“Health is a large word. It embraces not the body only, but the mind and spirit as well; and not today’s pain or pleasure alone, but the whole being and outlook of man.” ~James H. West
Remember being really young and having that toothpaste that makes pink spots on your teeth if you missed a spot while brushing? And all those rubber duckies and dinosaur shaped washcloths for bath time? We grow up learning how to take care of ourselves physically. Hygiene is taught in school. It’s highly encouraged for us all to brush our teeth at least twice a day, and shower daily, and parents spend copious amounts of time teaching children how to do these tasks on their own. It is not uncommon for a close person in your life to tell you that you have a funny odor and need to take care of yourself better. When you’re bleeding, you know to put a bandaid over the injury.
While I do not blame people for teaching these skills, I enjoy feeling as clean as the next person, it is striking to me that while physical hygiene is so built into the curriculum of life, mental hygiene is not. There is nothing built into our schedule to take care of our mind. What is mental hygiene exactly, and why is it so important? Mental hygiene is taking care of your mind, and preventing various mental health diagnoses through education, public health, and early treatment. The first time I was confronted with mental health issues is when a fellow peer committed suicide when I was in eighth grade. I remember feeling so at a loss, so sad for his family, and so confused as to how someone could be so lonely and upset that they could resort to that. Looking back, I clearly understand how that could happen and why people feel that is their only way out. But I do not remember our school talking to us about what happened. There was no grief counseling, no prevention, no education about what occurred – just a lot of silence and denial. Who is that protecting or helping? Not the kid’s friends, or family. Not the people who are also severely depressed. Not the bright eyed, bushy tailed students who would continue to ignore these issues until faced with them head on at a later stage. What would I have suggested for the next time? Offering support, explaining that there is no explanation, educating students about mental health issues that may lead to this in the future. While it is important to know how to wash our hands, it’s also important to understand that we won’t always feel joyful and gracious. Sometimes people will tease us, sometimes others close to us argue, those you trust may disappoint you, you will trip and fall while ice-skating, you will burn your last serving of Annie’s macaroni and cheese. And in those moments, we need skills to get through the moment(s) and also to know that these moments are normal and it’s important to express what you are feeling. I remember so vividly that on the first day of kindergarten, everyone at my table got pretty purple folders and I got a plain white one. I remember feeling so hurt when the other girls teased me for my folder color. And thankfully, I have the kind of supportive and loving parents who knew that although a white folder isn’t the end of the world, it was upsetting to me and that feeling was valid.
So how can we practice mental hygiene, and how do we help the kiddos in our lives do the same? Go for walks. Take a bubble bath. Journal. Take the time to tell people in your life why you appreciate them. Sit in the sun, listen to the rain. Read a really awesome book. Put on Rent and allow yourself to cry. Take up a new hobby, like knitting or painting. Stretch. Hug a friend. Squeeze a stressball. Pet a dog. Explain to your kids that just like some people have broken arms, sometimes people have something broken in their brain and while it may not be visible, it’s just as painful. Teach them empathy. Teach them compassion.
How do you choose to practice mental hygiene?