How to help people understand the complexity of mental health
Eighteen-year-old Khajaun Ewing sat in his school counselor’s office at Benny Benson High School, showing off his new tattoos. On one thigh is written “I can do it” in capital letters. The other says, “I’ll do it.”
“It’s my warrior cry,” he said. “Whenever I feel like I can’t do it, I’m like, ‘I can do it and I will. And I overcome all obstacles.
Ewing has plans for his future. He knows he will focus on supporting his family and helping others while studying to become a chiropractor.
“I’m fascinated by all the different bones in the body,” he said. “The way things work, how you can help someone with all their different aches and pains over time.”
But Ewing did not always have this outlook on life. He skipped school to drive with his friends, ignored his parents’ rules, and didn’t care at all about the future. He was failing in school until last August he enrolled in Benny Benson, a credit recovery program in Anchorage. There, the teachers allowed him to work at his own pace, motivated him to continue and supported him to achieve his goals.
“My GPA has gone from 1.2 to 3.5 since I’ve been here,” he said.
He was also on the honor roll for four consecutive quarters.
With the encouragement of his mentor, Ewing changed his friend group and sought out people who would be positive influences.
“I noticed I was doing stupid things, so I changed that and removed all those negative people from my life,” he said.
The types of changes Ewing made were all related to mental health. In fact, actions taken by Ewing, such as investing in healthy relationships and finding ways to serve, are suggestions made in the Surgeon General’s 2021 advisory on supporting the mental health of young people. But Ewing would never frame it that way.
For Ewing, mental health means one thing.
” You are not happy. Not to be happy,” he said. “That’s my take on mental health.”
Because that’s exactly how society teaches us to think about it, said Jason Lessard, executive director of the Anchorage chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental health advocacy organization.
“When people hear about mental health, they think of mental illness or the negative aspects of mental health,” he said.
Lessard said often conversations about mental health in the media and in personal interactions focus on negative issues or mental health diagnoses. They don’t focus on the idea that mental health is just another aspect of our overall health and is heavily influenced by the environment and people around us.
Mental health is also linked to our physical health. Lack of food can lead to irritability, just as anxiety can cause stomach pain, he said.
“I think what gets so tricky with mental health, mental wellness, and brain health is that it’s so intertwined with so many other things,” Lessard said.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being where people can realize their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, and can make contributions to their communities. This means that mental health is not just about problems or depression, and mental health support is not just about medication or therapy.
So how do you evolve conversations about mental health to be more inclusive of all aspects of it, from the positive things to the negative things? How can we talk about the little things we can do to improve our mental health without being reductive?
“It’s hard, and I’m not sure how to make that change without also sounding, you know, a little too much, a little too Pollyanna-ish and prescriptive,” Lessard said.
Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to define mental health and all that it includes, even for people who work in the field.
“Your mental health is…I don’t even know how to describe it,” said peer support specialist Taylor Stapley. He works with adolescents at VOA-Alaska, a mental health service provider in Anchorage. “It’s just your way. Yeah, it’s really hard to define that for me.
Stapely said mental health includes uplifting and hardest feelings. Speaking as both a professional and an addiction recoverer, he said mental health is influenced by everything.
“Everything helps. How people talk to you, how people look at you, how you feel, how you think others see you, your self-esteem, your lack of self-esteem. Your mood you are in. Everything contributes to it,” he said.
So how do we get people to think about mental health and talk about it more fully and fearlessly? Lessard and Stapely said it starts with more education.
“The sooner we can have these conversations and talk to kids about their emotions so they understand them a little bit better,” the better off we’ll be in the long run, Lessard said.
Stapely said education has opened up conversations about many issues in the past and can do the same for mental health.
“You don’t have to be afraid of it. It just is what it is,” Stapely said.
Mental health education is not currently part of Alaska’s state education standards, although the state legislature has discussed bills on the issue in the past three legislative sessions. . Senator Lisa Murkowski also recently introduced federal legislation to fund mental health promotion and suicide prevention programs in K-12 schools.
This story is part an ongoing solutions journalism project to Alaska Public Media on the destigmatization of mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.
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