1 in 5. Changing the faces of mental health

 

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

An entire month aimed to create positive awareness for mental health.

A healthy step forward, right?

Personally, I believe this is an important first step on a long winding road, but merely a starting point. My feelings about this cause are deeply personal, rooted in my own complicated mental health history. I invite you to follow along as I unpack some of my thoughts for you in hopes of shining a light on a different path.

To begin, let’s acknowledge that all of us has mental health. Each person has a brain and therefore mental health. It has been described many ways, but according to the recent Let’s Talk Colorado campaign, “Mental health is a state of balance in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Positive mental health allows us to feel good about life, supporting our ability to participate in daily activities and accomplish our goals.”

“Everyone, regardless of gender, race, income, or religion, faces challenges with their mood, emotions and behaviors from time to time. Some of us, through no fault of our own, face greater challenges than others. It’s important to talk about our mental health with someone we trust, and seek professional care when we need it, just as we would with a physical injury or ailment.”

Based on these broad descriptions, mental health feels like an approachable topic we all should feel comfortable talking about. Yet, that simply is not the case. Healthy dialogue for a cause that affects us all should by now be commonplace. Instead, it is mostly still discussed in hushed tones among those who are affected.

Why are we narrowly limiting the conversation on something that affects us all?

From my perspective, as a professional devoted to the positive promotion of mental health, there are some key reasons. Unfortunately, mental health is an oft used synonym for mental illness, which is a dangerous comparison to make considering the two DO NOT have the same meaning. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes mental illness as “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood.”

Statistically, NAMI claims one in five adults will be affected by a serious mental health condition in the course of a lifetime. ONE IN FIVE. Think about that statistic. In my own state of Colorado, that is approximately one million Coloradans. Given those staggering numbers, each of us will somehow be affected, directly or indirectly.

We speak freely about other illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. Yet, mental illness is still often discussed in ‘us vs. them’ language. Mental illness does not discriminate. It knows no boundaries and can affect anyone at anytime. Let’s Talk Colorado has identified some contributing factors that can negatively impact one’s positive mental health. They are:

Stress, Anxiety, Trauma, Chemical Imbalance, Genetics, Environment

At various times one or more of these has adversely impacted me. Can you relate? 

lewy-body-dementia-2965713__340I share about this topic from lived experience and only learned more after it hit my own home. Not so many years ago, life became unmanageable and my mental health completely unraveled. This happened in an unexpected way. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. There were days, weeks, and months where my future felt uncertain, left to sort through the ash.

A lifetime of privileged experience had insulated me and could not have prepared me for what lie ahead. I felt exposed and alone, facing a great unknown. One of the toughest challenges was revisiting the labels my former life had placed on me.

Arrogant. Entitled. Spoiled. Unaware.

At first, I believed I deserved this plight and the associated punishments. A new self-imposed narrative replaced those unkind labels with others that were perhaps even more harmful.

Unworthy. Ashamed. Disgraced. Humiliated. And now, ‘one in five.’

mountaineer-2100050__340From that place, beginning again was a slow and tedious process. It felt like climbing a mountain without appropriate gear. Many days, I barely found the strength to forge ahead, but fortunately clung to a mustard seed of hope. From that tiny seed, I became focused and determined to rebuild my life, which wasn’t easy. In fact, it was more challenging than anything I’d faced. In time and with considerable effort, I began to pack those negative labels away, replacing them with others that felt more aligned.

Authentic. Accomplished. Compassionate. Empathetic. Worthy. Helpful.

Today, I am most honored to put each label in its appropriate place and most proud to be ‘one in five.’ I am humbled to count myself among the brave warriors who boldly struggled before me. This incredibly painful journey brought me to my knees, only to realize that the only labels that matter are the ones you subscribe to.

Of course, I wish some of the collateral damage was different, but I have no regrets.

Mental health doesn’t care about where we come from, who we are, who we know, how tug-of-war-673571__340much money we have, our education, or the successes we’ve achieved. It’s a great equalizer that can level just about any playing field. Isn’t it time we shed light on the truth?

Shouldn’t we approach mental health for what it is, something we all have?

Each of us has a personal choice that can start with a new understanding, making clear distinctions between mental health and mental illness. From that place, we can begin to depart from our ‘us vs. them’ culture. I realize we have a long way to go to achieve this ideal state, but each us has a role.

It’s time we start seeing each other as individuals having a human experience. Reality shows that EVERYONE STRUGGLES WITH SOMETHING. Everyone! For me, it was mental health, for you it may be addiction, low self-esteem, illness, or anything else. It doesn’t matter. Struggle is struggle. It is painful and interrupts our lives. It can break us down and force us to find the courage to rebuild ourselves. Regardless, it changes you.

