"It's All in Your Head!"

For some reason, the word 'mental health' scares people. For the same or other reasons, this term also scares many Muslims. There's a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and I wonder what images are conjured up in people's minds when they hear this phrase? The truth is, we're all at risk to develop some type of mental health concern over the course of our life time. And the more we understand what mental health is, the better we will be able to deal with it.

The World Health Organization has an amazing definition of mental health, I've read it multiple times in textbooks and publications, and it's stuck!

"A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease"

The truth is, mental health is engrained in everything that we do. The activities we participate in, be it self-care, productivity, leisure, all in some shape or form contribute to our mental health. In its essence, mental health is functional and practical. When our day goes well, when it goes as planned and we're productive and in our 'groove', we experience positive mental health. Now imagine that an unexpected event completely throws a curve ball at you... or for a child, there are immense pressures at home to achieve no less than 95% on your report card... or for a teen, they feel confused between Islamic teachings and cultural norms...how would you feel?

Three years ago I started to work within a mental health project, contracted through Renfrew, at Calgary Islamic School and Almadina. At the time, I had one year of clinical practice under my belt, and no idea about what a mental health project entailed. The term 'mental health promotion and prevention' were foreign to me. How the heck is this going to work? What role does occupational therapy play? And how can I facilitate mental health?

I had a lot of learning to do. And I have learned a lot!

There are many approaches to REACTIVE mental health practices. That is, when someone experiences a mental health challenge, their needs are met. Examples including seeing a counsellor or attending a targeted treatment group, often when people experience something either acute and intense, or chronic and greatly impacting their functioning. This project I work with is taking mostly a PROMOTION and PREVENTION approach. In this case, universal/global programming is created to equip children, youth, and their families with the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to lead healthy and successful lives. Research has shown that the more education is done around promoting mental health, the better the future outcomes.

Stigmas continue to exist, and they always will. When mental illness is spoken about, people think you're referring to the locked inpatient unit at your local hospital. But we all experience mental health concerns and sometimes, it can be hard to get out of. Imagine those days when you're down in the dumps and you can't shake it off. Or those days when you are angry and can't seem to calm down, and the smallest thing triggers you. Or those days when you feel like everyone is on your back, and all you want to do is get away.

And the thing is that often, mental health concerns will manifest in your activities of daily life. All of a sudden, your work performance may decrease and you start to make silly mistakes. Someone may lose their temper and snap at their co-worker. A child may get into trouble for being 'distracted' in class. There are signs of mental health imbalance, and they require paying attention to.

Some Muslims strongly believe that the only way to address mental health concerns is spiritually. That is, pray and ask for help, and InshaAllah your concerns will be addressed. It's all in the will of Allah. I agree with this, and yet I also think there needs to be work to equip children and families with what they need to manage emotions in the meantime, and where they can go to seek support. After all, God gave us a lean, mean, thinking machine for a reason, and we need to use it! A balance between these approaches, such as Islamically-sensitive counselling or educating about mental health concerns and dangers, makes good sense.

So what is my point? (good question!) None of us are immune to mental health challenges. Statistics show that 20% of children and youth experience mental health concerns. This is to counteract beliefs I've heard that 'children do not experience stress, what can they be stressed about?' And guess what the number one cause is? Anxiety. And there's also depression, behavioural disorders, addictions, substance abuse, and mental health consequences as a result of ADHD, Autism, or other developmental disorders or delays. And did you know that video-game overuse is growing into a whole new category? The list goes on and on and on. On the non-diagnosable side, many girls face self-esteem concerns, and many teens struggle to form their identities. Children get frustrated when they spend 4 hours a night doing homework and their life has NO balance whatsoever. The list goes on and on and on.

Since mental health concerns are present, we need to be aware of their signs and symptoms. For example, anxiety often manifests as somatic complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches, nausea, etc. Depression has a range of symptoms, and the lesser form of dysthymia (i.e. feeling down) is not as severe but still warrants a keen eye. Self-esteem concerns manifest in many ways, either socially or through a child's body language and words. Anger can be obvious through external behaviour, but children who keep anger bottled up inside are just as worthy of attention. And there's more, these simply are skimming the surface of what children could experience. Truthfully, there's no better immunity to these concerns than mental health promotion and prevention. Language and knowledge is powerful, especially when it's translated into action within daily life.

There's a lot of work needed to be done in this area, not solely in schools, but also in homes and the community overall. But it's not the responsibility of therapists such as myself, or counsellors, or psychologists, etc. It's ALL of our responsibility, since the more adults know about enriching mental health, the more enriched the lives of children and youth will be!


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