Written by: Jordan Bunch, MSW, LCSW
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month and as I reflect on the most important facets of psychic wellness, I think about one of the hardest parts of accepting mental health diagnoses: there’s no visible wound.
There are many things people have trouble accepting with any given mental health disorder, but what people bring up in my office most frequently is that they suffer from an illness you can’t see. Patients have told me they wish they had broken an arm and had a tumor that could be removed instead of a cloudy, difficult-to-quantify and perplexity invisible disorder. Does this surprise you? Or have you experienced this wish for yourself or a loved one? It is not uncommon to discount what we don’t understand, even as we experience it; at the same time, if we are willing to move towards a stronger sense of compassion for ourselves and others, we can hold this uncertainty with greater ease.
What does this mean and how does one go about achieving this? This means that we have the capacity to get to a place where we can acknowledge that our pain is real even without a cast or surgery. Instead of stitches, plaster or bandages, we name, talk about and breathe into our mental and emotional wounds.
Why name it? For many folks naming the problem makes it real and that can be scary and overwhelming. Mental Health issues, though, don’t get better with secrecy and isolation; quite the opposite. Depression worsens with isolation, anxiety amplifies when we fight it and eating disorders thrive in secrecy. Naming our problems helps us find solutions. Naming our problems makes us courageous. Naming our problems allow us to recognize there’s a name for the pain we feel and that we’re not alone in it.
Why talk about it? I’ve heard folks wonder aloud in session if coming to therapy each week is more of a crutch than a healing process. They can keep it together during the week but not on their own. For most people, this thought is born out of a hesitancy to ask for help and the idea that we “should,” be able to pull ourselves by our bootstraps, suck it up, keep it moving and deal with things on our own. “Other people are handling their business, why can’t I?” One beautiful thing about talk therapy is reframing thoughts. For example, to re frame the thought that therapy is a crutch: perhaps therapy is a crutch, but what is a crutch? Literally, it helps you get around until you can get around on your own. It allows a healing process to take place. It’s temporary—when you can walk again, the crutches are put away. Healing pain from mental health disorders may take longer than a sprained ankle, but there will be a time you are either free of your pain and/or have learned tools to manage the pain on your own. Talking allows for this healing to take place. Another reason to talk about mental health is to reduce shame. Stigma, tragedy, bullies, fear and misunderstanding breed shame around mental health issues. Smaller, more benign things can also induce shame, like well-meaning comments from family and friends. Finding a safe space where you can talk about your mental health concerns and process the sense of shame itself, is as strong an antidote to shame as I’ve found as a clinician. It doesn’t mean it disappears overnight, but again, it aids in healing our minds.
Why breathe into it? And what does that even mean? While different strategies resonate with different people, one thing we all know how to do is breathe. Yes, breathe. That involuntary action is powerful, not only at keeping us alive, but also calming our central nervous system, focusing our attention, and cultivating self-awareness. Breathing into our emotions and the sensations they create in our bodies can help us to experience them in more helpful ways. The hope is that we can explore them with less judgment and intensity.
Naming our mental health challenges, talking about them and breathing into them gives us an opportunity to be honest with ourselves and, at the very least, to acknowledge what we feel. Our problems may not be visible to the human eye but they are certainly resonant to our human experience and we could all stand to be little more willing to look beyond what we see at face value.