My sincere desire is that this month can be a starting point for new awareness within each of us. Maybe we begin by replacing judgment with understanding, criticism with kindness and divisiveness with empathy. I encourage each of you to take one next step, like:

  • Reframing your perspective about mental health
  • Speaking more kindly to yourself and others
  • Acknowledging a personal struggle
  • Lending a hand to someone in need

Regardless of your choice, every step will lead us beyond where we are. Together, we can forge a new path, which hopefully leads us all somewhere more inclusive. By facing our individual struggle, we begin to come out of the shadows and in turn, become more accepting of the struggle in others.

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The first steps are often the hardest, but can be the sweetest. I encourage you to make the investment even as the outcome is coming into focus.

Will you join me in taking one next step?

Jason C Hopcus is President and CEO of NAMI Arapahoe/Douglas Counties

 

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Discovering Authenticity in Struggle

Authentic is a buzzword that seems to be used frequently these days.

What does it really mean though?

I hear others reference an “authentic life” and often fail to see its true application in their daily lives.  I don’t mean to discount anyone’s journey, but do believe it’s a word that has real weight and power. For me, it is a cornerstone for a strong personal foundation.  Recently, I shared a post on a kind and honest life, listing “authentic” as a step toward that goal.

Personally, I believe an authentic life is the unique intersection where self-love meets our highest alignment.

My path to an authenticity hasn’t come easily or quickly. In fact, there have been many painful twists and turns. To accurately paint the picture of my path, let me share some historical context first.

microphone-2574511_960_720Some years back, life was an exercise of dancing as fast as I could. Each day I was on the stage of my creation in an exhaustive and futile attempt to live a life I believed everyone else expected from me. My internal need for perfection only perpetuated the dancing…faster, harder and more complex.

This amplified dance demanded more of me, so I continued to work faster and harder to perfect my routine.  For many years, that recipe blessed me beyond belief. I achieved success that surpassed my circle of influence and became a living testament to the American Dream. I am beyond grateful for the experiences that shaped that life, but gratitude couldn’t absolve my internal hollowness. It left me feeling trapped and wanting to escape.

The dance had become dangerous.

Daily, I searched for distraction by seeking escape with sleep, food, shopping, or any other anesthetic that helped me unplug for a while. Temporarily, this behavior helped me to avoid painful parts of life, but like I often say, “wherever you go, there you are.”

I was overwhelmed, depleted, panicked, and depressed, constantly looking for a way out.   

Finally, through a series of disastrous reversals I couldn’t no longer run from myself. The music had stopped and I was completely alone and out of moves.  I fell from the mountain top I had built from mostly inauthentic means.

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By trying to manage and control every outcome, I often found myself feeling like a fraud, even in those moments where I was completely in my element. The duplicity of this self-created life left me hanging between a life of the “expected” and one where there was no roadmap.

At rock bottom, I knew I had two choices, to end it all or begin again. 

light-2068404_960_720I spent considerable time contemplating both choices. I am grateful for the path I chose, which allows me to share from my own authentic place, honoring the struggle and pain that shaped this journey.

As I began again, there were days, weeks and months in the dark. Slowly, through a divine series of events, the light began to shine again.

One enlightened moment, was hearing Alanis Morissette share about her own turning point on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Her life changing words were, “getting to the bottom where there was no lie left.” 

For me, those words changed everything.  Suddenly, a light came on and illuminated the reality that building an authentic life requires one to stand in their own truth. The Good, bad, and ugly all matters. Each and every step was a building block.

So, now what?

Bit by bit, I have become more aligned with a life that I had always longed for. I began uncertain of the end game, but set forth by showing up and saying yes to experiences that I’d always avoided.  Doing so, forced me from my self-created box and opened me up in new and unexpected ways. Each new experience served as an opportunity to face my fears and become more aligned with my passion and purpose.

I’ve discovered the things that scare me the most are usually the greatest teachers. By honoring my feelings, I can view each new opportunity with discernment, deciding on its expansiveness by choosing yes or no. That power of choice leaves me feeling;

Peaceful. Relaxed. Aligned. Intentional. Purposeful. Powerful.

Each emotions is richly rewarding, filling my cup to overflowing. Ahhh…Authentic!

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Painful experience taught me that none of us is wired to live a life that isn’t meant for us. Of course, we can show up and meet our obligations, often for quite some time, but as time goes on, there is an erosive and damaging effect.

A fully authentic life is one that honors our history and allows us to become more fully who we are here to be. Through integrating our stories, we can serve all that has come and gone while learning the appropriate lessons each offered.  Standing in the face of what once trapped us allows us to challenge and discredit the painful stories that keep us from fully being who we are meant to be. I now lovingly refer to this process as “learning to love what is.”

