Introduction by Annamarie Fernyak
In the following blog post, Erin talks about the stigma of mental health and common biases toward people who may be suffering from mental illness. Before Erin’s thoughtful essay, I never considered that I might have biases. After reflecting on Erin’s words, I came to realize that some biases were just below the surface.
So, what can we do once you know those subconscious inclinations exist? What do I do?
Be mindful, of course! We each have the beautiful ability to tune the dial of awareness onto our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. By paying careful attention, we gain information and uncover unwanted habits and beliefs. The pause taken to tune into awareness provides the opportunity for you to weigh what is happening at any moment against your values; then an action may be chosen. It allows purposeful actions instead of reactions.
Take time to self-reflect. Listen to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Discover if you have habitual ways of thinking or hidden prejudices, and invite yourself to think, act, and exist in a way that positively serves yourself and the world.
Sending a virtual hug!!!
“I heard you were sick the other day. How are you feeling?”
“You had surgery recently, right? How are you recovering?”
“Oh no, you have the flu?? Stay home and take care of yourself!”
All of the above statements are commonly heard among friends and co-workers on a daily basis. We are often able to discuss health issues and illnesses, checking on one another, and making sure physical health issues are addressed. Imagine if the following was overheard:
“I heard you had a manic episode last week. How are you feeling?”
“You had a psychiatric hospitalization recently, right? How are you doing?”
“Oh no, you had a panic attack? Please stay home and take care of yourself!”
If any of the above statements make you uncomfortable, you are not alone.
Except for those who work in the mental health field, the statements above do not roll off the tongue. We are completely comfortable talking about the health ailments of ourselves and our friends, family, and co-workers; however, the stigma around mental health often leaves us speechless and silent, rendering those with mental health symptoms isolated and ostracized.
So why does this occur?
There are a variety of reasons and theories. In the Middle Ages, those with mental health symptoms were thought to be punished by God or possessed by the devil, so they were often imprisoned, burned, or killed. Perhaps the discomfort around mental health stems from the colonial and industrial periods; at this time, women were commonly viewed as property of the fathers and husbands in their lives, and these men could have them “committed” to a sanitarium at any time, with very little evidence. In the days of Nazi Germany, horrible experiments were conducted on those deemed mentally ill because some believed the mentally ill were a disposable population.
In the 1960s and 1970s, deinstitutionalization resulted in the influx of those diagnosed as severely mentally ill as these individuals re-entered local communities to receive treatment. However, this also led to homelessness, and it doubled the number of people identified as mentally ill in the criminal justice system in the following years. Additionally, the media sensationalize acts of violence and attribute them to mental illness, even if there is no evidence of a connection.
In this historical context, all episodes of mental illness get lumped together. Whether the person is experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety, the individual is often viewed from the same lens, both internally (view of self) and externally (how others view the person). If one grows up hearing about “crazy” people, who commit acts of violence or who live on the street, and then experiences mental health symptoms, it can be alarming and unsettling. Often, people will not admit to themselves or others what symptoms they experience for fear of being hospitalized, losing their job, or not being able to see or care for their children.
What can the average person do then, to reduce this stigma for oneself and significant others?
Mental health issues are isolating, and lack of connection with others exacerbates these issues. Human connection is the balm that heals. Sometimes, just having someone who is willing to sit with you, even in silence, is the most healing thing of all. Be that connection for someone. There are several things we can do :
1. Educate yourself.
The more you know, the less scary and strange something will be. And then, you can help educate others with facts.
2. Recognize what biases you have.
Examine from where these biases stem, whether from how you were brought up or societal influences.
3. Talk about your own mental health struggles.
Each of us has ups and downs in our moods and emotions; that is very normal. Each of us also has times in our lives when we struggle with difficult situations and circumstances. Talking about these struggles openly makes room and space for others to do so as well.
4. Be aware of language.
Instead of saying words like “crazy” or “nuts” or “cuckoo”, or even saying things like “he’s bipolar” or “she’s depressed”, say things like “he has symptoms of bipolar disorder” or “those who have schizophrenic symptoms”. This begins to identify the person as separate and distinct from the condition.
