At the start of every year, millions of Americans plan to work on their New Year’s resolutions. While many focus on weight loss as a top goal, local health experts suggest focusing on something just as important as our physical well-being: our mental health.
According to Mental Health America, about 20 percent of adults—equivalent to nearly 50 million Americans—are experiencing a mental illness. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic did nothing to help the mental state of millions across the world, with the World Health Organization reporting that in the first year of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent.
Ty David Lerman, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Houston, agrees that the pandemic only worsened the current mental-health problem and that the stigma around seeing a therapist has unfortunately prevented more people from reaching out to get help.
“We need to normalize the fact that we are all struggling with our own issues,” he says. “We are still fighting this stereotype that the only people that go to a psychologist, a therapist, or a psychiatrist are people with serious mental illness. We are still struggling against this mindset. It’s polarizing, and it is false. If you are struggling and your current efforts are not effective enough, that is a legitimate reason to talk to a therapist.”
Mental health has long been neglected, and the prolonged pandemic has not helped the problem, Lerman emphasizes.
“There is so much grief and loss that we haven’t registered or recognized,” he says. “People haven’t done the work to deal with that grief and loss. People haven’t taken the time to deal with that hurt.”
Lerman says people need to find healthier, more positive ways to deal with their anxiety and depression if they want to improve their mental health in the new year.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m doing bringing me joy?’” he says. “If that answer is no, it is likely past time to reconsider your daily routine. Make more time for yourself and what you enjoy doing. It’s the power of choice. You get to decide where you spend your time and energy.”
A prominent mental-health problem that has likely been exacerbated by the pandemic is binge eating, Lerman notes. Even before the pandemic, unhealthy eating habits increased across the globe. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, worldwide eating disorders increased from 3.4 to 7.8 percent between 2000 and 2019.
“Binge eating is a pandemic in and of itself,” he says. “We, as a society, do not do well with regulating our stress in healthy ways. It stems from a lack of awareness. I think we are so out of touch and out of tune with our internal processes, and what is going on internally. We put our blinders on. We don’t stop. We don’t slow down enough to check in on ourselves.”
This growing problem is the main plot point of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. That film, currently in theaters, tells the story of Charlie, a reclusive 600-pound gay English teacher who is trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Charlie’s weight is the byproduct of binge eating after the death of his partner.
Shane Hennesey, a licensed professional counselor, says binge eating is just one way that many people try to deal with their problems. “It’s not just eating. It’s anything that is compulsive. Sex, internet, shopping, eating—it doesn’t really matter. It’s the [underlying] process of numbing out anxiety that’s driving [all of that binging].”
Body image issues can affect all types of people, but it is especially prevalent in the gay community. According to research from The Trevor Project last year, LGBTQ youth are at greater risk of developing eating disorders, and this can affect their mental health as well as increase their risk of suicide.
“In our capitalist society, where marketing drives a lot of how we think about ourselves, body dysmorphia and eating issues are going to be present,” Hennesey notes. “When you see a billboard for a gym, they don’t show the hard work, the sweat, and the pain. They show you the beautiful body on the other side. That’s a typical marketing strategy, regardless of the product. It sets up this mentality of lack, or not being good enough—something that a lot of gay men struggle with.”
Lerman agrees with these sentiments, as he has seen many people from the LGBTQ community suffer from various types of body issues.
“Our community really does struggle with this,” he emphasizes. “We view our self-worth through our attractiveness, through our body. That is where a lot of body dysmorphia comes from. We believe we are only as good as our attractiveness. It’s a big problem. Women have been struggling with this forever, and are frequently degraded in terms of their effectiveness being attached to their attractiveness. Unfortunately, the gay community has adopted that mindset, too.”
It’s important that someone struggling with anxiety and depression understands that there are many people struggling with these problems, and they turn to a variety of coping mechanisms, Lerman explains.
“I want to validate it,” he says. “They are not in any way a freak, or alone in that effort. There are tons of people out there who struggle.”
Hennesey suggests practicing an “acceptance and commitment” type of therapy technique in the new year that could help resolve the issues they are experiencing.
“The idea behind that modality is increasing psychological flexibility and psychological space, not trying to get rid of things,” he explains. “The short-version phrase I give to patients is, ‘When you take the fight out, you take the bite out.’ People should redirect their attention to things that are neutral until they can disconnect or unhook from what they think is so terrible.”
Hennesey agrees with Lerman that there is a stigma around speaking to a therapist. For people who don’t feel comfortable speaking to a healthcare professional, Hennesey suggests talking with friends and family.
“There is a certain benefit from talking to another person, even if it’s just a friend or family member,” he says. “They can help navigate what you’re going through.”
This article appears in the January 2023 edition of OutSmart magazine.