Asperger’s and turrets.  Some functioned quite well in spite of the challenges; others have not. Just as some with cancer go into full remission, while others do not.

I appreciate an insight from author Susan Page’s The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She wrote a chapter about a period of depression Barbara experienced. Barbara Bush’s experience made her more empathetic and less judgmental toward people who were facing emotional problems. ‘I used to think that you could control your emotions, that you just needed to think of others and not yourself,’ (Barbara) said. But afterward, ‘I also realize you cannot handle everything alone. And when things go out of control, you should seek help.’”

Finding Helpful Help

It seems obvious that help should be helpful, but it too often is not. One of my grandfathers died in a mental hospital in the 1950’s. Back then it was the practice to drug people into a zombie state if they presented mental health issues. The only explanation I ever got about him was that he had a nervous breakdown. He came to this country as a young teenager with three older brothers near the start of the 20th century. Later, being German, at a time when we were at war with Germany, I can only imagine the harassment he must have experienced with his German accent and name. None-the-less, he scraped together money to start his own business, which he lost in the Great Depression. I suppose that, combined with another war with Germany, led to his nervous breakdown.

I knew nothing about his mental health issues until I was in college. I was visiting my aunt, his daughter. She made some reference to his situation. From my response she could tell I had no idea what she was talking about. So, she told me. My father never said a word about his father.

Family Secrets

I know. That sounds strange. But that is the impact mental illness has on the family and loved ones. The shame is often so great families feel obliged to hide the truth, and often the person, from public scrutiny. Mental health issues are too often considered a character flaw, rather than a health issue.

A few years ago I returned home from vacation to find two emergency vehicles parked in front of the house next door.  Due to HIPPA laws, the medics couldn’t discuss what was going on, but I saw one of them making a circle with his finger around his temple and mouthing, “crazy” to a colleague. They said she was going to a local hospital for evaluation. She returned a couple of days later. I’d lived next to this woman for five years and knew she was known in the neighborhood as “that crazy lady.” Neighbors advised me to leave her alone. I only spoke to her three times, for a total of about five minutes. The conversations were disjointed and impossible to follow. I rarely saw her, though occasionally I saw a car in the driveway.

The Ethical Dilemma of Intervening

The car belonged to the couple who came to do yard and housework. They did what they could to help her by bringing groceries and doing errands. They told me she’d become a hermit, sabotaged efforts by her out-of-state sons to move her where she’d get help, and lived in constant fear someone was breaking into the house.

A neighbor who’d known her for years visited her and told me she saw her image in a hall mirror and didn’t recognize it as her own. After that I called Adult Protective Services. It took several months, but eventually the agency worked with one of her sons to obtain legal guardianship and move her into a place where she gets the help she needs. For too long she lived alone, frightened, resistant to help and known in the neighborhood as “that crazy lady.”

As a society and as individuals, we struggle with the ethical dilemma between honoring an individual’s rights to live as they choose and intervening when they engage in destructive behavior that causes them and others problems.

The Inadequate Power of Positive Thinking

We tell people to think positive, look on the bright side, and just get over it. A positive attitude goes a long way toward improving our outlook on life, but that alone is not enough to repair a broken leg, reverse the spread of cancer, or cure pneumonia. We know that physical illnesses require medical intervention. Mental illnesses often do too. We don’t think someone diagnosed with cancer has a character flaw. Yet that is often how we respond to someone struggling with any number of mental illnesses.

Let’s talk about that. Do you or someone close to you struggle with mental health issues? Do you have the sort of support you need? Are you able to discuss this with those closest to you? I hope so. We’ve made remarkable progress in curing and managing cancer and a whole host of other physical illnesses. It is time we put the same effort into addressing mental illnesses.

Though it may feel like you’re alone with your struggles, there are many resources available to help. You will find some at the National Institute of Mental Health. You may also find these blogs of interest: Help for a heroin addict or Living with someone with dementia.

Thank you for taking time to read this blog. If you found this helpful, share it with a friend. Got this from a friend? Sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen.

Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary BrewsterAmazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.


  1. In light of this week’s topic, I would recommend the book: The Body Keeps the Score. It is an excellent book by Bessel van der Kolk and very helpful for understanding mental health issues brought on by trauma. It provides many helpful resources for healing from trauma as well.

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