May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I am reminded of The Dude in The Big Lebowski dancing at the bowling alley to the Kenny Rogers song, Just Dropped In. It’s on you-tube, folks, and it’s hilarious. Hopefully, you look it up, and it brightens your day.
Maybe we should all take a cue from The Dude, who can pay us a service by fighting the stigma of a mental health check-up. The Dude is iconic even if he has a drinking and drug problem, hallucinating with visions of Saddam Hussein doling out bowling shoes. Not to glorify drugs or drinking, I just think the Dude can help us associate a mental health check-up with yes, it’s okay, even The Dude can do it, just sing it…just dropped in to see what condition my condition is in.
I wonder how the human condition would score on the DSM- 5 diagnostic axis used by psychology professionals. Picture the pre-appointment questionnaire:
Anger issues? Check. Out of control, actually. Interpersonal conflict? Check. Why can’t the world leaders get along? A threat to others? Check. Conflict on a grand scale. War raging. Social isolation? Were we not quarantined for the better part of two years? Family support systems? Compromised. Anxiety? Check. How does the possibility of global annihilation make you feel?
It is no wonder we struggle to cope.
Obsessions? Yes, technology, for one. Married to Siri for better or worse. Attention issues? Yes, so let’s ask Siri or Alexa to check the condition our human condition is in. Siri, are we living any longer?
Siri says: “Life expectancy declined in 2020 from the year prior from 79 to 77 overall, reflecting a decline in men’s life expectancy from 76 to 74.5, and in women from 81 to 80.” According to Wikipedia, “the average life expectancy in the United States has declined since 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites three main reasons:
72% increase in overdoses in the last decade
ten-year increase in liver disease (the rate for men aged 25 to 34 increased by 8% per year; for women, by 11% per year)
33% increase in suicide rates since 1999.”
Think about it for a minute: overdoses, liver disease, which we associate with substance misuse, and suicides. It seems like the world is in need of a mental health check-up, at least here, in the good ol’ USA, for despite our advances in medicine, discoveries and cures for some of the most debilitating diseases, our lifespan as humans is declining from the physical manifestations of mental health and substance misuse and our inability to cope in healthy ways with our personal experiences and the world around us. With its concomitant, intrinsically linked manifestation of addiction, our mental health malaise has become the cancer of our day.
So, dude, you’re not the only one with a problem, and there is no shame in dropping in to check the condition your condition is in. You can even do it now through telehealth, drop in on a zoom meeting or find a support network for the millions of others on this planet that are struggling with the human condition. Herren Project has online recovery meetings and a variety of support groups for family members who are struggling with the disease of addiction that has become a family affliction. Here you will know that you are not alone. In fact, we have seen over a 500% increase in the demand for these services since the pandemic, and we have added several support groups to address the grief and struggle of loving someone with substance use disorder.
There is no shame in needing help and only merit in seeking it. Were you ever taught healthy coping skills? If you were anything like me in your adolescence, you confused coping with copping. You rebelled against authority and became a reckless “troubled” youth. For me, “just say no” meant what you say to your parents who, newly separated by then, we’re called to the Principal’s office because I had just said yes to zoning out reality and joining my peers who just said yes to that too.
By the age of 24, I had lost three friends to suicide, female friends from college and well-to-do families. Two high school friends died in car crashes related to substance use. Yeah, dude, for real. This was a time before street drugs like fentanyl or prescriptions like Oxycontin and Xanax were plentiful. If I put my troubled teen self in the shoes of today’s youth, I doubt I’d survive.
Imagine if I had come from a climate of poverty and gangs. If, instead of losing a father figure in my home, imagine that I had never had one, to begin with. What would it be like to walk in those shoes?
Addiction is a great leveler. It affects us of any socioeconomic status and does not discriminate based on race, gender, preference, or nationality. But addiction preys upon the vulnerable, those of us who do not have great support systems and influences in our lives. Young white men in their 20’s and 30’s have the most overdoses. More women are polluting their livers. A disproportionate share of minority demographic groups succumb to addiction as well. Many factors contribute to vulnerability, including cultural attitudes and equitable access to affordable healthcare. As an addiction non-profit, we aim to reach everyone in need. We want to help break the barriers that keep us from a condition of health and wellness.
Herren Project recognizes the challenges in youth substance use prevention and has been working to bring youth social and emotional learning skills that can be carried into adulthood. Herren Project Clubs are now in over 200 schools around the country, echoing the voice and wisdom of our inspirational founder, Chris Herren, who continues to tell his story through books, documentaries, and speaking tours to schools around the country. His messages that being you is enough and that peers should look out for each other are brought forward in our Herren Project Clubs. We recognize the influence of peers in adolescence and the need to promote positive peer groups, and we know there is evidence to support the value of a peer-to-peer approach. Our clubs also bring a curriculum of evidence-based tools to equip and empower youth to confront a range of mental health issues from bullying, stress and self-care, self-esteem, and how to get help. We cannot always change the world around us, but perhaps we can learn how to cope.
I wonder what my troubled teenage years would have looked like if there was a Herren Project Club at my school committed to developing those skills and changing the culture. I wonder if I would have lost those friends or my teenage son to substance use disorder. If only the schools and communities had lifted and inspired us to find healthy ways of connecting and coping with the troubles we faced at home. If only.
We teach kids in middle school to stay away from drugs, but by high school, we have often lost so many of them. Over 50% of our families are broken, and too many stressed-out parents are struggling to make a living and do not know the first thing about teaching coping skills to their kids. Our mental well-being has taken a back seat to academic excellence and achievement, the drive for material and ego-driven measures of success. Tick tock, tick tock, and time is up on the clock. Our kids are falling through the cracks.
Increasingly, Herren Project Clubs provide the scaffolding for add-on therapies and programs that are engaging and inspiring to youth. We now have partnerships with the Family Dinner Project, PeaceLove for art therapy, Rock to Recovery for collaborative music creation, and there is more to come. We recognize the importance of mental health and the challenges in reaching diverse audiences. Our youth-oriented program managers have recently become certified in Youth and Teen Mental Health First Aid. We have undertaken a strategy to become a more diverse organization and have begun translating our materials into Spanish. We are launching training sessions for parents and youth leaders through community organizations such as the Rhode Island Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. Our partners will reinforce our commitment to health and wellness with complementary programming while providing a venue for alternative social gatherings after school. And our partners are youth organizations with long-term, trusted relationships that can help us reach underserved communities.
So, dude, there’s help on the horizon, and there is always hope.
Please take care, check the condition your condition is in, and remember there is healing in helping others. Join a group and join our movement. We’re in this human condition together.