The Importance of Mental Health

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By: Francesco Yepez-Coello

These past couple of years, it seems that every week there is another tragedy occurring all over the United States. The Washington Post reports that there have in fact been 44 school shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which had national coverage. That isn’t to mention the non school related incidents, such as the one in Isla Vista that occurred very recently I’m sure many of you heard about. With story upon story in the news of violent killings, the cycle of violence may leave many of us feeling helpless, and unable to stop them from occurring again.

 

Although the last particular shooting I mentioned has sparked a lot of debate over misogyny in our society, and with good reason, I propose that neither societal structure or regulation of firearms are exclusively responsible. Another giant factor that has lead to senseless violence is that each perpetrator was mentally ill, and there is plenty that each of us can do to ensure not only that we are healthy, but that our loved ones maintain a healthy lifestyle as well.

 

May has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month by Mental Health America, an organization dedicated to helping people achieve mental health by changing policy, educating the public on mental health issues, and providing services that promote wellness to whichever indivual or community that requires them.

 

Although MHA works throughout the year reaching out to populations at risk of developing disorders and link them with professionals who can help, lobbying in Capitol Hill to ensure that laws facilitating the outreach of treatment to those who need it are passed, and the like, in May they make a particular effort of educating the community. Some of the programs they advocate include the “Live Your Life Well” program that summarizes their mission quite well.

 

The Center for Disease Control identified 13 different health concerns early last year they felt were the most critical they were going to combat. Among them are preventing the onset of mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders, as well as putting an end to the violence; two problems they attribute to poor mental health. The Live Your Life Well campaign addresses these concerns by giving these helpful tips based on decades of research on the factors that promote wellness and prevents mental illness:

 

  1. Connect with others: Next time you think of a witty remark or complaint you need to post as a status on facebook, instead of posting it publicly, call up a friend and tell him about it yourself. Better yet, when you call them make plans to hang out and tell him in person. Connecting directly with people builds your relationships and the support group that may give you strength in times of need.

 

  1. Stay Positive: When faced with a problem, think of its solution rather than how difficult the problem is to begin with. Medicine shows a negative response to stress increases the likelihood of heart disease. Don’t give yourself extra problems by ruminating on the original one.

 

  1. Get physically active: Exercising can often be a drag for most of us, but it is actually shown to give us more energy throughout our day instead of wearing us out completely. Next time you have about an hour to kill, hit the gym. Better yet, do it with a buddy, there’s no need to be alone all the time.

 

  1. Help others: Next time you see someone who looks lost on campus, help them find their way. Or if you see someone carrying an absurd amount of books, offer to help him carry some to their next class. You don’t have to join the Peace Corps, but doing small things for people who could use your help will lift both your mood and theirs, readying you for what is next in your day. 
  1. Get enough sleep: I wrote an article about this a while back.

 

  1. Create joy and satisfaction: Most college students I know are constantly stressed by the competitive nature of the job market and the grad school atmosphere. In your busy schedule, remember to make time to do things you enjoy. Read, watch netflix, play video games, whatever you like. But the simple pleasure of the activity will energize you so long as you do not

 

  1. Eat well: Good nutrition has obvious benefits, but it affects your mental health as well. Over or under eating are symptoms of many eating disorders, as well as depression. Next time you have a date, cook for them instead of taking them out to a restaurant. If you get cravings during those late nights after a party, make yourself a burger instead of getting one from the King. Making it yourself will make you question whether you really want it or not anyway.

 

  1. Take care of your spirit: Religion is an important and healthy source of strength for many. Talk to your appropriate religious leader in a time of need, it may help. GMU, for example, has a campus ministry that, although Catholic, would not turn away people of other faiths who are interested in talking to a priest. For all my secular brothers and sisters, do yoga. A powerful spirit will motivate you to accomplish your goals.

 

  1. Get professional help if you need it: It takes courage to admit when you cannot over come an obstacle alone, no matter how trivial or large it may be. If you feel overwhelmed, contact your school’s counseling and psychological services. MHA has a list of easy access tools you can use to find a mental health care provider near you as wellGMU CPS: 703 993 2380

    CRISIS LINK: 1 800 273 TALK

    http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/finding-therapy

 

MHA even made a cute little calendar that organizes each of these tips into short little activities you can do a few minutes a day to promote your own mental health and that of others. Although the month of May is coming to a close, you can apply these lessons to whichever month of the year.

