Mental health. What does it mean to a twelve-year-old? It may very well mean nothing if he or she has never even heard of the topic. I know I hadn’t when I was that age. In fact, I wasn’t even aware mental illness truly existed, that there were diseases completely separate from physical illnesses like cancer, but equally as important to be aware of and as equally cruel and unforgiving to its host. To my twelve-year-old self, psychiatric hospitals were red brick institutions where they locked up the “crazy” people wrapped up in straight jackets.
The evidence is there. But most of the U.S. population has no knowledge of it. How can this be? The media won’t mention it. The only time mental health is even acknowledged is in commercial ads backed by pharmaceutical companies or in the wake of a mass shooting. It takes a crisis such as school shootings or the suicide of a mega-celebrity to shake things up, but when those events disappear from the headlines, the reality of the huge dilemma this nation faces is forgotten, and people continue to struggle in silence.
So why does mental health remain an untouched topic in so many classrooms across the U.S.? Why haven’t we pushed to bring it to center stage at a point in a child’s life when it is most critical?
It has gotten to the point that “not knowing” is no longer a good enough excuse. Learning statistics shouldn’t be a reactive practice days after news spreads about a young person ending their own life. Enough incidents have happened in the last two years alone that should compel people to demand answers. To probe for data. To rally for solutions.
The question must be asked. If those individuals who have committed suicide had access to the right resources and received support that is crucial for any person with a mental disorder’s survival, if the shame from stigma did not weigh them down and they were allowed to speak freely of their pain without fear of being judged or rejected, would these people be alive today?
The reality is that if our youth learn about depression, anxiety, and the vast array of mental disorders that exist and have existed for centuries, they will be better equipped to recognize signs and symptoms in themselves or in others. Without solid knowledge, a lack of empathy is inevitable. Because we can’t empathize with that which we cannot comprehend. And with “44,000 Americans dying by suicide every year” and “60 percent of children and adolescents with depression not getting treatment,” people living with anxiety, depression, or some form of mental disorder are in dire need of empathy, now more than ever. Mental Health Education will give every young person the tools they need to break through the stigma surrounding mental health—a stigma that puts a wall between the pain one feels and their seeking of help.
With adolescence, comes a great deal of pressure. Pressure from parents to do well in school, from your peers to fit in, be “cool”, advertise your life on social media. Cyber bullying is now more real and prevalent than ever. “After a series of high-profile suicides of teenagers who were reportedly bullied on various social networks.” In addition, “victimization of young people online has received an increasing level of scrutiny.” “Bullying can result in physical injury, social and emotional distress, self-harm, and even death. It also increases the risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement, and dropping out of school,” states the Center for Disease Control.
It doesn’t help that a young person’s hormones are running rampant and often times, he or she isn’t in tune with his or her own body, or even his or her own thoughts. Our youth need to be able to protect themselves, so a misunderstanding or harsh comment doesn’t bring them to the edge of their sanity. “Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but more cases are undetected and untreated,” states WHO. A dialogue needs to open up where people, both young and old, aren’t afraid to talk about their problems. Shared experiences could de-escalate intense thoughts and emotions. Simply knowing you are not alone in your pain can talk someone off the ledge. Being aware that people with a mental illness like you are leading happy and successful lives can offer the hope and encouragement a young person may need to push through a life that is at times both harsh and cruel.
At a time when social and traditional media expose youth to far more crises than they can handle or even comprehend, at a time when having depression makes you “weird”, “weak”, or unfit to handle life, when words like “bipolar” or “crazy” get thrown around like dodgeballs on a playground, it is no wonder the youth of today feel the tension no one seems to want to talk about.
So let’s change the dialogue. Let’s stir up some chatter. Even if schools taught mental health one week out of an entire semester. That would be a start.
Mental health matters because the lives of people with mental illness matter. We need to teach students that it is OK to have a mental disorder. There is no shame in having one or being a friend to someone who has one. There is no guilt a human being should harbor. A mental disorder is an ailment beyond our control. And yet, it can be treated, and life can still be remarkable. The sooner we as a nation can get on track to tackling the problem of mental disorders and the suicide epidemic, the sooner our youth can start leading healthier lives, both physically and mentally.
