Income #Inequality, Food Insecurity, and Mental Health #BlogAction14

Blog Action Day BannerEditor’s Note: Today is Blog Action Day. Bloggers from over 105 countries will be blogging about inequality.

A few months ago, I binged on documentaries one weekend, while gathering information for my upcoming book about how—as a society, educators, and parents—we can optimize children’s mental health. Among other films, I watched Inequality for All and A Place at the Table. While I kind of knew things were bad, these two films really drove home two points: income inequality isn’t sustainable and food insecurity is real—right here in the U.S.A., the “richest country in the world.”

(I got so riled up, I now have a max documentaries per weekend rule.)

What Does This Have to Do with Mental Health?

I was interested in these topics because my research has revealed that much mental distress stems from environmental factors. Yes, we may be born with a predisposition to mental illness, but it’s our environment and experiences that determine mental health outcomes. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study links childhood trauma to a host of long-term health problems, including depression and suicide. One report indicates that half of all children have experienced trauma. And guess what the most common form of trauma is? Financial hardship.

This is why there is no way to have an honest discussion about mental health without considering the impact of income inequality, food insecurity, and all the other social factors that contribute to mental distress. This is not an individual issue and people who suffer from mental illness should not be stigmatized as being weak or “crazy.” They are simply reacting to a sick, unjust, unequal society that is not designed to optimize mental health, but rather to optimize profits and economic growth.

Indeed, income and status inequality is directly associated with mental illness—on both ends of the spectrum (dominance and subordination). Write Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-founders of the Equality Trust:

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies. But we are less nice and less happy: Greater inequality redoubles status anxiety, damaging our mental health and distorting our personalities — wherever we are on the social spectrum.

A Few Disturbing Facts

  • The United States ranks fourth in income inequality.(Fourth, people!)
  • The average single black or Hispanic woman owns a can of soup for every $40,000,000 owned by a member of the Forbes 400.*
  • Twenty percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013.**
  • Over 15 million U.S. children lived in food insecure households in 2012.**
  • Four million children and teens in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a serious mental disorder.***
  • In my home state, Iowa, 19 percent of eleventh grade girls contemplated suicide in 2012.

Are You Proud to Be an American Yet?

I want to be proud of my adopted country. I want us to lead the way in developing sustainable economic models that care less about the bottom line and more about the welfare of all citizens and the health of our planet. To do so, we must create legislation that holds business owners accountable to the common good. Further, we must reduce income inequality and, subsequently, eliminate food insecurity. Corporate leadership must pay workers a living wage—enough for three healthy meals a day, safe housing, clothing, transportation, education, and hobbies.

There’s enough money to go around. Any one of the richest ten people in the U.S. could pay for housing for every homeless person in our country. And there is plenty of food to feed everyone. No child should have to go hungry. As former astronaut Buzz Aldrin has said, “If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.”

Now that we know that mental health is highly dependent on our environment, it’s time we take a stand against income inequality and hunger insecurity (oh, so related). There are lots of way to get involved. First, vote for the people who are more likely to support these changes. Then visit the Inequality for All action page to figure out where you can plug in. And talk to your friends and family about these issues.

Income inequality, food insecurity, and resulting mental distress is simply not acceptable in my book.

We can do better.

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

*Source: Inequality for All – Fact 5
**Source: Child Hunger Facts
***Source: Facts on Children’s Mental Health in America

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Ten Years of Blogging: A Reflection

Birthday candles black and whiteTen years ago on this very day, October 11, I embarked on an adventure that has allowed me to express myself in ways I never imagined and connect with folks near and far. Ten years ago today, I wrote my first blog post.

For some reason, ten years ago it was cool to write all lowercase—and incomplete sentences. Smiley faces were apparently also a thing. My first post was just an “hello world,” really. And not many people saw it. In fact, I think I had it turned off in the search engines for a while, because I thought it was kind of creepy that people I didn’t know might read it.

For quite a while, I just wrote about random topics. Sometimes, it was inspired by something I heard on the news while working out in the morning. But mostly it was about my life, which sometimes was a little insane, but even back then, I realized that taking weekends off was a good thing (but it didn’t happen very often).

