Posted in Mindfulness Matters, Personal Perspective, Topical Time

Suicide in the 21st Century

The first week of June was filled with devastation and despair. First, Kate Spade, a celebrated handbag designer, committed suicide at the age of 55. Then, Anthony Bourdain, acclaimed chef and storyteller on his show Parts Unknown, committed suicide at the age of 61. Lastly, a comprehensive study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found a 30 percent increase in suicides in more than half of the states over the last two decades.

If reading that last paragraph made you feel hopeless, you aren’t alone. Mid-June I was going to work, going to class, meeting with friends, but I was numb.

I was reading Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days at the time. His chapter on “Behavior Modification” illuminated more troubling information about mental illness in America. Despite tremendous growth in pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness, Harris notes there hasn’t been a decline in suicides. In fact, along with the rise of suicide, there’s been a 500 percent increase in depression since the 1980s.

I know medication can save lives. It’s critical in some situations. I would never suggest someone refuse medication or suddenly stop taking medication. However, I’ve tried over a dozen antidepressants in the past 15 years. In my opinion, medication on its own isn’t enough. Talk therapy (psychotherapy) can help people gain a greater understanding of mental illness and learn different skills that can lower distress. The American Psychiatric Association acknowledges that medication and talk therapy have similar effects on the brain. Therapy’s saved my life, more than once, and conversations I’ve had with others make me well aware that I’m not the only one.

On a national level, there’s been recognition of the power of communication when it comes to extreme distress and suicidal urges. Signs like these have been going up all around the city urging those who need help to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

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Talking is the last resort. If it’s the last resort, it should also be the first. Unfortunately, as is the issue with most treatments for mental illness, there are so many barriers to talk therapy like access, affordability, and stigma that people who recognize they need help often can’t get it.

So, where does all this leave us?

The events of early June made it abundantly clear that suicide can touch anyone regardless of how much or how little they have. I think it’s important that we remember that and make an effort to check in on one another more often, especially if on the outside it looks like everything is fine. It’s not going to be easy with all the distractions of our digitized lives, but when we start the conversation we stop the stigma. That’s power.

We also need to push our elected officials to put more funding into mental health. Despite the 30 percent rise in suicides, our current president seeks to cut funding to the National Institute of Mental Health by 30 percent in 2019 (among other things). On the state level, New York and Virginia passed laws mandating mental health education. I think this has the potential to be a step in the right direction, especially with reductions in federal funding. Kids can learn how to take care of their mental health and that there’s nothing wrong with them if they experience mental illness. I’ll keep an eye out to see how this new law is implemented because I’m skeptically optimistic.

In a seemingly hopeless situation, there is still hope for us to hold onto. It’s kind of like the routine flight attendants go over before the flight takes off in case the cabin loses oxygen. Put your oxygen mask on first, but then turn to those around you and help them breathe. Take care of your mental health, but then do what you can to help your community engage with theirs.

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Posted in Topical Time

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Are you familiar with the term cognitive flexibility? It refers to the ability to change our thinking based on new information. A link has been established between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive flexibility. There’s ongoing research on how conitive flexibility affects our decision making.

I don’t know about you, but when I get poor sleep it’s hard to focus. It’s harder to be optimistic. It’s easy to be forgetful. It’s easy to get frustrated.

Some of us use caffeine to reduce symptoms of sleep deprivation, but it’s possible to become caffeine dependent. If you miss that morning cup and you’re sleep deprived your symptoms could be even worse.

Instead of relying on caffeine to supplement your poor sleep, evaluate your sleeping hygiene. Do you do anything to wind down before bed? Is there a set time you stop looking at your phone? Do you try to regularly go to sleep around the same time?

These questions refer to aspects of a healthy sleep routine. I’ll use myself as an example, but keep in mind I’m still struggling to establish this so it doesn’t happen every night:

  1. Wind Down – I’ll try to drink some relaxing tea, do yoga, read, or listen to soft music about an hour before bed.
  2. No Phone – This one has been the hardest to stick with. I try to stop looking at my phone at 10, 10:30 PM at the latest. Often times it doesn’t happen. I’ll grab my phone to check that my alarm is set and since it’s already in my hand I’ll open an app like Facebook and start scrolling away.
  3. Bed Time – If I’m following the ‘no phone’ rule this gets easier. I aim to be falling asleep by or before 11 PM. If I don’t put down the phone, or if I’m watching some engaging television, all bets are off and who knows when I’ll actually fall asleep.