5. Support people who are struggling.
Reach out to someone you know is having difficulty with anxiety, depression, or even a psychotic episode. Let them know you are there.
*May is Mental Health Month and in support of our community, Mind Body Align is offering several FREE resources! Check it out here!
Erin Schaefer, LPCC-S, IMFT-S, is the Executive Vice President/Executive Director at Catalyst Life Services. She received a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pacific Lutheran University in 1997 and a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling in 2002 from the University of Akron. Erin has worked in community mental health for over 20 years. She was also director of Ashland Parenting Plus, a small nonprofit agency focused on teen pregnancy prevention, juvenile diversion, and parent education. She served on the board and as president of the Ohio Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and also on the board of directors of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy from 2011-2013; she currently Treasurer-Elect, starting her term in Jan. 2020. She has been a member of AAMFT since 1997 and is a Clinical Fellow.
Erin has been married to Michael for over 20 years. They have two teenage children. Erin is also a certified running coach with Road Runner Clubs of America. She is an avid marathoner and loves running long distances. Erin believes in the power of exercise to help maintain good mental health!
I remember walking into gym class, returning to the school that I had attended through 4th grade. Over the summer I had moved and I started 5th grade in another school in the district. But a custody change between my parents led me back to the school I had known all my life. After my dad enrolled me, the principal told me I could go join my class in the gym.
I walked into the gymnasium just as they were beginning to pick teams for kickball when my friend Robin spotted me and yelled “Lori’s back! Suddenly, I was surrounded by a mob of pre-teen girls screaming at the top of their lungs as they hugged me and welcomed me home. The reunion was cut short by the shrill of the gym coach’s whistle and his stern instructions to get lined up. He announced, that in honor of my return, I would be the captain of team A, and I proudly took my place in front of all my classmates ready to pick my team. (This was an honor generally reserved for the most athletic persons in the class, a drastic contrast to my being the last one standing; finally going to a team by default, not because I was picked.)
Looking back, I think that was the moment that defined the friendships I would take with me through Jr. High. I remember how wonderful it felt to be back in the comfortable surroundings of people I knew. How, for that one moment, I felt like a rock star. How quickly the moment changed when suddenly I was faced with the dilemma of: do I choose a team to win, or do I choose a team of my friends, who, (after all these years I’m sure I can say this without offending), suck at physical fitness.
The gym coach, beginning to lose patience, yelled at me to make my pick, and I was stuck. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to pick to win or pick my friends. I could look at the line, and see that the true athletes were hoping that I wouldn’t choose them, and my friends – my true blue, ride or die, friends – were anxiously waving at me to pick them. Of course, I did. I picked Robin, Teresa, Jenny, and Kelly. I don’t know who else I chose, but I know that these classmates were the right choice because today, 45 years later, Robin, Teresa, Jenny, and Kelly are still my friends.
Moving forward 40 years I have surrounded myself with many Robin’s, Teresa’s, Jenny’s, and Kelly’s. Some have been in my circle for a long time, others have already broken away and a beautiful few are entering. I pride myself on the tribe that I am part of. For many, being part of a tribe is necessary, for me, it’s an honor and a blessing.
Being part of a tribe, however, is not always easy. Maintaining deep relationships is more than clicking on a little icon to let someone know you like their photo or meme, sending a group text to announce your birthday party location, or a Snapchat to share what you’re having for dinner. Social media is a great venue to keep in touch with casual friends, however, I wouldn’t invite all my electronic friends to a pow-wow in my blanket teepee. In fact, there would be very few. And I would choose them today, in much the same way I picked my kickball team all those years ago.
As the years have evolved, I’ve gotten to know myself better, and love myself for who I am. While this step is an entire blog in itself, it’s probably the most important step in building an amazing tribe. This doesn’t mean that when I was 10, I knew myself in depth, but I did know that I had nothing in common with the kids who could pass the annual physical fitness test on the first try every year. I was much better suited to the kids who would much rather tie-dye scarves in art class or belt out the chorus of every song on Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdowns.