By 2006 or so, I started really getting into my profession, product management. So I started a product management blog, Product Management Zen. It focused on how to survive the quite taxing product management profession and was kind of popular with other product managers. However, after a few years of product managing, I moved into more of an executive role (little to no hands-on work), so I decided to let that blog go.

In mid-2008, after neglecting my original Tablog for a while, I came back to it. At this point, I had started wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. We moved. I got interested in voluntary simplicity and became a budding tree hugger. (A.k.a. midlife crisis.) I started writing more about productivity, health, and going green—and combos of these.

I also fell in love with Decorah, IA, where we now reside. Wow, it’s really fun to go back and read these thoughts of yonder years. Six years ago, here’s how I described Decorah in one paragraph:

Decorah is a small town, but has lots of character and is progressive in nature. It boasts a great co-op and is actually mentioned in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for its “Seed Savers Exchange,” which is a network for sharing heirloom seeds. In addition, it was founded by Norwegians, so it has a Nordic flavor to it from Norwegian flags on the architecturally interesting houses to a Viking mascot at the local high school.

Throughout 2009, I started feeling more and more that I wanted a blog focused specifically on simple living. So I started dreaming up this blog, Simply Enough. In late December, 2009, I bid farewell to the happy-go-lucky Tablog that had been my platform for over five years and wrote my first of 287 published posts here on Simply Enough.

In the spring of 2010, our family embarked on a journey which would turn out to be the most difficult of our lives. Without warning, we were hurled into the mental health system when our daughter started losing weight and complaining of stomach aches and feeling depressed. I took some time off. It ended well, but first we had to endure a seemingly never-ending cycle of drug cocktails, out-of-control side-effects, hospitalizations, and never quite knowing if we were doing the right thing.

At the end of that journey, I left my nine-year career in software, and started freelancing. It gave me time to think and get to know lots of different people. I started to realize that our health—wellness—is everything. If we are not well, nothing else matters. I also started making connections between simple living, local food systems, and wellness. I did a year-long wellness project and decided to become a health coach. I updated Simply Enough to be more of a business website. I also started writing a book about our experience with the mental health system.

However, life has a way of taking twists and turns in a way you’d never expect. While still pursuing my health coaching certification, I started working at Luther College, managing the website and online advertising. I switched Simply Enough back to a simple blog and informed people that I wasn’t taking new clients. That spring, I also launched Decorah Holistic Health, an online directory for holistic health providers in NE Iowa. I stopped working on my book. And I stopped blogging for a couple of months.

It was weird not to be writing. So I picked it back up. First my blog. Then my book. And I committed to writing a weekly email letter to subscribed readers. It’s been over a year. I still send out emails almost weekly. And I try to blog at least once a week. My manuscript is done. I’ll be formatting endnotes the rest of the afternoon. In November, I’ll run a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for copy editing, layout, cover design, and first edition print run. I hope to celebrate the launch of my book next July.

As much as I sometimes wish I never had to sit in front of a computer monitor ever again, I love blogging. I love the way it allows me to express my feelings when loved ones pass away and discuss topics about which I’m passionate. I love connecting with readers and getting emails saying that I helped somebody in some small way or made them think about the world differently. The encouragement from readers and the inspiration of other bloggers turned authors is what gave me the courage to pursue writing my first book. All 80,000+ words of it. I can’t wait to share it with you.

And I look forward to ten more years of blogging (at least!).

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You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Do Good

I’ve written before about the fact that I am not perfect. (I know—shocker!) For example:

  • I once stood by as a sales person made racist remarks during a sales meeting. (I wanted to say, “If you have to preface your statement with ‘I know this isn’t PC, but,’ don’t say it!” But I didn’t.)
  • I’ve taken my career so seriously that it upset the health of my family.
  • I complain too much—especially when people don’t meet my (unrealistically?) high expectations.
  • I sometimes pull out of commitments at the last minute, because I’d rather be reading in bed.

I’ve done—and continue to do—plenty of things of which I’m not proud.

Am I Worthy?

