Lessons in Mental Health Care

Written by: Shauna Brooks, Performance and Evaluation Specialist, National Safe Place Network

About fifteen years ago, my partner Kim and I went to very upstate New York to visit her long-time friend who lived on a lettuce farm with her husband and two daughters, the elder 6 and the younger 3 years-old.  I learned two very important lessons during our stay up North: the power of a wet paper towel and the meaning of care.

Our second or third day on the farm, the tiny girl fell and scratched her knee.  Her parents were elsewhere on the property, and Kim and I were spending some quality time with their daughters. While Kim sat with the sobbing child, I rushed into the house to secure first-aid supplies and quickly realized I had no idea where to find them.  In the absence of band-aids or topical antibiotic, the best I could come up with was a paper towel.  So I soaked one with water and wrung it out, then carefully folded it in thirds and rushed back outside.  I crouched on the ground next to the sweet little girl, gently swept the tiny pieces of dirt and rock away, and wrapped the paper towel around her knee, comforting and assuring her with absolute certainty that it would help her feel better.  I cared for her.  And it did help! With all the resilience of a three-year-old and a couple of final sniffles, she blinked away her tears, and was feeling quite content when her parents returned to the house a few minutes later.

A couple days after that, we were all getting ready to go watch the older sister perform in a dance recital.  As curlers came out of the young ballerina’s hair and she donned her tutu, tears began to well up in her younger sister’s eyes.  She wanted to be special too.  She didn’t understand why she didn’t get to wear a costume and dance up on the stage.  First there were explanations about taking turns and growing up.  These were unsatisfactory.  Then there was acknowledgement that sometimes life just isn’t fair.  She would not be consoled.  I then drew upon experience from my own childhood and exclaimed, “What an excellent pouter you are!”  This of course, is a manipulative tactic to shame a young person into behaving in a less troublesome manner.  I never really thought about it that way; as I mentioned, it was how adults had responded to me at her age, and I essentially learned to get over myself and move on.  

About two beats after my sarcastic declaration, the girl’s father intervened.  He was so gentle with her.  He sat next to her and looked her in the eye, asked her questions about what was going on for her, and validated her feelings with warmth and compassion.  Neither the circumstances nor the rules changed, but he cared for her, in the same way I had only days before when faced with the scratched up knee.  And I instantly felt like a troll.

It is completely natural, almost reflexive, for human beings to recognize physical pain when we see someone injured or harmed.  We easily empathize.  We offer assistance.  When we experience physical pain, we use over-the-counter medicine to relieve pain and inflammation.  We compress and ice and elevate.  While there are certainly occasions when a slip and fall can generate a little embarrassment, there is no real shame in having or treating physical pain.

Mental illness is a very different kind of pain, but certainly brings no less suffering.  It is frequently invisible, and when it can be seen, it is often met with fear and judgment, the gravity of shame pushing the pain deeper.  Mental illness can be very isolating.  For me, at times, that cycle spirals out of control – pain bringing shame, shame bringing loneliness, loneliness bringing still more pain.  I have experienced risks to my safety, employment, income, housing, relationships and freedom.  At times I have worked through a crisis and maintained stability.  At other times, I have lost battles and suffered setbacks. 

And I have been privileged with access to education, employment, a living wage, health insurance, and a strong treatment team.  I also have a rich personal support network of people who care for me.  These resources and benefits are disconnected from countless people who suffer.  Without those protective factors, the cost of mental illness to youth and families can be devastating.  As human beings, we have a responsibility – to ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our communities – to care for each other and to do what we can to make those assets available to everyone.  That means promoting awareness, educating others, advocating for the vulnerable, committing resources, and demonstrating kindness, compassion, encouragement, and support.  And as professionals in the field of youth and family services, we are called to see beyond mental health treatment and services and foster a vision for mental health care.

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