What we know about mental health

Earlier this evening, my friend Kelly posted a link to an article about mental health. It’s a good article and I used it as a springboard to post something that’s been on my mind about mental health. Specifically, as a society, we are in our infancy with what we know about mental health and how to deal with it. In my current day job as an Enhanced Disability Management Steward, I am reminded daily that what I know about mental health is as close to nada as you can find. It’s not that I don’t want to know about mental health, it’s more like: I just have no idea where to start on how to be supportive and frankly, neither does most of our society.

Our understanding of mental health runs at the same place as our understanding of bacteria 160 years ago.

I think of it this way: when my daughter was little, I taught her to wash her hands. I didn’t need to be taught to teach her to wash her hands. It’s so ingrained in our society as a normal thing, I just taught her. In the beginning, I gave her age-appropriate tools to learn to wash her hands. We collected “special rocks,” (every parent on the planet knows what a special rock is, right?) and then at appropriate times, we would go wash her special rocks. For me, it was the easiest way to make sure she didn’t leave the bathroom with her hands wet, not clean, and that all the soap was gone, so her hands were truly clean. As she got older, she stopped washing rocks and just started washing her hands. She’s twenty-two now. I don’t have to check her hands to make sure they are clean. She learned. She will teach her children. She may not parent my future grandchildren as I parented her, but she will teach them to wash their hands.

View through a fence knothole
“The worst thing about depression isn’t the depression. It’s seeing the world through a black fog that you know you can’t do anything about.” -Me in 2013

We know a lot about hand washing. We see signs in public washrooms. We know that hand washing reduces the transmission of colds, bugs, bacteria, and all sorts of nasties. We take this knowledge for granted because it’s a scientific fact. It’s such an accepted fact that public washrooms are being built with an open wall where once you would encounter a door you needed to touch. You do your business, wash your hands, then sail around the tiled wall into the food court to get your latte and keep on shopping.

About a hundred and sixty years ago, this wasn’t common knowledge. In fact, it was new. And not only was it new, doctors were offended that anyone would suggest they needed to wash their hands. It was a Viennese doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, who noticed that women died of infection after giving birth at alarming rates in his hospital. What he noticed was that doctors frequently went directly from the morgue, where they examined corpses, to the maternity wards to help women give birth. These same healthy women then contracted puerperal fever and died. Dr. Semmelweis wondered what would happen if hand washing were instituted. Could women be saved?

What happened was that Dr. Semmelweis was shunned by the entire medical community. Modern science of the time was outraged by his suggestion that it was the doctor who was causing women to die of childbed fever. He pointed out that midwives, who did not go from the morgue and then from bed to bed, had significantly lower mortality rates. He wasn’t thanked for this information either and, in fact, was later dismissed from the hospital. He eventually died in an insane asylum.

However, his insights stuck and scientists elsewhere did the research and vindicated his claims. Now, not all that long after science insisted that his outrageous idea of instituting hand washing was an offence to medicine and science, we all wash our hands and don’t give it much thought. Of course we wash our hands before we eat and after we use the potty, and after we touch things in public places, and just because we feel like it. And about 150 years after he failed to convince doctors to wash their hands, I had my toddler balanced on a stool washing her special rocks.

Which brings me back to mental health.

After WWI, soldiers returned from war shell-shocked and were accused of cowardice. We now know they had PTSD and should have been treated with compassion, not to mention therapy. But a hundred years ago, we didn’t know this and therapy was really yet to be invented. Now we can’t believe what those poor soldiers endured in those dark, dark times, because we understand that soldiers see terrible things. But while we are pretty good with the whole soldiers and PTSD thing, we aren’t really sure how to support civilians who have had a traumatic event. We tell them to shake it off, because that’s the only real tool most of our society has in their tool kit when it comes to mental health. Suck it up, snowflake, and move on. It’s all in your head.

As a society, we are only just starting to understand that childhood abuse, bullying on the playground, and the myriad of life’s difficulties all play a role in our current mental health. A few decades ago, we didn’t discuss anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, but if it did come up, it was cloaked in shame. Those sorts of things were best not shared lest the neighbours talk or the chances of you finding a good marriage were affected. We do talk about it now, which is great, because if we can talk about it, we can finally get an understanding of it. Much like an absence of hand washing can lead to death, so can an absence of mental wellness. Poor mental health can kill, except that it looks like an overdose or a self-inflicted gunshot wound or a rope and not a fever.

We don’t talk about that last bit nearly enough. But I firmly believe that the reason we aren’t talking about it isn’t because we are embarrassed or hotly opposed to finding ways to support stabilized mental wellness. Instead, it’s because we don’t have words. What we are missing is some sort of language that allows us to accept it, support it, talk about it, and heal from it.

When we get a cold, we know to take vitamin C and wash our hands a lot. Friends ask us if we are run down and wonder if we are getting enough sleep. We are fed chicken soup and tucked in to ride it out, or fed cold pills and sent back into the world to carry on delicately. No one tells us to walk it off. That our cold is a choice. That putting on a smile will shake that cold right off. We are not blamed for our weakness. There’s a reason for that: we don’t consider it a sign of weakness to have a cold. We consider it part of our human-ness.

