We’re all aware of physical first aid. Why not mental health first aid?
My old psychotherapist Karen didn’t mind awkward silence, or at least she didn’t make a big effort to fill them. I knew this by the end of our first session in 2012, because I’d spent the entire hour feeding her nervous one-word answers, after which the buzzing of the air conditioner would take center stage and she’d look at me patiently, waiting to see if I’d offer up anything else. I didn’t. Not on that first day. By our fourth session, I wouldn’t shut up. Sometimes, I’d talk for the entire time about what was happening, what I was feeling, and why I might be feeling it. It felt like relief, as if I’d finally come up for air after having my head stuck under water for too long. This surely wasn’t a surprise to Karen, but it was to me. Before starting therapy at 18, the second-to-last thing I wanted was to talk about why I was depressed. And the actual last thing I wanted was for anyone to find out I was depressed and sitting awkwardly across from a psychotherapist instead of drinking at the parties I wasn’t invited to anyway.
Now a 10-year (and counting) therapy veteran, I talk about mental health like I talk about a book or a TV show I love: obsessively. But even though topics like therapy and mental illness are less stigmatized than they were about 10 years ago, I’m still the exception, not the rule. With its new “Get That Sh*t Out” campaign and partnership with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, skin care brand Bioré is attempting to change that. “Bioré takes an innovative approach to skin care, encouraging people to get that sh*t out of their pores. With this campaign, Bioré is taking this approach to address and support the vital topic of mental health,” Tramaine El-Amin, assistant vice president, strategic partnerships at Mental Health First Aid, tells Elite Daily. “They’re encouraging the public – including their own employees – to get that sh*t out and talk about their mental health with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). After the challenging year millions of people have had, this campaign aims to help people get the information and support they may need.”
Despite one in five U.S. adults experiencing mental illness and one in six U.S. young people experiencing a mental health disorder year over year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average delay between a person experiencing mental health crisis symptoms and actually seeking treatment for them is about 11 years. This gap can be attributed to a number of things — treatment accessibility, cultural beliefs, cost of treatment, etc. — but the ongoing public- and self-stigma surrounding mental health and those with mental illness is a major player. A paper in Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research analyzed 36 previous articles, finding “widespread” public belief that people with mental illness are more “dangerous” than others — among multiple other harmful stigmatizing beliefs. The same report suggested ways to challenge this stigma include moving away from “violent” portrayals of individuals with mental illness in the media, mental health organizations collaborating with media to disseminate accurate mental health information, and “normalizing” living with mental illness in general.
Sure, systemic action is necessary for dramatic, widespread change. But on a personal level, challenging this stigma is as simple as feeling comfortable and knowing how to talk about mental health, as well as identifying common signs of someone in crisis. For that reason, part of Bioré’s Get That Sh*t Out Initiative involves making way for college students at universities across the U.S. to receive formal MHFA training. Students can visit the MHFA website to complete a form requesting a spot in an MHFA training to become a certified Mental Health First Aider who’s trained to help and talk with others who may be experiencing a mental health crisis. Already, the course has proven beneficial for some students. “MHFA provided me with a new perspective on mental health awareness that can be used in any environment and made helping someone else through a moment of crisis more approachable,” says Emily S., a 22-year-old forensic psychology master’s student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The social effects of COVID-19 have intensified normal daily stressors, and so being more conscious of these signs allows for me to be a more aware and supportive sibling, friend, and peer.”
For students, navigating college life is stressful enough. Add in ongoing COVID-19-related stressors, as well as new anxieties about re-entry and returning to “normal,” and a safe forum to learn and discuss mental health feels even more necessary than usual. “College students face unique stressors, as they are often away from their social support networks and in a new, high-stress environment. This can increase their risk of developing mental health and substance use challenges,” says El-Amin. “Research shows nearly one in five university students is impacted by anxiety or depression. The COVID-19 pandemic and other environmental pressures have only increased the impact on this population.”
Via Bioré’s initiative, I participated in a virtual Mental Health First Aid training and received my own certification. Even with years of therapy and a psychology degree under my belt, the experience gave me a new understanding of talking about difficult mental health topics, identifying mental health crises, and helping someone through a mental health event or illness. The seven-hour, interactive training, while definitely a major time commitment, was thorough and informative, as instructors led us through videos, demonstrations, and discussions that set the record straight on what a mental health crisis or illness actually looks like and what it most certainly doesn’t look like, despite what the general public might believe.
Even when you might feel able to talk about your own mental health, helping someone else through a crisis requires a particular sensitivity, empathy, and understanding. In real time, we practiced what beneficial interactions with someone dealing with a mental health crisis should look like and the proper resources to provide. Overall, these strategies are vital in times of distress, but the entire experience made talking about mental health in everyday conversation more approachable and less awkward. Considering the harrowing statistics surrounding the rising rates of suicide, having more people with a deeper understanding of mental illness — how to talk about it, cope with it, and assist others living with it — isn’t just helpful. It’s vital.
If my early high school self knew future me spent seven hours with four complete strangers talking openly about mental health, she’d have flipped her sh*t. But maybe she wouldn’t have been so silent on that first day in Karen’s office.