Policy is Mental Health Care

Recently, I watched “Inside a Suicide Prevention Center in Puerto Rico,” a short January 2018 New York Times Youtube documentary done a few months after Hurricane Maria.

The workers said that, since the hurricane, they’d gotten busier. Puerto Rico’s top mental health official said that they were already seeing signs of severe mental health crisis. Over a month in, many were still without electricity, water, and in some cases, a roof over their heads. Three months after Hurricane Maria, more than 1.5 million people, nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population, were still without power. For me, the most jarring and memorable moment of the documentary was near the end, when a crisis line worker said, “Sometimes I can’t find the words. Because how can I tell someone to keep calm when they don’t have a place to sleep?”

I work on a suicide hotline, and have had similar experiences. There are many callers for whom our work is effective. But there are many more who, similar to the callers in Puerto Rico, have fallen through the cracks in our societal systems, have seemingly exhausted all possible options for help, and still can’t get back on their feet. People who are homeless and the shelters are full. People who can’t find jobs and are ineligible for many programs that provide help because of past felonies. What do you say to someone whose mental health problems are created, either partially or totally, by a lack of tangible, physical resources to improve their lives? A lack that can’t be fixed with simply a phone conversation?

I am in school to become a mental health counselor. I believe deeply in the efficacy and importance of mental health work, and I think it’s vital that we fight to make therapy affordable, accessible, and free of stigma for all. But it’s hard to process past trauma when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It’s hard to have hope for the future when you don’t have access to resources and opportunities. While watching the video, I remembered that if I truly want to support the mental health of my future clients, I need to be much more than a mental health advocate. I need to be an activist and an advocate in much broader senses of those words.

Ensuring people have a roof over their heads is mental health care. Ensuring people have clean water and food to eat is mental health care. Ensuring people have rights and can be themselves in the world without discrimination is mental health care (#TransRightsAreHumanRights) . Ensuring people can walk, drive, and sit in schools without fear is mental health care (#BlackLivesMatter). Ensuring everyone has access to physical health care is mental health care. Ensuring people are paid a living wage is mental health care. Ensuring we take care of our earth for the generations after us is mental health care. Ensuring people have a ladder to climb back up after they’ve fallen down is mental health care (in the beautiful words of musician Gregory Alan Isakov, “If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone”). Ensuring people can see possibilities and a path forward is mental health care. Ensuring people’s basic needs are met is mental health care. Policy is mental health care.


In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “When I was about sixteen years old, I took vows to become a writer. I mean, I literally took vows… I retreated to my bedroom one night and turned off all the lights. I lit a candle, got down on my honest-to-god knees, and swore my fidelity to writing for the rest of my natural life. My vows were strangely specific and, I would still argue, pretty realistic. I didn’t make a promise that I would be a successful writer, because I sensed that success was not under my control. Nor did I promise that I would be a great writer, because I didn’t know if I could be great. Nor did I give myself any time limits for the work, like ‘if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty I’ll give up on this dream and go find another line of work.’ In fact, I didn’t put any conditions or restrictions on my path at all. My deadline was never. Instead, I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result.”

Like Gilbert, I’ve known since I was young that writing (and in my case, also music) is my calling. I knew it, and I still know it, deep in my bones. That being said, I haven’t always played or written. The past two-and-a-half years have been especially creatively dry– I haven’t written a single song, and I’ve only written a few poems. Though I’ve gone through more prolific phases in the past, even then, I struggled to write consistently–to make time in my daily schedule, actually show up, and write.

I always assumed this was because I’m lazy. And in the spirit of honesty and accountability, yes, self-discipline is something I need to keep working on. However, I’m starting to realize that “I’m lazy” doesn’t tell the full story. My inactivity is in part due to some real mental health challenges– toxic beliefs about my creativity and myself that I need to change if I am ever to live a healthier, more fulfilled creative life. Namely, these:

1. If I’m not the best, I don’t have permission to do my work at all.
2. If my work is not good, it is worthless. If I am not talented, I am worthless.

3. If my work does not receive external recognition, it is worthless/irrelevant.
4. If writing is not my career (i.e. if I don’t make money through writing), then writing is not my vocation.

These beliefs were subconscious (until recently, I didn’t realize I had them!), yet they’ve interfered heavily in my creative endeavors. Let’s explore each one in more depth, and propose some healthier alternatives.

