May is mental health month so it’s a good time to take a closer look at how we deal with mental health and illness. For starters, as a nation, we’re not doing very well. Gallup's 2019 Global Emotions Report, which surveyed populations all over the world about their mental well-being, says the U.S. is the most stressed out, even more so than Venezuela, a country in the midst of even greater economic and political turmoil.
Despite our status as the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world, the U.S. population ranks last amongst citizens of 10 other wealthy countries when it comes to emotional distress, according to the Commonwealth Foundation. We’ve witnessed the ravages of this distress, in the devastating shootings that occur too frequently at our schools and places of worship. These incidents represent the catastrophic, the unbearable, the seemingly insurmountable. They need to be dealt with and we must work to prevent incidents that tear at the heart of the nation.
But for the more commonplace among us, there is still much to be done. One in five adults in the U.S., 43.8 million people, experience mental illness in any given year. Mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and substance abuse are on the rise. Over a lifetime, the average American has a 47.4% chance of having some kind of mental health disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Yes, that’s almost one in two.
But there’s an even bigger story here. Mental health is foundational; integral to our well-being. In matters of health, mind comes before body; the cause of health or illness is on the level of the mind (although not always the conscious mind). Science is showing us that the body reflects what the mind believes. And the mind, in the form of neuropeptides and receptors, is in every cell of the body. These are called the “molecules of emotion”, linking mind and body.
That emotions have physiologic consequences is well documented. They effect changes in hormones like serotonin and epinephrine. As it’s been said: happy thoughts, happy hormones. Sad thoughts, sad hormones. Researchers have discovered strong linkages between repetitive patterns of negative emotions and disease. Early studies at Duke showed that the suppressed anger common to Type A personalities can lead to hypertension and strokes. On the other hand, the capacity to understand, forgive, and accept, is linked to our health and well-being.
What determines what we think and what the mind believes? It is our day-to-day environment, the company we keep, and the field of energy that dominates our daily lives.
As the head of an organization serving thousands of teenage girls in New York City, I am well aware of the acute rise in the number of adolescents visiting the nation's emergency departments due to mental health problems. From 2012 through 2016, there was a 50% increase in visits to the ER for mental health, with black youth outpacing other racial/ethnic groups, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Suicide has reached crisis proportions. It is the second leading cause of death among young people ages ten to 19-years-old, rising 56% between 2007 and 2016; while the rate among young girls grew three-fold during that period. In its 2018 report, the State of Mental Health in America, the group Mental Health America warned that 9.6 million Americans said they experienced suicidal thoughts.
We see this trend among the girls we serve. The hopelessness, at times overwhelming emotional pain they feel can be seen in changes in academic performance or truancy problems in school, in low energy levels and lack of interests. Many grow up with a parent afflicted with mental illness or substance abuse. Stories like Bria’s, a girl in our Harlem program, are all too common: Doing poorly in school, suffering from depression, she was on a downward spiral. It was all very understandable: her mother was serving a life sentence for homicide for the man who had repeatedly abused her. Now Bria lived at home alone with her father who was abusing her.
Childhood trauma emerges as the root of these tragedies, the cause and the effect, the motive and the aftermath that affects the victims, their classmates and their families. The threats of childhood trauma are so severe, they disrupt who we are at the deepest level. Indeed, they change our physiology. Our body keeps score. In high doses, trauma affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal and cardiovascular systems. People exposed in high doses have triple the risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20 year difference in life expectancy.
A landmark study of 17,500 adults was done asking about common sources of adverse childhood trauma experiences or ACES, such as physical or emotional abuse, parental mental illness, parental separation or divorce, substance abuse and domestic violence. A whopping 67% of the population had at least one of these factors. One in eight had four or more ACES. They correlated these scores with health outcomes. The higher your ACES, the higher your risk of medical problems. There was a major increase in the risk of heart disease, lung disease, cancer as well as an increased risk in mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Adverse childhood experiences affect us all physically as well as mentally.
A giant step forward was made when New York became the first state in the country to mandate that mental health be taught in public schools. The new law has created a new window of opportunity and a new openness to start discussions about managing stress, anxiety, depression, no matter the cause. Teaching teens about the importance of mental health and the warning signs of mental illness is the best place to start.
Girls Inc. of New York City’s new Mind Body program will go a long way toward teaching teen girls to take charge of their emotional as well as physical health. This digitized, culturally responsive curriculum is designed to cultivate awareness and reduce stress in adolescent girls from low-income communities in New York City. As girls learn how to deal with the stressors of adolescence, they can prevent medical problems from occurring now and later in life, and help themselves create a greater sense of well-being, clarity and ease in the mind and body.