The Collective Mental Health of Our Nation

Happy 4th of July! It’s a day to celebrate the idea of freedom, which of course, means something different to each of us.  Freedom from oppression? Freedom from control? Freedom from the “shoulds in our life?” Freedom from what people think of us? Freedom from addiction?  What are you celebrating freedom from today?  Our population continues to report increased levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness, trauma-symptoms and as a result, we also struggle with addictions, self-harming, suicidality and decreased quality of life all around.  All of which sound like the exact opposite of freedom to me. Our collective mental health is suffering, but there are things we can do to change it!

As a trauma therapist, it seems like we as a country are in a constant and collective state of flight or fight.  As many of you know, I am a huge Brene Brown fan and was lucky enough to see her speak last year. She spoke to a brilliant point which was that after September 11th, we never really grieved as a country. We went straight to our collective flight or fight response (which is of course normal in a traumatic situation), but we have never really grieved together, we never moved through deep sadness as a collective, which is actually where the healing takes place in our brains.  It seems like we continue to exacerbate this collective flight or fight by constant news sources and a constant state of fear and panic.  Now- I am not trying to be Pollyanna here- there are a lot of scary things happening right now and we need to be mindful not to become complacent AND it’s like we are in a collective state of never feeling safe. We don’t trust each other, we don’t lift each other up and we don’t treat each other with respect and it is affecting our mental health as a country.

There is a very important distinction on the definition of respect that I think is important to mention.  There is one definition that defines respect as “treating someone like authority.” The other definition is “treating someone like a human.”  There are people who, if you do not treat them like authority will not treat you like a human and that is not okay.  We have become increasingly dehumanizing when we disagree with people and it is not effective.  When I think about the people who have made me think the most about my position on things, it has come from a place of coming alongside and respecting each other as humans, not from a place of fighting, dehumanizing or combatting. This does not mean we do not speak our truth and simply keep the peace by avoiding conflict, but we need to learn how to have discourse without shaming and dehumanizing one another. I have been guilty of this out of anger for sure, but it is something I am committed to working on. Discourse is how we grow and it is how we experience unconditional love, belonging and connection, which seems to be really lacking in our society.

In the documentary Happy, the filmmakers examine the neuroscience behind what really makes us happy as humans. They identified the main factors of human happiness which were exercise, cooperation, community, connection and compassion. We, as a larger society believe that money, beauty, success, independent accomplishment and external validation will make us happy, but in fact, it is the exact opposite.  Believing that we have intrinsic value as humans and that other humans also have intrinsic value is actually one of the biggest predictors of happiness.

Social media has also increased our ability to be apathetic.  We can say things that we would likely never say to a person face-to-face.  How we treat each other in the grocery store, in traffic, in public spaces HAS AN IMPACT. We have these magical little things called mirror neurons so that if someone is kind to you and treats you with respect, that lights up that part of your own brain.  Like it or not, we are all connected and I am not talking about on a spiritual level (although I believe that is true as well). We are connected simply by being human.  Your actions MATTER.

Our lifestyle in the USA is often one that does not support exercise, nutritional eating, familial health and resiliency.  We have many children who are witnessing far too much violence or experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse themselves, we have parts of our communities that are struggling with oppression, poverty, racism and other isms and far too many people that struggle with addiction as a result of the pain they’re in.  We have to start caring about one another- and guess what? It’s not just about caring for one another because we want to feel good about ourselves or we have bleeding hearts.  OUR OWN MENTAL WELL-BEING is at stake.  If we fall prey to apathy, our lives suffer.  If we cut people down and dehumanize them, we dehumanize our own hearts and if we are not concerned with the freedoms of our ENTIRE community, we are also enslaved.  What is one thing you can do to reach out to your community? Perhaps you can move your body today and bring someone with you? How can you practice compassion? It is the small actions of us as individuals that will radically improve the collective health of our country.  Your actions matter. You matter. People matter.  Happy 4th.

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