Addressing the Mental Health of the General Population in the Wake of Newtown

Mental health is today’s hot topic given last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  The importance of this issue is no longer a topic for discussion but a topic for action.  It is imperative that our health care system create room for mental illness to be destigmatized, detected, treated, and prevented.  As I see it, the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease is great for the one who has it, yet the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses is great for the person, their family, and their entire community.

Therefore, as we begin to focus detection of mental illness on high-risk individuals in order to prevent heinous crimes like those in Aurora, Colorado, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Newtown, Connecticut, we cannot forget the importance of the mental health of the general population.  Just as no one is safe from developing cancer these days, no one is safe from a mental health issue.  Our world is a high stress place and with events like Newtown’s becoming more commonplace, it is becoming even more stressful.

Questions of safety and security in everyday life are not to be taken lightly.  Many people, especially parents of last week’s tragedy, are beginning to question the safety of their children outside of the home.  Malls, houses of worship, theaters, and schools — public venues once considered safe and enjoyable places — leave many of us feeling insecure, and in some cases, paranoid.

I will wholly admit that last Friday’s shooting shook me to my core. I immediately jumped online and started to research home schooling.  My husband, away on business, called and begged me to keep our son indoors. My sister called us paranoid – and that’s when I paused to think: are we really becoming paranoid? Obviously I can’t just sit inside my house day in and day out.  Then I started to think that my house could be unsafe. With all of these thoughts came overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, frustration… and yes, paranoia — and I know I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

So how do we address the mental health of the general population? I suggest a simple starter plan of 5 points:

First, mental health should become a standard part of primary care.  The World Health Organization has repeatedly called this integration the most viable way to detect and treat mental illness. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that insurance plans offer “behavioral health” coverage, including mental health and addiction and substance abuse help, as an “essential health benefit,” which is major progress (that may regress if the Supreme Court decides Obamacare is unconstitutional in March).

Second, mental health professionals should be seen and treated as extremely important members of the field and heavily supported. “Associative stigma,” which is the stigma that mental health professionals experience a result of treating a stigmatized group of people, results in emotional exhaustion and decreased job satisfaction which can have a negative impact on their patients’ treatment.

Third, mental health should become a central topic of discussion in faith-based circles and centers.  Muslims, for example, should start destigmatizing mental health disorders by pushing for khutbahs, halaqas, and other public discussions on the topic and frequently referencing the Quran and Hadith that underscore the existence and importance of mental health.  On the spiritual soundness of the heart, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him said, “There is in the body a piece of flesh – if it becomes good, the whole body becomes good and if it becomes bad, the whole body becomes bad. And indeed it is the heart.” (Bukhari)

Fourth, we need to become better listeners.  People are so quick to hear someone’s issue and give advice.  If only advice always worked, the world would be fine.   Better than advice is the process of listening, letting someone feel truly heard, allowing someone to vent wholly and truthfully without judgment, and supporting ones emotional release.  That is to say: don’t stop someone from crying.   More and more studies are showing the evolutionary advantages of crying, how it may be human nature’s way of emotional healing.

Fifth, give yourself and your loved ones a break. Remember that you are human and you are susceptible to mental illness, and it is very common.   A quarter of adults in the US suffer from one or more mental disorders. When you feel sad, hurt, depressed, take it seriously. Do not brush it off as “just a bad day,” or “I need to be stronger.”  Being open to recognizing a problem is true strength.


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