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For me, embracing my beautiful history in a kind and honest way has been the only clear path to an authentic life.  I now use everyday as an opportunity to show up and face what life seeks to teach me.  That has made all the difference and  I no longer dance as fast as I can, but instead enjoy the gift of living in the flow.

Does something keep you from living a wholly authentic life?

If so, are you willing to explore yourself in a more focused way to find its rich reward?

I encourage you to join me on this journey of self-love and alignment…

 

 

 

The Journey of Kind and Honest

Sometimes, to move forward we must look back and honor the lessons that shaped us.

As a lifelong student of personal growth and development, I have committed considerable time and energy to self-improvement. Along the way, there have been some profound experiences, but one was life-changing. I’d like to share what I learned with you here.

It was a Texas Summer day and I found myself in the middle of some new existential crisis, seeking answers about the mysteries of life. Staying stuck has always propelled my natural curiosity to unearth deeper truths and for me this work had always seemed clearer when guided by a therapist. child-1099770_960_720.jpg

The basis of this particular journey was tied to a history of being who I thought everyone expected me to be. Meanwhile, I was quietly yearning for a completely different life. By meeting everyone’s needs first, my own rarely came into focus or took priority.  This duplicitous approach left me feeling chronically stuck, misaligned, unfulfilled and confused. Until that day…

I recall my therapist’s Southern drawl vividly and she painted a new reality, saying “Jason, our only role in life is to be kind and honest.” 

My initial reaction was that couldn’t be true. Our role in life was not meant to be summarized into one simple statement.  Yet, something about those words felt magical and true. In perfect timing, new language had arrived just as I struggled with being caught in two worlds. I was at a crossroad, trying to craft a new future while reconciling a complicated and often painful past.

 

Kind and Honest felt like a life preserver.

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Initially, I was not really clear on the work ahead, but something told me to dig in. The words hung in the room. I started by honoring what had been said and feverishly attempting to wrap my head around their application. What I initially loved about this concept was the feeling that I might already doing it. Being a “polite” Texan had prepared me perfectly for this role, or so I thought.

Careful examination and a few thought provoking questions clarified many things. I would like to share what I uncovered.

What does being kind and honest actually mean?

The answer wasn’t immediately clear, but has revealed itself over time. The real work begins through the relationship you have with yourself.  To fully grasp this concept, one must approach the topic with kindness and honesty.  It is impossible to give something to others that you cannot yet give to yourself.   I quickly understood that I had been kind and honest to others, but not myself.

 Now that I knew better, so what?

 This new awareness was like a light coming on. lighting-2267227_960_720.jpg

It revealed a deeper understanding of my role in the process. By asking the question, I wholeheartedly knew I had really never been completely kind or honest with myself.  At first, I couldn’t grasp what kind and honest would look like, so I decided to start with what I thought it was not:

  • People pleasing…saying or doing what you think others need
  • Not setting healthy boundaries…saying NO, when appropriate
  • Compromising your integrity/beliefs to make others more comfortable

My understanding revealed that I often took the easy path to make others happy or keep the peace, which had literally kept me from connecting with my own self.  Most importantly though, it inspired me to get beneath the surface of my constant misalignment.

There is a quote I love: 006f4391aa36d8dfd40424559e70303a (1).jpg

 Doesn’t the same apply to the relationship we have with ourselves?

 Along the path, we can only meet ourselves and others from the place of our own experience. To that end, here is what I have learned about kindness and honesty.  For me, it boils down to three essential steps. 

  1. Showing up
  2. Being authentic
  3. Telling YOUR truth

 I realize none of these are particularly easy, in fact, often daunting. Each requires action that will likely catapult us from our comfort zone, potentially leaving us vulnerable and exposed.

Showing up is our willingness to say YES to pursuits that feed our soul.  You know those things that many scare you but can make you smile, regardless.

Being authentic is the alignment of our real truth.  The place where who we are meets who we are meant to be.

Telling YOUR truth, is sharing yourself with others from your own perspective, which is made from individual beliefs, experience and history.

I believe that the journey to kind and honest starts with a willingness to connect with ourselves in a deeper way. We will never be able to share with another from a truth that isn’t our own.  Trying to do so, is merely story-telling, which likely is not fully and authentically aligned with your own belief system. This work expands our own knowing and ultimately allows for a broader personal truth.

In the years since this awakening, being kind and honest has served me well.  In the times where I struggle to respond in a way that someone needs, I can call on my kind and honest.

I have chosen to let this approach become my true north.  What I have learned is that being kind and honest isn’t always the easiest path.  In fact, sometimes, it angers people. Which always reminds me of the old cliché, “the truth hurts.”

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Today, I laugh when my own kindness and honesty causes a reaction.  It makes me feel more alive and aligned with myself.  My sincere hope is that it creates a new light inside the dark places of others.

Are you ready to be kind and honest?

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