mental health awareness tree

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When I was an adolescent and young adult, I struggled with depression. As I reflect back on that time, so much of what I was experiencing was deeply tied to coming to terms with my sexuality. Growing up in the 1980’s in a relatively conservative town, I was closeted (even to myself) until I was a young adult. The pain and fear of being different, of not belonging, of being judged or rejected for who I was more than my adolescent brain could wrap its conscious head around. To protect myself from being “found out,” I often turned inward, keeping a safe distance from many.

 

In a talk by Gabor Mate, he says: “As a physician I have witnessed and treated what we call mental illness; as a person I have experienced it. I say ‘what we call mental illness’, because disease is a very narrow perspective from which to view a complex process, one that cannot be reduced to subjective symptoms, observed behaviors or to the biology of an individual human being’s brain and nervous system. Yes, this process entails suffering…But suffering is not the same as disease.”

 

I think a lot about that line–”suffering is not the same as disease” in terms of my own experience. Was my experience with depression a “mental illness”? Or was it suffering? Are they the same thing?

 

May is mental health awareness month. With the health and economic impacts of the pandemic continuing to grow, it certainly seems timely to raise awareness on the importance of mental well-being. 

 

But what exactly is “mental health?” The National Institute of Mental Health defines their mission as “to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.” But is mental health simply the absence of an illness?

 

We are only beginning to understand the long-term impacts of the collective trauma of the global pandemic

 

And there is a lot of suffering.

 

As of May 20th, the official U.S. death count has passed 90,000 and continues to climb. Families and friends are often unable to say good-bye to their loved ones in person or grieve the loss in many of the ways people often do. Economic devastation and uncertainty are rampant. The US economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April alone. Widespread school closures have left many kids vulnerable while they are home with stressed out parents, often cut off from friends and community connections. The health and economic impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color, revealing and often amplifying underlying inequities.

 

Amidst this suffering, there is a window to reexamine how we think about and the language we use for mental health. 

 

Psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl once wrote that “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

 

That quote seems pretty relevant right now as we all respond to this collective trauma. For some of us, those responses might include behaviors such as short tempers, obsessively reading the news, or panic buying. Other responses might be more physiological–sleep disruptions, headaches, or upset stomachs. The science behind ACEs and a trauma-informed approach can help us understand these responses as normal responses to an abnormal situation. A trauma-informed approach recognizes that those responses are symptoms, often symptoms of underlying suffering. 

 

As the impacts of the coronavirus continue to unfold, likely for years and even generations, the importance of emotional wellness for kids and adults should be a huge priority.  But in doing so, let’s not pathologize our normal responses to a very abnormal situation. Grief is not an illness. Fear is not illness. 

 

In the words of Gabor Mater,  “Let’s all drop the pretense that we are either normal, or abnormal. We are all in the same support group: ordinary people who must deal with the struggles that come with being human.”  And, as Origins co-founder Andi Fetzner likes to say, “being a human is hard.”

 

Amen.

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Lori Chelius is a co-founder of Origins Training & Consulting. Origins helps educators, health care professionals, social service workers, and other leaders integrate a trauma-informed approach into their work so they can build more resilient organizations and communities. She lives in California with her wife, three kids, and their dog, Oliver. Learn more about Origins’ and its online training offerings at www.originstraining.org.

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My wife works for an educational company and her past few weeks have been busy working with schools and districts across California as they face the herculean task of adapting to distance learning for the remainder of the school year. One of my favorite stories from last week comes from a training that one of her colleagues was conducting with a school site. During the training, without skipping a beat, the trainer announced that his daughter had just handed him their pet mice and he was now doing the training with two mice in hand. What I love about this story is that it reminded everyone on the call that the guy who was doing the training is also a dad doing his best to manage his own family life.

For those of us who are lucky enough to work virtually during these unprecedented times, the stories about working remotely and the sudden ramp-up in video calls are often hilarious. Zoom bombs from spouses and kids asking what’s for dinner. People forgetting that the camera is on while going to the bathroom. People showing up to calls in pajamas.

But in addition to being hilarious, these stories are also very humanizing. We are seeing windows into people’s lives that we often don’t encounter in a working relationship. At least one onscreen pet is now pretty standard for any video call (and a welcome addition). 

