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OPINION | CHRIS NORWOOD: Plea for kindness

Compassion makes a difference by CHRIS NORWOOD SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 9, 2021 at 3:46 a.m.

The whispers as you walk through your small town's grocery store. The glances as you're quickly ushered down the church aisle. The space given to you in the stands of the high school football game. Two years before I was born, my mother was in a serious car crash. She healed physically, but she had lasting damage from her head injury--a mental health disorder.

As a child, I witnessed her become the subject of hushed, and often hurtful, chatter for her somewhat eccentric behavior. At times, it made my family feel isolated--even more so under the watchful eyes of our neighbors. While painful, our experience isn't uncommon.

Prior to the pandemic, America was seeing increased levels of mental illness. From 2017-18, 19 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having one of these conditions--an increase of 1.5 million people. In 2020 alone, individuals seeking assistance for anxiety and depression skyrocketed. Our nation's youth were particularly vulnerable, with many expressing frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Recently, we saw the detrimental impact of mental illness firsthand in Tokyo when Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, withdrew from competition after feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was immediately met with unwavering support--and profound criticism. In subsequent interviews, Biles urged empathy and awareness, reminding critics that Olympians aren't merely athletes or entertainment. They're human beings with real emotions.

We shouldn't have to be gold medalists to feel validated in our feelings--or our need for support. My mother's traumatic brain injury permanently shifted the course of her life. Instead of being given care or grace, she was often written off by many in our community as "mentally unstable." She persevered through her challenges, but it wasn't always easy for me or my sister. Fortunately, I later found an outlet: working at a local florist shop.

Soon, I realized how small gestures can help those struggling with their mental health. Now I see how being there for others--during happy, sad or mundane moments--makes a difference. Flowers are temporary, but they have long-term positive effects on our moods. As behavioral research from Rutgers shows, flowers lead to happy emotions and feelings of life satisfaction. Data show people exhibit less depression, anxiety and agitation after receiving an arrangement. Perhaps even more importantly, individuals report increased contact with their family, friends and support systems.

In my more than four decades in the floral industry, I've been fortunate to help people celebrate their greatest joys. But I've also been there to offer solace during their dark and difficult times. This weekend for World Mental Health Day, and every day, I hope people will remember the importance of choosing kindness--whether that's sending flowers, sharing a smile or simply showing others compassion. As the saying goes, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind." We could all use a little more of that, especially as we deal with today's uncertainties.

Chris Norwood, AIFD, is the vice president of Tipton & Hurst, the state's leading florist since 1886.

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