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Show compassion, balance mental and physical health, advise MSU health professionals


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And here to help us all be more aware, are three scholars from Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine.

Claudia Finkelstein is the Director of Wellness, Resilience and Vulnerable Populations. Jennifer Johnson is the C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health and Professor of OB/GYN, Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. And Julia Felton is Assistant Professor in the Division of Public Health and Pediatrics and Human Development.

“It's a very different experience for many different people, depending on how their lives were before and during the pandemic,” Finkelstein says. “There's a pervasive sense of grief and transition from normal. Your life may be more or less tranquil, but it is certainly different than it was before all of this hit. For many of us, transition, even when we choose it, is very anxiety provoking. And this enormous transition is not voluntary.”

Jennifer Johnson

“What Claudia mentioned about the uncertainty is really crucial here,” Felton adds. “One thing that we know is that uncertainty is not a comfortable place for any human to be. We like to know what's going to happen, just like little kids like routines. And we like to have our planners as adults. Human beings like to know what's going to happen next. And one of the things that we can do right now is to develop a tolerance for uncertainty, but it's really hard. And it goes counter to a lot of the things that human nature breeds for us. So that's been, I think, one of the biggest stumbling blocks, is we just don't know how this is going to resolve and how even tomorrow is going to look.”

“This is genuinely difficult.” Johnson says. “Some people are grieving. Some people are worried about family members who are sick or others who won't stay home. Some are inside with very little children in small spaces. Some are worried about their money and their jobs. Some communities are affected more than others, but it's just really important to acknowledge that yes, it is stressful. And there are also things we can do to help take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically.”

What would the panel like us to be more aware of during Mental Health Awareness Month?

“Historically there has been a stigma attached to mental health,” says Johnson. “There are people who when you say mental health think, ‘Oh, something's wrong with me.’ But mental health is like physical health. It's an indicator of how you're doing. And everybody has ups and downs. Being under stress will make you more vulnerable to whatever your weaknesses are physically or mentally. Everybody has mental health - good, bad, or medium - and it's important to attend to it. Just because you're stressed, though, doesn't mean there's something wrong with you.”

“I also think that we want to be aware of those around us and how mental health problems or the ways that things can go wrong can look really different between people,” Felton says. “So just because somebody is not responding in the way that you are doesn't mean that they're either totally fine or totally falling apart. But allowing a space for kindness both for yourself and for the people around you is really important. And understanding that we're all going through this in different ways, and it might look different in different people, but understanding that everybody right now is under some level of stress.”

“I would love for everybody to know how completely normal it is to feel completely abnormal right now,” adds Finkelstein.

The trio describes what they mean by Emotional PPE, and they talk about when it’s time to seek professional help. How do we know when how we’re feeling might be more than normal ups and downs?

Julia Felton

“People show stress in different ways,” Johnson says. “For some it looks like anger. For some it looks like changes in sleep or eating. In kids, it can look like crying, irritability and pain. I think if you are getting to a point where you're uncomfortable enough that something's really bothering you, or if you see someone around you uncomfortable enough, if they're in distress, that's one reason to potentially call someone. Or if you notice you're having trouble pretty consistently doing things that you used to be able to do, whatever's going on your stress is interfering with your ability to do work, your ability to sleep. It doesn't hurt to talk to someone just like you might go to physical doctor for a checkup. It doesn't hurt to go and talk to somebody about what you're feeling, what you're experiencing, and the stress that you're under.”

“It's hard to know right now because right now everyone is impaired in their functioning,” Felton says. “But for people who are really having a hard time just even managing to get through the day without feeling overwhelmed, that's where we might want to start to think about trying to gather some support for those people. A good place to always start though, if you have any concerns, is to call your doctor. And just talk through with them what you're experiencing and feeling and ask them for some recommendations.”

“I have a friend who talks about the Oreo sign,” says Finkelstein. “When the number of Oreos starts disappearing at an alarming rate, or when the number of bottles start appearing in your recycling at a faster rate, or the number of Amazon boxes arriving at your house is growing. When you're engaging in behaviors much more than usual, that may be a sign that you are looking for self soothing.”

Claudia Finkelstein

“Another sign is if you've lost interest in things you usually enjoy, or if there are things that you usually get really excited about or care about, and you just don't, that's another early warning sign,” Johnson adds.

A myth about mental health, says Felton, “is that there's something wrong with you if you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety or some other mental health disorder. We can expect that everyone's going to be going through some of these things and that it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you, or that you're always going to feel this way. But rather, this is just how you're feeling right now. I encourage people to show a little compassion to yourself and get the help that you need right now.”

“One adage that I live by is that, it's never all in your head and it's never all in your body,” says Finkelstein. “We have done a disservice in splitting our mental and the physical health because they're intimately related to each other. They each affect the other.

“Hunger and sleep affect your mental health, and your mental health affects how your body experiences pain. It's never all one or the other. And everybody's got something. I don't think that there is a person alive who has impeccable physical or mental health; there's always something. And it's extremely legitimate and an act of service to all the people who interact with you to get help when you need it. It doesn't mean you're weak. It means you are keeping yourself tuned, just like you keep your car tuned to deal with what it deals with every day.”

“We all have mental health,” says Johnson. “Sometimes it's terrible. It's almost never perfect, but it fluctuates. Often it's the situation. When we don't recognize that we fail to see a lot of the things that can be done to be helpful. Because often changing the situation completely solves the problem.”

“Be aware that everyone has physical health, everyone has mental health, and they fluctuate up and down,” says Johnson. “If you put anyone under enough stress you'll start to see less good mental health.”

“This is a really tough time,” says Felton. “But if we show a little compassion, both for ourselves and others, and come from the perspective that both we and everybody else around us are doing the best that we can, it might make the situation a little bit more tolerable.”

“The pandemic is a crisis that is bringing to light many of the things that have been in the shadows in our society, and one of them is the need to attend to our own and each other's mental health, just as a basic fact of life,” says Finkelstein.

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