 

There are even multiple groups that promote an open dialogue about mental health on a smaller scale. Pennsive is a blog in which U Penn students can anonymously share mental health stories in a safe, non judgemental environment. GMU students are developing their own blog of a similar nature, with posts coming soon! Active Minds chapters all over the nation advocate mental health, with GMU’s own former chapter president Melissa Simkol posting daily throughout May in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month on the group page on facebook.

 

Dealing with stress is important. It isn’t just people who are “ill” who should mind their mental health, but all of us. If we do not learn how to cope with the stresses of every day life or worse, we may not be equipped to face these challenges and still be able to lead a productive and meaningful life. For some, they are overwhelemed to the point that they resort to violence. Pass the calendar or the list of Live Your Life Well tips on to a friend- little by little, our community can become a brighter, healthier one!

 

“The Bizarre And Horrifying Autobiography Of A Mass Shooter.” Weblog post.Buzzfeed. N.p., 25 May 2014. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://www.buzzfeed.com/jimdalrympleii/the-bizarre-and-horrifying-autobiography-of-a-mass-shooter?bffb&gt;.

 

“Mental Health America.” Mental Health Support. Mental Health America, n.d. Web. May 2014. <http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net>.

 

Strauss, Valerie. “At Least 44 School Shootings since Newtown — New Analysis.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/13/at-least-44-school-shootings-since-newtown-new-analysis/&gt;.

 

United Sates of America. Center for Disease Control. CDC Blog. Center for Disease Control, 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://blogs.cdc.gov/cdcworksforyou24-7/2013/01/cdc-looks-ahead-13-public-health-issues-in-2013/&gt;.

 

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The Media and Eating Disorders: A Link to Be Reexamined

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                                                                     By Melissa Simkol

This week, February 23rd through March 1st, is National Eating Disorders Week. More often than not, this means one can expect to be bombarded with messages encouraging women (and men) of all shapes and sizes to love and accept their bodies and to reject the unrealistic beauty standards that are heavily promoted by the media. While promoting positive body image is certainly a good cause, it isn’t right to equate it with eating disorder awareness and prevention.  In fact, these body image campaigns—which focus primarily on the common stereotype that eating disorders are superficial in nature—might actually be counterproductive to that mission.

In 2005, Global Market Insite, through a contract with the National Eating Disorders Association, published a poll that surveyed the American public’s perceptions of eating disorders. One particularly notable finding is that approximately 2/3 of American adults think that the media is the primary cause of eating disorders, while only 30% consider genetics to play any role in their onset. These numbers are disheartening because, as it turns out, the media’s “thin ideal” that stigmatizes weight does not cause eating disorders. Can airbrushed models and an onslaught of weight loss commercials contribute to their development? Sure. But do any one of them alone cause an eating disorder? Absolutely not.

Like all mental illnesses, the psychopathology of eating disorders is extremely complex. Because we are all unique individuals, eating disorders develop and manifest differently from person to person. This means that what might trigger one individual to develop an eating disorder might not be a significant stressor for another. This also means that a desire to be thin or a fear of being fat is not at the core of every eating disorder. That’s not to say it’s never a central feature of eating disorders, but rather that the degree of fat phobia varies from person to person. For instance, a 2000 study of Hong Kong patients with Anorexia nervosa (AN) found that some patients were consistently fat phobic, some never displayed fat phobia, and others started off as fat phobic but eventually lost that phobia, or vice versa.

Still not convinced? Let’s explore another concept: if the media and thin models were the sources of eating disorders, then someone who had never been exposed to them would be at zero risk for developing an eating disorder, right?

Wrong. Numerous case studies exist of women with AN or Bulimia nervosa (BN) who have been blind since birth or from a very young age. In one such case study, a woman who was blind since age two had a troubled childhood consisting of alcoholic parents, a grandparent committing suicide, and her father cheating on her mother. As a young child she was constantly pressured to eat more, resulting in an aversion to eating food: “she would claim not to like certain foods, even if she did, because she didn’t like being forced to eat” (Yager, 1986). Once she began to menstruate at age 13, she developed a fear of gaining weight. She went on to study at a music school, but as her teachers were unsure how to handle her blindness she was eventually forced to leave, causing her to become severely depressed. So if she had no idea what being fat looked like and certainly had no fat phobia, what caused her eating disorder? Said Yarbo:

“Her fussiness with food, use of food in control struggles with her parents during childhood, and weight preoccupation during early adolescence all provided a background of vulnerability. Her subsequent AN coalesced during a time when she was without a sense of direction or purpose – when her sense of self, always shaky at best, was lowest since she was no longer a musician or university student; AN then provided her with an identity, at a time when she desperately needed one… The perfectionistic strivings she had as a student and musician, the presence of binge eating episodes in one sister, and the harsh, critical nature of her father are all possible contributing factors.”