  1. If I’m not the best, I don’t have permission to do my work at all.

When I was about thirteen years old, I discovered songwriting. I flew to it like a moth to a flame. I knew instantly that it was my Great Love. I decided I wanted to be a musician and songwriter when I grew up. But I was quickly discouraged by the way many adults in my life reacted to kids who wanted to be artists. They’d try to dissuade those young people from following their dreams, pointing out how small the odds are of “making it.” As if “making it,” being the best of the best, was the only thing that mattered.

In some ways, they weren’t wrong: It IS hard to make a living as an artist. And I’m sure many of them had good intentions– perhaps they only wanted to protect children from their own disappointment and the harsh realities of the world. But here’s how I heard their words as a teen who struggled with depression and low self-esteem: “you’ll never make it because you’re not the best, and unless you ARE the best, there is something shameful about wanting to be musician/artist/etc.” Unaware that I was doing so, I internalized this belief and carried it forward into my life.

Even though I have a degree in music, even though I now teach music, there has always been a part of me that feels I don’t BELONG in music. To this day, I see all the musicians who are better than me and feel ashamed that I ever wanted to be a musician, that I ever tried, because I have so clearly “failed.” I feel shame on a frequent basis, whenever I realize that I am lacking in some musical knowledge or skill that the musicians around me seem to possess. It leads me to avoid asking questions of those I look up to, for fear of looking stupid, or being exposed as the fraud I believe myself to be. It makes me want to hide. It makes me want to avoid “failure” (not being the best) by not trying at all.

I would like to replace toxic belief #1 with the following, in the words of Henry Van Dyke: “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those who sang best.”

2. If my work is not good, it is worthless. If I am not talented, I am worthless.

There are many reasons I’m grateful to have studied music in college. I learned a ton. I loved being constantly surrounded by music and other musicians. It helped me get jobs in music. That being said, some aspects of music school affected me negatively. Being in an environment in which my piano playing received a grade made me more critical of, and self-conscious about, my art. And, to speak to my earlier point, music school gave me life experience to back up my fears that I wasn’t the best: I had gone to a mediocre school (to be clear, I’m not bashing the education I received, just objectively stating that it wasn’t Julliard), and even among the musicians there, I was only mediocre in skill.

Though I wrote a lot of music before and during college, I have suffered a REAL mental block since graduating. Every time I sit down to write, I hear the cruel voices of my inner demons: “this sucks.” “You’re not that talented, so why try?” I think about all the people I met in college who were better than me. On and on. And it paralyzes me– it stops me from writing at all.

In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes one of her mother’s old adages: “done is better than good.” I want to replace toxic belief #2 with the following: My work is valuable just because I do it, not because of how good it is.

Here’s why I think the replacement belief is better: it shifts the focus to what I can control. I can’t control the amount of talent that was or was not genetically assigned to me. But I CAN control whether or not I show up and DO my work.

Imagine if a teacher berated a child in music class for not having the same natural aptitude as other students. It would be pretty egregious– the student’s lack of inborn talent is not their fault! Instead, a good teacher would notice and praise the student’s efforts. It is unjust to beat ourselves up over something we have no control over. Let’s measure ourselves not by our talent, but by our efforts– whether we show up and do what we can.

3. If my work does not receive external recognition, it is worthless/irrelevant.

See above re: focusing on things I can control. I can’t control how other people will react to my work–whether they praise, criticize, or ignore it. But again, I CAN control whether I DO my work.

As an aside, my writing has plenty of value to me, even if not many people read/listen to it. It’s gotten me through some tough times. It helps me process and put words to my difficult emotions. The act of writing alone is therapy. It makes me feel powerful and capable, like I can spin pain into gold.

Replacement for toxic belief #3: My work is valuable just because I do it, not because of how people receive it.

4. If writing is not my career (i.e. if I don’t make money through writing), then writing is not my vocation.

I always hated the common phrase, “art is a hobby, not a career.” Growing up, that sentiment hurt me tremendously. I felt like it was saying, “unless you can make money off of it, your art is destined to become some unimportant side thing.” Even though writing isn’t my main source of income, the word “hobby” does not convey the seriousness of my feelings for it.

