May 18, 2024
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‘Mental Health’ Has Lost Its Meaning

May is “Mental Health Awareness Month.” The expression “mental health” has become to so many what a former colleague of mine would call “dead words”—they have lost meaning and instead are regularly thrown around. When students hear about mental health programming, their eyes often gloss over as people talk constantly about the subject. And yet, I believe this expression has become dead because of just that—the talk.

We promote mental health and yet we barely even seem to understand what mental health is.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides), we must protect and heal ailments of the soul just as we pursue the health of the body. This idea, the health of the soul, is perhaps a more relatable way of thinking. When we discuss mental health awareness, we are aiming to start or continue a conversation about the ways people struggle internally—which we all do. We all have our own battles that take place inside our own minds and psyches, related to our emotions. Sometimes this can be obvious to others and sometimes they are concealed or purposely kept hidden.

And while we all are fighting some type of battle, I believe we are failing those who are experiencing a struggle related to mental health. I continue to hear, too often, sentiments about “just getting over it” or minimizing a difficulty, or comparing someone’s struggle to another’s and therein implying that the person should just be “strong.” We ignore those who do not have the same abilities (physically and mentally) by setting too-high expectations even when we know someone cannot meet them.

This is not to say that we can’t have expectations or even push others at times in a caring manner. It is to say, though, that we need to do better. We need to foster greater understanding for the brokenness of our systems and for the pain of the individual.

I am particularly sensitive to the ways this occurs for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, self-harm behaviors, substance abuse, eating disorders and—as it has been on my mind personally—new moms. And these are just a handful of struggles; there are, sadly, countless others. We ignore blatant symptoms at times and at other times completely miss someone’s experience because of our lack of knowing what to look for.

We acknowledge extreme cases but minimize how what we say can hurt those struggling. For instance, sometimes we joke about alcohol consumption without pausing to consider whether that could be harmful. Making jokes about others’ body size without realizing that the listener then internalizes the value of remaining small. We expect moms to do it all—self care! sleep! have dinner ready!—without considering how she might actually be feeling. With news of the formula shortage so many people responded with solutions that completely ignored mom.

We need to become more familiar with the various ways these struggles can present themselves. We need to stop telling people to “just.” Just eat. Just get out of bed. Just stop doing that thing. We nod our heads when someone talks about the importance of mental health, but so many of us don’t actually do anything about that. It’s written off as being “too sensitive” or just another check-box on a program to attend.

So let’s reclaim mental health as an expression and actually explore what this means. Mental health is, quite literally, the health of our minds and souls. Mental health struggles may be diagnosable or might not be—the label is only just that, and it is more about the person’s experience than any diagnostic textbook. Most of us are quick to take our children or ourselves to the doctor for physical woes, but discount mental challenges and instead engage in a dialogue that puts pressure to “just be OK.”

Help is out there. Psychologists and social workers have their jobs for a reason, just as medical doctors and nurses have their jobs for a reason. People have ailments—of the mind, body and soul, and if we create a world where all are taken seriously—a world of curiosity and without judgment—then we will see more connection, healing and growth.

Learn about these diagnoses. Notice your judgments. Be open. Discover what mental health can mean to you so that you can best support not only others, but yourself.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York superviser at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com  

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