Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight


Thoughts about Mental Health and a call for community

 

So…how are you? You doing ok? Hanging in there?

Things are tough right now, aren’t they? Tense. Tiring. Overwhelming. Scary.

The American political climate is beyond divisive at this point; it’s hostile and turbulent. Even the 4th of July felt a little different this year, didn’t it? I look around and it feels like people are having a harder time than usual. I know it to be true because of my job.

Anyway, if you’re reading this– I hope you are doing okay and taking care of yourself.

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I’m late to discuss it, but I’m still feeling sad about Anthony Bourdain’s death. He was more than a chef, a traveler, a reporter, a TV personality, an author– he was a cultural anthropologist–opening windows to worlds most of us will never see. He introduced us not to the fanciest places around the globe, but the authentic spots run by real working people, and he was always a joy and a wonder to watch. He seemed like the kind of person who didn’t waste a second of life, even in the midst of what we can only assume was immeasurable pain.

It’s been interesting how his and Kate Spade’s deaths by suicide have opened up a much-needed conversation about mental health. Anthony Bourdain certainly inspired me to be a bolder traveler, eater and cook, but it’s in my professional work where I’ve felt his greatest impact.

Anthony Bourdain demonstrated a lot of the qualities found in a really good therapist; he was extraordinarily open-minded, completely nonjudgmental, empathic, down-to-earth, respectful of cultural norms and practices, naturally curious and one hell of a good listener. He never pulled away from people who were different than him; he moved toward them, pulled up a stool at the table and said, “Teach me”.

Sharing a meal with someone is an intimate act; it’s a way we connect, bond and share with others. Food, to me, has always felt like a universal love language. No matter where we are or where we grew up, we all have memories associated with food and how it connects to our families, our cultures and ourselves.  And that was always the take-away message I got from Bourdain’s programs. Watching him try exotic international cuisine was intriguing and seductive, but it always seemed like a metaphor for the real point he was trying to make.

We’re all connected.

Sorry if that’s a little woo-woo for ya, but after ten years of community-based social work, I know it in my bones to be true. Over the years I’ve had conversations with hundreds of people who are by nearly every measure different than myself, and the experience has changed my life. There have been people who walked in my office you’d think I’d have nothing in common with– people with cultural or educational or financial backgrounds that are completely opposite of mine, people with histories dealing drugs, or working in sex industries, or gang involvement– and yet–we always ALWAYS find similarities in the ways that we think or feel.

It’s not because I’m some enlightened, revolutionary person who can talk to anyone or just naturally get along with everyone. I’m not and I don’t. It’s because all people fundamentally want the same things out of life– something to do, someone to love, a sense of purpose, a feeling of safety. We’re all so much more similar than we are different. It’s been proven to me literally hundreds and hundreds of times.

In therapy, the connection doesn’t always happen right away. Some people are harder to engage in treatment than others, and like Bourdain, many times my way in has been with food. My friends and family all know I’m obsessed with food, and so do the majority of my clients at this point. If someone is having a particularly difficult time getting started in therapy, I’ll often ask my favorite back-pocket question: “How would you describe dinner at your house growing up?” because it opens up an entire world to discover. Who was at the table? Who was missing? Was there a table? What did your family eat? Who passed down the recipes? What is the culture that influenced the dishes? Who made the meal? Who served it? Was there enough?

Like Bourdain said (in his Parts Unknown episode on Queens)– when someone shows you what they eat, they’re showing you who they are, where they come from, what makes them happy.

Several of my clients shared their feelings about the two suicides in their sessions. One person scheduled an emergency visit because she found them so triggering. Recent violent events and the U.S.’s divisive political climate also have people anxious, disheartened and upset (myself included). One client very articulately expressed his worries for the future– that he’s disturbed by what he described as “a shift away from the community”, that people feel more isolated and alone, and aren’t engaging with one another kindly the way they should.

Then he said something that I think all the time: “People aren’t able to see how connected they really are, so they disconnect out of fear.”

Isn’t that so true?

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I’m trying to find my voice in the bigger conversation about mental health. I’ve seen a ton of posts the last few weeks about reaching out for help, calling suicide-prevention hotlines, finding a psychiatrist or therapist, dropping the stigma and finding mental health services. This will likely not be a huge problem if you have private insurance, but if you don’t– if you have Medicaid or Medicare or will have to cover the costs on a sliding scale–pick up the phone and start dialing because let me tell you, these services are getting harder and harder for people to find, and it scares me. As a mental health professional, I don’t worry as much about stigma limiting people from finding treatment. I worry about the availability of services.

I work in a community mental health clinic and we are packed to the rafters. We have nearly 50 therapists on board, and need way more hands on deck. We do not have enough office space to accommodate our current patients; we often joke about needing to build another floor. The intake line never stops ringing. I have a roster of almost 65 people, frequently do ten sessions a day and am asked every week to squeeze in more. Plenty of clinics have closed (my previous counseling center closed down after 30 years when the building they were in went co-op). Many facilities have wait lists of two weeks, three weeks, a month. Our clinic finds space right away for everyone who calls for an appointment, but our staff is stretched tight. Most skilled therapists eventually go into private practice because you can determine your own pace and the pay is better. A month ago I stepped down from my role as a supervisor because keeping a watchful eye on my own clients while also being peripherally responsible for my seven supervisees’ massive caseloads was truly stressing me out.

