Let's Make Mental Health a Priority
In this blog I’m going to explore different considerations about mental health and make my guesses as to why people generally have difficulty prioritizing their mental health.
A Therapist's Perspective
I have the privilege of working with a variety of clients from many different backgrounds in my private practice. Whether I‘m working with an individual on or working with a couple, one thing has become abundantly clear: many people are reluctant to prioritize their mental health.
I truly believe that every person who steps into my office is making their best effort to improve their mental health. From where I sit, it seems like personal, social and societal pressures influence how we approach our mental health. and this is why we have difficulty prioritizing our mental health.
I believe the pressures can be broken down into three categories: personal bias, internalized stigma and shame about counselling.
I recently had a conversation with a couple who wondered if they were starting couples counselling “too soon.” I cocked my head sideways like a confused puppy for dramatic effect. And then I asked whether they would prefer to start in a few years when they can’t stand one another and want to end the relationship. As you might imagine, they chose to stick with it.
Every person has their own subjective ideas about the world. This is what forms our personal biases. Our beliefs are formed by our values, and oftentimes our ideas are be inspired by the people around us. For example, if your family didn’t talk about mental health or emotions, you might feel uncomfortable expressing your feelings and prioritizing your mental health as a result. Maybe you had a “crazy aunt” or “crazy neighbour” and so your understanding of mental health was limited to judging other people for behaviours you didn’t understand. It’s possible that you know someone who went to counselling when their parents divorced, or maybe you talked to a school counsellor once about bullying or something that upset you. In these examples, mental health is understood as an extreme measure and counselling as a sort of last resort intervention.
- Do you know what your personal biases are about counselling?
- Do you believe that you must feel desperately awful to go to counselling?
- Do you think that couples should only go to counselling when they fight a lot?
“What would others think if they knew I was talking a counsellor?”
“My family thinks counselling is for crazy people.”
Although the world has advanced in so many ways, mental health stigma still exists. This is endorsed at all levels of society: from politicians, to news media, in friend groups and among families. Characterizations of people who commit crimes often include mental health slander. For instance, mental health is commonly used as an explanation for atrocities like school shootings. Some individuals who commit crimes do suffer from poor mental health. However, this default stance sends the message that everyone dealing with serious mental health is violent.
Any therapist or medical professional can tell you that violence and mental health is more often an exception rather than an expectation. Violence is only one stigma of mental health. If you're experiencing intrusive thoughts or a long-lasting low mood, you might worry that you‘re “going crazy.” On the other hand, some of my clients with anxiety and perfectionism have said they believe they‘re on the autism spectrum. This is an attempt to make sense of the difficulties of mental health and stress. When a person experiences high stress, it can be expressed as physical pains, a racing mind, nonsense thoughts and changes in behaviour.
If you‘re having hallucinations or are hearing thoughts that instruct you to be violent, or that cause paranoia and worry about uncommon events, this is when intervention is required. It‘s often the case that individuals who experience hallucinations and delusions might not believe that they‘re abnormal. And so thinking that you‘re “going crazy” is actually a sign that you‘re self-aware and need some mental health support.
Shame About Going To Counselling
“I could never tell my partner that I was coming to therapy to talk about our relationship.” “My friends would feel so disappointed that I can’t say these things to them in person.”
Shame can be described as a feeling of being bad, unworthy or wrong. Shame is similar to embarrassment, and it also contains the belief of being “not good enough.” The couple that asked about whether they were coming to couples therapy too soon believed their relationship wasn’t substantial enough for counselling. My clients who think they’re on the autism spectrum believe that their self-perceived lack of quality means they’re not worthy. It might surprise you to learn that lots of people come to counselling and plan not to tell anyone about it. Therapy is masqueraded as a dentist or doctor appointment or even massage therapy. These professional treatments have much less stigma than mental therapy. Because who would judge physical treatment when a person is in visible pain?
Brené Brown has researched extensively on shame. She asserts that the path through shame is to embrace vulnerability and to speak your authentic truth. When you share these aspects of your life, you can normalize common experiences that you might wonder if others face. You can be selective with who you share your shame stuff with. Choose folks you trust. Opening up about shame can help to conquer anxiety, too!
Scheduling Time For Yourself
Have you ever left work early to make an appointment? Ever took a late lunch to attend a class? How do you fit in seeing a doctor or dentist when they only work weekdays?
Sometimes we must accommodate our life to counselling. It’s rare--though not uncommon-- for new clients to have difficulty finding an appointment time that works with their schedule. I hear these reasons often: "I have work at that time," "I’m taking this exercise class," "I don't want to miss work to go to therapy," "I like to stay up late and sleep in."
Living a balanced lifestyle with reduced stress is crucial to your mental health. There is no doubt about that. And if you jibe well with a counsellor who has a regular morning appointment available, maybe you could try it out. Sometimes life must be tailored to fit your mental health, not the other way around. When you schedule time to focus on your mental health after the chaos of the day, sometimes there is little energy left for yourself. There is also something to be said about planning. You probably wouldn’t want to return to work after a deep or emotional session. Then again, maybe it’s an opportunity to learn new emotion regulation strategies or stress coping skills.
Here are some ways to prioritize your mental health:
- Set aside one hour per day to do something you like for its own enjoyment. Don't choose an activity because it is productive or because it serves the additional purpose of “being productive.” (Doing items from your to-do list are not truly enjoyable, they are tasks!) Make sure the activity doesn’t involve a screen. I’m serious! That’s what the self-care research suggests.
- Set a social media/screen time limit on your day. Social media can give us the false impression that we’re doing a real social activity or spending time meaningfully. It is also a distraction. Many mobile applications prey on the dopamine response system to keep you hooked on the app for longer than you actually want, so that you can be fed more advertisements. Swap this screen time for real-life time. Most phones have a usage summary that will show you how much time you spend on social media apps. Look that up in your phone settings and reduce your time by 50% for one week, and a further 50% the next week.
- Do regular check-in’s with yourself. Just like how you might see the dentist for a routine clean visit the doctor for a check up, make a formal practice of checking up with yourself. You can journal, talk to a therapist, do some meditation, go for a walk without headphones or music. There are also plenty of mobile apps for mental health. Embrace a solitary moment to check in on how you’re thinking and feeling about your life lately. You can also use a grounding practice for relaxation. View some of my favourite grounding exercises.
- Identify your stressors. Look at the different areas in your life: school/work, friends, relationship, family and finances to identify your biggest stressors. This can help you choose areas to focus on to reduce your stress. It can also help you to prepare for situations where your stress might naturally be higher.
- Learn your early warning signs of stress. Do you tend to isolate yourself from others when you are under stress? Maybe you bite your nails or have stress dreams. Learn your subtle early warning signs to learn when to take a break so that you can avoid feeling overwhelmed by stress. As observers, your loved ones and others around you might be able to give you some pointers, too!
- Set boundaries to reduce stress. Is there a social topic that inevitably dismantles conversations at the family table? Do you have a friend who usually cancels on you? Maybe there is one particular coworker or colleague who seems to drain your energy with their conversation. Healthy boundaries protect yourself and your relationships by allowing you to save your energy resources for optimal functioning. It’s just like how your phone battery switches to battery saver move when it’s getting low. Setting boundaries helps to prevent unwanted situations. You can even set boundaries with yourself to challenge self-defeating and self-critical thoughts.
- Know when to contact a professional. Too much stress can lead to feeling overwhelmed, burned out, irritable and spiritually empty. This might be a good time to contact a mental health professional to learn strategies to prioritize your mental health. If you're interested in how counselling can help you manage stress, send me an email.
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