Death Challenged My Perception of Mental Health

This blog post was written by Abby Kowitz, a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling student at Divine Mercy University. She is also a regular contributor for Mind & Spirit.

I like things black and white. It’s wrong or it’s right. I like him or I don’t. I’m either good at something or I’m bad at it. While I’ll argue that absolutist thinking isn’t always wrong (i.e. moral issues, etc.), pursuing my Master’s in Counseling along with experiences from simply living life are continually proving my all-or-nothing mentality to be shortchanged.

One way this played out was during my very first class at Divine Mercy University (DMU) when my mentality of mental health disorders was challenged by a professor: “Mental health is a continuum and we all fall somewhere on the spectrum.” In other words, to greater or lesser degrees, we all have elements of basically every mental health issue. It’s just that for most of us they’re not to the degree nor coupled with other necessary symptoms to qualify as an actual disorder. Think about it, when was the last time you zoned out mid-conversation and started fantasizing about that burger you planned to eat for dinner? We all dissociate, even if we don’t meet the full description of dissociative disorder. Similarly, we all have experiences of being sad, lonely, and down-in-the-dumps. We all experience highs and lows, irrational thoughts and anxiety.

I remember the first time I truly realized that everyone has their own hardships they carry with them on a day-to-day basis. Prior to this I lived in some false illusion that I was the only one with problems and the people I met in passing – the barista, Uber driver, fellow classmate, etc. – were all relatively problem-free. More selfishly put, it wasn’t that I didn’t think other people had problems, I just literally didn’t even pause to think about those people, problems or not. Ironically, this realization occurred at one of the hardest moments of my life. My dad had unexpectedly died in a car accident one morning, and that same night I was on a late flight home. As I sat in my seat, sobbing uncontrollably, and for the first time in my life truly not giving the slightest care to what everyone around me was thinking, it dawned on me that my heart was broken. Sure, it had been hurt, bruised, and even torn on the edges a few times before, but this time it was actually broken, split right down the middle, and the pain was incapacitating.

For whatever reason, perhaps God’s grace, rather than this pain turning me inward, it opened up my heart (well, the pieces of it anyway) to everyone around me. Paradoxically, my grief allowed me to be momentarily free of self. I suddenly comprehended that likely just about every single person on that plane with me had, at some point or another, had a broken heart too, or perhaps were even nursing one at that moment. Whether caused by death, abuse, manipulation, or some other kind of loss or trauma, these hard experiences are almost a guarantee. As I sat with this thought, it suddenly made sense to me why the world is so broken. How could it not be, if this is the type of pain that so many people have to live with? No wonder the world turns to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, and other distractions. In that moment I would have done anything to numb the pain. But by categorizing these people as drug addicts, alcoholics, etc., we fail to understand them in their full context.

With this new mindset of the crosses people carry and the unacknowledged suffering that we each endure, simply dismissing a person as this or that is doing a disservice to the complexity and beauty of who we are. Mental health isn’t simply categorizing a person as depressed or not depressed, mentally healthy or not mentally healthy. It’s giving reverence to the struggles that we each face, even if we don’t fully know or understand them, but simultaneously not limiting or defining a person by them.

Human persons are not problems to be solved or elements to categorize. While we are always called to speak and witness to truth, I think we often fail to see other persons as mysteries, and as such fail to approach them with awe and reverence. One of my favorite quotes by Dietrich von Hildebrand summarizes what I believe, and what I am becoming more and more convinced of as I pursue a career in Mental Health, to be true in light of the human person and our call to one another:

“Love is not concerned with a person’s accomplishments, rather it is a response to a person’s being: This is why a typical word of love is to say: I love you, because you are as you are.” – The Art of Living

Interested in pursuing a career in counseling? Request information about the online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Divine Mercy University.