How to Prevent Mental Illness: Help others with their stressful life events

December 15th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile, not just in response to the recent tragedy in Connecticut, but anytime I read an article about homelessness or people who are mentally disturbed.  Many people wonder what we can do to address the mentally ill, whether it is to prevent them from engaging in violence or prevent them from lapsing into homelessness.  Medical professionals have many tools to help those with chemical imbalances, but the reality that the medical model of mental illness fails to capture, is that many (though not all) mental illnesses are qualitatively different than many physical illnesses.  Mental illnesses are often matters of degree rather than of the categorical presence or absence of a condition, despite the categorical nature of mental health diagnoses.  You either have AIDS or Malaria or you don’t, whereas many of us have some degree of anxiety, depression, mania, addiction, hyperactivity and other conditions, rather than being clearly normal or ill.  Because we often think of mental illness using this medical model, we often think two things that are often untrue:

1.  We believe that we can’t do anything about mental illness and only experts can help.

2.  We believe that the mentally ill are “others” and that the people we know are categorically different.

Sometimes people break.  All types of people break, but you can help.  On occasion, I have spent some time at Dorothy’s Place, a shelter in Salinas where they care for a lot of the local homeless and the director would often tell visiting students about how people break.  Imagine being a teenager who is dropped off at the shelter because your parents don’t want you any more.  Imagine spending day after day in Iraq, looking around corners for snipers and explosives, one of which happened to kill several of your friends, and then trying to enter normal society without retaining the vestiges of that experience.  Some mentally ill individuals certainly have brain chemistry issues, but others are people who would otherwise live relatively normal lives, save for an experience or series of experiences that break them.

What are these stressful life experiences?  Below is a common, though perhaps outdated (from 1967!) ranked list of common life stressors that psychologists sometimes use to diagnose how much life stress people are undergoing, based on which of these events have been experienced recently.

How to Prevent Mental Illness

How can you prevent mental illness?  Many of your friends have the potential for mental illness and when they undergo the inevitable stresses of life, they need the support of their friends and family, before things get serious enough for a medical diagnosis and a prescription.  You can be that support to the people around you, especially when you notice events such as divorce, breakups, and death that are especially strong stressors.

Consider the times in your life when you felt like you might break.  Perhaps they involved the loss of someone you cared about, whether through a death or through a breakup.  As an ultra-social species, these are deeply painful events.  Consider how you got through those events.  Why didn’t you break?  I know that in my own life, the support of my friends and family helped me in those times.  It is that social support that perhaps explains why mental illness is more prevalent in individualistic societies and less so in collectivist nations.

How can you prevent mental illness?  Be the change you want to see in the world and help those around you when they go through life’s inevitable ups and downs.  When you notice one of the events in the above list in someone’s life, even someone you aren’t that close to, make the effort to go out of your way to show them that you care and they are not alone.

– Ravi Iyer

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