We are in the midst of an enormous opioid crisis– people are literally dying trying to manage their pain–but just try to get someone into a detox. There is no “holding a bed” or “making a referral” for that process (not if they have Medicaid, anyway). You send them to the hospital at the crack of dawn because beds are first-come, first-served, and even then, there’s a good chance there isn’t one available. Try again tomorrow!

Hospitals are so full they sometimes release patients who are still manic. If clients relapse or decompensate, I say a prayer and amp up our session visits, knowing it could be months before I can effectively refer them to a higher level of treatment. Many times individuals who require intensive psychiatric care find themselves homeless or in prison. There are not enough long-term psychiatric treatment options available. The biggest psychiatric hospitals in this country are our jails.

And I’m talking about New York City. We have more mental health professionals and more resources than anyone. I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to find services in small towns. It’s not nearly enough. It’s a very, very big problem.

 

Well, super!!! Thanks Jenn, for that uplifting message! Now what are we supposed to do?

 

Here are a few things:

ADVOCATE FOR REFORM: Admittedly, in social work school I was always more interested in clinical practice than policy, but now I see just how critical it is to see things from the macro perspective, not just the micro (I sound soooo social-worky right now)

*Join Mental Health America’s Advocacy Network to receive email alerts about upcoming national campaigns to protect America’s mental health through legislative advocacy.

* Connect with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides mental health support to millions and leads important awareness campaigns like the #StigmaFree pledge and advocacy and lobbying efforts to help promote mental well-being across the nation.

 

GET INFORMED. There are so many amazing resources available on the internet providing coping tools and general information about mental illness.

*The Mighty: The Mighty is a terrific digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities. Their articles are informative and help decrease stigma around physical and mental illnesses.

*Mantherapy: Mantherapy uses a heavy dose of humor to help men learn skills for coping with trauma, depression, anxiety, anger and stress. This is a really wonderful resource.

*Jen_Wellness on Instagram: My grad school bestie has an amaaaaazing instagram account (that all my friends and family are now hooked on) where she shares insightful, helpful and beautifully written posts to help people gain important skills for grounding themselves and coping with life’s stressors. This is an account that should have a million followers.

*Resources when you can’t afford therapy

 

GET INVOLVED. Volunteer. Go to community-based events. So many people are so isolated. Volunteer at a senior center– especially one for LGBT seniors who are less likely to have children. Adopt a veteran, who might be isolated or in a hospital.

 

SEEK OUT COMMUNITY:  The highlight of my week is Wednesday from 12-1pm, when I run a support group for isolated adults. Everyone started out feeling anxious and uncomfortable talking to one another and for months it felt awkward as hell. But nearly three years in, members frequently call the group their “second family”. I try to teach them coping skills, but nowadays they’re too busy telling each other dirty jokes, planning lunch outings and howling with laughter to listen to me. Things get real and completely raw in that room, and I can’t express how powerful it is to watch them support, encourage, amuse and empower one another. People need each other. Check in with your people, meet new people, engage with people.

There’s a new yoga studio in my neighborhood that I keep meaning to check out called the Happie House, where they host free community potluck dinners every Friday night. How cool is that? Wouldn’t it be great if more businesses or even individuals pulled together events like this?

Can’t find it locally? Try checking in with The Big White Wall to connect with others virtually.

 

BE KIND TO EACH OTHER: Give others the benefit of the doubt. Reach out. Call. Hug. Shake hands. Make eye contact. When you’re checking out at the grocery store, take out your headphones and get off your phone, for fuck’s sake. Seems like no big deal, but I think maybe it is. We’re not seeing one another anymore. We’re all here together; let’s act like it.

Wave to your neighbors. Learn the name of the person who sells you your daily coffee.  Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Use your big strong heart to pour love on those around you and I’ll keep trying to do the same.

 

 

Jenn P.

30-something psychotherapist. Loves cooking, hosting parties, exploring new places. Texan by birth. New Yorker by choice. Likes to tell little stories. Pull up a chair; I'll tell you one.

  • http://40countriesbefore40.tumblr.com/ Sonya
    Thank you for this post. I am so glad that you shared your experience with your clinic. It was really eye-opening to know that many people are waiting, need help, and that you’re seeing 10 patients a day! That seems like a lot. I hope that you also have someone to listen to you for your own mental health. I just started seeing a therapist again in late May and it has been helping, but each week for me is a lot of ups and downs. I think my situation is probably mild (for lack of a better word) compared to so many cases but I don’t think I should compare myself either. Each case is imporant in its own way. Anthony Bourdain’s death also hit me hard. I didn’t know him, of course, but I’d been watching his shows and knew of him since I was in college, and I’m 37 now. His style of travel, eating, approaching locals and befriending them, and his relentess curiousness are my inspirations when I travel. I’ve done a good bit of solo travel and I think I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone on those trips and have become a more adventurous adult and better human.
  • Katherine Walsh
    This was such a good, thoughtful post. I agree with your observations about the need for better access to mental health for less affluent people. You’re right about all of us needing to reach out to each other more too. The political mess that we’re in is overwhelming for so many people and while I do try to be open to people the negative discourse that is so rampant definitely makes me more wary to open myself up to conversations with people that I am unfamiliar with. Thanks for sharing all the resources – I think it will be useful. There is so much to be anxious about! I was also saddened to hear about Anthony Bourdain. He did seem like such a good guy and was such a nice source of information in many ways. A cultural anthropologist is a great way of remembering him. Thanks for the kind words and thoughts.