Mental Health Care: Self & Community
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I'll be honest, I knew nothing about mental health care prior to 2015. For me, it was the stuff for ‘other people’. ‘Who were these other people? Why was mental health care something that only concerned them?’ – I didn’t ask myself these questions, let alone have any answers for them.
Because prior to 2015, like many, I was of the opinion that my mind could and would take care of itself. ‘Why did I think my mind could and would take care of itself?’ – also not a question I asked myself.
If you have known of me through my Instagram, you may remember that I had shared what I was learning about my mental health for the first time in 2017. That was a whole year after my then-therapist and I had mutually decided to terminate therapy.
Since then, I have not only become something of a mental health advocate but I’ve also been expanding my knowledge about mental health issues and approaches. In short, I have begun asking questions that had never occurred to me before!
Isn’t prevention better than cure?
Some of that curiosity came from reflecting on my own experience. Looking back, I realised, that between 2015 and 2017, my approach towards my mental health care was a curative one; it was focussed on “fixing and repairing” my supposedly fractured mind! Nothing wrong with the curative approach. If anything, that is what I needed to help reduce the impacts and decrease the frequency at which I was crashing and burning – on loop and repeat – during those three years.
And then… something changed in 2018 that put a wedge between me and the crisis mode that I had been operating out of. What that something was I will get to in a moment but know that it provided me with some reprieve because of which I realised that I didn’t need to be constantly firefighting to have some semblance of sanity in my life.
It was some time mid-2018 when it occurred to me that my mental health care did not have to follow a curative care approach. That I didn’t need a diagnosis from a mental health professional to begin doing something about taking care of my mind. I mean I wasn’t going to wait to be diagnosed with bad cholesterol to begin making healthier lifestyle choices for myself, right? That was a no-brainer preventive health care approach right there.
And just in case the lockdowns induced by a global pandemic have made the quality of Time even more fluid for you – which I know they most certainly have for me - I’d like to remind you that mid-2018 was just two years ago. So, what I’m saying here is that it wasn’t until two years ago when I had a eureka moment where it dawned on me that my mental health deserved a proactive preventive care approach and not just a diagnosis-based curative care approach!
If health is wealth, why exclude mental health?
The more I considered this tube-light of a Eureka moment I had had, the more I was left wondering and of course, questioning, why school never addressed mental health care in the same way that it had not only taught me but also graded me on the causes and consequences of diabetes and hypertension? How did it get decided that it was okay to leave out the mental aspect of health from the physical when creating the curricula? Why was this decision okayed, in the first place and then never un-okayed?
But an even more basic question: Why divorce mental health from physical health? Why treat the mind like it is not a part of the body?
I mean, why does walking with a limp – from say, having absentmindedly knocked my pinky toe on the corner of a table – attract more attention, care, concern, and even sympathy (not that I’ll ever need it), even though neither my movement nor my well-being are being restricted because of it… BUT my struggles with showing up for myself – beginning with getting out of bed (and I’ve had some of those) – because of “bad mental health days” gets reduced to laziness and a lack of ‘not trying enough’?
The more I have been able to learn, understand and simultaneously improve my own mental health care, the more I have realised how despite seeming like common sense, mental health care had been bleeped out and erased from everyday discourse and dialogue. Worse, it has been relegated to a status of lack in the individual and therefore, deserving of eliciting shame and stigma!
Those who’ve known me and borne with me through my many rants and monologues have repeatedly tried reminding me that common sense isn’t all that common.
*cue: slow deep breath*
Did the faux separation of mental health and physical health cause the erasure of mental health from everyday discourse?
And this subtracting out of mental health care hasn’t been limited only to everyday dialogue but has also impacted everyday practice!
What do I mean?
Self-care, what? Elementary, my dear Watson
Well, when my first therapist had asked me what I did for myself when things felt heavy and extremely difficult to navigate through, I remember feeling ashamed for not having an answer. The question seemed so obvious, “What did I do to take care of myself, particularly on hard days?”; but not until it had been asked, had I considered my options.
A few years later when my second therapist asked me what ‘boundaries’ did I practice, I felt less ashamed but I was taken by surprise at how, once again, not only did I not have an answer but also how here was another question that had not occurred to me until it had been uttered out loud, in my presence.
It made me wonder why did I have to wait until my late 20s to be reminded – albeit a bit harshly courtesy a mental health crisis that necessitated therapeutic intervention – of how little self-care I practised; whether on hard, ‘bad mental health days’ or even otherwise!
Questions like these have prompted me to begin working on myself in a way I had never been taught nor considered on my own. So, when I did do some work and had begun to find something of a footing for myself to continue working through, it emboldened me to bring this up in my conversations only to find the same brand of surprise now reflecting in the faces and voices of those I was speaking to!
But self-care in a collectivist culture? Really?
As it turns out, self-care - nope, not the 'spa and bubble bath' version but the 'calling yourself out on your BS' version - is one of the antidotes to managing one’s mental health care. Okay. Sure. But in a society where the narrative of self-care is minimised to selfishness, doesn’t the concept of self-care pit an individual against the very society they are a part of?
Which brings me to the crossroads of another argument: When – and more importantly, why – did mental health care become an individual mandate? Especially given how, from the very beginning, our minds are shaped and moulded by societal norms and constructs like culture, religion, and education – which in turn, are informed by systems like capitalism, patriarchy, and colonial vestiges!
I say this because when I recall my first time in therapy, some of my initial takeaways were that somehow I had brought whatever I was experiencing then, upon myself.
That I had failed myself.
That I hadn’t taken good enough care of myself.
That in giving into what culture, religion, education had dictated and demanded, I was the one responsible!
This was when – and I say this with wisdom that comes only from hindsight – this was when 'the buck', also known as mental health care, got passed to the individual.
As individuals whose thoughts and ideas weren’t formed in isolation, we are a by-product of the communities we are a part of. And yet, it is the individual who is required to go ‘fix’ themselves on their own because they’re believed to be broken and as a consequence, are not 'the productive, contributing members' they ought to be – which further strengthens and justifies the premium placed on physical health in comparison to mental health!
Thank you, capitalism – NOT!
All this while the communities these individuals come from, choose to play no collective role in restoring the individual’s well-being!
My story of ‘that something’
As one such individual, I took on the challenge of addressing the absence of not only mental and emotional but also physical, social, financial, spiritual self-care in my life as the ‘good fight’. My privilege had enabled me to seek out therapy on my own without the fear of stigma. My family would learn about this a few months later.
But it was during those months and the years that have followed …through a series of many trials and many errors – some of which continue to remain a work-in-progress – did things slowly begin to shift; things I would notice only in hindsight …because that’s how minuscule the shifts were. But they were significant. Of course, I would often feel like I am back to square one, falling back into default behaviours that were not allies of mental health care.
It wasn’t until much much much later when the self-talk began to change …and that’s what made the difference.
The change in my self-talk was ‘that something’ which provided a wedge for me to begin finding my feet on the ground. It was through that process of examining my self-talk that I would realise how the very communities I owed my memberships to were instrumental in shaping my worldview and more specifically, my self-talk and my self-esteem.
An appeal to support the motion for ‘communities of care’ instead
Don’t our communities slap us with labels:
And what happens when the intersection of gender, sexuality, caste, class, religion, language, marital status, profession, educational qualification among others are used as qualifiers and disqualifiers? What does that do to an individual’s inherent sense of self-worth?
Isn’t what we need then …is for self-care to be complemented by community care …and dare I add, community healing?
We exalt the virtues of collectivist societies …then is it not imperative for communities to be equal enablers and supporters of its members’ wellbeing?
Because how can care-work be individualistic?
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