May is National Mental Health Month

May is National Mental Health Month.  Mental Health awareness is a cause that is very near and dear to my heart.  I cope with mental illness myself.  Friends and family have had to cope with me and my illness. I have friends and family who cope with their own mental issues as well.

Not much is known about mental illness.  There is a stigma attached to mental illnesses that is not attached to other physical diseases.  Nobody would dare tell a person with diabetes that they should just shake it off.   Nobody would tell a person with multiple sclerosis that their illness is because of a character flaw.   Nobody would tell a person who has heart disease that it’s a result of bad parenting.  Nobody would dare call someone who has difficulty walking “gimpy”, but we think it’s okay to refer to all people with a mental illness as “crazy”.  People seem to think it’s okay to say these things to someone who is dealing with a mental illness or disorder.

This stigma is very harmful.  Because of it, millions of people are too ashamed to seek help for what is often a very treatable condition.  If left untreated, mental illness can become more serious.

In order to get rid of this harmful stigma, educating the public is the key.  Showing compassion towards someone who has a mental illness also helps.  One of the worst things a person who has a mental illness can feel is isolated.

During the month of May, I will be blogging about various mental health topics.  This is in an effort to help educate the public.  The most effective weapon to fight against this stigma is knowledge.  I will talk about other disorders, treatments, places to go for support, and even living with someone who has mental illness.

I am open about my struggles with mental illness.  I choose to do so for several reasons.  Keeping quiet perpetuates the stigma.  If I acknowledge it publicly, I have to own it and take responsibility for myself, my behavior and my treatment.  If my talking about my struggles helps one person to seek help for their issues, any flak, fallout, or discrimination I receive is worth it.  I do not do this for sympathy.  I do this to help.  Helping someone else is part of my own healing.

Here are some common myths about mental illness in general.

Mental illness isn’t a real illness.  It’s a weakness of character.  

Mental illness is an illness of the mind.  Mental illness is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, enviornmental and pyschological factors.  A psychiatrist or a doctor must diagnose the condition.

A person cannot will themselves out of a mental illness.  That would be like telling a cancer patient that they can will their cancer away.

This attitude of “mental illness is a character flaw” is one of the biggest contributors to the stigma.   When a person feels ashamed of having a mental illness, they are less likely to seek help for it.

Untreated mental illness is costly.  It has both an economic cost and a personal cost.   The economic cost of untreated mental illness is estimated to be around 100 billion dollars a year.  [Source: Mental Illness Facts.  NAMI.org]   The cost to society for untreated mental illness is unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives.  Loss productivity due to missed work days as a result of a mental illness is another consequence of untreated mental illness.

Mental illness is treatable.  The longer a person waits to seek treatment, the worse their conditions becomes.   A person can become depressed due to a life event, such as a loss of employment.  If the person affected doesn’t seek treatment, their depression becomes worse.  When this happens, a person may feel the need to self-medicate.  This can lead to addiction: addiction to drugs or alcohol, addiction to foods, or addiction to shopping for example.  An addict’s behavior is highly damaging and costly both monetarily and in the terms of the addict’s relationships with others and their ability to function in a healthy way.  It is less expensive to treat the depression early than it is to treat depression coupled with an addiction.

Mental illness is just an excuse to avoid responsibility. 

Mental illness is a disease.  Unless a psychiatrist deems a person mentally incompetent, people with mental illness are still responsible for their actions and for seeking treatment.  People who use mental illness as a crutch are not helping themselves; however they may not be at a point yet where they are ready to own their condition.

Part of the treatment is to take responsibility for your illness.  That includes responsibility for your actions.  A diagnosis provides the “why” behind why you do what you do.  Once you understand “why” you are behaving in a certain way, you are still responsible for correcting the behavior.

This myth also comes up during high profile criminal cases where a defendant pleads not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.   When this happens, there is usually a public outcry  of “oh, it’s an excuse” and “that person is trying to get away with it”.    The “insanity” defense rarely works.  There is a legal threshold that this person must meet after they have had a complete psychiatric evaluation by a court appointed psychiatrist.  In order to successfully use this defense, the defendant must show that they were not in full control of their mental faculties and could not distinguish right from wrong at the time the crime was committed.  This is very difficult to prove, which is why the defense only works for very few people.