Crystal is an ambassador for Breaking Taboo and a public speaker for NAMI. She is also a writer and advocates awareness for mental illness through education, and to bring hope, inspiration, and empowerment to people of all ages living with debilitating mental disorders. She aims to show others that no matter how dark or painful the journey, a better life is always ahead.
Breaking Taboo is a nonprofit organization that aims to break the stereotype, or taboo, surrounding Mental Health and Suicide. Our intention is to educate, share, and encourage open conversations about this topic. We believe that in order to solve a problem, we must focus on the root cause. In order to save lives, we must kill the silence. In order to kill the silence we must break the taboo.
A taboo is defined as a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
We actively promote awareness of mental health and suicide prevention. Our mission is to educate and provide practical tools everyone can use including survival, step by step application, help, information, and resources. Tools that can save lives in times of crisis. Tools that people can take away with them to gain better mental health every day. Tools that inspire others to live a life without shame and frustration.
Someone in this country dies by suicide every 12 minutes. In fact, more people die from suicide than from conflict, wars and natural disasters combined. Mental health issues are often seen as things that can be easily fixed, or issues that people do not consider to be problems. That is simply not the truth.
Why not view mental health in the same way as physical health? Improving ourselves physically and getting help for our body is encouraged and promoted, whereas mental health issues are often shut down and shunned. Mental health is just as important as physical health.
The taboo against mental health promotes shame, guilt, and secrecy. The taboo prevents people from speaking out, sharing, and getting help. That is why we are here to break that taboo. We are here to change, to bring that knowledge to the general public, to shift society’s thinking, to promote positive change that may significantly improve and save the lives of yourself and of others.
Doing this work isn’t easy! We need your help to Break the Taboo and save lives! Please donate to our cause!
I am a high school student, and I am fully versed in the world of mental illness and suicide. So many of my classmates have experienced mental health related problems, talk about them, and have shared their insights with me. The quotes used below are from just a few of the unbelievably strong people I know.
“How did it get this bad? This thought continued to tear away at me every day. The answer is simple; I held it in. I only told two of my friends. I was stupid, thinking that everything would be okay, that I could handle it all” -Belle A. (MN).
When you let the little things go, you let yourself go. Sometimes you can’t handle everything on your own, and that doesn’t make you weak. Asking for help is what makes us strong. “Taking care of yourself first is not selfish, it’s a means of survival” – Belle A. (MN).
Don’t wait until you’re scared. Don’t wait until you’re contemplating ending the wonderful life you have ahead of you.
“She doesn’t tell too many people how she feels, she’s afraid they will judge her. She cares more about what other people think than what she thinks of herself. Because she doesn’t want people to see her upset, so she puts on her mask. The real her hides behind the smile” -Chrissy H. (MN).
You are brave and you are strong. Don’t be ashamed of your struggles, it’s how we grow and become.. Well, us. “Taking care of yourself first is not selfish, it’s a means of survival”- Belle A. (MN). Don’t hesitate to get help when you need help, your mental health is bigger than what others think of you.
Most of the time we know when things are getting bad. Over 21.4% of adolescents experience an extreme mental health disorder. You are not alone. Belle and Chrissy, the beautiful writers quoted above, are just two out of many who worried that they waited too long.
Taking care of your mental health is more important than what others think of you….MENTAL HEALTH is bigger than what others think of you! It is time to break the stigma around mental health.
Last year our school lost two students related to mental health conditions, and that extreme loss, as Chrissy puts it eloquently, “opened the eyes of many students towards the lack of communication around mental health. Sadly the school failed to do anything to change its ways” – Chrissy H. (MN). This is nothing to be said about schools, or even people, but the lack of education about mental health.
These students should have been able to reach out for help, and to try to address the problems before they took over. So until the whole world knows how to help, what should we do?
Don’t sit back and watch things crumble. Whether it be your life, your friend’s, your mother’s, or your lover’s… You can help.
How to help before it gets scary?
