Mental Health Awareness Month: Caring for our Bodies and Minds

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe, many of us are experiencing serious worry over our physical health and safety, as well as that of our loved ones. Healthcare workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and others whose jobs involve heightened exposure to the novel coronavirus are at particularly high risk. Especially for these people– and others, like elderly folks or those with underlying physical conditions– it can be hard to focus on any kind of self-care besides hand-washing, wearing adequate personal protective equipment, and constant self-monitoring for the symptoms we have all learned to fear.

Getting through the days and weeks with our work done and our physical health intact can leave us all with little time or energy for other concerns. But this Mental Health Awareness month, we want to provide a gentle reminder that caring for our hearts and minds is important, too– perhaps even more important than before, as we shift and struggle under the weight of these circumstances.

Since the pandemic began, many of us have experienced trauma and stress that we have not yet encountered in our lifetimes. People who have never been diagnosed with mental health conditions might confront unsettling new issues, like insomnia, intense anxiety, or substance dependence. Those who are intimately familiar with trauma could re-encounter the numbness, hypervigilance, or depression they may have experienced during past periods of difficulty. And if you’ve lived with a mental health condition since before the pandemic, you might find symptom management to be more challenging now than ever.

With this in mind, we encourage everyone to look out for each other– not just with respect to physical health, but to mental health as well. Communities around the world have shown admirable levels of accountability and care by socially distancing, checking up on vulnerable neighbors, practicing mutual aid, and sewing masks for people in need. It’s just as important that we show this level of compassion to those who are mentally and emotionally impacted by the stress of living through a pandemic– and, of course, to ourselves.

We certainly cannot suspend all of our feelings and responsibilities. It is perfectly understandable to be worried and scared– these emotions can even be adaptive to the extent that they encourage us to take all the precautions that we can. And though many of us would like to take more time and space to attend to our mental and physical health, work and family obligations can make it tough. That being said, taking even the smallest steps to ensure mental well-being can make a world of difference.

So, during Mental Health Awareness month and beyond, do not hesitate to offer support and express concern to others who are struggling. And if anxiety, sleeplessness, or other issues have made your own life overwhelming, it is okay– and, in fact, important– to ask for help. If you are able, schedule a telehealth appointment with your primary care provider or a therapist. If that’s not possible, consider checking in with a mentor, a family member, a friend, or even an app like Woebot. And emergency services– like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or 911 in the US, 999 in the UK, and 112 in the EU– are ALWAYS available. Your mental health is as important now as it was before the pandemic. If you feel you are in danger, it is always best to let someone know.

And even if you’ve been holding steady– take a moment to feel what you’re feeling, to open up to someone you trust, or to breathe deeply for a minute or two. If we approach our emotional challenges with the same care and attention we’d apply to physical signs of illness, we’ll see this through with sound bodies and sound minds.

In the Office & Off the Clock, Mental Health Matters

Everyone Has Mental Health

It would be rare to meet someone who believes that people don’t have medical needs. Or that investing in one’s own physical wellness isn’t a worthy endeavor. Medical and physical needs are obvious priorities. But what about mental health needs?

We all have those too. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that approximately 1 in 5 (that’s 20%!) of adults in the United States experiences a mental health condition.

People everywhere struggle with untreated or undertreated mental health conditions, and the unfortunate truth is that many employers – across industries – overlook or underestimate the extent of the mental health needs of their employees. When employees feel forced to sideline their mental wellness in the name of workplace productivity, they may be perpetuating the situation.

Being There vs. Your Wellness

Often times, individuals find themselves choosing between their mental wellness and a feeling of obligation to their workplace responsibilities. The United States Department of Health and Human Services notes that approximately 81% percent of lost productivity related to mental health is specifically attributable to presenteeism––aka being there but not really there. Even with “mental health days” becoming more openly discussed and accepted, many employees find themselves grinding through a day at work when they might be better off taking a personal day to rest and recuperate.

Looking to the diagnostic criteria for depressive disorder – difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, persistent fatigue, and anhedonia (loss of interest or pleasure in doing activities one typically enjoys) – offers more insight into how an employer, or employees themselves, could conflate serious mental health symptoms with an “off day” at the office. Each of these symptoms proves a barrier to engaged, efficient, and enthusiastic worker productivity, but more importantly, is a sign of a larger issue that deserves to be addressed. It’s time that all of us start prioritizing mental wellness.

Mental Health: Educate, Encourage, Repeat

Studies have shown that we are better workers when we’re happy. As an employer, offering at minimum, introductory levels of mental health care, such as self-care promotion and wellness programming, are an easy and accessible way to create a pro-mental-health workplace environment. A number of companies have already implemented such programming and resilience support for their employees.

