About a month ago, I sat down with a friend of mine to talk about mental health. Don Azevedo is a clinical psychologist, and I’ve been quite interested in mental health issues for the past half-decade or so. Don and I met a few years ago when he joined F3 (which I’d strongly encourage you to check out) and it seems every time I have a conversation with him, I learn something profound. So, who better to talk with about mental health than a psychologist?
We recorded a 25-minute podcast that you can find on your preferred podcast medium (Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, etc. Rate! Review!). I had a list of questions in my mind to ask about and I got to maybe half of them. The conversation went in a different direction than I’d expected, and I’m so glad it did. Within the first two minutes, I was asking a question attempting to steer Don toward a certain answer, but the real answer was so much better than what I had been fishing for.
I asked – given how much we’ve seen/heard/read about mental health from high profile people (like NBA players, actors, etc) – with all the positive attention on mental health discussions, are we doing enough to spread awareness? Or better yet, is it having any effect?
Don paused for a few seconds to consider the question. What he said next changed the way I thought about mental health.
If I can boil it down to a few sentences, here was his response.
We often use the term “mental health” in reference to a pathological condition, meaning it’s something that needs to be treated with medication or therapy or any number of remedies. There’s a stigma that comes with thinking about mental health in this manner. But a real issue that we’re not addressing relating to mental health is our emotional health. Just like physical health, it’s important to build resiliency in our emotional health, because a lot of times, that’s what helps keep our mental health in check.
There are myriad types and levels of mental health issues, so I want to be careful not to lump them all into one category. It would be unwise and unfair for me to do so. So I’ll only speak from my own personal experience, which is to say, my mental health for many years was dependent upon my emotional literacy.
You read “emotional literacy” and you intuitively know exactly what it means, even if you’ve never heard or thought of that term before. How good are you at understanding your own emotions? Or hell, how good are you at recognizing and naming the emotion you’re feeling? Do you ever find yourself in a rage because someone hurt your feelings? Or because you were scared? Why was anger the emotion you chose to display? Shouldn’t you have expressed sadness? Or fear?
Well, for a lot of men, anger is the only acceptable emotion to display when dealing with something unpleasant. I know a lot of men learned from their fathers that they could be one of three things: happy, fine, or angry. I can’t speak from experience on this one, though. My dad is the kind of guy who cries at an overly sappy commercial from time to time, and that’s a really great thing. He has well-developed emotional literacy. When he’s sad (or overly happy), he cries. When he’s embarrassed, he blushes. When he’s scared, he doesn’t hide behind a wall of rage. No, he shows fright. Like he should. My dad only gets angry when he’s supposed to be angry.
Unfortunately, I didn’t quite learn that from my dad when I was younger. For years, I hid every emotion I felt behind a smiling face. In F3, we call it sad clown syndrome – the idea that we have a smile painted on our faces that other people see, but deep down we’re a mess. We’re missing something, but we can’t put our finger on it.
I struggled with depression for the first time during my sophomore year of college. Part of that stemmed from an experience I had the summer before selling books door-to-door in New Mexico (which I wrote extensively about over the past few months). Another part of it came from the fact that I was a terrible student at Purdue and was overwhelmed by all the people who were way smarter than me. I started the Fall semester of my sophomore year with five classes (~17 credit hours), and by the end of the semester I’d dropped out of one class and recorded two D’s and two F’s. Guys, it was a 0.6 GPA for the term. Zero point six grade point average. That’s horrendous.
I was put on academic probation and that was enough of a wake-up call to get me back in line. I finished the Spring semester with a GPA above 3.0, which if you’re doing the math is more than five times better than my Fall GPA. #arithmetic
From there, I bounced in and out of periods of depression and anxiety over then next eight years, although I never knew that’s what was going on. I had no idea what depression was or how it could affect me. My emotional literacy was incredibly poor. That didn’t change until about six years ago.
The year 2014 was just an all-around awful year. Allison and I had been married for four years and on the surface everything was peachy, but my career was stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder with no hope of it getting much better, and my social life was nearly non-existent. I had been struggling with depression (without realizing it) and was coping in every negative way you can imagine. Alcohol use, over-eating, blowing off commitments, and at one point, even drug use. I was a wreck. And I was hiding it all behind my patented smile.
It all boiled over into a massive argument with Allison and she demanded to see some practical changes from me to prove I was working on the root issues of my struggles. This included counseling, a support group, Bible studies, marriage studies. That’s when I started to finally understand that the one and only emotion I displayed – happiness – was killing me. Over the past six years, I’ve slowly peeled back the layers through all the anxiety and depression and I am starting to get a hang of this whole emotional literacy thing. Turns out, it’s incredibly important.
Full disclosure: I also take a daily medication to help with anxiety. Having strong emotional health is important, but it isn’t always enough. There are real physiological reasons some people are more prone to anxiety or depression, or any number of other mental health issues out there. Sometimes, the best way to get started back toward health includes medication. And look, I get it. This is where the negative stigma lives. I fought going on an anti-depressant for about a year before I finally decided to give it a try. My idea of what an anti-depressant was and what it actually is were two very different things. It took multiple close friends, who I trusted, to tell me they had tried medication before and expressed how much it helped. I thought medication was either for weak-minded people or just plain crazy people. I’m forever grateful to those guys for showing me how wrong I had been about that belief.
Take some time to listen to the podcast with Don. He goes into a lot more detail about emotional health, including practical ways to exercise it, and I think you’ll gain something from it, no matter your present level of emotional health. Poor mental health knows no bounds. It can and will affect anyone, regardless of class, status, race, religion, personality type, etc.
I’m glad more and more people are openly talking about their mental health struggles. It’s a great sign that the negative stigma is starting to have less of an effect on the general population. Let’s make sure that as long as we’re talking about all of this, we’re also addressing the importance of our emotional health. It’s so critical to have a vocabulary to describe our emotions. In order to strengthen our emotional resilience, we have to know what to call them.
Final thought. Think back to the last time you felt sad. When was that?
Now – when was the last time you told someone you were sad?
We have some work to do.♦
If you found Don’s silky smooth timbre to be as irresistible as I do, or if you just want to hear more from him because, you know, he’s a wise dude, check out his podcast about relationships here:
The Relationship Road Trip
Azevedo Family Psychology