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Mental Health is a Team Sport

The truth is COVID has us scrambling for mental health. We need to focus on mental health, said every school and every business and every big company this past year. But what does that even mean?

I’ve been back on planes lately*. I had forgotten that I frequently had this thought while on planes before COVID: Isn’t it amazing how people seem to just get along on flights? Everyone (for the most part) follows the rules. They stay quiet; they politely wake their neighbors when they need to scoot out to use the bathroom; and now since COVID, they mostly (and I know there are exceptions to this) keep their masks on.


Where else do we see people comply for the greater good to this extent? I can think of no other example. And what’s even more striking is that we really know nothing about the other people on the plane with us. It’s not like we’re complying for people we know. We’re complying for complete strangers. For all you know, you could be sitting next to a millionaire, a convict, a star, a QAnon supporter, a sex worker, a COVID patient, the next world leader. None of that matters. Because for the next few hours you will be sharing oxygen, an armrest, and a very tight space. It’s the most humanizing experience there is to have. Perhaps that’s why I love traveling so much.


Sometimes I just wish I could stick all 7.9 billion people in this world on a plane together. Maybe we’d all get along. Or rather, maybe we’d all at least let the differences slide because the resources we know we’d need to share are all laid out in front of our very own eyes. There are these plane walls, this air, and only so many snacks.


There’s an unwritten code on a plane and it’s this: My health is your health. And I don’t just mean physical health. Yes, we must wear masks on a flight now so that we don’t spread COVID. But I also mean mental health. It’s why people are quiet and polite and they help each other with the overhead bin and they take extra snacks when their neighbor is sleeping so they have something to eat when they wake up. We’re in this together, we subconsciously think. If I start looking nervous during this turbulence then this young boy next to me might get nervous, so I may as well act calm for the both of us. If an old lady in front of me can’t figure out how to use her TV screen, I may as well help her so that no one has to listen to her huffing and puffing all flight long. If the pilot comes out of the cockpit upon de-boarding to say goodbye, I will be sure to say thank you because we’re here alive, so they did a damn good job. Somehow, in some way, we all sign up to be on the same team when we book a flight and we all agree that we’re going to make it through this flight together. Fascinating really.


Which brings me to my next point- zooming out and back down. What does mental health as a team sport look like down at ground level? In its most basic form, it is greeting people on the streets, asking them how they are doing, listening, consistently showing up for community events at the schools, in the parks, in the home, and helping to plan them, leaving no one out. In its more severe form, it looks like paying attention to warning signs in our teenage kids so as to prevent the next school shooting; it looks like calling people in (not out) for their “othering” behaviors and not ostracizing them from the community, but continuing to include them anyways; it looks like radical love for everyone, even the person who cuts you off in traffic, even the homeless person who can’t yet kick their drug habit, even the radical leftist or the radical rightist whose opinions make you feel uncomfortable or even enraged, and even the people who did you so wrong in the past. All of them.


The truth is COVID has us scrambling for mental health. We need to focus on mental health, said every school and every business and every big company this past year. But what does that even mean? Money flocked to 1:1 therapy services. Great. As someone who has been going to a therapist for 7 years now, I can say that I know this is a good idea. But that’s not all. That’s not even the most of it. Mental health is a team sport which means that one person’s mental health is dependent on the next person’s mental health and so on and so forth until you recognize the entire ecosystem that each individual human being is living in. Which is really the same ecosystem that we’re all living in.


It means that emotions are contagious. Research (Fowler & Christakis, 2008) shows this. It means that mental health is contagious. Research doesn’t show this. Yet. It means that community is important. It means that it literally takes a whole village to raise one emotionally resilient and well child. It means that when one person isn’t well, no one is well. It means that the anxious lady standing behind me at the grocery store affects my mental health. It means that the depressed man who lives next door affects my mental health. It means the trauma that lives in the victims of the latest climate disaster affects my mental health. It means that all the people who are grieving over the lost lives of their loved ones due to COVID affects my mental health. It means that when one person is ill, we’re all ill, and also that when one person starts to heal we all start to heal.


What I wish every school and every business and every company said instead: We need to recognize that mental health is a team sport and each one of us is a starting player on the same team. And how do we take care of one another and positively contribute to one another’s mental health since we’re all on the same team? By taking care of ourselves first. And then by checking in. By going deep. By building community. By sustaining community. By finding your inner circle and literally sitting in CIRCLE with them. On a consistent basis. By joining an OPM Collective. By getting help for people who need it. By knowing when something is wrong. By not ignoring the weary or the weak or the lonely or the hopeless. By accepting. And forgiving. And loving. And traveling. And getting on those planes and watching in awe (and participating) as people around you act in accordance with the greater good. And then bringing those same behaviors back down to Earth.


*I’ve gotten back into traveling (safely of course) and hence, took August and September off from writing my newsletter so that I could stay present when traveling.



References


Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the framingham heart study. BMJ 2008;337:a2338. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2338


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