In 1980, my father started the Can Collector’s Club (CCC). I was 2 years old. As the story goes, it was my mother’s brainchild, but dad quickly took ahold of the idea with his entrepreneurial spirit. Some people thought he had lost his mind. Some still do. But the purpose of the CCC was simple. Convince family and friends to turn aluminum cans into him so that he could use the money from recycling to support our college fund. And clean up the environment.
Quickly, the CCC turned into an annual contest, with those collecting the most cans awarded prizes at a fiscal (can) year-end party that featured balloon tosses, a self-indulgent speech by the director himself (often in costume), and a cast of characters set on taking irreverence to a whole new level. As the years passed with semi-annual newsletters, and the number of cans grew, so did the stories, enough so that one day, Jim Schroeder (Sr.), ended up on the front page of CNN.com (Original News story from WTVW Evansville, Ind., November 7, 2008).
Midst the eccentricities and obsessiveness at times, though, my father remained ever conscious of his goals. Even his arguments grew more coherent as the dollars amassed and the number of families involved grew. And ever conscientious of his children’s needs and the community of people that rallied around this cause, he began to look at other ways to have a positive effect on those who needed it most.
So it is when it comes to mental health. As DSM-5 tops out at a whopping 947 pages, and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) promises millions of dollars in search of biological causes for mental conditions, something seems lost in trying to really understand where mental health really begins. Mental health is not the absence of impairing, abnormal, or distressing symptoms any more than summer is the absence of ice, snow, and cold. Summer is a period of great growth just as we humans are beings of tremendous possibility. But in order to be mentally healthy, three things must be present: consciousness, coherence, and conscientiousness. By nature, these mind states are active processes and apply to both our internal experiences and our external behaviors.
Consciousness is not just a dynamic awareness of our thoughts and feelings, but it is an acute understanding and concern of our circumstances, now and at other times. Put more simply, it is a person’s ability to take in their situation fully in order to best determine their next course of action. Coherence is the state of being logical, consistent, and congruent with what exists around us. It does not disregard our emotional state, but it mandates that the arguments we make be based on reasonable facts, ideas, and/or beliefs. Conscientiousness signifies that what we do is right and just, and that our actions are principled. It serves as our link to others, in that we consider how they are affected by our behaviors.
For arguments sake, take any diagnosed mental condition, and you will find that each of these three critical factors are at play. When we are depressed, we become less conscious to the world around us, our beliefs become irrational, and self-absorption takes hold. When we cannot concentrate, we tend to only focus on loosely connected details, our thoughts become disjointed and confusing, and we seek to satisfy the need that lies right in front of us.
But this article is not about pathology. It is about health. It is why exercise works so well to improve mental health. When you are physically fit, your mind becomes more conscious to what is going on. With this, comes an opportunity to step outside your closed box and consider what you and others may see and need. It is why cognitive-behavioral therapy works. It seeks to take irrational beliefs and put them into a clearer, more realistic context. The belief that “Everyone hates me” is no more coherent than the grandiose idea that “Everyone loves me.” It is why regular volunteering has long been known to have lasting positive psychological effects on the volunteer. We become conscientious regarding the fact that we are not the only one with a tough life.
So before we get so entangled in mental dysfunction, maybe we need to spend some more time considering what happens when we really do function. In the process, we may find that stigma reduces, conversations become more productive, and we all begin to realize that your mind and my mind need to focus on developing the same critical properties. And if anything or anyone tries to convince you that a mobile device or a pill can take the place of these things, be very, very cautious. Nothing can take their place, and sometimes, that which promises to relieve you can leave you more scattered and disjointed than before.
By the way, for those who are curious, the CCC is in its 34th year running. This past year, a record number of families (60) participated. Now that all of my siblings have graduated college, 100% of the proceeds (including that from my father’s penny and nickel clubs) go to a mission in Haiti, where my father can’t wait to go every year to see the beautiful, shining faces of those kids he loves. His vision, and that of my mother’s, remains just as conscious, coherent, and conscientious as ever. And now, a new generation has gotten into the mix, as my kids and their cousins scramble over wooded banks and scour sidewalks for cans amid the questioning gazes of onlookers, who can only wonder just what possesses those kids to do such a thing.