About a year ago, I did away with TV. It was an overwhelming expense with little personal utilization. I thought to myself while struggling with the decision to cut the cable, “What will I be missing?” I may no longer be “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” but I do keep a regular eye on my iPhone news feed. It is an addiction many people share. That itch to grab our phones with every buzz and ding. That phantom sensation you feel as if your phone vibrated in your pocket only to find out there is nothing new waiting for you.
Lately, the news feed is plagued with political updates. Then there are the protests for and against white supremacist ideology. Finally, the three major mass casualty events in the last few months. I am taken aback by the building amount of discord in our beloved America.
I have been on a quest to redefine my view of our health care system. I had always had a passion for mental health topics but came to the realization that our mental health as a population is central to a lot of our societal issues as well as chronic health problems. As long as we continue to marginalize and stigmatize the importance of our mental health, we will be a society drifting towards further chaos.
Instead of judging the many “evil-doers,” I strive to empathize with the fact that society has likely failed many of them. I believe that the majority of foreign and domestic terrorists have impaired judgment and impulse control related to poor mental health. This allows them to be influenced by things such as online videos encouraging violence and the hateful messages from heads of terrorist organizations. If we are to heal our social wounds, we must come to find a way to express love and understanding even when it is most difficult. Further judgment and anger does not help to close the divides. I now look at the natural tendency for people to do good. Nelson Mandela said it best in “Long Walk to Freedom”:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
It is not just about reflecting on the mental health of violence perpetrators. The real issue is: What systems do we have in place to promote good mental health development in our youth? Furthermore, how well are we doing to aid those currently with mental health conditions? If we can fix these two main issues, then the likelihood of downstream outcomes that lead to mass tragedies can be greatly reduced.
Step back for a moment and observe your communities. Reflect on the current amount of discussion and action that is taking place to address mental health concerns. I hope you can see, as I do, that the problem is not an over-abundance of hate or a lack of love, but that there is an astounding amount of indifference. Many individuals would rather ignore problems than address them. Avoidance is the choice action for self-preservation, but this is akin to indifference.
Imagine if you are speaking with a mentally unstable person addressing you with a negatively charged tone. What happens if you respond to them in a way that is not fully supportive, judgmental, and filled with similar negative emotion? What if everyone walks away or avoids them?
Responding to someone who is having a mental crisis with the same degree of emotion potentiates whatever they are going through. Avoidance places them in further social isolation which is devastating to mental health conditions as well. Conversely, we do not need everyone running towards them. Awareness and recognition are enough. And knowing where to send them to receive the support they need makes all of the difference. You must recognize your own limitations because you can do much more harm than good if you approach in the wrong way. Being a part of the solution does not mean that you have to be the answer. However, not being a part of the solution may mean you are a part of the problem.
Recent events have sparked public awareness. Now is the time for a call to arms for change. If everyone is more aware and open with communication, then we can start to work together to solve problems within our communities. Legislature and top-down approaches will not be broadly effective because the population is so diverse. We need solutions that address problems from the bottom-up. Challenge all the thought leaders in your communities to come together and figure out how the local problems with mental health can be addressed.
If you have a passion for mental health and empathy towards its sufferers and can communicate with full supportiveness —no judgment and emotional calm or exuberance — then this fight needs you. If you think you can just avoid these issues and that time will heal all wounds, then let the last month’s tragedies be an example of how wrong that way of thinking is.
We must be self-aware and acknowledge issues if we are to change. We must accept emotions and how they affect our behavior. Finally, we must adhere to our social nature and rebuild true relationships as there is strength in numbers.
For my part, I have been giving mental health talks to local schools. I am working with our church and my son’s school to create a formal program for preventative health, mental health awareness, and mentorship. I will fight my fight. Find your battleground and take action because this is the only way to improve the social wounds of the world which our children will one day inherit.
Philip Tran is an internal medicine physician.
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