A mental health crisis that everyone is predicting does not have to be inevitable
The inevitability paradox strikes again. We have a mental health crisis coming — so we hear.
The inevitability paradox posits that because of (x) happening, (y) will happen and we have to accept it. But, there are things we could do to deal with (x) and (y). We’ll call those things (z). The paradox is, if we just did (z) in the first place because it’s good for us anyway, (x) is reduced and (y) never happens.
The “mental health crisis” is a perfect and sad example. COVID has revealed so much about our society and the human condition. What appears to be an impending crisis is just the manifestation of what’s already been here, living just under the surface. The “crisis” has been here for years. The shaky infrastructure of our social foundation is revealing all it’s cracks.
Since May 2020, we have consumed a steady diet of news stories, blog posts, podcasts, and cable news punditry about how the COVID pandemic is setting up this impending doom.
A leading contender from The Atlantic fully describes the failed infrastructure in healthcare, mental healthcare, and addiction treatment, while also suggesting that the answers lie with the U.S. Congress. Good luck with that.
Stories like this feed the paradox. If you read enough of these stories, you begin to resign to it, yet, there is so much that is within our control. It is possible to take a step back and realize the “crisis” does not need to be inevitable.
Granted, we have let our social and economic infrastructure rot for so long, we now need massive overhauls. But in our day-to-day lives we can do a lot and have an impact well beyond our comprehension.
Some action steps for you below.
But let’s try to prove-up the reality and dispel the myth at the same time.
The reality can be seen in both rising suicides and increased overdose deaths. The myth is that the mental health crisis is something new and specific to the effects of COVID. As The NY Times story on suicide notes, COVID only exacerbated tension across multiple factors that lead to the impulsivity of suicide. And the overdose deaths have been astronomically high and rising for the last 8 or 9 years. And like suicides, there are multiple factors driving overdoses — not just excessive use of drugs.
We see how huge this is and each of us look around and whimper, “But it’s so big, there’s nothing I can do.”
We are all wrong for two reasons.
While some of us are more at risk to anxiety and depression, two mental health conditions underlying a lot of suicide and addiction, we all have to take care of our mental health. This is really a daily thing that most of us simply don’t do and we overcomplicate the solutions. Brushing our teeth is very simple dental hygiene. We can and should have simple mental hygiene.
Another parallel? We don’t drink enough water. If we all drank a little more water and less sugary drinks, we would see significant positive effects, in our dental health, weight, skin, sleep, and general anxiety.
If we’re doing the above, then we are engaging in good behavior modeling. Good behavior modeling has contagion effects on others of higher risk and need — especially if the behavior is accessible (i.e., drinking water).
In Nicholas Christakis’ 2010 TED Talk, he presents the contagion phenomenon in terms of obesity.
“If your friend’s friend’s friend, someone you probably don’t even know, is obese, your risk of obesity is 10 percent higher.”
He goes on…
“And here, the idea is not that my weight gain is causing your weight gain, nor that I preferentially form a tie with you because you and I share the same body size, but rather that we share a common exposure to something, like a health club that makes us both lose weight at the same time.”
This friend of a friend social fabric effect is important. We have seen clusters of suicides at the Vessel in NYC and we have states like Ohio and West Virginia with higher overdoses per capita. With each of those examples are a complex web individual behaviors and decisions interconnected with equally complex social networks and dynamics.
What we need to do is look at our immediate social network and identify what positive behaviors we can take that will have rippling effects for the good of the group.
Here’s a few examples or actions you can start to take and hopefully share with your family and close friends to get them to join you:
A daily walk. You only need 15-30 minutes a day. Go by yourself, go with someone else. Go right away in the morning to get the blood pumping. Take a walk during a work break. Or better yet, if you do a lot of remote meetings, take them while you walk (psst, you don’t always need to have your video on). If you start to feel tense or anxious … yep … go for a walk. And most importantly, tell people you are going for a walk. If you have a shared calendar, put it on your calendar. And, consider inviting others to join you.
Find a local (or remote) therapist. We should all have an impartial confidant in our life. You don’t need to be in the midst of a crisis to see a therapist. To keep our cars going for a long time, we have to change the oil every so many miles. We need to do the same for our mind and psyche. Seeing a therapist four times a year is a great practice of mental hygiene.
Engage in what’s good in your life. A lot of mental health challenges can result from a compounding progression of negative thoughts and emotions which lead to bad decisions. When we regularly capture the good in our life each day, we build resiliency against that compounding negativity. We cannot stop all bad things from happening to us, but we can protect against how we process, react, and put that negativity into perspective.
Find a buddy. A friend and I realized we were both struggling. We enjoyed our energizing talks when they happened a couple times a year and decided to increase the frequency of those talks. Everything is on the table and we always check-in with one another. We call these bi-weekly calls our Super Power (half) Hour.
The impending mental health crisis does not need to be impending, inevitable, or a crisis. Each of us has the power and opportunity to take very small actions that can have a profound effect.
Think small. Act regularly. And invite others to join you.
Be contagious in a better way!
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