By Clark Zimmerman, LAc.
My mother suffers from mental illness. For years I simply thought she was sensitive and more prone to the effects of stress than the average person, but after her mother died when I was in college, it became clear that the problem was more serious than any of us had known. She locked herself in her bedroom for weeks at a time, refusing to eat anything other than sweets or to receive any sort of help from her concerned family. She had been medicated for years for her tendencies towards anxiety and depression, but she largely hid her issues from her family and friends. With hindsight as a guide, I now see that while some of her issues were genetic, many of her issues developed slowly and were directly related from her lifestyle and beliefs: her poor diet, her obsession with gossip and bad news, her tendency to isolate herself. It makes me wonder if her condition would have turned out differently if we as a family and community would have done more to help.
We are in the middle of what many people are calling a mental health crisis.
Funding has been reduced at the local, state and federal level, leaving many vulnerable people needing help that they are no longer able to receive. This is leading to greater problems with addiction, overflowing jails, and more homeless on the streets. It is a puzzle without a quick and easy fix, but one that cannot be ignored away.
Clinically, we see that like any other health epidemic, mental health issues are not all the same. They exist on a widely varied continuum, from mildly agitated and uncomfortable, to chemically and emotionally unstable and potentially dangerous. When we treat mental health issues as an individual failing at best and as a crime at worst, then there is no real possibility of the issue coming to any real resolution. If someone has a true biochemical imbalance, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, pharmaceutical intervention may be the best way to address such an issue. This approach, in conjunction with supportive services such as therapy, free and safe housing, and community support, is necessary for a certain portion of the population. It seems that as a society, we must decide to value human life and help those who are unable to help themselves. Charities can fill some of this void, but it is also necessary for some government assistance to help the people that need it the most.
Not all mental health issues are due to an inherent chemical imbalance, however. Many issues are brought on by living a life that is out of balance. These could be alleviated or improved simply by encouraging a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. Proper diet, including healthy fats and proteins and plenty of fruits and veggies, can go a long way to promoting a more balanced and calm mental landscape. Exercise is another important part of keeping the mind healthy and less effected by anxiety and depression. Stillness practices, such as meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises can also help calm the mind and help avoid severe and lasting mood swings. It is also worth noting, that since the introduction and proliferation of smart phones, depression and anxiety rates have steadily climbed. They are now drawing direct correlations between the increased use of smart phones with depression and suicide rates. Though it is seemingly so much easier to connect with people on social media or by texting, many studies are finding that more people feel more isolated and alone than any other time in recorded history.
The combination of poor diet, lack of exercise, overthinking, and isolation all have their roles in the increasing incidences of mental health problems. All of these issues are things that we have some control over. So in addition to helping those with severe mental health issues with appropriate professional services, it is also important as families, friends, and communities to work towards living a life of moderation with positive and healthy choices. If we see someone that is “going down the rabbit hole” of depression, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health, we can help to interrupt the cycle by reaching out and offering help in whatever areas they are struggling with. After all, it takes an entire village to create healthy minds and communities.