Mental Health and the Coming Weeks

This next week is an anxious one for members of my household and my online communities. The election looms large and everyone is trying to brace for the fall out without being able to predict what that fall out will be. It could be anything from relief to doom. Not surprisingly messages about mental health and seeking help have been common. This is good. It is impossible to know which message will be the right tool for a person in their moment of crisis. All we can do is scatter tools in the hope that people will have one handy when they desperately need it. I’m worried about November on multiple fronts, (election, Covid, mental health, darkening days, cold weather) but I’m trying to focus my attention and energy on accomplishing things rather than sitting in the waiting place. It is a worthy effort even when I don’t always succeed.

This has been a year full of unexpected life shifts and grief for everyone. The result has been an upsurge in the need for mental health services. I’ve spent my share of hours laying still unable to do anything but cry. Yet I don’t think I’ve had it as hard as those for whom this level of emotional wrangle isn’t familiar. Depression and grief have been residents in our house since 2013, prior to that they were frequent visitors. I know how to live around them, contain them, process them, and move forward despite them. I’ve felt a lot of peace and happiness in the past months. I even made the decision to wean off of my anti-depressant because it was contributing to insomnia which led to fatigue-induced depression and anxiety. Sometimes the meds are essentially helpful. Other times they are counter productive. Mental health is a complex social, emotional, intellectual, and chemical system. Changes in one of the axes can require balancing shifts in another.

My battles with depression are almost always situationally driven. I become depressed when I expect myself to carry an over-sized emotional load, when my loved ones are depressed and I can’t help, when the finances are strained and I feel powerless to change it, when grief rips through my life and I have to process it. If these situations persist long enough, then it unbalances the chemicals in my body, which might require medication to get things right side up again. I’ve been various levels of depressed since 2013 because of situational elements in my life. In contrast, anxiety seems to be chemically endemic in my body or psyche. I can find balances that make depression a non-issue, anxiety is always with me. I have family members for whom depression seems to originate in the brain chemicals and persist long enough to seriously disrupt the social and emotional components. They may always need some sort of medication so that they aren’t constantly pulled off-kilter. Or so that they don’t have to constantly spend energy adapting for the weight of chemical depression.

Just because I have been depressed doesn’t mean I fully comprehend the internal emotional landscape of someone else’s depression. One of my loved ones lives with a constant existential nihilism which I can intellectually understand as they explain it, but I don’t viscerally get. This is why the best support I can be for a loved one with mental health issues is to sit with them and make space for them to express the thoughts that come to them. It can be a delicate balance to accept all their feelings as valid, but then to gently challenge the distorted thinking that mental health issues can produce. That’s the hardest bit. Depression is a lying liar who lies. And the longer someone lives with it, the more plausible those lies seem, the more ingrained into our habits of being.

Some people are having their first encounters with depression or other mental health issues this year. Some have been living with those issues, but have been forced to confront them in new ways because their old coping strategies were stripped away. Some people will need more medication and help. Others will discover new balance and need less. Some, like me, cycle through both. I’ve been both better and worse in 2020. My family members retreated hard for months, but now seem to be emerging and finding ways to inch forward. November may be a mental health setback. Yet one thing I’m slowly learning is that sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person is to have a setback, to be forced to stop and re-calibrate. In so many ways this year is a year of setbacks and re-calibrations.

Today I’m feeling hopeful that all the reverses and changes of this year are teaching us how to be stronger and more proactive moving forward. If enough people learn that lesson, then the world gets to have a shift for the better over the long haul. I can choose to be that person no matter what the outcome of the election and the mental health fallout may be.