May column in 110 Magazine
The interviewer had asked, how do we move away from the stigma of a mental health diagnosis so that more people can feel supported and find help?
“Stories, personal stories” I heard the gentleman on the podcast respond, with conviction.
“I might go crazy.” “I’m a little OCD.” I’ve made these statements in my life, flippantly, in jest. The issue is that statements like these can alienate and hurt people who are experiencing the real and debilitating symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder or any other life altering mental health condition. The truth is, there’s no joking about mental health and I spent many years with a lack of knowledge or true understanding of the many mental health diagnoses. This was a topic on the periphery of my life.
I knew my great-grandfather had returned from World War II, never really able to function in society again, essentially, drinking himself into oblivion. I suppose my family just assumed he was a deadbeat father and husband, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder did not come into that conversation. When he reemerged in his 80’s I met him for the first time and was left speechless to hear his stories of being a solider on the ground the day Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated. Once he was back in New York, it was “buck up and get back to life,” which obviously didn’t work out too well for him.
Growing up, my best friend’s dad would experience terrifying “flashbacks” from the Vietnam War and I never knew it was called PTSD. We all just waited for the episode to end and carried on with the day. Someone close to me shared about a great grandmother who was committed to an “insane asylum” leaving a gaggle of young children behind. I presume Post-partum depression wasn’t a hot topic in the 1800’s. In high school, I had a best friend who experienced an eating disorder and another friend who struggled with self-harm. Even still, mental health disorders sat as an outlier of my awareness.
When my uncle committed suicide about 10 years ago, it hit closer to home. Though I was aware that suicide was on the rise, I still somehow felt distant from understanding the human experience of being at a place where ending your own life becomes the only way out of pain.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020 there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts and more than 48,000 deaths by suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. 90% of those who died by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death.
Then the day came as I sat in a mental health facility with a loved one. I was keenly aware that I had entered a world I didn’t fully comprehend, but aimed to embrace the learning in order to offer love and support to my loved one and become a voice for deeper understanding and compassion.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. —that’s 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent — experiences mental illness in a given year; and for the youth of America, these numbers are on the rise. Many individuals never seek professional help for their mental health conditions due to lack of finances, resources, stigma or a combination of all three.
We can do our part for mental health awareness by acknowledging that a “wallflower,” “worry wart” or “scaredy cat” might be a person experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, or Panic Disorder. Offering our heart-centered response can make a difference. We can also encourage and support more mobile crisis response team programs, and psychiatric emergency response teams who assist police with calls related to mental health issues.
The homeless man on the street may have a mental illness and the situation may not be as easy as “go get a job.” The teen self-medicating with drugs or alcohol may not simply be a rebellious adolescent, but rather, someone in anguish using a strategy to ease or numb the pain of their symptoms.
What we can know for sure is that a person experiencing an untreated mental health condition is most likely suffering. Whether the answer for healing is brain imaging, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, cognitive behavior therapy, holistic or integrative medicine where exploration of nutrition, environment, body, mind and spirit takes place, the time has come to acknowledge that even if we aren’t experiencing a mental health condition, it is likely that someone close to us is.
While May is Mental Health Awareness month, I encourage us all to carry this awareness with us throughout the year. Together, we can create a society that doesn’t trivialize mental health issues, dismissing them as aggravating quirks, or bothersome personality traits, but rather, expressing empathy toward others who are doing their best to cope and manage their life altering symptoms each day. This is possible even when we may not fully understand their plight. When we create a safe space for those who struggle with their mental health and for those who love and support them, we will turn the tide and create awareness and sensitivity about this growing epidemic.
Much Love. -a xo