According to the World Health Organization, the objective of World Mental Health Day is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Today provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide. And many offices, including ours, are enabling our people to take the day off.

Why are we giving people the day off?

Because we mean what we say. When we make a value statement, we must be willing to invest in that commitment. Lack of understanding, stigma and discrimination about mental health continue to pose as barriers to social inclusion. That’s why taking time on World Mental Health Day can give us a moment to consider how we might contribute. Because mental health affects each one of us, whether we recognize it or not.

Did you know?

According to the CDC, more than 50% of those living in the United States will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. Looking to the next generation, 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness. Not surprisingly, COVID has accelerated anxiety and depressive disorders dramatically!

KFF report: The implications of COVID-19 on mental health

To create a more inclusive world, we must understand, recognize, value and protect mental health. Growing up, I admit I knew very little about mental health. But when I volunteered in the mental health unit of Strong Memorial Hospital back in the 90’s, I had the opportunity (and downright privilege) of meeting Deb.

She had developed her own language.

So in the beginning, I couldn’t understand anything she said. A hunched, brittle woman who peered distrustingly at the world through a mass of tangled brown curls, Deb had been a long-term resident of the unit. She constantly murmured words that only she could understand, while her nicotine-stained fingers worried incessantly at the tattered hem of an old shirt. But after a few visits, I began to make out one or two words. One day as Deb glared at me while she muttered, I distinctly heard her call me a “mannequin.” I glanced at her curiously, asking why she called me that. Deb’s verbal stream stopped in mid-breath. With a startled turn of the head, she stared at me with probing, hazel eyes.

“Yes, I heard you. You called me a mannequin. I’m curious why you called me that.” With a playful smile, I added, “Is it because I sit very still?”

She barked out a laugh, and shouted, “NO!”

Followed by a long stream of words I couldn’t understand. Not that day. But in the following weeks, Deb began to let me in. I came to understand that mannequins were posers who wore masks; they couldn’t be trusted. “Chickens” were people who intruded on her space, and “smokes” or cigarettes, were the ultimate currency in her life. Deb and I built a precious relationship over twelve months, before I graduated and moved on.

To this day, one of the best compliments I’ve received is the day Deb looked at me and declared, “You’re no mannequin.” And one of the best gifts I’ve ever received was also from Deb, the day she shyly and very proudly handed me three unsmoked cigarettes. She had saved up long and hard to give me such a treasure, and I kept those cigarettes for years!

The Spare Room | Mental Health | Three cigarettes

Deb taught me so much.

But I’m by no means an expert in matters of mental health. Yet, through our relationship, Deb showed me the adorable, playful, and deeply wounded person who existing within that intimidating exterior. I realized that I need to put aside snap judgments based on how people look, speak, or present themselves. And seek to understand.

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Reference: KFF report – The implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use