May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It was created in 1949 to raise awareness of mental health conditions and mental wellness for all. This year’s theme for Mental Health Month is – Tools 2 Thrive-providing practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation. and will call on individuals to share what life with a mental illness feels like for them in words, pictures and video by tagging their social media posts with #mentalillnessfeelslike (or submitting to MHA anonymously). Posts will be collected and displayed at mentalhealthamerica.net/feelslike.
I am 1 in 5. I find it easier to tell you that I am a recovering alcoholic and addict than it is to tell you I have a mental health condition. I would almost rather admit to being a cat burglar. Even in our more enlightened time, mental illness still carries a huge stigma. A friend who works for our local mental health department says, “I wish we could put a huge band aid on the fore head of people with mental illness. Maybe then people would really understand it is an illness.”
I have heard people say there is no real test for mental illness. It is all just something a psychiatrist or therapist labels you. I want to take a moment to explain those “labels” to you. Mental health practitioners make a diagnosis based on the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and covers all mental health disorders for both children and adults. There is another manual called ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.) Both manuals contain very strict, complicated, and definitive guidelines for diagnosing.
I was 36 years old when I received my first diagnoses (plural for diagnosis). It should have happened years before. There were several reasons for the delay. Mental illness wasn’t as treatable as it is now. Most people were afraid of being sent to a mental hospital. Doctor’s weren’t as knowledgeable as they are now. I also grew up in a household where mental illness was a taboo subject. My grandmother sent my great grandmother to the state mental hospital. They told her she was going for a ride in the country and then lied to everyone about where she was. That is what I understood happened to people who didn’t behave properly. She also felt that mental problems were from the devil. They were perhaps even punishment for a lack of faith and bad behavior.
When I was in my early twenties, I told my doctor some of the things going on in my life. He smiled. He said it was just my nerves. He said “all us women” didn’t cope well with stress and pressure. He gave me a prescription for Valium. Then he gave me another prescription. And then another. This went on for a couple of years. Valium was actually one of the worst things he could have given me. It was my first “drug” addiction.
As I told you, I have several diagnoses. My first was “Alcohol Use Disorder” That code is 303.90 (DSM V) in case you were wondering. There was also 304.10 (Substance Use Disorder). They didn’t come first in my life but were my first diagnoses. You can’t get to the problem when you are covering it with alcohol and drugs. I also have GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and Panic Disorder. I have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), BiPolar II with Clinical Depression, and PTSD.
Wow, that looks like I must be a total mess. Truth is that I WAS a total mess. I don’t have time share all of that here, but let me assure you, my life was a mess. I tried suicide at one point. However, medication and therapy have changed my life. Prayer and faith play an important part as well. I can’t make these things go away. I live with them. I make adjustments. Most of my friends learn the hard way not to come up behind me without warning. I don’t know who jumps higher, me or them. It really isn’t any different from someone with diabetes. They watch their sugar, they exercise, they check their sugar levels, and do whatever treatment it is that allows them to lead a normal life.
The old question comes up about nature and nurture. Did my genetics cause all of this? I am sure it contributed to it. Was it the way I was raised? Not exactly, but childhood trauma and abuse does contribute to some of this. Scientists and doctors are learning more all the time about our brains and the way they work or don’t work.
Why am I telling you all of this? We need everyone’s help. Here are ways you can help.
- Fight The Stigma. Learn the truth about Mental Health. Often the media portrays people with mental illness in an untruthful, unflattering, and hurtful way. You can help set the record straight. Sites like NAMI http://www.nami.org/ or Mental Health America http://www.nmha.org/ will give you realistic information.
- Please don’t tell me (or others) these things: “Cheer Up, it will be OK”. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “You are so strong-you don’t really need that medication do you?” “Oh come on, we all get down sometimes.” “You have so much going for you. How can you be depressed?” “There is nothing to be scared of or worried about.” “Just eat healthy food and exercise!” ‘It’s not really that bad, is it?” “Everyone has problems.” If you want to understand, ask me and be willing to hear what I have to say.
- Continue to push for Mental Health legislation. The Mental Health Parity Act was a great step but some insurance companies are finding creative ways to try to get around it.
So there you have it. I have an illness that affects my brain. My serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all out of whack. My reuptake receptors don’t function right. My prefrontal cortex didn’t develop normally and I have poorly integrated cerebral hemispheres. (Those two are attributed to abuse.) But I am still me. I am the person you hang out with, call or text, chat with online, work with, play with, and pray with. I am a mother, grandmother, and friend. I worked most of my life. I have been blessed with two wonderful therapists in my lifetime and have found the proper medications that work to keep me in balance. I have an amazing family and group of friends that support me. I am a child of God. God made me and loves me.
As Anne Lamott says: “You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed in certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee.”
How can you argue with that?
If you need help or know someone who does, there is help available…
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. (Chat available as well)
Mental Health America https://mhanational.org/ Much of MHA’s work is guided by its Before Stage 4 (B4Stage4) philosophy – that mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process. When we think about diseases like cancer or heart disease, we don’t wait years to treat them. We start before Stage 4—we begin with prevention, identify symptoms, and develop a plan of action to stop and hopefully reverse the progression of the disease. Like other diseases, it is critical to address symptoms early and plan an appropriate course of action on a path towards overall health.
Trevor Project: The Trevor Project also offers a 24-hour toll-free confidential crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Call 1-866-4-uTREVOR (1-866-488-7386).
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.SAFE (799-7233)
NAMI National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Beautifully written! I plan to share your essay. Thank you, Cara
Found this to be informative and straight-forward, without all the embellishments that sometimes clutter up the basic message. Mental health issues need to be recognized. When identified, they need to be treated, just as you would treat any other illness or disease.
Also found it interesting how you began with revealing that it was easier to admit to being a recovering alcoholic who also struggled with a drug dependency, than to admit to having a mental illness. Our generation truly did have a tendency to hide any sort of mental illness, going to great lengths to call it by any other name. The stigma of mental illness was a heavy burden to carry.
I had an aunt who was known to be mentally impaired due to some vague sort of accident, but the truth was that she suffered from a mental illness (likely schizophrenia), but was never properly diagnosed because she was hidden away in someone’s basement. She lived in that basement most of her life, being kept hidden from “normal people”, for fear that the family might be somehow embarrassed by her existence. It wasn’t until I was a grown adult that I even knew she existed. I remember feeling so sad for her when I found out that she had spent almost her entire life in that dreary basement, locked away out of sight. She died at an early age (30’s). It was rumored she died of pneumonia, but the truth is that she hung herself, most likely in an act of desperation.
Mental illness does not mean a person is defective. It means they have a medical condition that requires treatment, the same as any other illness. Thanks for this timely reminder, especially during the month of May, when we are given the opportunity to raise awareness.
p.s. Meant to mention that I like the new photo.
It’s a great shot, and love the smile! 🙂