Mental health, community

I have only one link today: the World Health Organization resource page for World Mental Health Day 2018. World Mental Health Day is held on October 10 every year. This year’s focus was on mental health supports for adolescents and young adults.

When I think of mental illness in adolescence and early adulthood, I recall the health problems that plagued my peers in high school and university: depression, anxiety, suicidality, eating disorders. I remember hearing friends share their stories about some of the causes or complicating factors in our lives: poverty, being kicked out of the house, abuse by people who ought to have been trustworthy. I remember the unhealthy coping mechanisms many among us used: alcohol, drugs (over the counter, prescription, and illicit) with various strengths and effects, self harm, life-endangering behaviour.

Our parents and the staff at our schools largely didn’t have the awareness or training to help me and my peers. Those of us in extended families and with strong (mostly ethnic) communities tended to be better off. Those of us who were different than the powerful had a harder time than most, whether we were the wrong race, physically limited or disabled, attracted to the wrong type of people, or otherwise not able to fit in.

One thing that greatly improved my life was technology. I was fortunate to earn a scholarship to attend university, where I was encouraged to learn computer science and programming. Access to computers quickly led me to discover Usenet, which included communities where I discovered people who were more like me than the people I saw every day. They were a few hours to a few days away from me by round trip messaging. The communities I participated in and later helped nurture include people who became and remained my friends for more than half my life.

Social networking became more widely available as the years passed. We could message in real time, with photos and audio and video. People who weren’t early adopters of technology could join in conversations.

The conversations changed, not always for the better. Intolerance and bullying had always been there but they have become more open and accepted. Addictive platforms have encouraged more people to withdraw from human interaction. The hosts of our discourse alter the ways we interact, the better to monetize our attention. What we still call social media has grown into a force that encourages antisocial, unhealthy thoughts and behaviours. We take a break from interacting with each other (and the advertisers, and the 24 hour news cycle delivering horror after horror) online to recover a sense of balance.

In recent years I’ve turned more to in-person interactions. I still use computers and (anti)social media. I try to limit that use, not always successfully. I know some of my neighbours. I’m getting to know some of the people who use the same gym as me around the same time, much as I know my fellow walking commuters. I’m a member of two community groups that meet weekly. I volunteer for causes that matter to me.

I’m still an introvert: extended time in group settings is stressful and tiring for me. So is doing pushups and squats and presses, and I do that too. Growing into community settings and not making the low effort choice to cocoon most evenings and weekends builds my mental and emotional health just as my daily workout routine builds my physical capacity to withstand stress. I can do more. I feel more like myself.

There are many factors that affect our mental health. Community is one that most of us can readily exercise control over with relatively little effort. It can be a gateway to helping us access a rich set of resources to support our well-being.

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