Better sleep will give us better cognitive flexibility, but that’s not all. Improved sleep is linked with a number of health benefits. It helps curb inflammation, supports a healthy weight, and can lower depression.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you have to follow your sleep routine every single night for the rest of your life. I’m not asking you at 9 PM on a Saturday to tell your friends that you need to go home to lay down in bed and turn on your white noise machine (BUT if you need an excuse to leave this is a hilarious one).

It’s not about perfection. It’s about trying to be mindful. After those long nights out try to wake up around the same time, avoid taking naps, and get back into the nightly routine as soon as you can.

Your body will thank you for it!

Posted in Topical Time

Why You Should Care About Mental Health Month

Did you know that 1 in 6 adults in the United States live with mental illness? Or that mental illness in adolescence is rising? Or that support services are struggling to meet the growing demand for mental healthcare?

In some states there are 6 times the individuals needing treatment to 1 mental health professional.

It saddens and angers me that someone who is in desperate need of professional help can reach out only to find there aren’t any providers available because they’re already overloaded.

Imagine how that makes someone who is already convinced they are completely alone and worthless feel? I am grateful we have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but there is still a dire need for more accessible mental health resources.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. 123 people commit suicide every day. 44,965 each year. For every suicide there are 25 attempts. Here in Chicago the CTA has begun posting signs in hopes to reach those who are struggling before it’s too late:

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Even as an advocate I wasn’t aware of how daunting the statistics really are. It’s hard to look at. It’s harder to talk about. There is so much resistance to mental health awareness because stigma is still so strong.

We’re all so immersed in our own struggles that it’s hard to find time to observe and offer support to those around us who are suffering. What can we even do to make a difference?

Ask them how they’re doing. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t be upset, the shame associated with stigma is so strong it can be hard to open up. Let them know how much you care and that you’re there for them if they change their mind.

By simply being present and offering your support, you are proving to them that they are wrong. You are saying to them: You are not alone. It’s something incredibly powerful and compassionate we can all offer those we love with little effort.

Posted in Topical Time

Toxic Masculinity

We have finally begun to acknowledge the damage that rigid definitions of what it means to be a woman have done. While we continue to work on expanding the definition of what it is to be a woman it is important that we also recognize and work to shift restrictive perceptions of manhood.

Toxic masculinity isn’t just a wicked band name, Teaching Tolerance defines it as:

“a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.”

I want to talk about toxic masculinity because we cannot ignore the prevalence of violent acts carried out by men. A fair point to make about the staggering statistics is that they are slightly skewed because when it comes to things like rape and domestic abuse men are shamed for coming forward when these crimes are committed against them. An example of toxic masculinity at work.

With this criticism in mind we can still acknowledge that when it comes to mass shootings in the U.S. 94 of 97 have been committed by men (and primarily white men).

I have already made clear in prior posts that I agree with sensible gun reform to combat school shootings, but I think it is important to consider why these incredibly violent crimes are almost exclusively carried out by men.

If you still aren’t clear on what toxic masculinity is or why it matters I have a few resources that have helped me realize there is a problem:

What Do We Mean When We Say “Toxic Masculinity”?: Luke Humphris made an incredibly accurate short comic explaining toxic masculinity. I’ve put the first panel here as a preview, but I highly recommend reading the whole comic. It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time and will clear up any confusion you have on what toxic masculinity is.

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Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity: I’ve linked to a short YouTube clip from the documentary, but if you can find a full version it is well worth your time. This documentary came out in 1998 and despite the 20 years that have passed the majority of the issues outlined here are still too relevant.

This topic is so important to me because I have always done my best to alter behavior when it was brought to my attention that it was hurtful or limiting. My participation in toxic masculinity is the most recent behavior I have been working on.

A few months ago my good friend Thom brought to my attention that as passionate as I am about equality, I make reductive judgments of my own. We were watching Doctor Who and there was an episode with James Corden guest starring. I made some comment about him being gay and was embarrassed to find out that not only was he not gay, he married the same woman he was dating in the episode. I felt bad. For all the time I have spent working to expand the rigid definition of what it is to be a woman, here I was limiting manhood to a narrow definition.

In the same way we are empowering women to embrace their diverse range of roles and emotions, we need to encourage our men to do the same. As most changes begin, it starts with you. Whenever you find yourself being surprised by someone’s behavior, think about why it is surprising. If it’s surprising because it doesn’t fit the image you have of what being a man/woman should be, check yourself. Don’t judge yourself (as I often do) because we are human. These traditional perceptions of manhood/womanhood are images that we have internalized as they are continually reinforced by the dominant society everywhere we look.

We don’t need to shame ourselves for automatic thoughts, but we can recognize them and stop believing them to make for a world of boundless expression full of people comfortable presenting as their authentic selves.