I don’t have a problem with educating kids on the realities of money, and the limits that financial obligations place on our lives. On the contrary, I think learning about money is essential to becoming a responsible adult. But I DO have a problem with encouraging kids to abandon their art, or to view it flippantly, simply because it doesn’t have clear lucrative potential. We’ve set up a false dichotomy in our society: either our art makes us money, or it should be treated as our lowest priority.

Those of us who don’t fit into the hobby vs. career dichotomy might find solace in viewing art as our vocation. Gilbert defines vocation like this: “A vocation is a calling. A vocation is a divine invitation. A vocation is the voice of the universe in your ear saying, ‘I want you to do this thing. I want to use your talents and gifts to make this thing. I want you to participate in the story of creation in this way.'”

She continues, “Here’s the amazing thing about having a vocation: nobody can take it from you. Nobody can give it to you, and nobody can take it from you.” I’d add, “except yourself.” Only I can define how seriously I take my work. I’ve often fallen into the trap of ceasing to take it seriously when it fails to yield external rewards.

Replacement for toxic belief #4: writing is my vocation, and I will treat it as such, regardless of whether or not it becomes a career.

Inspired by Gilbert’s vows, I decided to write my own vows, to my writing and to myself. I don’t promise to do these things 100% of the time– I’m sure there will be times that I mess up and/or let the mean inner voices win. But I promise to keep trying, to keep striving toward a healthier relationship with creativity.

My Vows

-I vow to always take my work seriously, even if/when others do not.
-I vow to carve out specific time in my day/week to write, and to show up consistently at that time.
-I vow to be courageous: to keep putting my work out into the world, in spite of fear.
-I vow to measure my success as a writer by the effort and dedication I put into writing, not by my visibility or popularity.
-I vow to consider my work valuable even if/when it looks like other people’s work. I vow to place more value on authenticity than originality.
-I vow to consider my work valuable even when others’ work is “better.” It is worthy simply because it exists and comes from my heart– it doesn’t have to outshine others to earn its worth.
-I vow to consider music and writing my vocations, regardless of whether or not they ever make me money. I vow not to let the world define vocation for me, but to define it for myself.

Authentically Yours, the Author

“Even the longest, most detailed, and most expressive obituaries always omit the essence of a life: the history of a person’s heart. How many of us wish we had asked more questions of someone we loved, not about what happened and when but about the inner experience of being that person? About hopes and fulfillments, failures and regrets? About moments of despair and moments of meaning?” -Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy  (Taken from the blog Living With Open Hands- https://ronirvine.wordpress.com/)

I’ve been a writer for years and have rarely shared my writing.  I can’t imagine something much scarier than putting your soul out in the open, into the hands of people that might completely misinterpret or reject it.  And yet, there’s always been a part of me that wanted my works to make it into public eye.  A part that valued my creativity, that wanted to be seen for who I truly am, that thought I had something worth sharing with the world.

In the past few months, I’ve been starting to feel this increasing, overwhelming sense of dread that I’m not using my life in the way I was meant to.  If I was to die now, my number one regret would be not having shared my writing.  Perhaps one of the reasons I started this blog was for assurance that when I die, some small piece of my internal life will remain tangible.  This internal life is what I want to be remembered for, not who I am on the outside.

When I was in high school, I was deeply impacted by Kinetic Affect, a local slam poetry team known for their vulnerable content and emotionally charged deliveries (Check them out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLoQJmJvXOc).  One day, they visited my friend’s advanced English class and said to the students, “If we make one person feel like they’re not alone, it’s all worth it- it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”  If, through authenticity and courage, I have the potential to influence others, what is the purpose of hiding myself away simply to avoid a few pieces of criticism?

I’ve named this post “Authentically Yours” because if I’m going to start sharing pieces of myself now, I want them to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Authenticity is one of my biggest values.  It’s something I strive for.  My greatest idols in life have been people who are genuinely themselves– who aren’t afraid to be weird, quirky, off the beaten path– who are comfortable with themselves.  My goal in life is to progressively develop the ability to honor my own inner truth.

My intentions for this blog are to share my Musings (my thoughts, ponderings, values, philosophies, attempts to understand life) and my Music (Music is my biggest passion and, for me, the most personal form of writing).  These are two of my most cherished aspects of who I am.  It is my hopes that someday they will do as much for other people as they do for me.