These days, it feels like we have an "appreciation" day/week/month for everything. I mean, it was National Wine Day last Wednesday (um.... except that it's National Wine Day every night at my house); May 23rd was World Turtle Day; and May 28th was Menstrual Hygiene Day.
(No, I did not make these up. They are all very real.)
These commemorative days/weeks/months have become a bit of a joke, haven't they? As important as the issue seems when it's 2am and I'm crying in my laundry room in a pile of mismatched footwear, I think we can all agree that National Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9th) trivializes the appreciation days/weeks/months dedicated to socially important issues.
But the month of May is different, and people don't seem to get that. It's National Hamburger Month, yes, but it's also Mental Health Awareness month, and that means it's not just another "pointless" appreciation effort. It's a month we, as millennials, need to start paying more attention to - because others aren't.
With a wealth of research and resources at our fingertips, we Millennials are the generation of self-diagnosis and WebMD, and we like to think we've got it all figured out. But we don't. And that's because we aren't helping to educate the greater community.
We are the first generation to grow up around the "new science" of mental health, which means we are the first generation who grew up understanding psychology as more than just how long Mom breastfed us. Nature, it turned out, just as much as nurture, played an essential role in our psychological development. This was of course comforting to our parents' generation, because it meant they weren't solely responsible for the fact that we tend to stay up until 2am crying in our laundry rooms in a pile of mismatched footwear...
But it's also scary, because it means to a large extent, we can't do anything about prevention. Some of us are genetically more susceptible to mental health issues, and others are not, and that's kind of the way it is.
Given my own experiences with depression and anxiety, it's obviously a little frustrating when I hear people trivialize those mental health issues, or worse, those who are struggling with mental health issues. We're not "babies," or "cowards," or "overreacting," or "dramatic," or "milking it"--we're suffering, from very real symptoms. Sure, the debate is still out about whether mental health issues are "diseases" or "disorders," but how much does that really matter?
Instead of passing judgment, how about listening, learning, and trying to understand?
It's 2016, and it baffles me how many people--who have the same access to all of the same information I do--still don't recognize the importance of mental health, and its crucial role in physical well-being. I'm the kind of reserved, shy, anxious person that keeps quiet when people (especially older people) speak inappropriately to me. If someone offends me, I keep it to myself, I internalize it, and I generally end up nodding along even though I'm cussing them out in my head.
Because what's the point? If I try to educate them, they will just think I'm another childish millennial, overly-dramatic, overly-sensitive, needing to "man up," needing a "pity-party."
This is how I live my life - avoiding confrontation, and sometimes letting people walk over me to do so. But that's not okay, and living in fear or anxiety about addressing such important issues with our colleagues and peers is not the way forward. Yes, there's a time and place for every conversation, and I'm not suggesting you splash your 1 ounce disposable cup of cooler water at your boss for pooh-poohing your experience. There are times to take the high road, to avoid making a "big deal" out of somebody's ignorance. But in the right moment, maybe a few gracious, clarifying words is all it will take for that person to change a behavior or an attitude that is hurting more people than just you.
The workplace is one thing, and talking to a stranger about "being more careful" seems much more daunting than most alternatives. But frequently the more difficult situation is the one dealing with our friends, our family, our spouses and significant others. How do we confront those people closest to us about the importance of understanding and sympathy?
Whenever I talk to my grandma, she likes to bring up the fact that I'm on medication. It usually goes something like this:
"How are you feeling today?"
"I'm doing really well grandma, how are you?"
"Oh sweetie, are you still taking all of those pills?"
"Yes, grandma, I am still on medication for anxiety, depression, and my sleeping disorder." - matter of factly because this is not my first rodeo
She responds with a pause and probably a sigh and something like, "Well, you just need more vitamin D."
She means well; she loves me; she's concerned; but it isn't helpful, and it actually makes things worse. It belittles what I'm going through. No matter how cute your grandma is, however much of a lost cause she might be, that kind of ignorance hurts, and it doesn't get to continue unaddressed.
No hurt feeling is too small.
It is never inappropriate to stand up for yourself, and to challenge those who need some ad hoc sensitivity training.
As we wrap up this Mental Health Awareness month, I challenge us all to continue learning, educating, and understanding--because if we don't, who will?
Chances are there are at least 10 people that you truly care about who are struggling with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, the list goes on and on.
I am an ally and advocate.