But then we watch our friends deal with anxiety and depression and words fail us. We don’t suggest chicken soup. Instead, we avoid them. We change the topic when they bring it up, although every so often we pay homage to it by reposting something about how the “coffee is always on if you want to talk.” So let’s assume one of our friends takes us up on our invitation to talk and they confess they cry a lot. The only language we have is to ask them if they are seeing their doctor. We don’t have an equivalent tool to colds when it comes to mental health. We are empty-handed.

As an EDMP Steward (that’s the Enhanced Disability Management Steward thing I talked about at the beginning of this post), people tell me daily they are coping with depression and I have not yet found a way to ask them how they are coping beyond seeing a doctor and seeing a counsellor. I have nothing. I don’t have a chicken soup recipe to help them get through their anxiety any faster. My heart is good. My intentions are great. I still have nothing.

Our understanding of mental health runs at the same place as our understanding of bacteria 160 years ago. We have no equivalent to “go wash your hands” when it comes to maintaining good mental health. We don’t teach our children how to maintain a normal range of … whatever the opposites of anxiety and depression are. We don’t have enough understanding of what “normal” is to be able to encourage it’s maintenance. More importantly, we have no idea how to support someone when their normal range is breached and they have become mentally sick.

Articles like the one Kelly posted are finally giving us some room to formulate words of support. We aren’t there yet, but it is my greatest hope that a future generation will have some version of emotional hand washing that they will teach their children. It won’t be considered unusual. It will be normal. And with that preventative tool in place, maybe future generations will avoid the mental health stigma that has plagued us for generations.

Yes. I am a feminist. Except when I’m not.

Here is an excerpt from an actual conversation with my husband.

Me: Hey. We need a lightbulb for Brigitte’s new lamp. Where are they?

Steve: I have some hidden upstairs. I didn’t want anyone using all the good light bulbs.


Me: You hid lightbulbs?

Steve: Yes. The good ones. I didn’t want anyone to use them all.

[Long pause]

Me: So… uh… just curious…

[Throat clearing and additional pause]

Me: In this scenario where someone uses all the good bulbs, which of the Millington women do you think will do this?

[Pause while Steve considers my question]

Me: I mean, not to state the obvious here, but… uh… have you ever seen one of us change a lightbulb?

So let’s be clear here: I am a fully self-actualized feminist. I hold a job as a technical analyst in male-dominated IT. I am even good at my job. But for whatever reason, I place changing lightbulbs just behind “cleaning the gunk under the fridge” in the hierarchy of disgusting household chores. I can’t stand the touch of lightbulbs with their baked on dust coating. I don’t change lightbulbs.

In fact, last summer, I invited a friend to dinner and while he was over, I asked him to change some burnt out lightbulbs. (Dave, if you’re reading, I’d like to thank you again for doing that.)

I can already hear my feminist friends cringing. It changes nothing. I also don’t change my own oil, add my own washer fluid, or give a rat’s toot what’s going on under the hood. For all I know, my car runs on three magical genies. Yes, I have a mechanical mind. No, I still don’t care.

Our home, like many homes in my age group, has an unspoken division of labour. If we want a proper meal, I’m probably the one to plan it and cook it. If we want something fast and easy for dinner, my husband is probably the one to call the restaurant himself to see if they deliver. It’s not always this way. But then, I assembled the living room furniture myself when I brought it home from Ikea. The fact that there are exceptions in no way changes the outcome.

I don’t know how this rule emerged or when I agreed to it. I certainly see no benefit in running at it. But I can tell you where its seeds were planted.

Back in university, I had a best friend, Francois. He was dating a girl whose name escapes me. One day when when I was visiting his dorm, his girlfriend came in and said, “Francois, my lightbulb has burned out. Can you help me?”

Now let me set the stage here a little bit. Francois was a typical male of the 90’s. French Canadian. Very sensitive. Self-identified as a feminist. Loved philosophy. Was studying communication. His girlfriend was an Amazon. No. Literally. She was a competitive athlete training for the Olympics. She had muscle on top of muscle. She could have carried sensitive new age Francois over her shoulder and snapped him like a twig. But she didn’t. Instead, she asked him to change her lightbulb.

Off went Francois with the oddest look of pure, unadulterated joy on his face. It was downright weird. I have never seen anyone so happy to change a lightbulb. He came back from her dorm room carrying the offending dead lightbulb with triumph. He was a soldier returning from war after vanquishing the invaders. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome and his girlfriend returned to her dorm satisfied that her knight in shining armour had saved her from dragons. Francois sat there preening as she left the room.

“OK,” I said. “What the heck was that about?”

“The lightbulb?’ he asked.

Yeah. The lightbulb. I was baffled. Why all this fuss over a lightbulb?

His explanation gave me food for thought that lasted the next twenty-seven years. “Feminism has taught women that you can do anything men can do. It makes us feel obsolete. Changing her lightbulb makes me feel like I contribute something to her life.”

This is one of those moments when I’m not sure if my husband reads my blog or not, but I suspect I’ll find out soon enough, because since Francois enlightened me his need to feel needed, I stopped changing lightbulbs. I can’t think of the last time I changed a lightbulb. I don’t miss it. I pushed that task off the side of my to-do list like a cat sitting on a flat surface covered with … well… anything. (You know what cats are like.) Since I don’t like touching lightbulbs, this particular issue took no convincing at all.

It’s a funny thing being a woman who does not change lightbulbs. In a world where feminism has taught me to be unafraid and to break through glass ceilings and smash through invisible walls, I have consented to a gendered division of labour at home.

And somehow, my husband thought he needed to hide the good lightbulbs.