When I look at my two boys, one a mischievous toddler and the other a wide-eyed infant, I feel a deep sense of hope and desperation for their futures. Within these beautiful creations exists the genetic potential for both great love and horrible destruction. On the surface, this may seem like a philosophical observation regarding the nature of humanity, but for my wife and I, we know that their embodiment of a sensitive temperament or addictive personality could spell disaster for their health and safety. I’m a mental illness survivor, and so my kids carry some genetic predisposition to my particular flavor of suffering. Social influences, issues of nurture, simultaneously serve as a beacon of light and an invitation to darkness for this fearful father trying not to pass on the painful afflictions of addiction and disorder.
It just so happens that, in addition to surviving mental illness, I’ve also lived through childhood obesity. I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave it to the experts to draw conclusions as to how the two overlap. I will say that for me, health has become a total wellness pursuit, one that holds mental health just as sacred as physical health, if not more so. For a former fat kid with an affinity for cookies, I don’t need a cognitive behavioral therapist to understand that my thoughts are inextricably tied to my behavior. So when I see Michelle Obama campaigning for greater health awareness in schools, I’m just as likely to cringe, as I am to solute her effort. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about trading in fruit snacks for actual fruit, but I wonder, “When will we also address the mental health of our children?”
I was a kid when I first heard about ideas of “health.” Health meant how I took care of my body, namely diet and exercise. There were measurements to help understand my level of health. I got a dot on a chart, and the doctor loosely explained what it meant to be normal. I was given a handout, a pyramid that ranked foods in order of importance and amount. The ones at the top were bad, and the ones at the bottom were good. Despite the best intentions of medical professionals and my loving parents, all I heard was that my body was bad. I was bad. My interpretation of a lack of health festered and eventually grew into negative self-worth. There were drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity, but mainly, there was the overwhelming hatred for my body. Any ability to grow into the loving and productive member of society I am today came as the direct result of psychotherapeutic treatment, most of which was spent undoing the accumulation of well-intentioned messages of health.
The desperation for my children’s well-being comes from intimate knowledge that health includes more than just our physical bodies. For me, my bodily health, or lack thereof, has been mostly the result of mental and emotional processes. I was no less likely to have a second cupcake because of the potential for type 2 diabetes than I was to later put down my liquor drink for fear of liver damage. My behavior was the symptom, my thoughts the cause. If we are to get anywhere as a society, if we are to be truly healthy, we have to start viewing our mental health as paramount, an equal partner with physical wellness.
Though I remain skeptical of my kids growing up in a school system that teaches them about nutrition and movement, I’m incredibly optimistic. I hope they will be instructed to appreciate their bodies, to nurture their bodies, to love their bodies. I pray they will treasure food and its powerful properties for energy, vitality, and healing. I want their mental health to be considered as much as their physical health, and I imagine a world where they learn that the two are forever linked.
My highest aspiration is that we start now. We take the time, between our broccoli promotions and disguised aerobics, to encourage unconditional self-love and acceptance in our children, for their bodies and their minds. I want my kids to grow up in a society that views each piece of health as a portion of the wellness whole. In the process, we may create a healthier society, one capable of seeing wellness in its totality; a nation, a world, where there’s space for it all. Regardless of which directions public policies take, my wife and I will be teaching our kids about mental health, the importance of cognitive flexibility and emotional strength. Perhaps they will be the minority, but hopefully, they will be healthy.