I think about this, and I wonder, who am I to call myself a social activist? I’m not Gandhi or Mother Theresa. I still live in a biggish house while writing about simple living. (Hearing Dee Williams, author of The Big Tiny, speak last night gave me even more perspective on what it really means to live simply.) I barely scrape together ten minutes of formal mindfulness practice each day, yet I’m giving lectures and presentations on mindfulness in education. I’m a health coach, but I just ate a pumpkin cheesecake bar (so good!). And I want to end injustice in this country, but I haven’t taken the time to really get to know those who truly suffer injustice.

The end of my stream of consciousness ends with: Am I worthy? Do I have what it takes to be a “social activist?” Or should I just go back to watching TV?

The Common Good

This morning, I finished Jim Wallis’ little ebook Conservatives, Liberals, and the Fight for America’s Future. I found it when searching online for writings on the “common good.” Our politicians—and most of us, really—have lost sight of the common good. Doing something “for the common good” means to do something that benefits all. Not just people with money and power. Not just your own interests.

While reading this book, I realized (again) that everybody can—and should—contribute to the common good. We don’t have to be perfect to do good! In fact, according to Wallis, “the common good and the quality of our life together will finally be determined by the personal decisions we all make.”

The epilogue includes a list of “Ten Personal Decisions for the Common Good.” They are all excellent and many overlap with the calls to action in my forthcoming book. But my favorite one is this:

Ask yourself what in the world today most breaks your heart and offends your sense of justice. Decide to help change that and join with others who are committed to transforming that injustice.

Transform That Injustice

It doesn’t say anything about having certain qualifications or meeting specific standards to make change. No, it’s about diving it and “transforming that injustice.” For me, that’s ensuring that all children are given the best possible start in life to improve their mental health outcomes. That’s why I’m lecturing about mindfulness in education. That’s why I write about having “enough,” but not using more than your share. That’s why I spent thousands of dollars to become a health coach so I can help others manage their stress and have a happier and healthier home life.

If we wait for perfection to start transforming that injustice, it will never happen. And we don’t have to wait! Perfection is an illusion. We are fallible humans who make mistakes, don’t live up to ideals, and continuously disappoint ourselves and others.

Now’s the time to start or recommit ourselves to transforming that injustice, imperfect as we may be.

What injustice will you be transforming?

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All Work and No Play…

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. ~Proverb

Lately, I’ve been feeling dull. Every conversation I’ve had with anybody outside of work has focused on my book or my work to promote mental health in the schools. In my defense, some people asked—and seemed genuinely interested. But when my daughter started pointing it out, I realized that I needed to lighten up a bit and find a little play in my life.

Finding Play

So this past weekend, my 17-year-old and I drove down to Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, for a weekend of play. Half-way there, I discovered that I had left my backpack, which contained my laptop and Kindle, at home. I was quite distraught for a few minutes, fretting over the fact that I wouldn’t be able to send my Sunday email or read a few more pages of Overwhelmed (a book about balancing work and play). Then my daughter reminded me that it was a good thing. And of course it was!

We spent Saturday afternoon in our hotel room watching a marathon of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.” Then I got a makeover for a night on the town. After a bit of shopping, we ended up at a great little tapas bar with superb food. We fell asleep to more HGTV. The following morning I stayed in bed until 9:20 a.m. Yes, that’s 9 freakin’ 20 a.m.! It is very possible that this hasn’t happened since adolescence. After a leisurely morning at the hotel, we brunched (one of our favorite activities) and shopped some more before heading north for home.

Play Is Essential

I may forget, but right now, I’m thrilled to have re-discovered that I need to play. Really play. Forget about saving the world. Forget about writing a book. Forget about chores and obligations. Just for a little while.

Turns out play is an essential component of wellness!

Play brings joy. And it’s vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships. ~Margarita Tartakovsky

After that great weekend, getting up on Monday morning wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it was easy! I felt rested. Energized. (And that’s a good thing, because this week has been anything but smooth so far!) In fact, playing sharpened my focus and motivation.

So don’t forget to play. Because, all work and no play makes you dull. And we can’t have that!

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Ten Books

I usually don’t participate in the Facebook “tag you’re it!” games (yes, total party pooper—I know…). But when two different friends tagged me to post ten books that have had an impact on my life or stuck with me in some way, I couldn’t resist.

