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A Meditation on Mental Health Awareness Month by Ashley Brody

The month of May is recognized as such, and members of the behavioral health community customarily use this opportunity to hold special events and to educate the public on mental health-related issues.  These activities generally aim to reduce stigma associated with mental and behavioral health concerns and to secure additional resources in pursuit of our shared missions.

This observance is especially timely, as we are witnessing an unprecedented surge in the incidence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.  It seems no populations are exempt from this, but it has been especially acute among children and adolescents.  Much has been (and will continue to be) written on the subject as public health experts, elected officials, and countless others speculate on its causes and potential solutions

Most agree the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our mental health crisis.  But it surely isn’t the cause or the only factor to be implicated.  Economic upheaval abounds and leaves many to wonder how to make ends meet amid a rapidly rising cost of living.  Social media and related technologies continue to advance and to displace traditional modes of human interaction…the ones on which we have come to depend throughout eons of evolutionary history.  Add to this extreme volatility in the geopolitical landscape, heightened social unrest, and hyper-partisanship in virtually every sphere (even among friends, neighbors, and families), and one has a decidedly sinister recipe for widespread fear and distress.

Our collective existential crisis is as much a product of our circumstances as anything else, and potential solutions cannot ignore this simple fact.  And important as it is to recognize the role of behavioral health treatment in the recovery process, treatment alone, however effective it might be, can neither correct nor cure the innumerable ills that have been visited upon us.

So, what can?

I profess no exceptional wisdom on this point, but I will happily borrow from those who do.  Sages past and present have lit the way for us and converged on a common corrective…

Genuine and authentic human connection.

The pandemic has stolen this from us, although its co-conspirators are many.  In substituting video screens and masks for smiling faces, hugs, and handshakes we have lost something.

In substituting Facebook and Twitter for social outings and lazy afternoons reclining on lawn chairs we have lost something.

In curating our facts to suit our preconceived notions, beliefs, and sensibilities we have eradicated the elements of a shared reality on which we depend.  In doing so, we have rendered it nearly impossible to listen with genuine interest, empathy, and concern to our friends and fellows.  We have lost the capacity to celebrate our differences as much as we cherish our similarities.

Too often we find ourselves divided…by politics, belief systems, demographics, and access to (or the lack of) essential resources.  We are also divided physically in ways that are new and foreign to us.

I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I spend countless hours interacting with others electronically, but I cannot tell you my neighbors’ names.

I trust many of you are doing better than me in this respect, but I also suspect most of us could do a better job of reaching out, reconnecting, and acknowledging (live and in person) others with whom we share the most common and scared of bonds…

membership in the human family.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, I challenge myself and anyone else who wishes to follow to find one way to reconnect each day.

It might be as simple as smiling and saying hello to someone with whom you don’t ordinarily interact.  You might introduce yourself to a neighbor (note to self). You might pick up the phone and call someone in lieu of a text or email. You might pay a visit to someone in lieu of a phone call. You might write (by hand) a letter and send it via snail mail.  (Yes, I assure you snail mail still exists.)

And on that note, you might thank your letter carrier or Amazon driver or coffee barista or anyone else whose work makes your life just a bit easier…and whose efforts often go unacknowledged.

To quote the late, great John Prine…

So if you’re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes

Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’