“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
– “Mister” Fred Rogers (1928–2003)
Under a super moon this week, the final Sabbath of May approaches, and with it the Memorial Day Weekend, as well as the end of Mental Health Awareness Month. Thus, before we bid the month farewell, it seems fitting to address the issue of mental health and where we are with our awareness of the issue – now more important than ever. We often speak about the importance of mental health here in these messages and in our Jewish Family Service and Federation programs. But following a most unusual and challenging year which none of us could have anticipated, this month which is set aside as one to focus on the awareness of this issue is particularly important. There are, of course, many areas to consider under this broad topic: prevention and self-care; remaining aware of the signs of mental health crises in ourselves and our loved ones; understanding what keeps us mentally healthy; how to get help. But perhaps the most crucial one of all is helping to remove the stigma around this issue – engaging in the conversation, remaining open and aware for ourselves and for others, and being ready to truly listen to the stories of others.
As the pandemic continues to wind down, the long-term mental health impact of this global event will certainly be an issue, especially in terms of our re-entry into “normalcy.” Already, we are hearing stories of students being asked to return to school at the end of the year, many to new schools to which they have never physically attended, and some are saying they don’t want to go in person, due to feelings of anxiety. Teachers are frustrated, since many did not feel able to connect to a number of their students virtually, while others managed fine this way. Just as an example, I spoke to four classes last month on the topic of Holocaust education, and more than half of the students had their cameras turned off, so I was speaking to blank screens, leaving me feeling that I had no idea if I was reaching the students. Returning to the workplace is a whole other set of issues for employers to consider: will the office look as it did before the pandemic, or will many workers continue to work from home, now that it is apparent that many tasks are easily accomplished remotely? How does that change the dynamic of our workplaces? Does working alone sitting at a table, as I am now, contribute to the feeling of isolation and perhaps long-term impact of the pandemic, as we consider our new “normal?”
What we know for sure is that more adults and older teens have greater significant mental health issues than ever before – and the question is, as we continue to hear stories of those who struggle, how do we react? And sadly, the stories are everywhere. Friends and family members coping with anxiety and depression, suicides in our schools. It can be overwhelming. And while these conditions may not be contagious the way a virus is, their impact can spread throughout a community and a nation. And it takes more than a mask to “stop the spread.” Just this morning, I heard the story of a courageous, well-known athlete, who has made public his struggle with deep depression and attempted suicide. In a moving piece entitled “Note to My Younger Self,” Hayden Hurst, an NFL player for the Atlanta Falcons, honestly details his journey from rock bottom to his current stronger place to his former younger self. Noting his failed dream of a career as a baseball player at age 21, he tumbled into depression and a freefall into alcohol and drugs, culminating in a suicide attempt. But reaching out to a friend, he saved himself – and he found another road to travel as a successful football player. He beautifully describes his journey using the metaphor of the phoenix rising strong from the ashes. I encourage you to watch him tell his story here in his own words.
Finally, as Memorial Day arrives this weekend, our minds and hearts turn to our veterans, many of whom have always struggled with these issues – we just don’t always remember to notice. A holiday like this is a nice opportunity to get outside and enjoy our families – especially after a long and restrictive pandemic. But it is also an important day to remember those whom we have lost and who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our country. And, of course, it is so important not just to celebrate on this day, but also to remember and to commemorate what the day means. But in addition, research has shown that Memorial Day particularly can be a trigger for veterans who are struggling with their mental health, especially with issues like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome), as the holiday can be a grim reminder of events they would like to forget, as memories of their tours of duty return at times like this. Since the pandemic has heightened many of these concerns for veterans and for others in our midst, it is important to keep these issues in mind – and our friends and loved ones in our hearts. Look for the signs, never be afraid to ask if someone needs to talk or a shoulder to lean on. Reaching out is always the right thing – asking if help is needed is always the right choice.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of peace for our souls and for the world,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service
Photo caption: One of the most comforting ways to address mental health needs is to reach out to another, remembering that others are on the same road you are travelling, as well. Getting outside in nature for a walk or some exercise can be a very positive step too. Research has also shown meditation to be a tremendous help in coping with these issues.