If something is wrong with your heart, any person will tell you to see a doctor. If something is wrong with your mind, many people will tell you to “suck it up.”
These misconceptions and the physical toll they take on the body are what Steele High School teacher Kim Haney and school psychologist Mary Ann Teitelbaum aimed to combat in late May with a mental health and wellness expo.
“We’ve looked at mental health with that ‘stiff upper lip, pull yourself up’ mentality for too long,” said Haney. “Sometimes it is a good thing to approach things that way but we still need to give people tools to manage their mental health. Life has its ups and downs but it’s about managing it in a healthy way, not reaching for that cigarette or downing two Cokes.”
“A lot of our history in Western civilization is based in the thought that we’re in complete control of our behaviors,” Teitelbaum said. “It says that all of our emotions are related to our behaviors and we can overcome them through determination. We fail to understand that much of it is part of the neuro-chemicals in our minds. We’re only beginning to understand the true scope and complexity of this.”
Vikki Howard, a social worker at Mercy Cancer Center, was on hand to show students the benefits of Zentangle therapy. It is an intricate three-dimensional coloring activity meant to give the brain a stimulating break from the rigors of treatment for serious diseases.
“It can really help someone still floored by their cancer diagnosis,” she said. “This is one technique we provide to focus on a step-by-step pattern of breaking down a large project. Anybody can do it. If someone has eight chemo treatments ahead of them, taking that step-by-step can ease the stress of it just a little. That’s the kind of thinking we try to promote with Zentangle therapy.”
Ron Lech, a retired cardiologist from Tennessee, presented a chart showing the direct consequences of stress throughout the body.
“There are a lot of risk factors for cardiovascular disease — like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of physical activity, and obesity — that form a real connection between stress and the actual diseases,” he said. “The connection comes through our lifestyles. A good example is going for comfort food or something like a cigarette when we’re anxious or stressed. The comfort foods will be high in saturated fats and sugar most times and too much of them can lead to a number of bad outcomes like cardiovascular troubles and diabetes.”
Lech went on to describe the fight-or-flight response, which he said is the tightening of muscles, accelerated heart rate, and general sense of anxiousness that goes along with stress. He feels it’s important for people to understand their reaction to stress is all their fault.
“It’s really hard to say where stigmas with mental health come from,” said Haney. “We screen people for breast cancer and if they’re a high risk individual we give them a prevention plan. So why can’t we do that with mental health? Let’s provide them with the same tools so they don’t tip into mental illness.”
Students attending the event seemed to get the message.
“A lot of people don’t understand what mental health is,” said junior Alexis Colon. “They don’t think of it in the same way as a stomach or heart problem. Hopefully, we can get past the days of always blaming it on things like someone’s mood and treat it like a medical problem.”
Teitelbaum also addressed the difficulty in walking a very fine line with prescription medications in mental health.
“My sister had hip surgery a couple of years ago, and she was prescribed an opioid,” she said. “She used it responsibly but as she got off of it she described to me having sweats, confusion, and other symptoms of withdrawal. I explained to her that she was coming off of a powerful drug. I can understand how easy it is for someone to get trapped into thinking if they take more they will feel better. That of course begins the downward spiral of addiction. Patients and doctors should work together to look at all possible avenues for healing so that it doesn’t always have to depend on medication.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos by Jonathan Delozier | Amherst News-Times Mary Ann Teitelbaum and Kim Haney held a Steele High School expo to show students just how much their mental health can affect the rest of their bodies.