May 29, 2018

Where does culture end and the brain begin? The truth is, our culture simultaneously creates and is created by our brains. As the brain receives information from the environment, it creates linkages, pattern recognition, and meaning. We learn and we create culture in order to survive, and our brains perpetuate and evolve those cultures, to sustain us and to nurture newborn generations.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Good, bad, middling, and often variable, our mental health is one of the most important things about us, and profoundly affects the quality of our lives. Maintaining good mental health does not come automatically, easily, or naturally to most people. Awareness, work, and a variety of practices, sometimes developed over years or decades, may be required.

Our mental health is one of the most important things about us.

Much of our thinking about mental health and mental illness is conditioned and reinforced by our culture. We have unconsciously learned, throughout our lives, how to frame our own mental health, and the health of others, all in relation to community norms. In America, for example, we know without thinking about it that when a co-worker in the hallway says “hey, how’re you doing?” the answer we give, so as not to interrupt the easy flow of social exchange, is “great, thanks, how’re you doing?” Generally speaking, our concern for each other’s mental health is only nominal.

Mental Health Awareness Month encourages us to reframe our concept of health as inclusive of our minds, and to consider the ways in which our minds are made up by, and make up, our world. In recent decades, we’ve gotten better at remembering the health of the rest of our bodies, but we still too often forget about our brains.

Ironically, to qualify part of health as “mental health” is to miss the meaning of the word “health” itself. “Health” comes from an Old English word meaning “whole.” Without mental health we cannot be whole.

For each of us to achieve and maintain wholeness and health, we must take community action and shared responsibility for cultivating an environment that builds health for our entire body. Not only do we all have mental health, we also influence one other’s mental wellbeing. To truly prosper, communities must invest in the things that we know can cultivate mental health.

To truly prosper, communities must invest in the things that we know can cultivate mental health.

Starting with children, we must teach social-emotional resiliency, self-management, and self-care techniques. Continuing throughout young adulthood and to the end-of-life and death with dignity, we must build each other up with community support for education and employment opportunities, tiers of supportive housing, and access to integrated health care. We must recognize that to get to health, we need to pursue wholeness in every intervention. Wholeness cannot be found in a pill, though there are times when medication is helpful and necessary. Building resiliency, seeking the help of others, meditation, and self-care are indispensable to getting us closer to health.

Our environments have such a profound impact on our life’s outcomes, that investing in those environments as a community will serve as a tide that lifts all boats. Some of us will face more health difficulties earlier in life, or more frequently. But, maybe the only way any of us can retain wholeness along life’s journey, and then arrive at death with dignity, is by taking responsibility to help lift up those who need it along the way. Community and culture do not belong to any single one of us, but are created by and exist through all of us. Each of us, every day, can do something to improve community health and, thereby, our individual health as well.

Community and culture do not belong to any single one of us, but are created by and exist through all of us.

We can start this process by making it okay for ourselves and for those in our circles to talk about mental health. We can invest in our communities through service to others. We must make time for reflection and spend some time in nature every day, where we are exposed to the healthful influences of plants, animals, and sunlight, and can refresh our perspective regarding the beauties of the world that we did not create.

We need to create more opportunities for those who need help to get it, by removing roadblocks to access and building inroads where they did not already exist. We must direct some funding away from punishments and toward health care. Positive interventions must replace most of the negative ones. We have started by raising awareness. The next step is to actively build healthier cultures in every community.

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