What if mental health were treated like dentistry? If, just like it is socially normal — and actually encouraged — to get regular teeth cleanings, we each sat down every so often with a psychologist for a mental-health checkup? What if, in addition to blood pressure, BMI, and cholesterol, we regularly monitored our own mental health?
I started writing this article as a Toastmasters speech in June 2016. At the time, the Pulse shooting had happened just two weeks before. The tragedy had impacted the community in my hometown, Orlando, like nothing I had never seen. Among many issues propelled to the forefront of discussion was society’s neglect of mental health. However, these discussions seemed to overlook another big societal problem, which is the stigma associated with seeking professional mental health services. They also tended to group “people with mental illness” into a category separate from the rest of the population, the “normals.”
Everyone has (or at least had) teeth capable of cavities and decay. Likewise, everyone has a mind capable of failings.
Yet, unlike seeing a dentist, visiting a psychologist, psychotherapist, or therapist carries with it an air of disgrace. When traumatizing moments occur in our lives, many purposely avoid therapy because we fear this stigma or don’t want to be stigmatized. No one wants to be pegged as unstable. If we hear that someone is seeing a therapist, we think: He or she must be crazy. Has a screw loose. Lost his marbles. Went off the deep end.
However, if you do go off the deep end — by then, it may be too late. If you’ve never in your life seen a psychologist, whom will you call when the walls crumble around you? And will you want to make that call? Or will you simply explode in rage, or collapse from mental exhaustion?
We are all human. Natural human emotions include despair, grief, agitation, shame, sadness, rage. Every person experiences stresses and life changes: deaths, job loss, breakups, and more. Furthermore, anyone can suffer delusions. Novelist and former psychologist Frank Tallis noted an example of such “relatively common” delusions were when people suspect their spouses of cheating and have “morbid obsessions about infidelity,” which, he said, were capable of producing “spectacular behaviors.” At any time, even the coolest cucumber in the salad can snap.
Other individuals have much deeper, more permanent issues. In 2003, President Bush commissioned a report on mental health that concluded that thirty percent of our nation’s adults have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder. Other studies conclude about twenty percent of adults experience mental illness. Many people continue to slip through the cracks and go undiagnosed. The consequences of these individuals going untreated can be devastating to not only them, but to society. People with untreated mental disorders can wind up homeless, incarcerated, attempting suicide, or having violent episodes — all of which impact society as a whole.
In my law practice, I recognize that some people who seek out my services may have undiagnosed mental health issues. Many, many times I have encouraged clients to seek therapy. However, that is not something I should have to be doing. Yet, some people tend to be more comfortable calling an attorney than a psychologist. Society tells us that, when in trouble, it’s time to “lawyer up.” It’s cool to hire an attorney, but shameful to hire a psychologist. Catchy hip-hop jingles encourage listeners to call “411-PAIN” after auto accidents to be referred to an attorney, but what commercials promote psychologists?
The recent popularity of “life coaches” may be another symptom of what is really a need to de-stigmatize mental health professionals. Why visit an unregulated “life coach” when you can see a licensed psychoanalyst or psychologist?
In Argentina, for example, mental health is not taboo. One New York Times article explained that Argentinians regularly visit psychoanalysts not just to work out their emotional problems and life traumas but to also help with self-development, and doing so is common.
We, as Americans, must recognize that mental health is essential to not only ourselves as individuals but to a healthy society. We should not wait to find a psychologist until it’s too late. The focus must shift more toward preventative measures and early detection. Mental health services should be accessible — and affordable — throughout our nation — in all geographical regions and all cultures. And they should be considered the norm — not just for people with disorders, but for everyone.
If we have dentists to clean our teeth, accountants to organize our finances, and personal trainers to help us power through 500 sit ups, why do we think we don’t need help with the most precious organ in our body — the mind?