A few years ago, I moved to a new city for graduate school. Along with all the excitement and exploration, I started cycling through my new-place checklist: find a dentist, grocery store, favorite coffee shop — and a good mental health therapist.
There was much to weigh: Did the therapist have hours beyond 9-5? Was she covered by my insurance? If so, how many visits were allowed? Was he a good fit for my needs? Finding a good option took more than a year.
In the meantime, there were other things I could do to take care of myself. I took advantage of some wellness activities offered by the school; had some regular, honest check-ins with good friends; and took walks, prioritizing time outside.
Each of these actions can be thought of as a ring of the mental health “bullseye” — a common visual to represent an approach to human behavior called the social ecological framework.
In the bullseye, an individual is at the center, framed by concentric circles that include family and friends, organization or community, and policy. The essence of this framework is that human behaviors are relationship-driven. We exist in relation to our context — whether that be our family, our neighborhood, or a state policy.
The model helps us see that efforts to influence behavior are most successful when they influence some factor of those relationships. For example, it is easier for a child to be healthy when the neighborhood she lives in has a safe green space for her to play in. It is easier for someone to reduce plastic use when his family has a recycling bin in the home.
Applying this framework to mental health, then, is a helpful way to take stock of how we are doing. Starting at the inner ring, we might look for ways to support ourselves individually. I knew it was important for me to prioritize time outside, even when I was busy. I also found a church soon after I moved.
Then I moved to the next ring, second from center: family and friends. Those were my honest check-ins with a couple good friends. I also made it a priority to make a few trips home on long weekends. I am at my best when I spend quality time with those closest to me.
The next ring out is the community or organizational piece — for me, this was my school; for others, it may be a workplace or neighborhood. Many places have local mental health resources, like a mindfulness session or support group. Taking advantage of these opportunities helps strengthen our own wellness — and, in turn, supports a social norm that talking about and taking care of our mental health is okay.
The outermost ring focuses on policy. My own experience finding a therapist shaped the way I consider political candidates’ positions and potential bills related to mental health. How do we choose to fund counseling centers? Does the ratio of mental health support to students at my university make sense? What disparities in accessing mental health resources exist in my community? Does my candidate “walk the walk” — that is, not just say that mental health matters, but translate that to action and funding to tangibly support resources?
Mental health, like most of the human experience, is a fundamentally relational project. If you’re looking to support your mental health, consider what each ring looks like for you. Maybe choose one ring to focus on each week. Bolstering and fortifying our support system at every level will help us care for our minds and hearts so that we can grow into the people we were created to be.