When You Don’t Support Someone Struggling with Mental Illness

I have usually been on the receiving end of support when it comes to matters of the mind. My mental illness therapy and recovery has greatly relied on the encouragement of others, the push from loved ones to focus on getting better, the positive words and actions of my network to put this journey above all else.

I have recently found myself now on the giving end of support. This is new territory for me. It’s just as scary for me to offer support as it is for the other person facing a new journey to better mental health. One of the biggest obstacles I have to work through as I take on this support role is helping to instill the mindset of, “You come first. Don’t let anybody steer you off course. This is the right thing to do to get better.” Upon thinking about this more, I realized how sad of a reality this is. The reality of the naysayers, the one’s who “don’t get it” and want to make you feel their doubt and skepticism about your choice to seek help and recover. Then I stumbled upon this most excellent The Mighty article this morning on how supporting people with a mental illness is everybody’s business. So I knew I needed to expand upon this and write something. I can’t accept the disconnect I am seeing anymore, especially through my new personal experience. I want to tell you just how you play a role in the journey to mental health recovery. Yes you. All of you. Maybe not as a person who is a mental illness sufferer, but as a person who is a mother, father, sibling, lover, friend, relative, coworker, boss, acquaintance, store clerk, or passerby to someone who is.

When you don’t support someone with a mental illness:

  • You immediately assume there is something inherently “wrong” with them
  • You trivialize their struggles, often making a joke out of it or poking fun at their destructive habits
  • You ask invasive questions like, “What do you mean you have an appointment every week?” or “Why are you so emotional?” or “What’s gotten into you lately?”
  • You encourage and pressure tempting activities, like drinking or smoking, they are trying to become more mindful of, cut back on, or quit
  • You ignore the reality that is mental illness, and consider their behavior “dramatic”, “attention-seeking”, “weak”, or “incapable”
  • You fail to see how hard they are working on paving a healthier pathway through life by instead focusing on their hardships and behaviors they are dedicating so much of themselves to correct
  • You make internalizing their struggles easier
  • You allow their destructive, self-harming habits to seem more rational
  • You assume someone else will be there to support them, even if they won’t


When you do support someone with a mental illness:

  • You understand they are trying, no matter the level of effort
  • You accept that mental illness recovery and therapy is difficult. That it is not a joke. That it is life-changing and emotionally overwhelming. That it is crucial to staying alive and well
  • You don’t ask questions that warrant really personal, intimate answers. You wait to feel invited to discuss the issues at hand. You base conversations on their comfort level, not yours
  • You recognize that social activities for some can be addictions for others. You accept “no” for an answer. You even change your own behaviors around them to eliminate temptation during their recovery
  • You accept mental illness as truth. That is it not made up. That it is not an excuse. That it is medical. That is has scientific proof. That your inability to understand what it feels like does not change facts
  • You come to terms with their destructive behaviors as part of a bigger, rooted issue they are working to pry from the depths within and address. You don’t fixate on their shortcomings, but understand that bad habits take time to break and new habits take time to form
  • You allow them to feel comfortable in their struggles. You don’t isolate them as an outcast
  • You offer solutions to avoiding temptation. You offer a new perspective on how to cope. You realize everybody has problems and can always use advice, big or small
  • You don’t assume anybody else is in their court. You offer whatever level of help you can, relative to the relationship you hold with them. You don’t let them feel alone. You offer a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark period. You choose to support life

See the difference?

Mental illness affects all of us. Everybody. Whether you’re on the receiving end of support, or someone who needs to play a role – big or small – in someone else’s support network. We have to own this, not as segmented societal groups, but as humanity. Let’s do better.

Mental Illness Awareness Week

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week and We all Need to Talk About it

My father sent me an email this morning with just a link to a Salem News Letter to the Editor. It was an important gesture for him to send it to me, and now I feel compelled to share it with the rest of you. But I want to take it a step further. I don’t want you to just read the link that I could have easily posted to my social media channels. I want you to more than see what the words mean beyond the two paragraphs written in the link. I want you to understand it. Understand it from someone who is living the exact purpose of the letter: a person battling mental illness who experiences the firsthand stigma it has created.

This week (October 4-10) is Mental Illness Awareness Week. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts (NAMI Mass) wants to make you aware that mental illness affects 1 in 4 adults. I will make you aware that I am 1 of those 4 adults. NAMI Mass also conducted a survey that reveals some disappointing results – although mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability in the workplace, only 27% of people feel comfortable talking about their mental illness at work. I am luckily 1 person in that 27%. Let me be honest, though, I did not start talking about my mental illness until a week ago, when I was at my breaking point, when I was in crisis mode. That’s not the best approach. That’s not when I should have been speaking up. And this is why we need to talk about it.

