Mental Health—A Reality Check
October is mental health month.
Every day we are faced with different types of stress: self inflicted stress of unrealistic expectations, external stress from our work or family environment or stress that we categorise as 'adrenalin rush' which creates the momentum drive to excellence. Type A personalities and perfectionists welcome stress as they thrive under stress. Whilst it is true that some of us become more efficient and work best under stress, we cannot ignore what stress can do to our body, especially when it is part of our daily lives.
When we are physically tired or drained, our bodies have ways to tell us to stop. We become susceptible to infections and illnesses and we need to take time off to get better. What happens when we are mentally exhausted? We don't get little warnings to remind us to change our ways when all the while our mental health is deteriorating. It is not until we get hit with a breakdown or some mental disorder that we become aware of the damages that we have been inflicting upon ourselves.
Why is Mental Health Important?
For most of us it is very hard to imagine what it's like to suffer from mental ailments. We hear a lot about bipolar disorder, depression, alzheimer's and dementia hitting people from all walks of life. For non sufferers, it is hard for us to understand how debilitating these conditions can really be. Many of us fail to understand that it's not "all in the head" it is akin to a viral invasion of our cells which we cannot control. We cannot just "think" it away.
Mental heath problems are invisible to outsiders and due to the lack of understanding of such illnesses, sufferers are often looked upon as "freaks" as in the case of teenage Theodore Finch ("Finch"), protagonist in All The Bright Places. The book describes patches of time what Finch categorises as being "Asleep" when he cannot recall what or why he has done certain things. He is constantly worried about lapsing into the "Asleep" state and tries to enjoy his "Awake" state whenever he can. His life starts taking on meaning after he gets to know Violet, a girl who is troubled by the death of her sister. He is very much an ordinary teenager and the book propels readers into Finch's feeling of helplessness, his longing for peace in death which he fantasises, his predicament of being in a family that is not supportive and his general feeling of isolation. Mental illness is a lonely disease, support groups are few and far between as sufferers seem to be incapable of helping themselves, let alone helping other fellow sufferers.
Still Alice, on the other hand, takes us into the mind of a renowned cognitive psychology professor who ironically suffers from an early onset of Alzheimers, in her late forties. As Alzheimers is a hereditary ailment, not only does she have to come to terms with her irreversible cognitive downward spiral, she is also overwhelmed with guilt that she may have passed on the dreaded gene to her children. The indiscriminate way the disease attacks everyone seems so cruel.
Whilst Theodore accepted himself as a "freak" probably due to his young age and the early onset of the disorder in his life, Alice is frightful of losing her identity, her sense of self. We have a teenager who is absolutely confused and longed for peace in death before he has had the chance to recognise or develop a sense of self worth and awareness. We then have a highly intellectually endowed professor who is afraid of losing her knowledge, her identity of self, of losing the love of her family and being a burden to them. Which is more tragic? It's hard to tell, suffice to say that it is unfair that most people have to live with mental illness in isolation, often ostracised with very slim hope of integrating back into society.
How can we maintain our mental health?
Although there is no vaccination against dementia and other mental illnesses, research has shown that certain exercises help improve our cognitive ability. We explored that in our article Exercise and the Brain and hopefully, we will understand more about preventative measure that can be taken over time.
In addition to working on our physical bodies, we need to incorporate relaxation techniques in our daily lives to give our brain and nervous system the much needed break. Schedule appropriate breaks in our working year to spend time with family and friends to recharge our system.
With the hectic season looming on the horizon, take a few deep breaths and remember to keep calm.
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