“Uncle Jay, what’s mental health?” asked 11 year old Nate.
I deepened my voice and was about to reply, “Well, son…” when I realized that I wasn’t his dad and he wasn’t “John Boy.”
And just to clarify, I’m not really his uncle. However, in Chinese culture, kids call adults who aren’t related to them as “Uncle” or “Auntie”. It’s the equivalence of calling someone Mister or Ms son-and-so. But seriously, don’t ask me why they don’t just do that because it gets terribly confusing trying to discern if the person is actually a relative or not.
Nate’s the stepson of my best friend and he’s also my son’s good friend, hence he came over to play some video games and crash at our place for the weekend.
We happened to be watching the NBA basketball playoffs between our beloved Cleveland Cavaliers (“Go Cavs!”) take on Canada’s one and only hoop’s team, the Toronto Raptors, in game 4 when a commercial break aired Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan’s ad (click here to watch) on depression, anxiety and mental health. Both these superstars recently came forward about their personal struggles with depression and anxiety in hopes to promote awareness and mental wellness. I love it (no pun intended). Athletes coming forward and talking about mental health. It’s powerful and encouraging. They’re role models for fans and especially to kids like Nate and to my teenage son. Hence, his question…what is mental health?
I paused for a moment to think about how I was going to answer my vertically challenged friend.
Should I go Mr Miyagi on him? “Mental Health is like a sponge…you wax on, wax off and focus…”
How about I try being like Seth Rogen in the comedy This is the End when he generalizes about gluten…“whenever you feel shitty, that’s because of gluten…gluten’s a vague term…it’s to categorize things that are bad. Calories, that’s gluten. Fat, that’s a gluten.”
Maybe I could use that for mental health. “Mental health is a vague term…it’s to categorize things that are bad…”
I’ve given a ton of presentations about mental health, so why was it so difficult for me to explain it to him? I knew I had a small window of opportunity here to make a difference to a young mind. I knew I only had his attention for a few seconds before his mind wandered off to the next commercial, like a puppy dog trapped in a roomful of birds.
…he stared at me wide-eyed eagerly awaiting my response.
Suddenly it came to me.
Ever since I’ve become an advocate to mental health and wellness, I’ve shared my story openly and freely…no filters, no disclaimers. Heck, I even wrote an entire book about it. Why? To normalize it. And when my own son shared about his struggles with depression and anxiety, I opened up the floor to talk to him about it without judgment nor fear. If we’re ever going to gain acceptance, understanding and compassion for mental health, we need to learn to talk about it freely and casually, just like any other everyday conversation. So that’s what I did with young Nate.
“Mental health is a function of our brain. Everything we do is connected to our mental health which is why we need to take good care of it. Whether we feel depressed, happy, scared, lonely, anxious or excited, the effects are all determined by how we manage our mental health.
Mental health is also what makes our physical health possible. It connects our thoughts, actions and movements together so that we can be happy and healthy. It’s like a computer…if the hard drive and processor aren’t working properly, our computer’s going to run slower and maybe even crash from time to time. So people like Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and myself who struggle with anxiety and depression, need to pay extra attention to our mental health so that we can continue doing the things we love!”
He nodded and smiled. I think I did alright given the unexpected yet welcomed inquiry. My eyes gleamed with satisfaction. And what capped off the evening was a commanding win by our Cleveland Cavaliers who will now advance to the semi-finals.