Each May we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of working toward our own individual best versions of psychological wellness. This year’s theme is “Look Around, Look Within,” a call to both personal and community action as we also work to reduce the stigma and silence that so frequently surrounds mental-health conversations.
Our surroundings—homes, neighborhoods, and cities—can have a profound impact on our mental health. Growing up or living in economically challenged neighborhoods that lack a sense of cohesion can certainly engender negative feelings and increase stress. This stress is heightened even further through constant social-media feeds showing glamorous celebrity lifestyles that those living in lower-income areas can only dream about.
We are also bombarded with images of communities at war with each other and themselves. The frequency and deadliness of mass shootings continue to rise, substantially reducing our sense of safety and connection with others.
LGBTQ persons living in the ever-growing list of states where anti-LGBTQ legislation is now being signed into law are starting to realize the very real implications of having their rights threatened and eroded. We see there is a clear need for political involvement and action that will ultimately improve the mental health of the LGBTQ community as a whole.
It is impossible to separate our own mental health from the world around us. Acknowledging how we, as individuals, are impacted by world events is one way to reduce the divisiveness and separation from others. It is an avenue by which to see and remind ourselves of how we are more connected and similar than we are distant and unique.
This outward focus does not have to exist only in the abstract, however. For this Mental Health Awareness Month, perhaps the theme can also be taken a bit more literally.
Try this exercise: pause for a moment to look around your surroundings. Right now. Take a look around your home, office, or car. What do you see?
Is your home organized? If so, to what extent? Can you consistently get your trash into the proper bin? What about those dishes in the sink? Your laundry? Your mail and other papers?
What about your office space or vehicle? Are things put away? How are you managing the various spaces you inhabit?
In clinical practice, it has become increasingly common to ask people to reflect on the state of their homes and other spaces, since this may give clues about the state of their mental health. Perhaps this month’s focus on mental-health awareness can begin much closer to home as you look around the room you’re sitting in right now.
Popular television shows like Hoarders have certainly increased awareness of the extreme challenges of hoarding disorder. Of course, difficulty with organizing and maintaining one’s space might be related to other clinical conditions such as depression, attention-deficit challenges, or problematic substance use.
Just as a lack of organization might suggest deeper struggles, being overly controlled or strict about one’s space can signal a different type of tension. Anxiety, or symptoms of obsessive compulsion, can be associated with an exacting tendency toward neatness and a feeling that everything must always be in its place.
Of course, a firm diagnosis of a mental- health condition cannot be solely based on one’s surroundings. But evaluating one’s space and pondering its relationship to our internal emotional state is worthwhile.
This month’s awareness theme of “Look Within” should prompt us to more fully consider these relationships.
Look Around (Again)
This time when you look around, really take in your surroundings. Is there something in your immediate space that you feel like expressing gratitude for?
Perhaps there is something outside that inspires you. Our relationship to nature provides a special sense of connection and wonder. Being outside with nature is one component of a mindfulness practice that can allow us to be more in the moment. And when we are grounded in the moment, our level of tension and anxiety is reduced. It’s much harder to ruminate about the past or worry about the future when we’re focusing on the present.
Just as nature can increase mindfulness, our bodies can greatly assist us with becoming and remaining in the present moment. Where are you right now? What do you see? Where are your feet? Are they planted with the soles on the ground, or crossed at the ankles? Can you feel your toes? What if you focus on your right big toe? Although it may feel a little silly, the practice of trying to feel your right big toe serves as an opportunity to separate yourself from your thinking.
How are you feeling? Has this feeling been a predominant and fairly consistent one for you throughout the past week? Two weeks?
Because one’s mood and level of anxiety can sometimes change multiple times within the day (or the hour, for that matter), this month could be a time of self-evaluation and reflection. If you find that your mood isn’t quite what it used to be, or that you’re feeling more stressed out, then it might be a great time to reach out to that counselor or therapist that you’ve been thinking about calling. Allowing our awareness to lead to action is the primary way by which we can begin to make changes.
As this Mental Health Awareness Month progresses, how will you work to become more aware of your own mental health and the actions you can take to establish better connections with others and yourself?