Stanford University offers wellness programming, aptly named WellMD, to their hospital physicians. Unilever took it a step further and launched Wellbeing Zones within their corporate offices. These Zones promote rest, recovery and sleep for employees, and includes spaces dedicated to interpersonal connectivity among colleagues (the Connection Bridge), physical movement like yoga (the Movement Zone), and meditation and sleep (the Quiet Zone). SAS provides weekly farmers markets while Happster leverages the power of peer encouragement via their open channels for positive peer recognition.

Many companies have even more targeted mental wellness programs, working closely with teams to provide education and advice around mental health and the workplace. For example, BetterHelp, and EaseCentral offer telemental health options to their employees, while other companies offer comprehensive employee assistance programs. The HR Company educates employees at the managerial level about how to spot and support employees who may express mental health concerns.

Mental Health Care for a Healthy Career

We need to acknowledge and implement mental health wellness programming whenever and wherever possible, including within the office. Including additional education on understanding and recognizing mental health concerns, as well as acknowledgements of mental health related movements such as Suicide Awareness Month and World Mental Health Day, can also be helpful in showing employees that mental health issues are pervasive, and that if they are struggling, they are not alone, and should feel supported.

While not a cure-all combination, promoting adequate self-care, offering wellness programming, and prioritizing employee resilience can help scaffold employees toward mental health awareness and action, as well as help poise them for workplace productivity. Employers have been doing a better job at encouraging employees and supporting their mental health in recent years, but this is just the beginning. When proactive steps are taken to support mental health, employees have an opportunity to thrive––and employers and organizations may even benefit in turn.

Mental Health Awareness: Past, Present, & Future

Grow the Conversation

In 1949, Mental Health America (MHA) championed the beginning of what has become a nationwide movement towards bettering mental health culture. Throughout the years, MHA has covered a range of topics, 2018’s being Fitness #4Mind4Body, which emphasizes looking at a person holistically, rather than separating physical from mental health. In previous years, MHA had more strategy-based topics like 2008’s Pathways to Wellness, focusing on concrete approaches to bettering wellness.

Notably, celebrities, public figures, and national associations, such as Demi Lovato, Stephen Curry, and the National Basketball Association, have recognized the importance of this mental health messaging. They have joined efforts to destigmatize mental health through their own posts, fundraisers, and outreach. Moreover, during his term, President Barack Obama formally proclaimed May to be National Mental Health Awareness Month, pushing the important conversations surrounding mental health out of doctor’s offices and into the public. Since then, Mental Health Awareness Month continues to raise awareness about all things mental health, consistently pointing to staggering statistics that highlight mental health as a human, rather than just healthcare issue.

From Conversation to Action

Efforts such as Mental Health Awareness Month are instrumental in destigmatizing mental illnesses. However, the conversation surrounding mental health should not and does not stop as May comes to a close. As more and more people become comfortable talking about mental illness, we can begin to shift towards accomplishing concrete goals to bettering mental health care.

For example, what would it look like if companies incorporated employee well-being into definitions of productivity? Could schools redefine student wellness and resilience in order to better support students’ ability to pursue higher education? What if children had role models demonstrating that mental health is not an individual burden, promoting the idea that we should all be looking out for one other?

A few grassroot organizations have started conversations and taken action. Community United Against Violence bolsters and empowers LGBTQ+ communities, replacing cycles of trauma with safety, wellness, and freedom through advocacy based counseling, leadership development, and coalitions against policies that directly harm this demographic. Also on the policy side, Young Minds Advocacy works to improve mental health care systems by directly engaging with communities who are affected by mental health reform while also increasing and improving youth mental health care services in California. They take an intersectional approach, looking at how different identities and experiences can affect mental health, and honing in on the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

The Icarus Project, an organization run by and for those “who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness,” centers their work around how mental health is a social justice issue, hosting workshops and trainings with an anti-oppressive framework at clinics and schools, as well as for health care providers. Emphasizing disability justice and a peer-support model, Project LETS builds peer-led communities of education and advocacy on college campuses, implementing numerous initiatives including a university-based and nationwide Peer Mental Health Advocacy program which offers free, one-on-one, long term mental health support.

Mental Health: Everyday Awareness

When speaking about mental health, it’s important to be aware of the full wellbeing spectrum that ranges from the wide array of mental illnesses that span beyond depression and anxiety to the many wellness practices we can incorporate into our day to day. As we collectively continue to reform how we humans engage with this mental health and wellness culture, we can also be cognizant of the ways in which daily interactions within our communities play a role. Each one of us has the ability to promote mental health practices, and that begins with encouraging ourselves and those around us to prioritize mental health. Whether it’s doing something we love, finishing that last task on a to-do list, or having confiding sessions with people we trust, there is no “right way” to care for ourselves and each other, as long as we are doing it.