May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 4 is declared by the White House as National Mental Health Awareness Day. Let’s just come out and say it: brains. I have a seven year old son and so it’s hard for me to say this word without hearing the zombie character from the 2012 film ParaNorman gurgling, “braaaaaaanes!” In the past year I have come to embrace the fact that mental health is the same as brain health, accepting that mental illness is just as much a physical issue as heart disease and diabetes.
Even as common as mental illness is in the US (one out of every four) still the stigma that we encounter related to mental illness is real and prevents people from getting help. Stigma can be deadly.
I wonder if some of the stigma would decrease if we made an intentional shift in the way we think and talk about mental health and mental illness by focusing on its physical nature. By focusing on the brain, we focus in on the key area of the body where the illness originates. As we learn more through research about the physical nature of mental illness, and what is actually happening in the brain, we realize that people who have depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have what is most often an “invisible disease” of the brain.
Now brain scans show us what depression looks like and we can see how the brain is impacted by different forms of brain disorders, diseases and illness. I believe that normalizing the spectrum of brain status is where we are headed in the future if we are serious about erasing stigma and saving lives. Everyone has a brain and each brain is different.
Getting to a place of inclusion for each person, regardless of brain status, is not going to happen overnight. Yet it begins with honest and open conversations, sharing about personal experiences with our own brain, sharing our brain status.
What if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental health as we could about our physical health? Said differently, what if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental illness as we could about our physical illness? Aren’t they the same thing? My brain fitness depends not only on enough sleep, healthy diet and exercise, but also working with a skilled therapist, spiritual practices such as prayer, and time spent relaxing, all on a regular basis. My brain status today is improving, thanks to professional mental health care and intentional self-care.
What if there was a useful tool, like Fitbit, but for the brain, that could help motivate us all to integrate daily practices of brain health into our lives by measuring our level of activity engaging in therapy, sleep, prescribed medications, and stress relieving activities…Brainfit, anyone? We need more ways to encourage people to take care of and love their brains (and not in a zombie way). We talk about loving our bodies, so why not talk about how to better love our brains.
As I talk with people across the country about mental illness and my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and faith, one thing I know for sure: even though we have come a long way in breaking the silence about mental illness, we are still too often reluctant and afraid to talk about it. I’m hopeful that conversations will continue to happen more and more because we need places where people can be educated, encouraged and embraced for who they are, regardless of brain status.
So, for the love of brains, see a therapist, connect to a friend, take your meds if they help your brain, hold onto hope and share with someone your brain status. We’ve all got brains and they are all beautiful.