When Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) first broke out, panic swept the nation. In that time of panic, many states passed criminal laws affecting those who know their status (they often do not apply equally to someone unaware of their condition & have not kept up with advances in treatment). It’s sad; those laws help maintain a stigma around HIV despite exceptional medical progress. I worry the same is happening with “mental health.”
With every shooting is a call for more gun control, and specific calls to prevent those with a “mental illness” from obtaining a firearm. Seeing that scares me because it seems like we are creating the same panic, fear and stigma around mental health as with HIV. None of the people shouting about changes to the law seem to have an understanding of how sweeping a term “mental illness” is. You shouldn’t fear mental health – it is not nearly as mysterious as the news media or politicians make it seem and it affects literally every human.
My Health Approach: My major in college was Integrative Health Science, and my approach to health and medicine is holistic. When it comes to the health of a person, regardless of whether it is physical or “mental,” there are low risk-high reward changes to behavior to be considered regardless of whether or not medication is readily available.
Here are some key things to know regarding health:
- Health (Physical, Cognitive and Spiritual) ebbs and flows for each of us on a daily or even moment-to-moment basis.
- “Good Health” means that your systems are in balance
- “Mental Health” is not different from “Physical health.” Good mental health means a good chemical balance. Always remember that – mental health is also technically physical health.
The key thing to take away from this is balance. Your body needs water to survive, but drinking too much water can effectively drown you: balance. Building your strength is important, but being exceptionally strong without improving your flexibility means that your muscles will not operate to their best ability: balance. Mental health is not scary – Mental health is balance, like managing your weight.
Your body contains many different organ systems. Your respiratory system makes you breathe, the circulatory system delivers oxygen and nutrition to your cells, the immune system protects your body from infections and your nervous system helps you think and feel. Falling ill typically occurs when one or more systems are out of balance.
So long as you can restore balance (drinking water if you’re dehydrated, exercising if you are overweight, consuming Vitamin C to help your immune system fight a cold or taking medication to kill off the extra bacteria/virus cells) you will regain your health.
Treatments can cause imbalances too. Some medications cause imbalances which appear as short-term or long-term side effects. Don’t rely on medication alone to help you fight an illness; healthy daily behaviors (e.g. brushing your teeth and flossing for oral health) help maintain balance and prevent illness.
BALANCE & MENTAL HEALTH: CHEMICALS
We don’t know everything about conscious thought, but we do know how brain cells function and communicate with one another. Each cell has areas for receiving chemicals (neurotransmitters) and areas for disbursing them. All of our brains operate in this way, and so imbalances can and do occur within all of us. To say that again: Every human, you included, suffers from mental health imbalances from time to time.
Example – Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which helps regulate sleep and energy levels among other things. Cortisol levels increase when you are stressed. Chronic stress (high cortisol) or low Serotonin are a few ways to make someone more likely to fall into depression.
Some people are depressed for a short period of time (after giving birth or with the passing of a loved one), and some deal with chronic chemical imbalances. Still, even depression – a mental health imbalance – can be addressed with diet, exercise and/or prescription medication. There is no mystery, we generally understand how those chemicals work and where they come from – even if it is more difficult for some than others to find balance.
Exercise increases Serotonin. Different foods provide boosts to different chemicals used in your brain. Mental exercises (meditation & prayer among other things) can help address chronic stress or anxiety. Combining them improves your chance of finding the right balance.
This might be common sense to some of you, and I’m not downplaying serious mental health issues which can require advanced treatment or which can be deadly, but learning to take care of the balance of your mental health, just like maintaining your physical health, will help prevent or slow down issues later on in life.
In an era where about 1,100 college students are dying each year from suicide, and where the media is gaslighting the public on mental health – which has historically resulted in stigmatization and counter-productive legislation – THE LEAST fraternities and sororities can do help their members young and old feel comfortable and confident in their ability to take care of their mental health.
Taking action doesn’t require a big press release and social media initiative to draw attention to your letters – it just requires compassionate communication and leadership.
- Mental health isn’t scary, just keep “balance” in mind and take some time to learn about it from a source other than the news or politicians
- Try not to overreact about mental health. Being gay was until the 2000’s considered a “mental illness,” the laws we write out of fear today may have unintended consequences in the future
- Fraternities and Sororities don’t need a gigantic initiative to start helping their members take care of their mental health. They don’t need a banner and a press release – more compassionate care for their brothers & sisters would be a great start.