Talk to your friends. No, your best friend is not a therapist. But friends, are well, just that. Your friends, a built in support system. Talking to friends is a great first step, they will help talk you through the hard parts, and may even help you reach out to someone else. Which brings us into our next step…
Talk to a trusted adult. This sounds cheesy, like something you learn in elementary school. But honestly, it’s the right way to get your challenges out in the open. The worst thing to do is hide and feel like you’re alone, that you’re fighting alone.
Talk to a professional. The most important step, if you worry your inner thoughts are doing more than just bringing your mood down every once in awhile, you should seek help. This doesn’t make you weak, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed of or ashamed for.
“Taking care of yourself first is not selfish, it’s a means of survival” -Belle A. (MN).
Here are just some of the ways that I have found that can help you let off steam, center yourself, and be happy. Maybe it’s best to train yourself to handle bad situations in other ways. But, here is a list of relaxing and safe behaviors to get in the habit of distracting yourself from the daily turmoils we all are facing:
● Go for a walk
● Take a bath
● Play with a child or an animal
● Take a nap
● Hug someone
● Say 100 things you love about yourself, OUTLOUD!!
● Play a game
● Go on an adventure
No matter what you do, take care of YOU. You are the most important person that you will ever know. Without you, the world won’t be the same. You are unique and wanted and loved and beautiful and smart and kind. You are worth it. If you feel like you’ve passed the point of small acts of helping, please reach out to a suicide or mental health hotline, your family, or a professional right away. You can make it out of the dark, because there truly is light at the end of a dark tunnel.
A high school student committed to breaking the taboo at her school and throughout the world.
In September 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO)  included Mental health in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The importance of mental health became recognized on a worldwide level. Our world leaders have recognized the importance of mental health awareness and are working on creating a positive impact on communities and countries in need. Despite these positive developments, mental health still remains a taboo in certain cultures around the world.
Some important terms and definitions to keep in mind:
Culture: “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.”
Stigma: “defined as a mark of shame or discredit.”
Taboo: “a prohibition imposed by social custom or as a protective measure.”
Stigma is having a huge impact on mental health awareness and treatment. Currently clinicians are viewing the issue as “culture counts” . The culture and beliefs of the clinician can impact how they interact with a person coming in for mental health services. Even deeper is the issue of the various beliefs and culture of the person needing mental health services.
When looking at different cultures, it is important to understand their backgrounds, to understand their history. If a culture has been oppressed, they are used to a certain way of living. If a culture has a strong influence on health and wellbeing they may have already understood and be practicing the importance of mental health wellness.
Starting off within the Western or American culture there is often a distinction made between mind and body . In today’s day and era there is the beginnings to an effort being made to acknowledge the importance of mental health awareness. From the Surgeon General addressing the issue to it being implemented in workplaces. The cultural taboo is being fought back.
Source A, an administrator coordinator, who associates herself with American culture, does not believe mental health is a taboo in her culture anymore. “We are able to talk to people about our issues and use various means to alleviate mental health issues,” stated Source A. (Source A asked not to be listed by name due to it being taboo at her workplace to publish their personal opinions in public spaces since they represent the workplace.) Source A also shared that her “family believes in utilizing medication to alleviate mental health issues while she focused on dietary habits and exercise as well as therapy to help solve her mental health issues.” She finds it to be the most effective. While this particular viewpoint shows a positive advancement in how mental health is viewed in American culture, it is unfortunately not indicative of how everyone in America currently views mental health. There is still a long way to go in breaking the taboo.
In certain Asian cultures mental illness is highly stigmatized. Having a mental illness is related with having a poor family background and influences the potential of marriage into a certain family. Literature shows that Chinese Americans have more somatic complaints of depression than African American or white .
Rahul Bains, an IT Manager with an East Indian background, also shared his viewpoint from his culture. He agrees mental health is a taboo in Eastern India and feels people do not take mental health illness as a serious health issue that can be cured. “In our families, mental health issues are often associated with other issues and the families try to resolve other issues first and consider the mental issues will be taken care of as well. In so many cases, they relate mental health issues as a result of bad deeds “karma”, religion or something supernatural. This leads to religious “treatments” and if it is not treatable then they say it’s God’s wish,” explained Rahul.
