I'm Nuts, You're Nuts, They're Nuts: Mental Health Awareness Month
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, but for nearly everyone, mental health is a daily issue. We all deal with mental illness, if not in ourselves, in our families and in our circle of friends. Some families make a religion of silence and denial, while others never stop talking about a designated relative who serves as the scapegoat. And some families, like mine, take it as a given that everyone is nuts.
Nuts may be a pejorative term, but not to me. It's just shorthand for the variety of mental problems that plague us. Depression runs in my family, along with bi-polar disorder and anxiety. We don't have much alcoholism but we do have substance abuse. I can't see any reason to be secretive about this. It's just a fact of life.
Nearly 450 million people worldwide are currently living with a mental illness. In America, one in five adults will experience a mental health condition and over 10 million will experience serious suicidal thoughts every year. Despite these overwhelming statistics, less than half of those living with a mental health condition will seek treatment, contributing to the rising prevalence of severe mental illness and suicides that we are seeing today.
We desperately need better access to quality mental health and suicide prevention resources, but just as important, we need to start talking openly about mental illness. We need to work harder to break the stigma associated with mental disorders by sharing our stories and reaching out to others. Even if healthcare providers start covering mental health as comprehensively as physical health, they can't help us if we don't ask for help.
How many friends or relatives do you have who won't take their meds? How many have serious problems that they refuse to address? It's not your job to police them, but it's your job to get them talking and to be a good listener.
Recently, at a small get together, I was telling someone about a friend and said, "Bla bla bla lithium." A woman walking past us did a double take and joined the conversation. Soon, she revealed the story of her devastating marriage to a mentally unstable man and the impact this had on her own mental health. I did a lot of nodding and said, "I'm so sorry" and "That must have been so hard!" I barely knew this person but when I left, she thanked me profusely for my empathy.
For me personally, this sort of empathy comes naturally. I have done my share of suffering and it's taught me that I'm far from alone. Everywhere you go, there’s someone right next to you who is going through something. Divorce, loss, trauma, anxiety, chronic depression, they are all part of life and there's no avoiding that. A guy at a dog park told me he was newly widowed and I asked how he was getting by. He grew tearful as he confessed to his sadness and I sat down and listened. This simple connection felt consoling, to both of us.
By now, most of us know that most major mental illnesses are highly genetic. It doesn't mean we'll have them if our parents or siblings have them. But a trauma can cause our predisposition to tip over. A good way to look at this is: Nature loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.
Meanwhile, major disorders often come with co-disorders. Panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, and OCD all fall under Anxiety Disorder, the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. They are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
Quoting the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
Stigma is toxic to mental health because it creates an environment of shame, fear and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment. The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act to change it.
Why suffer in silence? There is no good reason, and plenty of reasons not to. I'm urging you not to! Most of these conditions do not get better if ignored. You know that adage about sunlight being the best disinfectant? I believe this holds true for mental health. If you like groups, you can find one for depression, grief, panic attacks, PTSD and more. If you dread groups, like I do, there is private counseling, sometimes available at a sliding scale or in some clinics, for free.
Increasingly, general practitioners are trained to look for signs of serious depression, but sometimes it's up to you to say that you're having problems with sleeping, eating, or leaving your house. If you don't like doctors, and you can't bring yourself to reach out to a friend, there are peer support groups online. Sign up at Healthunlocked.com. You can learn about online therapy at BetterHelp.com.
If you're worried about a friend, please reach out now. You won't be sorry. If you're worried about yourself, text HOME to 741741.
A good thing to remember: How you feel now is not how you’ll feel tomorrow. Let this be your mantra. And share with a friend.
Text: Sister Wolf