This was such a poignant interview, but as I listened to Sue Klebold talk about her son’s mental state toward the end of his life I was reminded of an on-going concern I have as the issue of mental health becomes a talking point for politicians, schools, parents and communities.
Here’s what the Mental Health Foundation has to say about what mental health is:
Most mental health symptoms have traditionally been divided into groups called either ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic’ symptoms. ‘Neurotic’ covers those symptoms which can be regarded as severe forms of ‘normal’ emotional experiences such as depression, anxiety or panic. Conditions formerly referred to as ‘neuroses’ are now more frequently called ‘common mental health problems.’ Anxiety and depression are the most common problems, with around 1 in 10 people affected at any one time.
Less common are ‘psychotic’ symptoms, which interfere with a person’s perception of reality, and may include hallucinations such as seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that no one else can. Between one and two in every 100 people experience a severe mental illness, such as bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, and have periods when they lose touch with reality.
On one level most mental health problems have a biochemical component; this is why drugs can be an effective short-term intervention. However, while some problems are rooted in bio-chemical issues (e.g. bipolar or schizophrenia), others are responses to circumstances, situations and environments, which can lead to biochemical issues (depression and anxiety).
Some of the increase we see in mental health problems in our country stems from the fact we are getting better at diagnosing individuals. There is some research that suggests there may be some genetic issues at play as we see higher rates of successful reproduction among individuals who, at one time, may not have been able to marry/reproduce. But it seems that a large part of the increase is among those who suffer anxiety, depression, and other issues in the “neurotic” category – “normal” emotions that are not adequately managed and become mental health problems. These mental health problems seem to be behind things like the rise in drug abuse, self-harm, suicide, depression, chronic anxiety – the list is long.
What bothers me so much about the conversation around mental health today is that I do not hear one important question being asked at the top of our collective lungs: why are so many more people today suffering from certain types of mental health issues – anxiety, depression, conditions that lead them to self-harm or self-medicate? This is especially true when it comes to our children. There are more and more stories like this one (LINK: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/schools-become-ground-zero-substance-abuse-treatment) about the uptick in students suffering from mental health issues and the ways in which schools are trying to cope. And while I am glad that we are trying to help young people cope with mental health issues we really need to remind ourselves that this is not the “normal” state of human beings. It is not “normal” to have people so stressed that their bodies and spirits begin to give out. And we should not ever allow ourselves to accept it as “normal.”
We need to ask ourselves what it is that young people need to thrive; how we help them learn the skills they need to cope with the stressors that may otherwise lead them to suffer from mental health problems. Most importantly, we need to help them live their lives in ways that keep them healthy – physically, emotionally and mentally. And sometimes that means we need to recognize that we, the adults, are part of the problem. We are the ones who have built an education system that ignores so much of what we know about how children grow and develop and learn. We are the ones who have set unreasonable expectations for students about what it means for them to be competitive applicants for college. We are the ones who make so many young people feel they do not have much to offer the world because they may not want to go to 4-year college. We are the ones who model for them that self-care is less important than meeting some externally-defined idea of “success.” So for their sakes, let’s take a step back and make sure we are taking care of both the symptoms of mental illness as well as the root causes of the problem. That means acknowledging that we may need to undo a lot of what we have already done to our children through the systems, structures and expectations we have set up.