However, in the Facebook post, I didn’t explain why I posted the books I did, so I thought I’d explain that here.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I believe my aunt Kina introduced me to the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a young child. It was my first experience with fantasy literature, and I was hooked. Imagine if there are other worlds out there with talking animals and centaurs and evil witches!

I read the whole series multiple times throughout my childhood, getting lost in the stories time and time again. As I got older, I became intrigued by the allegorical qualities of the books. So intrigued, in fact, that I wrote my senior paper on this topic in high school—and won best paper in my class. (True story!)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy

This book has everything you’d want in a great story: action, romance, great dialogue, intrigue, and suspense. I think the reason this book (and the rest of the books in the series) stuck with me is because I loved the unpredictable twists and turns.

It also has a most beautiful love story that you don’t see coming.

Papa’s Wife by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

In this charming book, a young girl convinces her much older employer, a Swedish priest and sworn bachelor, to marry her. It is a beautiful love story set in reality.

It has stuck with me over the years, partially due to the wonderful depiction of life in northern Sweden, but also because the family eventually migrates to the United States—just like me!

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I don’t know how this book couldn’t have a profound impact on anybody who reads it. It was my introduction to slavery and the abolitionist movement. Reading this book helped me understand the power of the written word to enact change.

I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity – because as a lover of my county, I trembled at the coming day of wrath. ~Harriet Beecher Stowe

I remember reading an especially sad part of this book as a child and not being able to sleep. The next morning, I was so tired and didn’t want to go to school. My dad’s solution was to offer me coffee…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I typically don’t read mystery, but since this book was set in Sweden, I decided to give it a try. And look, here it is on my top ten list! Of course, I love it because it’s set in Sweden and is wonderfully shocking and entertaining.

However, as a writer, I love how the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is able to forget about everything and write. He does find time for exercise and spending time with a handful of friends (lovers), but other than that, he investigates and writes. What a life!

Kulla Gulla by Martha Sandwall-Bergström

Oh boy. How do I even begin to describe… Kulla Gulla is the nickname of an orphan who, in the first few books in the series, slaves away at various farms, but always with a great attitude, until she discovers that she is the long lost grandchild of the richest landowner in the area.

Once in a position of power, Kulla Gulla uses it for good and marries a (gasp!) socialist. While I never picked up on the political undertones as a child, now I appreciate Kulla Gulla’s influence on my own political views and my longing for a just society.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I have recently recognized that many of my favorite moves are about writers. Now I’m realizing that many of my favorite books are also about writers. Anne of Green Gables is no exception.

Here’s another series that I read multiple times in my teens and also at least a couple of times as an adult. I am in love with Anne’s free spirit and creativity. She encourages me to keep writing.

Simple Prosperity by David Wann

Switching gears into non-fiction… This book is the first book I read on voluntary simplicity or “simple living.” I remember vividly reading it early in the mornings with my breakfast before hitting the gym. I literally bounced out of bed every day to learn more.

Before I read this book, I never considered that I had the choice to live simply. That I could get off the hamster wheel and make less money and have more quality. Talk about impact!

Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker

A friend lent this book to me and my husband during a time of deep despair. Within its pages we found stories that sounded just like ours, and we realized we were not alone. We also realized the vast influence of the pharmaceutical industry on psychiatry, the mental illness narrative, and our collective mental health.

It’s possible that this book saved our daughter’s life.

On Writing by Stephen King

I have read a number of stellar book on writing and this is one of my favorites (and the one that came to mind during the Facebook game). I actually listened to this book, with Stephen King himself as the narrator. Part memoir and part writing manual, it gave wonderful insight into the writing craft.

But best of all, it made me realize that Stephen King is a pretty smart guy and a marvelous writer—and perhaps I should read some of his other books, even though the horror genre is never at the forefront of my mind. I’ve now read several of is novels, including The Stand, The Green Mile, Carrie, The Shining, Doctor Sleep, and 11/22/63. I’ve yet to be disappointed.

Over to You!

What’s your list? Quick, don’t think about it too much. It’s okay if it isn’t the list.

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