CAMH

The stigma of mental illness is still very real. People get uncomfortable being around those with a mental illness. Some feel unsafe. Some perceive it as a sign of weakness, or a vain indulgence of one’s self. Some seclude and ignore those who are suffering. Why do people do this? Two reasons: because they don’t experience it firsthand and they can’t see it tangibly on the outside. The problem here is that we can comparatively take a physically noticeable ailment, like paralysis or cancer, and even if we don’t know what it feels like to experience these firsthand, we can see the toll it takes on a person’s body. We can then empathize, accommodate and advocate for a better quality of life for these sufferers. For the mental illness sufferer, the struggle and toll occurs on the inside of the body – where nobody can truly see the distress and degeneration. When the results of mental illness are projected to the outside world, they are still intangible: stress, crying, yelling, withdrawn behavior, sadness, fear, paranoia, nerves, etc. And unfortunately, when the results of mental illness are left untreated and advance to display a physical toll on the outside, it is in the darkest moments when sufferers are most misunderstood and unaccepted: self-harming, harming others, alcoholism, drug addiction, attempted suicide, death.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Massachusetts says only 52.8% of affected adults seek treatment. This is not okay. All mental illness sufferers should have the resources, opportunities and encouragement to seek treatment just as anybody with a physical illness does. Treatment in 2015 is vast. It comes in many forms. Therapies, medications, alternative healing, herbal medicine and many more are widely available, but not often obvious and accessible. Work benefits that support mental illness treatment and HR services are also not widely communicated across companies or encouraged to be used. Again, we need to change this. Addiction, harm and suicide should not be considered an option. It will always be a thought for a mental health sufferer, but there are ways to make it from becoming a reality.

Let me bring this back to my experience. I’ve suffered from chronic anxiety and depression since I was 14. I struggled in my teen years to find a productive way to cope. I self-harmed often and rejected therapy. As a young adult, I suffered more and had some difficult experiences with prescription psych medication, addiction and therapy. Today, I am still battling anxiety and depression along with panic and mild OCD, but I have learned through the aid of my family and boyfriend, doctors and a supportive workplace, to seek appropriate treatment. I am in therapy. I am working on an alternative medicine approach. I am taking time off work to focus on me and to heal. I have a team of people behind me pushing me towards success. I was ashamed at first to bring this to my workplace, to try and convey what I was suffering. But once I did, the overwhelming support was shocking. I was encouraged to take the time. I was explained my benefits and rights I have from my employer. I was messaged by multiple coworkers in support of my needs. I was not a victim of this stigma that so many others are.

I am a girlfriend, a daughter, cat mom, marketing professional, friend, artist, writer, thinker and dreamer. I am not an incapable, burdening, unproductive, dangerous, self-indulgent basket case. I have a mental illness, but I am not “mental.” I am not afraid of what people will say or think of me. I have a voice and will fight for those who can’t find theirs just yet.

Mental Illness Awareness Week ends on Saturday, but the conversation will continue for a lifetime. I guarantee you know at least one person suffering. Heck, most of you reading this know me. But beyond our relationship, there are most likely others in your life suffering, maybe even you. I encourage you to advocate for those people, or yourself, and take the necessary steps to ensure proper treatment. I also encourage you to tell 3 other people the statistics I’ve shared about mental illness in this post to continue breaking the stigma that this isn’t real, and that those suffering don’t deserve the same rights as the physically ill. This is real. We all deserve to feel healthy, inside and out.

A few more links that can help:

NAMI Massachusetts (local resources and support)

To Write Love on Her Arms (my favorite supporting nonprofit)

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (where I’ve learned a lot about my conditions)

Additionally, program in your phone 1-800-SUICIDE. It’s a hotline that will always be there for you.

Thanks for reading, and more importantly, for understanding.

Cosmetic Psychopharmacology Took Over my 20s and Now I’m Getting Out (Part I)

I recently discovered one of the better Thought Catalog posts buried in their growing daily collection of male and female bashing/love advice that inspired me to tell my own story. I didn’t even understand the topic until I dove into the content, soon realizing I was unwillingly a part of this “Cosmetic Psychopharmacology” culture.

To quickly define, that mouthful refers to a term “coined in 1990 by the psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer … [referring to] the use of drugs to move persons from a normal psychological state to another normal state that is more desired or better socially rewarded.” This is often thought of in the same manner as plastic surgery; going from “undesirable” to “beautiful” via physical enhancements to meet conventional standards.

Happy Pills

Just recently I’ve come to terms with and reflected upon an 8-year experience that is unnervingly relatable to the OP: I’m coming off psychoactive drugs and I can feel every bit of the process. What I mean by that is the withdrawal is a real (often surreal) experience, and mirrors the effects of actually feeling a lot WORSE than when I was initially “saved” by these happy pills. I’d like to talk about this experience in two parts, one from the medical perspective of a drug review, and one from a personal perspective of how said drug affected me for nearly a decade. The drug spotlight is on Risperdal, an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and symptoms of bipolar disorder.

