Why Mental Health is Such a Big Deal Today

By Lawrence FunderburkeMay 2, 202412 Minutes

Why Mental Health Is Such a Big Deal Today

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time we can reflect on our own (or a loved one’s) struggles in this area. Last year I wrote about my mother, Laura Funderburke, aka Ma Dukes, and her decades-long battle with compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and agoraphobia (or the anxiety of being in crowded places). And she also suffered from a laundry list of fears, insecurities, and trauma wounds too numerous to mention. As a self-proclaimed Momma’s Boy, I miss her deeply. Ma Dukes passed on February 8, 2021. Due to Covid lockdowns at the nursing home, I couldn’t hug the woman who brought me into this world before her untimely death. I could only communicate with her by cell phone while standing outside, piercing through the window on that brutally cold day. A mother’s touch is one of the most special and sacred blessings this hurtful world has to offer. If you’re mother is still living, please hug her for me.

Mental health is such a big deal today for several reasons. First, many of us were struggling long before the pandemic hit in March 2020, hiding behind the facade that all is well in the “upstairs brain.” Like Ma Dukes during my childhood, she tried to put her best foot forward in the land of economic heartache. But her smiles of deflection couldn’t cover up the pain of a single mother worrying how she’d take of four kids on a solo-parent mission, even with monthly government assistance. Second, and this is controversial, but those toxic thoughts in the upstairs brain eventually make their way to the “downstairs brain” — the gut. Known as the second brain, the gastrointestinal tract is the dumping ground for our food, what we eat and unfortunately, what eats us. Worrisome or intrusive thoughts, painful flashbacks, and fits of rage don’t just flutter around in the ether of our subconscious mind. No, they are eventually digested, absorbed, and utilized by the body as anti-nutrients when macro- and micronutrients are lacking. (Macronutrients include healthy fats, carbs, and proteins. Micronutrients consist of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids, and polyphenols, among others.) Third, a life devoid of purpose with runaway stressors in ample supply can be a debilitating and seemingly never-ending condition. As the Geto Boys rapped back in the day, “My mind is playing tricks on me.” Without a mission-guided existence, the human spirit will decay from within. Purposeful people are keenly aware of the need to feed their body, soul, and spirit with beneficial nutrients, of the edible and indelible kind.

The mental anguish was so intense for my mom that she threw in the proverbial towel, merely existing in life as her spirit faded away by the day.

Allow me to put on my Dr. Phil hat to feel what needed to be filled in my mom’s life (and I suspect others’ lives as well). Ma Dukes suffered from the trifecta, mental illnesses, mental issues, and mental islands. Not surprisingly, I picked up some of them. I define mental illness as a clinical diagnosis that describes psychological, (bio)chemical, and/or emotional imbalances in the brain, the belly, and the body. Mental illnesses can, and usually do, inhibit a person’s ability to function in life. Depression, panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and bipolar, to name just a few, can disrupt work schedules and working relationships with family members as well as friends. Ma Dukes was terrified by “the voices in her head.” At night, partial light served as her security blanket while sleeping, which obviously disrupted her circadian rhythm the next day (and can contribute to a host of mental health challenges when the body’s internal clock is out of sync). Also, she would wash her hands for hours with abrasive substances, such as bleach, Pine Sol, and laundry detergent. To clean what? Lord only knows, but it likely had something to do with that mental stronghold or cognitive ritual to guard against “an extreme fear of being contaminated by germs” (Healthline, OCD: When Cleaning is a Compulsion). Three people close to my mother had died within a year of each other, two by cancer, which kickstarted her compulsive hand-cleaning behaviors in the early 1980s.

mental issue is an odd, quirky, or dysfunctional behavior that is largely driven by internal or external triggers. Mental issues can but they do not necessarily inhibit an individual’s ability to function in life. Ma Dukes didn’t shake hands, nor did she like being in crowded spaces or public places. I don’t like to shake hands, nor do I touch door handles, elevator buttons, and other “germ-ridden” things without a paper towel. I’ve been this way for decades, long before Covid hit the scene. I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, which may explain why mental health challenges have both a genetic and an epigenetic (or environmental) component. What we see, we often imitate — good, bad, or indifferent. It’s been said that genetics load the gun but epigenetics pull the trigger, or the nature-nurture dynamics at play, in my case, operating in reverse order. Quirky behaviors that deviate from the norm while garnering a few strange eyebrows from onlookers will have you/me/us being thrown in the oddball category at best or the weirdo basket by default. Being a 6’9” skyscraper doesn’t help my case when a room full of people see me dap an esteemed dignitary instead of extending the classy and customary, gentlemen’s handshake. As Jim Jackson, the former Buckeye basketball legend and current sports analyst likes to say, “That’s Lawrence for you; he’s a different dude!” That I am, but is it by choice or force?

Mental island is perhaps the hardest for me to discuss parentally and personally. I define it as an imaginative place of refuge in which an individual escapes to find comfort, protection, or isolation from people, places, or predicaments. Why? Because the pain — or the lingering fallout from the Covid crisis by individuals still gripped by fear — is too unbearable to deal with. Mental islands may or may not inhibit a person’s ability to function in life. It all depends on his or her daily tasks, responsibilities, and obligations. As highlighted, Ma Dukes suffered from agoraphobia. As a welfare recipient, she didn’t work. In fact, she never had a job. Her cocoon was the sanctuary of our apartment in Central Ohio’s most dangerous housing project, Sullivant Gardens. Ironically, the roots and offshoots of her trauma and mine were planted in the ghetto. During my high school years, she kept the curtains closed. Natural sunlight was painful for her, which likely meant that her Vitamin D and serotonin levels were low. Without this super nutrient and feel-good neurotransmitter in adequate (but not excessive) supply, people are more prone to depression and a compromised immune system, among other punishing conditions. Ma Dukes was terrified to leave the apartment and watch me play sports. She’d ask when I would walk through the door after a high school basketball game as one of the country’s top-five players, “How did you play son?” I responded disrespectfully, “I guess you’ll have to watch the news to see my highlights.” I didn’t even look at her as I walked upstairs to my bedroom. I was hurt by her lack of support; she was suffering from mental distress.

In closing, mental health has to be our pressing concern. And we can’t focus on its importance one month out of the year. Mother’s Day is just around the corner as well as my mom’s birth date, May 30. Do me (and yourself) a favor. For the next 30 days, track your mental health status. Implement a holistic game plan to improve your mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Prioritize exercise and nutrition; move your body and eat better, aka the medicine foods of God. Pay careful attention to your circadian rhythm or body’s internal clock. Even if you don’t have a 9-to-5 job, you still need a daily schedule. Life was meant to be purposeful and productive. Assess your relationships from a good, better, and best fruitful tree. Those that fall outside of these three root-system categories might need to be pruned or severed. Where applicable, make an appointment to see a qualified healthcare practitioner to assist you in your road to recovery.

Lastly, I’ll be the featured speaker at Sōw Plated’s Live Sōw Well Speaker Series on May 20th in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. Located in Upper Arlington, this is my favorite restaurant in Central Ohio. Seating is limited, click the link to secure your spot. Bon appetit to great mental health!