President's Message - May 2022

Matters of the Mind… Mental Health Matters

Mary McKelvey

WLALA President 2021-2022

Mental Health Awareness Month is recognized every year to normalize talking about mental health and mental illness and to highlight the importance of taking care of our mental wellness without shame. Mental health and mental illness are, of course, two different things. Not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will at some point struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being.  This month brings us a two-fold opportunity: to explore our perceptions and fears of mental illness and to recognize the need to prioritize and tend to our own mental health.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, cognitive and social well-being and affects how we feel, cope, think and act – every aspect of our lives.  Good mental health is about living and coping well despite challenging situations, and there have been no shortage of these during the past few years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unique among major crises in our lifetime in that it has impacted everyone in numerable ways, including ways we are not yet aware of.  The Kaiser Family Foundation found that during the pandemic, 40% adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s up from 10% of adults in the first half of 2019. The pandemic dealt a significant blow to women in the workplace as they were the ones who primarily responded to caregiving challenges brought about by school and day care closures and sick family members.  Being forced to leave a job or pause or forfeit a hard-earned career to become a COVID-induced homemaker became an additional mental health challenge.  

Add the extreme and exhausting political divisiveness experienced in our country over the past several years, the increased awareness about the prevalence of systemic racism and the uncertainty and angst resulting from watching the brutal war unfold in the Ukraine.  Most of us find ourselves pushed to new levels of stress requiring honest examination of our own mental health in order for us to simply function let alone thrive.

The recent leak of what appears to be the imminent evisceration of Roe v. Wade is something most of us assumed we would never experience in our lifetime. The results will be most catastrophic for women with limited resources: women of color and young and poor women. The loss of Roe signals a reversal of freedom for women and introduces a new dimension of anxiety about our own bodily autonomy, rendering the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale far more prophetic than we imagined.   

On top of all of these mental health challenges and countless other, there are those who also suffer from mental illness, which is defined as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that causes some degree of functional impairment. Remarkably, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (52.9 million in 2020) according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

On a personal note, I am no stranger to mental illness or its devasting and disproportionate effects on women.  My mother suffered from mental illness much of her life. She was routinely misdiagnosed and, as a result, institutionalized for months at a time and administered electric shock treatments.  It wasn’t until decades later that she was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with medication that enabled her to live a functional life.  But she paid an extremely high price imposed by a patriarchal culture that could not (or chose not to) understand mental illness for many years. Notably, in the 1970s, a woman who had been institutionalized for mental illness was automatically deemed unfit to be the primary caretaker of her children in the case of divorce and so she could be tethered to an abusive marriage by her children in addition to suffering the stigma of mental illness.   I learned about bipolar disorder many years later and though we have come far with treatment and understanding, we have not yet reached the place where we have effectively eliminated the stigma of mental illness particularly for women. The result is continued unnecessary suffering arising from those who suffer from depression and suicide.  

Mental illness is a major contributing factor to our rising homeless population in Los Angeles. While estimates vary, some studies show that roughly half of L.A. County’s homeless people are dealing with some type of mental illness.  An increasing portion of this population are children.

The difference between mental unhealthiness and mental illness seems to lie to some extent in the degree of mental health’s emotional impact on our lives and the assistance of professionals who can help us to make the distinction.  Most experts agree that some combination of social connection, exercise, proper diet and contemplation or mindfulness practice is key to staying mentally healthy.  We all need a safe space to talk about what is going on in our lives and how we feel about it.  Isolation serves only to exacerbate stress, depression and anxiety and yet the pandemic necessitated exactly that.  Being a part of a community whether professional, a faith community or other is key to well-being.  Put simply, we need one another for so many reasons.  My connections with the women in WLALA and people in my spiritual community and family deepen and become more authentic when I am honest about my own struggles and real about what is going on in my life.  I also find great benefit in simply being useful in some way. Having a positive impact on someone else’s life reminds us of our own internal value and connects us with our sense of purpose. 

In the coming months WLALA invites you to join us for a joint project with the Inner City Law Center to provide school backpacks for 500 Los Angeles children who have been identified as homeless. This program will happen during July and August.  We will also be offering programs to promote health and wellness starting with a beach workout next month. We will watch together for the final word on Roe v. Wade and, if the opinion becomes final, we will stand together to issue a collective “scream” before we roll up our sleeves to begin our work together to address the impact on all women. Please watch for details via email and social media and join us for any and all of the activities that are of interest to you.