A more recent study in 2006 detailed a case of BN in a 47 year old blind woman from Barcelona, Spain. The woman had been engaging in binging and purging behaviors 2-4 times a week for 4 years. She had never expressed a desire to be thinner until psychosocial stressors led to her gaining weight, and she wanted to lose weight “not because of shape concerns, but because of physical reasons” (Fernandez-Atanda et al., 2006). She also exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, and “deficits in social and problem-solving skills, which were the result of interpersonal conflicts she had with her family, especially with her children” (Fernandez-Atanda et al., 2006). Her treatment consisted of non-symptom-oriented cognitive-behavioral therapy that focused more on the patient’s behavioral and emotional symptoms than her eating symptoms.  At 12 months follow-up, she was not engaging in any ED symptoms. The researchers concluded that “in the current case, the ED seems to be a consequence of inappropriate coping skills with stress. Indeed, patients who present some behavioral handicaps or deficits are more vulnerable to the development of an ED… the ED is not due to an overemphasis on physical attractiveness, but to a personal difficulty to cope with stress” (Fernandez-Atanda et al., 2006).

These three studies mentioned above strongly suggest that eating disorders arise from a multifaceted mixture of psychological, social, and genetic factors. When we boil eating disorders down to a product of bad body image, we understate the immense significance of the many other dynamics that interact with each other. Furthermore, by focusing just on the symptom of body dissatisfaction we convey eating disorders as superficial, further perpetuating the exact stereotype we’re working to disprove. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses—how can it be possible that there are so many people starving themselves to death just because they want to look good? People suffering from EDs go through the process of restricting their caloric intake, binging on food, and purging after meals because—for them—these behaviors have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects on the brain, and they are unable to use healthier coping mechanisms to achieve those same results. In other words, alcoholics abuse alcohol because it helps them escape from their life troubles and inner turmoil, not because they actually enjoy alcohol or want to be drunk.  Similarly, eating disorder symptoms are indicative of underlying problems that go far beyond the thin ideal that the media helps to perpetuate.

Again, I would like to reiterate that I am not saying the media does not play any part in the onset of eating disorders, because it could certainly be a precipitating factor for some, nor am I trying to undermine the indisputable effects of unrealistic beauty standards on the self-esteem of the general population. But I am saying that we invalidate the experiences and potentially even impede the recovery of many sufferers when we only discuss poor body image.

So why, then, do we only see eating disorder awareness and prevention campaigns attacking the thin ideal? My best guess is that they’re easy to put on, fun to participate in, and most attractive to the general public. I mean, let’s be real here; I can’t think of any engaging activities centering on the interplay of genetic, social, and psychological factors in eating disorders. But I do think that instead of focusing on the negative role of the media, we should work to incorporate education about positive coping skills and more adaptive emotion regulation behaviors into our programming. One would be hard-pressed to find someone perfectly content with their body; therefore, having the ability to productively manage body image issues seems to me far more practical and effective than eliminating negative body image entirely. We know that urging someone with depression to “just think positive” isn’t going to cure them, so why do we think that simply telling an individual with an eating disorder to love their body is going to be any more successful?

It’s time to seriously reevaluate how we talk about eating disorders. If we really want to reduce and prevent the onset of these potentially deadly illnesses, we need to do more than just talk about the media’s role. We need to acknowledge that eating disorders evolve from more than just a desire to look a Hollywood star; it is this widespread misconception that often prevents men, minorities, and older adults from being diagnosed and receiving proper treatment.  We need to accept that not everyone with an eating disorder is afraid of being fat or has a negative body image to respect sufferers who don’t exhibit those symptoms. And we must teach young men and women to not just reject thin models and magazines marketing new ways to attain a “bikini-ready” body, but to cope with the negative emotions that arise from their unavoidable presence. So in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, join me in raising awareness about the reality of eating disorders.

References:

GMI (2005). American public opinion on eating disorders, Seattle: National Eating Disorders Association.

Fernández-Aranda F, Crespo JM, Jiménez-Murcia S, Krug I, & Vallejo-Ruiloba J. (2006). Blindness and bulimia nervosa: a description of a case report and its treatment. The International journal of eating disorders, 39(3), 263-265.

 

Ngai ,E.S., Lee, S., & Lee, A.M. (2000). The variability of phenomenology in anorexia nervosa. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102(4), 314-317