Coming from an East Asian background myself I have seen the social stigma that is attached to mental illness. From my experience, people are not educated about mental illness and the various forms of it which leads to the social stigma. Because of the lack of mental health education, they have a lack of vocabulary to describe their emotions. I have seen my grandma go through a difficult time and her stating she is upset, and her mood is not right but that is the extent of emotions she has described to me. I have seen other family members need mental health counseling, but they have waved it off because of what will people think and not wanting to share secrets.
Nancy Tang, a Clinical Nurse Specialist, is a first generation Chinese American shared her experience with me. She shared about mental health definitely being taboo in the Chinese culture. “People don’t like to talk about it at all even though they know it is a concern,” stated Nancy. She related back to her family and shared that they are “not open to seeking psych evaluations or treatments. Even though it was clear that I had family members that needed it or could benefit from it.” Nancy also shared that mental health is regressing in her culture due to the glamourized stereotype of how people should be living.
The Hispanic culture has a lot of culture-bound syndromes which are important to identify before and while treating and diagnosing mental illnesses. For example, they believe in the mal de ojo (evil eye) and susto (fright) . The value in understanding these culture- bound syndromes helps with better understanding the need for mental health education/ prevention/ treatment.
Common mental health disorders among Latinos are generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism . The most common diagnosis I have heard from the Latino population is them describing symptoms of depression as “nervios” (nervousness) . Despite these issues, the Latino community does not talk about mental health issues for fear of being labeled as “locos” (crazy) . Other factors that contribute to the associate are privacy concerns, language barriers, lack of health insurance, misdiagnosis and even legal status.
As of 2017, there are currently 567 federally- recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes; they are culturally diverse and speak more than 200 languages . In the American Indian culture, there is a lack of vocabulary to describe such words as “depressed” and “anxious.” Not only is there a language barrier but also a cultural difference of how to express distress and unhappiness. Although the Census shows a significant increase and those identifying themselves as American Indian there is a lack of studies that have been conducted . Adults are not the only ones being affected, American Indian and Alaskan Native children and adolescents have the highest rates of lifetime major depressive episodes and highest self-reported depression rates than any other ethnic/racial group .
As previously mentioned, there have not been many studies about Native American attitudes regarding mental health and mental illness. In the Native American culture, there is a worldview that surrounds the notions of connectedness, reciprocity, balance and completeness that creates structure for their views of health and well-being . Studying this experience may help lead to finding the fundamental aspects of psychological and social well-being and the mechanisms for their maintenance .
Currently the stigma and taboo are there in every culture, in one form or another. The question is what is the best way to address the issue? Education or preventative measures? What is the culture in question open to? Can we cross that language barrier to help create the needed vocabulary?
Recently relocated to Los Angeles. Health educator, foodie and traveler, currently spending time enjoying the simple things in life.
I am not a doctor, nor a therapist or counselor. I volunteer with Breaking Taboo for suicide prevention and mental health awareness. This is just what I’ve learned from my own personal experience in the trenches, doing twenty years of group self-help.
There are three things to remember:
Get them moving.
Get them food.
Get them talking.
I was living in a small desert town near the Naval base where my husband was stationed. It was beautiful country, but it was isolated. I was dealing with some health issues at the time, so I knew myself that any sort of specialist was at least 50 miles away. Sure, we had a small local hospital, but it wasn’t even large enough to rate regular doctors. Most ER doctors came in from larger cities like Lancaster or Bakersfield, several hours away. I don’t think there was even a trauma center. There certainly weren’t any on-call psychological services. So when my friend called frantic about his fiancée, in a panic after she wouldn’t open the door for him and he could hear her crying, I already knew we were dealing with limited resources.
My friend had just finished her hesitation marks on her wrists when I arrived on the scene. While I was talking to her through the door, I had her fiancée call her best friend and get her over too (not only as backup for me but for him as well… anything to separate out and deal with one issue at a time, one person at a time…). It was the right call on my part- even if it was just on the basis that you never want to be flying solo when the stakes are this high. We reminded her we loved her and whatever it was that was troubling her we could figure out together.
