Wednesday, August 14, 2019

If I Were the FLOTUS...

Okay, I read Michelle Obama's hugely popular memoir/autobiography back in June (not pictured here, I'll get to that book in a second), and while there were tons of things in there that I loved and could go on endlessly talking about, one of the things I've thought about a lot since reading that book was the initiatives she was able to champion as First Lady. I know generally that every First Lady gets to pick a focus or initiative, a cause to champion if you will, for their time in "office," but it was interesting to read the backstory of how Michelle Obama got the idea for her focus on healthy eating and physical fitness during the campaign (it started with a wellness check-up for one of her daughters, where the pediatrician warned her that the daughter was borderline for obesity, which led to Michelle hiring a chef to help them eat more healthy, and it grew from there). Obviously, I was aware of Michelle's "Let's Move" initiative during the time, but hearing the backstory of how she came across the idea, the people she got involved, and the incredible things she was able to accomplish using the influence of her position led me to wonder, if I were the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), what initiative would I choose to promote?

I mean, can you imagine? You're just this average person living a mostly ordinary life when your husband manages to get super popular and decides to run for the Presidency, and then he wins, and suddenly you find yourself with this massive platform, everyone listening to and watching you, all of this influence over popular opinion and policy... what would you do with that kind of power? What good things would you try to accomplish?

As I was pondering this question myself (not that I'm in any danger of ever being either FLOTUS or POTUS for that matter), my very first thought was, obviously, a literacy initiative. I'd do tons of promoting for reading aloud, get famous actors and voice-actors to do public readings all over the place, get all the free books (and audio books) and give them out all over the place, host read-a-thons, and just have all sorts of fun promoting books and reading and reading aloud. It would be awesome.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is another issue near and dear to my heart that I would work to promote, and it almost caught me by surprise, because this is not an issue I've ever really talked about before nor promoted. That issue is mental health.

Part of the reason this is an issue near and dear to me is because there is a history of mental illness in my family. I grew up with untreated mental illness affecting my family life every single day. This is not something I generally talk about because it is so sensitive an issue, and because I wish to protect the privacy of my family members. Growing up, the mental illness was a huge family secret. We didn't talk about it with anyone, we worked as a family to hide it and present as normal a face to the public as possible. I do not advocate for secrecy, I think the secrecy was a major part of the problem. But I understood then, and I understand still now, there is so much stigma and shame associated with mental illness. People suffering from mental illness are judged, unfairly so, and part of our family culture of secrecy was to protect our loved one from that shame and stigma. I still (mostly) keep these secrets to this day in order to keep providing that protection.

So yes, I think if I were given a platform large and powerful enough, I would want to start using my voice to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness in our culture. This is not something people should be judged for, or shamed for. Much like most physical illnesses, most mental illnesses are not a choice, not something that people can control or fix on their own. Nobody gets embarrassed or ashamed for getting pneumonia or breaking an arm or having an appendix burst, they just get the treatment they need from the support people who help them. It should be no different for depression or anxiety or any other type of mental illness. No shame, no stigma, just recognition that something is off and help is needed to get back to normal.

A big part of breaking down stigma for mental illness, and I think what would be a big part of this dream fictional initiative of mine, would be focusing not just on mental illness, but on MENTAL HEALTH in general. What I mean by that is that most people seem to think that mental health "treatment" or "therapy" or whatever are just for those with serious mental illness, but the truth is, everyone who has a mental state (that is, everyone who is alive and has a thinking/feeling/processing brain) should be concerned about maintaining and improving their mental health. Just like everyone needs to work on taking care of their physical bodies and promoting physical health through exercise, healthy eating, etc., all people need to take care of their mental and emotional health as well. We all need to work on mindfulness, coping with anxiety, communication, healthy relationships, managing emotions like stress and anger, and all the myriad other things that fall under the broad category of mental health.

