Building Mentally Healthy Communities

by Kevin Parker, MA
June 2009

    A recent article in Monitor on Psychology magazine discussed a stigma faced by American soldiers involved in the conflict in Iraq. The article talked about how many soldiers are unwilling to admit that they are struggling with psychological issues for fear of losing security clearances or being separated from the service. The stigma of being ostracized in some way because of psychological problems is not limited to those in the armed services however. Unlike physical health issues, mental health problems are often kept under wraps for fear of what other people will think or concerns about how it might affect one’s job situation.

    The consequences of not dealing with or acknowledging mental illness are profound. How often do we read about the loner teenager that takes a gun into his school and murders his classmates or the distraught father who, because of stress and anxiety about a financial situation or domestic disharmony, takes the life of his wife and children? Following an event such as this we hear neighbors being interviewed saying things like, “He seemed like a nice guy, kept to himself mostly” or “We had no idea he could do something like this.”

    Where does our responsibility lie when it comes to being our brother or sister’s keeper? How can we see to it that friends and neighbors don’t “fall through the cracks” when they are struggling with difficult life situations? It’s not easy to talk to others about painful or stressful situations in our lives. Often when people don’t have an outlet for talking about troubling issues, they turn to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, which only compounds the problems they are facing.

    It doesn’t take much to make the effort to reach out to someone you think is in need of an ear to listen to something that is troubling them. It might be someone at work that seems depressed or despondent or a neighbor whose behaviour has changed recently. Building mentally healthy communities is about being able to reach out when we think that someone may be suffering. We don’t have to be a clinical counsellor or a psychiatrist to have an effect on someone’s life.

    Loneliness and isolation can contribute to a downward spiral into depression. Often, just the fact that someone reached out can make all the difference in the world. We can be instrumental in guiding a person to a competent therapist or health practitioner or invite them to get involved in activities such as yoga or Tai Chi, something that might help them cope with whatever is troubling them. Reconnecting to the body through physical exercise or sports can be an effective way to ground and move out of negative thought patterns.

    The opportunities to help are everywhere. Volunteering at a senior center or a hospital can be a great way to connect with people that might be lonely or in pain.

    In times that are difficult economically and when the things seem less secure than they used to be, it is especially important to stay connected with whatever community we are a part of, be it work, neighbors or organizations we may be affiliated with. When we ask, “How can I help?” we will be rewarded with opportunities we never dreamt possible.

Sadie F. Dingfelder (June 2009). The Military’s War on Stigma. Monitor on Psychology. (p. 52). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.