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What is Mental Health?

Joe Nelson

May 9, 2007

May is apparently Mental Health Month. I learned this from a presentation last week called “How Harley Davidson Saved Me From the Asylum.” It was presented by a man named Pete Feigel, who did a wonderful job of telling the story about his own depression and his struggles with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Pete relayed a story of a young man of 13 who struggled with depression and ended up in a mental hospital for a full year during his adolescence. He talked about his loneliness and a feeling that no one understood what he was going through. He also shared that, after his release from the hospital, a teacher would approach him and ask him about various motorcycles and Pete would brighten up and carry on for quite a while talking about something he loved (Harley Davidson was just one of the topics). Pete said this was a regular pattern and this helped lessen his loneliness and he believed in some ways that it kept him out of the hospital.

Obviously, it wasn’t Harley Davidson that saved Pete (although I ride and sometimes I think it saves me)—it was the caring of a teacher who seemed to understand the depth of depression and what someone needs at that time.

“Not being depressed” is not the definition of mental health. In fact, if you are depressed you can still be mentally healthy by attending to some of the variables that can make the situation worse or better.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. In Minnesota, some people think that mental health is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. While this is an interesting concept, it usually doesn’t work for depression or other mental illnesses. They are not the types of things people just get over—we need to acknowledge a problem and have an idea of what we’re going to do about it. Naming it, talking about it, and seeking professional help are all good ways to start the process.

It is not “giving in” to admit to this possibility. Instead, it is the first step toward getting some help. Pete was a kid and his father was instrumental in getting him started in the direction of getting help. Pete’s depression was primarily a chemical imbalance, and many people with diabetes and depression also have a chemical issue.

Regardless of what it is caused by, depression needs treatment. The following things can be helpful to bolster your mental health:

  • Exercise has an amazing impact on depression.
  • Increased support is helpful for getting through some tough times.
  • Good diabetes control reduces similar physical symptoms.
  • Talking with a good friend or family member can alleviate some of the pressures.
  • Talking with your doctor, nurse educator, or a mental health counselor can help.
  • If you have tried many of these steps and still are in pain, seeing a psychiatrist to discuss medicines may be most helpful.

The bottom line is you do not have to wait to just get better—reach out and, most of the time, someone will be willing to help.

Last, but certainly not the least alternative, is to get a Harley Davidson to ride. It worked for Pete and it works for me, so maybe it could be useful to you. (Obviously, I am kidding about this last one. Sort of.)



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