As someone who has three kids and has worked from home for years, having to manage background noise and distractions (albeit not for an entire workday) is nothing new. But what is new is no longer having to have to pretend that all of this other “stuff” is not going on in the background. Just a few weeks ago, I would desperately search for the mute button if my dog Oliver barked during a call with a client or make sure to prep my younger kids if I had a call scheduled after they were home from school. A couple of years ago when I had a weekly series of early morning virtual trainings with a client on the east coast dead smack in the middle of what is often the noisiest time in the house, my wife graciously turned it into Friday pancakes at IHOP to get the kids out of the house. My wife also works from home and the contortions we have both engaged in over the years to keep the pretense of having everything under control in the background have been sometimes funny and often exhausting. We have both been known to take a conference call from our car when desperate.

To say the least, all of those pretenses are gone. Suddenly, it’s ok to give an authentic answer when someone asks you how you are doing or to admit that the reason you aren’t available at a particular time is because your kid needs your help. And there is something very human about all of it.

I am struck by how many lessons of the trauma-informed and resilience-building movement are so salient right now–the importance of physical and emotional safety, the power of relationships and community to heal. I guess it makes sense–we are all experiencing a collective societal trauma right now.  Dr. Rob Anda, one of the co-authors of the original Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, a body of research that is foundational to our understanding of the impact of toxic stress physiology on health and behavior, reminds us that “It’s not just ‘them.’ It’s us.” This is one of those rare moments in time when I think we all truly understand what he meant.

The individual and collective suffering is no doubt real and will likely get much worse. By the end of last week, the number of deaths and infections continued to climb. Health care professionals, grocery stores workers, and other essential workers continue to put their lives at risk on the front lines of this pandemic. People are losing their jobs at an astonishing clip. The dad/trainer with the mice was furloughed from his job for three months (and my wife was reduced to 80%).

But the collective trauma and vulnerability we are all facing has also revealed acts of humanity, both large and small. It has led to unanticipated intimacy in places we may not have expected it. Seeing a toddler unexpectedly pop onto a parent’s lap (and the parent embrace them with a hug instead of shooing them away) during a zoom call is an act of astonishing beauty.

As Brene Brown says, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

And somehow every puppy that slobbers on a computer screen during a zoom call right now reminds me that we are indeed all in this together.

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Lori Chelius is a co-founder of Origins Training & Consulting. Origins helps educators, health care professionals, social service workers, and other leaders integrate a trauma-informed approach into their work so they can build more resilient organizations and communities. She lives in California with her wife, three kids, and their dog, Oliver. Learn more about Origins’ and its online training offerings at www.originstraining.org.

 

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My oldest graduated elementary school yesterday and I will admit that I shed more than a few tears at his end-of-year ceremony as the entire school community literally “clapped out” the sixth grade. Someone told me to make sure I bring my sunglasses and I am grateful for that advice. While elementary school graduation may not be as big of a deal as high school or college, it still felt like a pretty big milestone for him and our family.  I think back to his first day of kindergarten in 2012 . His youngest sister was still in a baby backpack as we walked him half of a block to his first day of school with another toddler in tow. My wife and I spent a lot of time in that classroom–we eagerly volunteered to share a weekly volunteer spot in his class and attended the frequent performances and parties hosted by his amazing teacher. Almost seven years (and two cross-country moves) later, he biked himself to his last day of elementary school and I had to promise to make sure I hung out with the other parents (and not him) at the end-of-year BBQ celebration.

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Sitting on my bookshelf in my office is a framed copy of Time Magazine from April 14, 1997. On the cover is a picture of Ellen DeGeneres with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay,”

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Anyone who attended last year’s (2017) ACEs Conference hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness knows there was an exceptional line-up of speakers. From Nadine Burke-Harris and her welcoming remarks to Bryan Stevenson’s closing keynote, there were many inspirational examples of work being done to push the ACEs movement “from awareness to action.” The format of the conference also encouraged interaction of attendees, which was a strong reminder that sparks of change can originate in unexpected places. I noticed this even before the conference started. As I was waiting in line to pick up my badge, I struck up a conversation with the person standing next to me in line. This experience was a reminder that you just never know who you will meet and what type of journey you might end up on together.

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