A Call for Reducing Reductive Solutions in Honor of Mental Health Awareness Month

trauma

A while back, a meme was circulated encouraging those who struggle with depression, rather than taking medication, to just go for a run outside.

As a player in the fitness industry for over twenty years, and the author of a study on the mood-enhancing properties of exercise, I won’t disagree that physical activity can often improve how we feel. But it’s not going to help everyone, and an individual suffering from a severe depression might not be in a place to lace up her running shoes and hit the pavement. In cases of moderate to severe depression, treatment isn’t optional. This advice also overlooks those who struggle with eating disorders and/or compulsive exercise, who might have turned that prescription for a “run outside” into something problematic.

We see and hear a lot of these stock approaches to recovery. “Anxious? Try meditation – it worked for me!” “Have insomnia? Cut out [x] food.” And the old, “Why don’t you just eat?” to the individual suffering from an eating disorder. While the comments might be well-intended, they fail to capture the diversity and significance of mental health presentations. A brain (not to mention, a personality, life history, cultural experience, etc.) is a complicated thing, and when we try to compare one to the other, we lose a lot in the process. Suggesting that someone with panic attacks take a meditation class might be akin to asking him to write a book when he’s only capable of drafting an outline. Encouraging someone with an eating disorder to “just eat” without significant structure and supports in place is asking her to accomplish the unthinkable.

In many cases, therapy and/or medication is required in order to make progress from a mental condition. (Side note: Taking psychotropic medication is not unfeminist, as a psychiatrist in New York City suggested in a recent Facebook post.) All of the self-care and self-help exercises in the world are not enough to tame some of the symptoms we see in practice. So, if you know someone who’s struggling, my advice is to back off the advice. Listen and express compassion. Read up on evidenced-based treatment. Ask the individual if there’s anything she needs or wants from you. And then just be there, minus the platitudes and trendy treatments, the quick fixes and what-worked-for-me’s.