By: Jennifer Simpson
As I write this, I’m fresh off a 24-hour lap around the U.S. mental health system as I’ve been tending to and caring for a lifelong friend. Over the last several years, I’ve gotten an up-close-and-personal look at what works (and what is badly broken) about our mental health system as I’ve supported family and friends, and navigated my own range of physiological, psychological, and social-emotional responses to some big life changes.
What works best, without a doubt, are the thousands of devoted, caring, and patient caregivers and professionals who provide loving and constructive support to people at their most vulnerable. The biggest challenges continue to be stigma, misunderstanding, and the many healthcare organizations that do not yet have behavioral and mental health services fully integrated with their medical systems.
I’ve gotten to see people and organizations doing a beautiful job of connecting the dots and providing care to the whole person, alongside others with staff who understand and see the value, but are stuck in systems that won’t support or allow creative solutions. There are even still a handful of practices, clinics, and hospitals that operate as though physical and psychological symptoms are unrelated to one another or that both aren’t essential elements of whole-person well-being in ways that fuel frustration and increase stress for providers, patients, and families alike. Change can come slowly to systems that were designed to persist and have values and assumptions embedded in them in ways that don’t always keep up with new insights or evolving understanding.
During this Mental Health Awareness Month, perhaps the most important thing we can do is understand the prevalence of mental illness. The last few years have been stressful for all of us. For those living with anxiety or depression, or who have experienced extreme isolation, the impacts of the pandemic are more pronounced. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness; for 1 in 20 Americans, that experience is severe.
There are two sides to that story, though. The first is that most of us have been directly touched by mental illness in some way — either personally or because it affects someone we love, and we are not alone. The second is that as leaders, teachers, and members of families and communities, we are always operating in a context where there is a broad spectrum of experience represented, and the people around us may be suffering in ways we can’t always see.
If we are people-leaders (by profession, by choice, or by accident), one of the most powerful things we can do is to create containers of CARE, by Connecting with people, Affirming their lived experience, Regulating our own nervous systems so that we can be empathetic and supportive, and helping others to do the same, then Empowering people to have real agency in their lives. By practicing trauma-informed leadership, we can not only support more team members being successful, but also create meaningful moments that increase resilience, build capacity, and foster flourishing.