Doctors give out medication like candy.  If that person were stronger, they wouldn’t need a crutch like medication.

Medication is only a tool, not the solution.  There is no “one size fits all” treatment for mental illness.  The most effective treatment for mental illness is medication combined with talk or behavioral therapy.  The medication and the therapy must be tailored to the individual and their condition.

Our brains are made of of a series of nerves and chemicals that all work together to control our normal functions and our thoughts, emotions and perceptions.  When a chemical is lacking or imbalanced, it affects the way we think.

In my own experience, my brain is wired to worry excessively.  My anxiety is genetic.  I know this because it runs in my family.  When I was not on medication, I would worry about one thing which then snowballed into more worry about things that had nothing to do with the original worry.  Then I would have a panic attack.  When I was back on the medication, the same issue came up and I took a “deal with it as it comes” mentality.  The medication helped to adjust the impulses and chemicals that controlled this compulsion to worry.  The effect was that I could think clearly.  As a result, I make better decisions when I can think clearly.

Some of these psychiatric medications can lead to dependency.  My anti-anxiety medication, Lorezapam is one example.  Xanax is another.  Adderol, a common ADHD medication is another example.   Most ADHD medications are stimulants, which are classified as controlled substances.  My ADHD medication is a stimulant.  When I need to get a refill, I have to get a new prescription from my doctor.  This is by Federal law.   A person who is taking psychiatric medications are doing this under the supervision of a doctor or psychiatrist and they are watchful for any side effects.  Dosages may have to be adjusted find just the one that works.

Because there are side effects which can be mild to severe, a person taking medication must be monitored.  A doctor who would give out medication “like candy” is not doing their job properly.  First, a diagnosis must be made and then medication, if needed, is prescribed.

Children can’t get a mental illness.  Their behavioral problems are a result of bad parenting.  

Mental disorders such as ADHD/ADD and Autism are very real.  They are disorders of the brain.  Research is still trying to determine what causes autism and why there has been such an explosion in the rate of diagnosis.  Autism is diagnosed early and usually found when a very young child is not developing as he or she should be for their age.

My son has ADHD and his Kindergarten teacher first tipped me off to it because he had trouble with his fine motor skills.  My son wasn’t hyper as most people think of hyperactivity, so I never suspected it.  Along with medication, my son had to go to occupational therapy to help improve the use of his fine motor skills.  Motor skills are a neurological function.  There have been studies that show a link between certain food dyes and hyperactivity.  I believe there is a link between chemicals in our food and the severity of hyperactivity, but ADHD is genetic in origin.   Many times, a person who acts impulsively doesn’t realize they are doing this until after the fact.

Depending on the child’s age, he or she may not have the ability to verbalize that something is wrong with them.  This is when they “act out” or have tantrums.  There is a major difference between a child who is acting out because it’s the only way they can express that something is wrong with them and a child who is behaving like a brat because his or her parents aren’t doing their jobs.

Most of the time, a parent of a child with a mental disorder knows or suspects something isn’t right, but they don’t know where to start or where to go or what it might even be.  They just know that something is “off”.

We would never tell the parent of a child with leukemia that this happened because of bad parenting.  We shouldn’t be telling a parent of children with a mental disorder that, either.

There is no hope for mentally ill people.  It’s a waste of money to treat them, if they will never get better.  

Some mental illnesses can be cured.  Depression can go away.  Others can be managed through therapy and medication.  People who can successfully manage their mental illness lead happy and productive lives.

Diabetes is a disease that can be managed successfully.  We would never say to a diabetic that since they will never get better, we shouldn’t bother treating them.   We should not be saying this to a person with mental illness.

The majority of mentally ill people are violent and mentally unstable.   

While some people can become mentally unstable or violent because of a mental illness, they are a small percentage of people with mental illness.  The media contributes to this stereotype by how they portray a mentally ill person.  Norman Bates was a more compelling character than someone who can’t get out of bed because their depression has zapped all their energy.  The news reports on the actions of a mentally ill person if they are bizarre or extreme.  It’s not newsworthy when someone can’t leave their house because their fear of the next panic attack renders them helpless.

If I’m mentally ill, then I have to go to a psych ward.