Get to know your potential tribe
I belong to a networking group, and for two years, I met these people every Tuesday for breakfast. Every week, I sat at a different table until I found myself gravitating to one table more often than others. There was something about the people who regularly sat at this table. Just recently, one of the persons at the table told me about his excitement that Jesus Christ Superstar was going to be on, and he couldn’t wait to watch it. When I told him that my son was going to be “Roman Soldier #1”, he was even more excited. This was all the confirmation I needed that I was at the right table. I could lead this table into any kickball game, and know that we would have a great time! This doesn’t mean that the other people in the group are not tribe worthy, it just means that this table is MY tribe.
Jenny was my first friend in life. I met her in kindergarten when I had transferred from another school. She was in the office and showed me how to get to our classroom. Once we got there she introduced me to Kelly and other girls who were friends of hers. Quickly we all became friends. Today’s connections may not be as organic or simple, but we build community when we help others make connections. Dig in. Get personal. Find like-minded people and skip the small talk. Expose your inner self.
When I think about how the best members of my tribe came about, I realize that everyone is there because of a connection. It’s been a wonderful discovery to grow together, and even if Kindergarten is the biggest connection we have, Jenny, Robin, Teresa, Kelly and I, are a tribe to be reckoned as together, we continue to expand our tribe, and yet we know that there is a grand peace pipe waiting in the Chief’s teepee when we all get together again.
A few things about me. A mother of two beautifully successful children and 3 grandchildren. Member of Slow Roll Mansfield planning team. I enjoy the Performing Arts, cycling, cooking and sports. I am a caretaker of my space in the universe and, like my grandma who named me, loving people is the reason I am here.
Community used to be a nebulous concept for me. Sure, I belonged to communities before now: The writers’ community in Boston, a spiky, jealous, yet reluctantly supportive group of nascent authors. The expat Ohioans living in Washington DC, who spoke exclusively and longingly about the Indians and Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Even the honors dorm in college became a community, where nerds of every stripe unified behind underage drinking.
What does a community look like?
If pressed to give a definition, I would have said community was a group of people united by place, occupation, or interest; ideally it looked something like Sesame Street, but without Oscar the Grouch. A community seemed like a helpful but somewhat archaic thing, much like pay phones and encyclopedias. Surely the collective knowledge of the Internet was really all I needed. It never occurred to me that I may ever want to accomplish something bigger than what I could do alone.
I grew up around Mansfield, Ohio, and left town after high school. After college at Ohio University I spent eight years on the east coast. When I moved back home in 2011, I was broke, discouraged, and above all, lonely. I was surprised and thrilled by the warmth with which I was welcomed into both the artist and downtown communities.
What does a community feel like?
One summer evening, not long after I moved back home, I sat by myself on a bar patio, rereading To Kill a Mockingbird. I was feeling friendless and was pretty low on confidence. Next to me was a string of rowdy tables, packed with people about my age, laughing and enjoying themselves. It wasn’t long before they invited me to join their group, bought me a beer, and became the friends I hold dear as my closest today. Since then, I have tried my best to do the same for other new members of the community. Also, in the years between then and now, I came to learn how community is truly defined, both in words and actions.
Community is not just a physical place, but also an emotional one.
It is composed of a multitude of sometimes very different people working toward a similar goal. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a positive zone of thinking, a shared mindset where, no matter how truly annoying your neighbor is, you can work together for the betterment of all involved.
In downtown Mansfield where I work, community means taking care of each other. I had not experienced this kind of community before as an adult: more family than anything. We send our friends and customers to other downtown stores and we all pitch in to keep Homeless Garry warm in the winter. We loan each other our tables, chairs, rock salt, ladders, wine openers, employees, and cars. We joke, we gossip, we give advice.
Now that I feel established, strong, I can help all of us achieve something none of us could do alone: our dreams.
Look around you: who else sees what you see?
Who shares your vision and sees the possibilities you see?
Imagine what you could accomplish, if you had a little help.
Llalan Fowler is a Mansfield native. She has worked as the manager of Main Street Books for five years. She is also the secretary of the Renaissance Performing Arts Board of Directors, a convener for the RCDG Arts Sector, and a founding member of the Mansfield Murals project. She writes the weekly “Downtowner” column for the Mansfield News Journal, the Bookstore Lady Blog on the bookstore website, and a bi-weekly column called “Just Add Beer” for the food and drink blog PitchKnives & ButterForks.