It was 2am in a small desert town, so unfortunately there was not much we could put into action. However, we tried our best to come up with a plan. We could break it down and make it manageable. “It’s going to be okay”, “we are here for you”, we told her. We got her to open the door and relinquish the knife. ** It is important to note that the wounds were not deep, they were no more than a bad cat scratch and would not need stitches. [*Please note that if it is a deep wound, or if you can not get the bleeding to stop, call the paramedics and go to the hospital right away. No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s always okay to bring in the professionals to save a life (or a hand).]
We bandaged up her wounds after disinfecting and applying healing ointment. We stroked and pat her back as she sobbed. The ER was our only option, but they weren’t equipped with a psychology ward, so we passed on that. We did, however, make her promise she would seek out processional services as soon as the offices opened the next day.
Now to get her out of the house and moving (“Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature” Study finds that walking in nature yields measurable mental benefits and may reduce risk of depression. Published June 30, 2013, Retrieved Mar 12, 2019) In the car and out to get food, I took us through the drive-through so I could keep the car going while they ate and talked.
There’s something incredibly soothing about motion. A peaceful drive can be incredibly healing. If the person you’re helping can’t get out of the house, a beautifully scenic, peaceful video game can have the same effect. Directing a character to run through say, the sunny parts of Skyrim can create the same effect (in my experience, your mileage may vary, research here: “Video games as a complementary therapy tool in mental disorders” Published online 2012 May 1, Accessed 2019 Mar 7). Walking, if possible, is the best (“Walking for depression or depressive symptoms” Published online 2012, Accessed 2019, Mar 7). But it was 2am so… a leisurely car ride and drive-through for us.
Food is a tricky one, but in an emergency situation like this, my philosophy is, don’t worry about any eating disorder issues when life and death are on the line: eating disorders can be handled by a survivor. In a crisis moment, food will change your body’s internal behavior and get it focused on digestion, rather than whatever process is generating the crisis. It changes how we breathe and gets us into a familiar memory of taking sustenance. That’s what counts in a pinch:
“Emotional eating is a coping mechanism to deal with intense feelings, stress, or depressed moods increasing one’s chance of obesity,” says Treena Wynes, awellness consultant in Saskatoon, Canada.”Our urge to eat is strongly driven by our moods and emotions.” “Fatty-acids provide the positive benefits for enhancing moods and brain function which improve our thinking, feelings, and behavior [and] are becoming recognized for their mood-stabilizing and antidepressant effects as well as satiety,” she says. (“Why Comfort Foods Are So Comforting” Published July 25, 2011, Accessed Mar 7, 2019)
And we could see it happen before our eyes. The first bite was shaky, but by the end of the burger, she was relaxed. Her shoulders weren’t balled up into her ears, she wasn’t hugging herself any longer, the tears stopped… and when she finally was able to laugh, I knew we were beyond the immediate crisis. Now we could start digging into the cause.
We were able to discover it was feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt. We were able to put together a plan to see a professional and what would help her in the meantime until she was able to get in. We discussed triggering events and how she would want to be reassured, sprinkled in with a few funny stories that were appropriate.
Laughter is incredibly healing: Depression is a disease, where neurotransmitters in the brain, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, are reduced, and there is something wrong in the mood control circuit of the brain. Laughter can alter dopamine and serotonin activity. Furthermore, endorphins secreted by laughter can help when people are uncomfortable or in a depressed mood. Laughter therapy is a noninvasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression, representative cases that have a negative influence on mental health. In conclusion, laughter therapy is effective and scientifically supported as a single or adjuvant therapy. (“Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health” Published July 2016, Accessed Mar 7, 2019)
We were ultimately able to include her fiancé in this care (she didn’t feel worthy of him) and they decided on couples counseling as well. Over the next few days we made sure she got out of the house every day, even if just for a walk around the block of some pretty area. At first she needed our company, but as she got used to the new routine, she started walking on her own. We found support groups and attended them with her if she felt like she needed it. The communication and encouragement at home improved. Over time, she was able to piece herself back again.
She and her fiancé went on to get married and have 8 kids together. She still bears the scars on her arms of that night, but through much continued work, she was able to heal the wounds in her heart.
[Endnote: Do not think you have to do this on your own. We were in an isolated situation with limited care available. It is always a good idea to call in the professionals at any point, especially if anyone feels overwhelmed.]