We do not put enough emphasis on mental health as a society. We do not teach what mental health is or how to maintain it, and we do not provide nearly enough access to mental health professional help. Part of this, again, is stigma (therapy is only for really sick people, or really rich white women), part of this is availability (not enough therapists, not enough insurance coverage for therapy). I feel like a bit of a hypocrite saying this, as I've never gone to therapy a day in my life (money, access, etc.) but I believe that just like most people have a primary care doctor and are encouraged to have yearly physicals, most people should also have a primary care therapist and regular mental health checks.

Can you imagine how much better people's lives could be if we were all more educated about what mental health looks like and had better access to mental health care? How many people could manage the stress and anxiety of life better? How many relationships could function better? How many social problems could be solved just by teaching people how to process the emotions in their lives in healthy ways? If I were the FLOTUS, this would be my work: to get better mental health education into our school curriculum, to get better support for mental health professionals (talk about an under-appreciated profession), and to increase awareness and access (through insurance, through whatever means) to get more people the mental and emotional help they need.

But Suzanne, you might be thinking, therapy is a nice idea and all, but doesn't it all feel just a bit privileged? Like, how nice that our first world country can get worried about people's emotions, but there are real problems out there! People are dying from disease and warfare and actual serious things! Isn't that where our money/focus ought to go? Solving these real life or death problems?

To which I'd say, let's look at some statistics:

-Suicide is one of the top 10 killers of Americans every year, and the second-leading "preventable" cause of death.
-In the 10-24 age range, suicide accounts for 17% of deaths every year.
-Outside of suicide, mental health contributes to death in the forms of addiction (especially the epidemic opioid crisis), eating disorder casualties (eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness), and other accidental or preventable forms of death (the exact role of mental health is sometimes hard to determine, but it often plays a role).

So let's not pretend mental health doesn't have life or death consequences. Let's not pretend this isn't a serious issue. Let's not pretend that this isn't affecting all of us at some level.

I mean, let's just take a look at the chart below:

Notice how the teen suicide rate was actually declining right up until the time social media shows up, and then look how it sky rockets. Coincidence? This social media world we are living in these days is brutal for our mental health on so many levels. Absolutely brutal. And our kids are growing up in this world with so few tools to help protect their mental health. Social media is probably not going anywhere, so maybe increasing education and teaching kids (and adults) how to take care of their mental and emotional health, and providing them access to mental health professionals without stigma or judgment, we might just be able to save a few more lives.

Mental health is an issue for all of us. Breaking down the stigma around mental illness benefits all of us. Increasing education and access to mental health care benefits all of us.

Where the Watermelons Grow, that book in the picture up there, is a book that illustrates my point. Maybe you read my quick review of it here, but if not, here's the summary. This book is about a 12-year-old girl who's mother suffers from schizophrenia. Her mother has been hospitalized before and has been on medication to manage her disease, but things are getting bad again. The book explores the complicated emotions this young girl experiences dealing with a mentally ill mother, but what stood out to me through the whole book is that the mother was not the only one who needed help. Everyone in the family needed help. The father, the daughter, and obviously the mother, were all under enormous strain, all experiencing stress and guilt and shame and other really big emotions. All of them had a mental health state that was under pressure. The mother needed hospitalization and medication, but the daughter needed support too. She needed safe people to talk to, she needed a support system to help her cope and process and deal with her emotions. She was able to find an informal one, but so many aren't that lucky.

Whew, this is quite the soap box I've been on here. Clearly, this is something I feel passionate about, but I didn't even realize it till last month, reading both these books in such close proximity and thinking about all the feelings they brought up. I'm not going to be FLOTUS any time soon (uh, ever), but I guess I can use my small bit of influence where it is now to promote the things I care about. I'm already using this blog to promote literacy and books and reading. Maybe I'll start using it a little more to promote this other issue I (apparently) care so deeply about.

End the stigma. End the shame. Educate yourselves. Take care of your mental health, and support everyone else out there in their mental health journeys. This is literally a life or death issue.

What would your issue/platform be if you were FLOTUS? What are the causes you would champion?

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