A majority of mental illnesses can be treated with medication and outpatient psychotherapy.  If the condition is severe, a patient can consent to inpatient care at a hospital or residential treatment center if it is needed.  In other cases, a person may have to pose a threat to themselves or others or be declared by the courts as mentally incompetent in order to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

There were a couple of times  right after my nervous breakdown a year and a half ago where I gave serious consideration to voluntarily checking myself into a psychiatric hospital.  I’d just been diagnosed with the anxiety disorder and while I waited for the medications to take effect, I actually had two instances where I hallucinated something that wasn’t there.  One time, I woke up and I saw what I thought was a ghost or a spirit.  It turned out to be dust floating around in a shaft of light.  The second time, I thought I hallucinated a little boy (possibly my son when he was little) standing over my husband’s side of the bed while my husband slept.  The little boy just stood there.

I was terrified after those incidents because I thought I was losing my mind.  However, during the time between doctor’s visits, I was prescribed Xanax to help with the anxiety until the other medication took effect.

I can’t get a mental illness. 

Anyone can get a mental illness.  A family history of mental illness is one indication.  Some disorders and illnesses are genetic.  However, just because there are family members who have a mental illness doesn’t mean that you will.  You may be genetically predisposed to a condition, but you may never get it.  However, if you are predisposed to a condition, you may be more likely to develop it if something happens to trigger it.

I know that I my anxiety and depression have genetic roots.  I used to have social anxiety pretty severely.  I was not this way when I was a little child.  Certain events and my enviornment helped to trigger it and make it worse.  I had this treated successfully.  While I am still a very quiet person, I am no longer terrified to nor does my mind go blank when I talk to people.

A mental illness can be triggered by a traumatic event. The most common example of this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   We associate PTSD with people who have seen combat or people who survived some sort of emotional trauma.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults-approximately 57.7 million Americans-experience a mental health disorder in a given year.  [Source: NAMI.org]

Anyone can get a mental illness.

While there have been improvements over the past years on how we handle and treat mental illness, the stigma persists.   Until the stigma is removed, millions of people will feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek treatment for their disorders.  The World Health Organization reports that four of the ten leading causes of disabilities are mental disorders.  WHO also estimates that by the year 2020, depression and depressive disorders will become the leading cause of disability for women and children.  [Source: NAMI.org]

This doesn’t have to happen.  Early treatment of mental illness can prevent these conditions from spiraling into much more serious conditions.

We can all help spread the word to end this harmful stigma.  Knowledge is power.  When we take the time to learn about mental illness, we can demand better treatments and we can demand equal treatment.  There is a disparity between the level of mental illness treatments available and treatments available for physical illnesses.  Most of this disparity is the result of insurance companies giving mental illness treatments the short end of the stick as a cost cutting measure.  I have first hand experience with that.  Insurance regulations vary from state to state.  My health insurance back in Wisconsin covered Lexapro.  My health insurance here in South Dakota does not.

There are other ways you can help spread the word about mental illness and to help get rid of the stigma.  I will cover more of that in detail in a future post.

May 16, 2012 is the Mental Health Blog Party.  This is sponsored by Your Mind, Your Body. Check out the site and join other bloggers to help end the stigma associated with mental illness.  On this day, bloggers will come together to blog about mental illness.  Posts will range for their own struggles with treatment to living with a person who has a mental illness to how you can help end the stigma once and for all.

We who blog have a platform and a voice. Let’s use our platform to raise awareness, educate people and to get rid of the stigma and the shame.

For more facts and general information, view NAMI.org’s fact sheet. [PDF]    NAMI is the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

3 Comments

  1. I’m always happy to see how much more outspoken the community is about mental illness, and always saddened by the judgment that still exists. There’s a long road to go. May helps.

    Reply
  2. I have to admit to being very insensitive to the notion of mental illness until it touched my family. Now, I get it. But before then it was mysterious, scary, somehow even threatening. Awareness is good. Thanks for getting it out there.

    Reply
  3. Thank you for writing this. You are right, we need to bring more awareness to mental illness. People who don’t have it just don’t understand it. Thankfully, the people in my life try to learn about what I’m going through. I feel it is my job to help them understand, but sometimes it can be exhausting.

    Reply

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