The Yard Stick and Tool Box
Understanding mental illness is extremely difficult for most of us. It is hard to wrap our minds around and understand something that we cannot see. Physical illness is typically associated with a part of the body that is injured or compromised. Doctors can view cancer through scans or see organ failure due to other chronic health conditions. Even this can be hard for us to comprehend when we live with, work with, or otherwise have relationships with those who have signs of mental illness. It becomes increasingly difficult to have empathy and compassion for those that we deem as challenging to be around.
As a mental health therapist, I have developed a strategy to help those who interact with individuals that can be challenging and difficult to communicate with. I hope this visual tool can change some of the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health.
First concept: The Yard Stick
Let’s look at a yard stick. It is a measuring tool that is 1 yard long, or 3 feet in length. I love this visual because it gives us a measurement that we can SEE. Another measurement tool is a tape measure. You can even open your arms wide and use that distance as a measuring tool.
I like to imagine that we all have a 3 foot, 1 yard, or an arm’s length of capacity to handle stress. Let’s use the yardstick as our measurement device. Within this 1 yard, 3 feet is our gauge of how much stress or discomfort we can manage. This is a measurement of our threshold for staying calm and handling whatever comes our way! We know once we’ve reached the full length of the yard stick, we no longer have the capacity to handle any additional stress.
However, some of us may have had our yard stick broken, perhaps have a shorter length of measurement. This may be due to several factors including experiencing a traumatic event (if you do not know what trauma can do to brain functioning, feel free to research the lasting impact of these events), lack of nurturance and/or inconsistent parenting as a young child, a history of abuse, or predisposition to mental illness. Therefore, our capacity, or threshold may only be 1 foot. Even worse, it can be just a few inches when we reach our maximum limit. Some signs we see in those who have a limited capacity are:
- Short fuse, easily tempered, typically irritated
- Chronic blame of others or victimization (this can be very hard to have empathy for but please read below under the second concept)
- Dysregulated emotions; i.e. hysteria, chronic depression, spontaneous crying spells
- Lack of motivation related to depression or anxiety
- Inability to concentrate and focus (especially in children)
Second concept: The Tool Box
We all carry around an invisible box of “tools” or strategies we use to handle stress. This tool box may be filled with things like:
- Taking a walk
- Coloring, reading, or watching TV
- Calling a friend or family member, or accessing another social support
- Prayer or religion
Others tool boxes may be filled with unhelpful strategies like:
- Breaking, throwing, or otherwise damaging things
- Screaming, yelling, or raising our voice
- Saying hurtful words and blaming others
- Substance abuse
When we are born, we start with an empty tool box. We are all born with the innate ability to use our cries to express feelings and to have our needs met. It is through the observation of our caregivers and other members we are raised around, that we learn methods of handling stress and/or upsetting emotions. As parents, it is crucial to fill our children’s tool boxes with strategies to assist them with functioning in a healthy manner. It is also imperative as adults that we recognize the skills we have learned as children and to reflect on whether they are useful to our growth.
By putting concepts together we are able to see how difficult it is for those experiencing mental health symptoms to function in day-to-day life.
- Someone who was raised in a house hold where violence was used to manage upsetting feelings, were abused, and/or had their basic needs barely met, may have a tool box that is lacking the necessary tools to manage these issues appropriately and successfully. We may see this person in the community as someone who cannot hold a job, a child who cannot concentrate at school, or a violent criminal. Using the yard stick concept, we can say that this person’s yard stick has been compromised due to chronic instability and possibly being raised by someone who was also mentally ill. Therefore their capacity to handle stress is limited AND when stress does arise, the tools they use to manage these emotions are either missing or in damaged condition.
- For some it may be difficult to see individuals begging for money, food, or work on the side of the road with a cardboard sign.
This article shows that as of 2014 25% to 45% of those homeless in America as of 2014, had some sort of mental illness. Knowing the capacity of people who suffer from mental illness to handle stress including sustaining employment, handling a household, and other tasks of day-to-day life it is obvious why those with mental illness remain homeless. These individuals’ tool boxes may also be lacking in necessary supports to tackle life’s difficulties. As identified earlier, having and utilizing a social support system is helpful for all humans to manage daily tasks. When social support and other tools are not easily accessible it can compound the problems that those with mental illness face.
When we view others with this perspective, it can be easier to show empathy and compassion for those who suffer from mental illnesses. We can see that their capacity may be limited and that their tools to manage stress are lacking.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a broken yard stick or their tool box is lacking, please contact Northern Summit Counseling, LLC for assistance.