On September 11, 2001, the moment the second plane hit the Twin Towers, it was obvious to even bystanders that America was under attack. Before long, the area was covered in a cloud of thick, toxic dust. All bridges and tunnels were shut down, making water the only way off Manhattan Island. As the Twin Towers collapsed, hundreds of thousands of ash-covered people were stranded in lower Manhattan. They headed toward the wharves and piers, anxiously hoping to get off the island.
The Coast Guard called for all available vessels to help. Immediately, more than 150 boats of all shapes and sizes with more than 800 mariners answered the call for help with a spontaneous boatlift. Within nine hours, these good Samaritans rescued about 500,000 people. This was the biggest evacuation of its type in history. On return trips, they brought supplies, such as water, and more emergency workers. For several more days, many of them continued to help bring supplies to the crews working at Ground Zero. What they did that day was significant. Historians say that it would be hard to overstate how important it was.
Responding to the Mental Health Crisis
We see this same courage and willingness to help after hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes. Dr. Vivek Murthy, our Surgeon General, said, “We are designed as human beings to be connected with each other and to help and support each other, and we see those instincts arise during times of crisis.”
Most of us want to be helpful. While it is easier to give a helping hand and outreach during crisis when we can easily see where physical help is needed, we are much more challenged to know how to help when it is not so obvious.
Mental health is one of those less obvious needs. But it is an important crisis to address, especially for our youth. Here are four ways we can help address mental health in our communities.
1. Build Strong Social Connections
Some of the most important and oldest medicines are love and compassion; everyone can prescribe and dispense these. We need a serious community effort to conquer the great challenges of building healthier social structures and to reach those in need. Friendship and caring for others are important medicine whose strong healing powers cannot be overstated.
Social connections of different varieties are important to both our mental and physical health because they give much needed belonging and reduce social isolation. In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers calculated negative health factors and how they increase the odds of an earlier death. They found that air pollution was 5 percent, obesity was 20 percent, and excessive alcohol consumption was 30 percent. But loneliness—not connecting, not feeling you belong—increases the odds of an earlier death by 45 percent.
According to Dr. Murthy, “Loneliness can manifest in different ways with different people. It can look like irritability and anger, fatigue, reclusiveness, depression, or anxiety. We may chalk these up to other conditions or concerns, but many of these states have their roots (at least partially) in loneliness.”
The foundation of a healthy, more resilient, and upbeat society is positive social ties. A sense of belonging is an essential part of helping us manage stress and serves as a protective factor that helps protect against other mental health issues. Friends and positive social connections help us know we are not alone. Other people giving support that we can lean on helps us to be more resilient and cope more effectively with the challenges and hardships we all face at times.
Youth, who are experiencing epidemic levels of loneliness, do best when they have five or more trusted adults that they can turn to for help.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Depression, anxiety, and suicide are common mental health conditions associated with lacking a sense of belonging. These conditions can lead to social behavior that interferes with a person’s ability to connect to others, creating a cycle of events that further weakens a sense of belonging.”
2. Be Inclusive and Avoid “Us vs. Them” Mentality
Allowing an “us vs. them” mentality wipes out empathy and goodwill. It feeds fear, negativity, and hurtful aggression. It stamps out potential healthy connections and friendships. Research shows that human aggression is often most severe against perceived “them” groups or the “outgroups,” and these conflicts are exacerbated by social exclusion.
Individuals such as our LGBTQ+ population often experience minority stress due to stigma, discrimination, violence, and rejection from important social supports. This puts them at greater risk because of the higher levels of excessive stress, loneliness, and lack of belonging and community. Compassion and love are effective ways to combat minority stress.
As a country, we have deep division and polarization that keep us from important, potentially healing relationships that are the foundation of a healthy, more resilient, and upbeat society.
As one study concludes, “It is critical not to succumb to divisive discourse. We need to emphasize our similarities and speak up when people speak negatively about groups of people that would alienate and other them.”
3. Help Create a Culture That Prioritizes and Normalizes Mental Health Care
Many who need mental health care, and have access to it, shy away from seeking help simply because of the social stigma that is still associated with it. One of the greatest barriers to better mental health care is the stigma associated with seeking help. Even for those who have already made the effort to get help, the shame surrounding that and even just the need for help can destroy their hope.
Together, we can create a culture where mental health is seen for what it is: part of health and no less important than our physical health. We all have the power to help each other heal. We can reduce the stigma and shame.
There are ways to talk about mental health issues, including suicide, that improve awareness, knowledge, and resiliency. All of these encourage people to seek help and aid us in reducing negative stigmas and shame. Faith communities especially can “play a key role in educating their members about mental health problems.”
Sharing successful stories of people who sought help or overcame a suicidal crisis can be powerful. When sharing your own or someone else’s story, be sure to focus on recovery, wellness, and hope. Be inclusive by speaking about mental health as being part of being human. A simple but powerful way to help reduce stigma is to use “we” instead of “they” or “you” when speaking about mental health issues.
When someone is brave enough to share their feelings and struggles, it is important to listen with empathy and without judgment. Positive advice that encourages seeking help along with resources is also a good way to start. For example, people throughout the United States can call 988 to access the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
4. Be Mindful of How You Talk About Mental Health
All types of communication influence our attitudes surrounding suicidal thoughts and other mental health concerns. Social media is especially powerful. It is important to be mindful of spotlighting hope and resiliency. Stay away from posts or stories that add to a feeling of despair. It is essential to always include mental health resources with any communication about suicide or mental health concerns.
What we say, how we say it, and the images we use can either increase risk among vulnerable individuals or increase hope, resiliency, help-seeking, and actions that help prevent suicide among all. Kindly and gently speak up when others share information in ways that shame, discourage seeking help from mental health professionals, or talk about suicidality in unhealthy ways.
Just as so many private people and boats were able to spontaneously perform the greatest maritime rescue in history, if many of us answer the call, we can improve overall mental health and reduce suicide through greater love and compassion, especially for those different from us, along with being more mindful how we talk about mental health. Together we can make a significant difference.
Learn more at safeut.org
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