Dean’s Blog – Mental health: It’s time we talk and do something about it
Some say stress is the #1 killer, due to its direct tie to the top 6 causes of death. While stress can be classified as a natural biological response to threat or danger, if stress is chronic, it can lead to many complications. I suggest it’s important to talk openly to each other about our mental health and celebrate and cultivate wellness. Why? Because our quality of life matters.
According to the organization Mental Health America, data from 2022 suggests 19.86% of adults, almost 50 million Americans, are experiencing a mental illness.
I should know. About 25 years ago, I was in my early 30s, and on the surface my life looked awesome. I had a wonderful marriage (still do), I had two beautiful daughters (still do, they are adults now), I was on a tenure track position doing relatively well, teaching, doing research with students, and in general “living the life”. One day I woke up and felt a vacuum in my stomach, I had difficulty breathing and my brain was foggy. Over the next few days, these symptoms became more severe: I didn’t want to eat or go to work; I just wanted to stay in bed. I could not understand what was going on with me.
At my wife’s urging, I visited my doctor, who referred me immediately to a psychiatrist. I could neither believe nor understand that I had to see a “shrink”, but I was feeling so terrible that I just went along with it. My psychiatrist diagnosed me to be medically depressed got me on some medication and told me I had probably been depressed for years without noticing it.
Within weeks, the medication effects kicked in, and I started to feel better and better, to a point where I felt fantastic! I realized then that I had not felt that way in a very long time. Within 6 months, I stopped taking the medication, only to have a relapse shortly thereafter. This time, I acted quickly, got back on the medication, and stayed with it for about a year and a half until my doctor and I felt I was “in the clear”.
What caused my depression? A couple of years of therapy helped me understand many potential factors, all related to stress. It could have been the weight of what is today referred to as “adulting” (we did not call it like that back then): parenthood, having a mortgage, etc. It could have been delayed effects of having to migrate from Venezuela to the US for political reasons. It could have been something earlier in my life.
I learned that the reason itself was not as important as dealing with my mental health in a proactive way. After that tough period in my life, I became a very happy person; people told me I could not stop smiling. My career took off and I did very well, even while dealing with many changes and transitions. I made peace with being a migrant and raised my family happily in this great country; I don’t look back.
One lingering effect and learning from all of this is that now when I look at someone, I wonder if they are going through a difficulty period in their own lives; anyone: my family and friends, my colleagues, my neighbors. I try to be patient, tolerant and understanding with others. Maybe that drove me towards becoming an administrator, being in a position to help others.
Over the years since my bout with depression, I have seen that people have grown more accustomed to openly discussing physical, speech or occupational therapy after an accident or say a stroke. But, even today, the thought of discussing psychological therapy is somewhat taboo, almost viewed negatively. As movie and television narratives depict how therapy can positively impact lives, I can see the prevalence growing, and open discussions about having a therapist, attending to one’s wellness, or recommending specific care for another has become more normalized in the public discourse.
And that’s a great thing!
For the past ten years, the United Nations has commemorated World Mental Health Day on October 10.
On the Mason Counseling and Psychological Services (@caps_gmu) Instagram feed, to highlight World Mental Health day this year, a quote from psychologist Noam Shpancher, reminds us “mental health is not a definition, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.”
You can tell from the progression of recent World Mental Health Day themes, The UN has moved beyond just the need to openly discuss mental health to the disparities that may exist in this space and advocating for all. The themes over the past few years help us see where the conversation on this topic is going. They include: Mental health is a universal human right -- Making mental health for all a global priority; Mental Health in an unequal world; Mental Health for All, Greater Investment—Greater Access. Everyone, everywhere.
And here at Mason, there are many opportunities to cultivate wellness. This week, Mason is intentionally holding space to recognize the unique mental health challenges that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the United States face. BIPOC Wellness Week allows us to shine a light on diverse stories, healing practices, and self-care rituals that empower our communities. Self-care and self-love are not just jargon or hashtags, they are ways of thinking and understanding where people are and look to go in their lives. Encourage your students to learn more about these activities.
During the pandemic, Mason was the first university partner of Burnalong, a useful, customizable wellness tool. The easy to use app was a great fit for all Mason staff, faculty, and students looking to prioritize self-care and wellness but not able to get to a workout class or wellness session beyond their home or dorm. Check out the Burnalong cardio, life coaching, nutrition, fit over 50, or the HITT training (a personal favorite) to get your blood flowing. You can even virtually sync up with your coworkers to stay accountable and connected.
In more of a well-being learning mode? Mason also offers a Thriving Together series, a group of well-being articles available throughout each semester that cover diverse topics. Every article presents research and practices you can use to strengthen a different aspect of your well-being. Do you have ideas to cultivate creativity, support diversity, experience or deliver gratitude or kindness? Help our online community thrive together and consider writing one of these Thriving Together Series features. The Mason CWB is looking for contributions on all topics related to well-being. See the examples online or contact them for guidelines at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talking about mental health, either our own or others’, is courageous and caring, both brave and empowering. Mason and our college offer many well-being focused opportunities, events, and resources. I encourage you to prioritize your own mental health, and make time for self-care and nurturing. I learned this the hard way.