May is National Mental Health Month

Help is possible
“Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.” This line from the film As Good As it Gets makes me smile every time I hear it because I can relate. I have lived with diagnosed depressive and anxiety disorders since my freshman year of college. I am not alone.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every four adults — approximately 57.7 million Americans — experience a mental health disorder in a given year.
Mental illness is a serious issue, yet it isn’t something most people discuss on a regular basis. This should come as no surprise. Misconceptions about mental illness abound and, because of ignorance and fear, there is a stigma attached to mental illnesses. It is no wonder that people do not seek treatment.
Announcing that I take medication to control my anxiety and depression is not typically how I begin a conversation. With friends and family, where I feel comfortable, I talk about my disorders with humor. My psychiatrist is affectionately referred to as my nut-nut doctor. I laugh at myself because I don’t believe one should take life too seriously.
That said, I can remember having a panic attack once while working at The Phoenix Center. In spite of the fact that I was surrounded by other mental health counselors — professionals like myself — I was mortified and embarrassed that I could not control my anxiety. I was fearful my colleagues would never view me the same way, or worse, they would question my professional capabilities.
At a professional training I attended somewhere along the spectrum of my counseling career, I had the pleasure of listening to a substance abuse counselor, himself a former addict with more than a decade of sobriety, discuss the depression and anxiety he attempted to self-medicate through alcohol and drug abuse. Once he decided to get sober, he realized that he was going to have to deal with his mental disorders head on.
In addition to counseling and 12-step programs, the man started pharmaceutical therapy in the form of Prozac. He offered this analogy. If an individual has diabetes, she would take the insulin required to treat her illness. If an individual has high blood pressure, he would take a pill to keep it in check and avoid a heart attack or stroke. Having a mental illness, he pointed out, is no different.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) concurs with this point. Mental illnesses are classified as medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
One major misconception is that people have control over their mental illnesses — that these disorders can be overcome through a sheer act of will. With treatment, people with mental illnesses can live in recovery and wellness. Simply wishing away ill thoughts or feelings just does not happen.
It is important that friends and family — loved ones of an individual with a mental illness — become familiar with a disease’s signs and symptoms, available treatments, and ways they can help their loved one as he or she copes with the disorder. People with mental illnesses typically do not like the way they feel and lacking support from loved ones only compounds the problem.
Even with medication, my depression is always worse during the winter months because I don’t get enough sunlight. My husband doesn’t always understand how or why I feel exhausted, melancholy, or motivationally challenged for no reason other than the day is gray. I wish it were that easy for me to snap out of it and accomplish the million tasks on my ‘to-do’ list, but some days this just doesn’t happen.
Mental illnesses are not related to willpower, character or intelligence. It takes a great deal of courage to seek treatment. The good news, of course, is that mental illness is treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness (the severity of illness falls along a continuum), can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in a treatment plan.
The diagnosis of a mental illness is not a cause for shame. If you suspect that you, or someone you love, might be grappling with a mental illness — seek treatment. Recovery and wellness are possible. There is no reason anyone should suffer when they can be living a complete, active and fulfilling life.