We’ll begin with a bit of context. For one, I am not bipolar, nor schizophrenic. I also do not have autism (which this drug has also been used to treat). I was diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety, with a focus on racing thoughts, when I was 20 years old. I was initially put on Klonopin, a drug that affects chemicals in the brain that may become unbalanced and cause anxiety and panic disorders. The problem with this was simple: I was a 20-year old that had never been able to manage their anxiety for 7 years in a healthy way, and I was put on a drug that is highly addictive (it’s one of those coveted scripts any pill-popper would die to buy from you). So, addiction happened, and really fast. I don’t think I made it 4 days without abusing the shit out of this medication, which led to a re-evaluation of my mental health, and my drug cocktail.

The new solution was a combo of Celexa (an anti-depressant) paired with Risperdal. The Risperdal dosage was much smaller than Celexa’s, however the intensity of the drug far surpassed its partner. To put it in perspective: when I went on the medication, the doctor did forewarn I would be quite drowsy, as Risperdal is primarily a sedative. Drowsy was an understatement. I slept for nearly 3 days straight. My parents and I were mid-conversation one of those days and I nearly fell out of my chair as I passed out fully upright. Fast forward 8 years on the drug, and this temporary effect was the least of my worries. Here’s a list of Risperdal’s side effects. Everything in bold is one that I’ve experienced over the last 8 years, some of which have lasted the entire duration:

  • aggressive behavior
  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • changes in vision, including blurred vision
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • inability to move the eyes
  • increase in amount of urine
  • loss of balance control
  • mask-like face
  • memory problems
  • muscle spasms of the face, neck, and back
  • problems with urination
  • restlessness or need to keep moving (severe)
  • shuffling walk
  • skin rash or itching
  • stiffness or weakness of the arms or legs
  • tic-like or twitching movements
  • trembling and shaking of the fingers and hands
  • trouble sleeping
  • twisting body movements
  • back pain
  • chest pain
  • sudden weakness or numbness in the face, arms, or legs
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • extreme thirst
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • fast, weak heartbeat
  • headache
  • lip smacking or puckering
  • loss of appetite
  • muscle cramps
  • pale, clammy skin
  • poor coordination
  • puffing of the cheeks
  • rapid or worm-like movements of the tongue
  • shivering
  • unusual bleeding or bruising
  • constipation
  • cough
  • diarrhea
  • dry mouth
  • increased dream activity
  • increased length of sleep
  • nausea
  • sleepiness or unusual drowsiness
  • sore throat
  • stuffy or runny nose
  • unusual tiredness or weakness
  • weight gain
  • absent, missed, or irregular menstrual periods
  • breast swelling or soreness
  • darkening of skin color
  • decreased interest in sexual intercourse
  • joint pain
  • loss in sexual ability, desire, drive, or performance
  • loss of voice
  • oily skin
  • pain or tenderness around the eyes and cheekbones
  • stomach pain
  • toothache

Okay, so first of all: holy shit – that is a long list of issues to encounter when taking a medication (63). Secondly, I have experienced 35 of these side effects while on-boarding, continually using, and withdrawing from Risperdal. In other words, more than 50% of the side effects this drug kindly offers I have suffered! Knowing what I know now, what I have been through, and how I feel, this drug significantly hurt me more than helped me. At which point was there a discussion with me, or my parents (considering I was not in the best health), about such side effects? At which point was it explained why this drug was the “solution” given its irrelevancy to my diagnosis? There was none. There was no conscious effort to alert me or my family of what this drug could potentially do to me, and what my other options were.

“Take this and you’ll feel better,” is said in variations to those of us that are ailing as we’re handed a piece of paper that is the gateway to our newfound happiness. And we, in our moment of weakness, trust it. But is it really a happy pill after all if it causes 35 problems when setting out to fix just 1?

Happy Pills

In the second part of this topic, I will dive into more detail on how the bolded effects above impaired me, and how getting out of Cosmetic Psychopharmacology is the right choice for me. Until then, I hope this gives a little insight for those that are taking psychoactive drugs to assess the help vs. hurt they, too, are experiencing in their journey to a better mental state of being.

Loved by All, Except Himself: Robin Williams

It’s a unanimous feeling across the world – those aware of Robin Williams’s passing are deeply upset. We all have our own individual reasons for the resonating feelings of sorrow and sympathy: some people grew up on his films, some people loved his stand-up comedy, some people were his friends and family, some people simply appreciated the way his humor was contagious.

There’s a deeper underlying reason why many of us are sad that goes beyond the sudden death of Robin Williams; a man who committed his life to making us happy couldn’t reciprocate that feeling on the inside. A man loved by all of us couldn’t love himself. Robin WilliamsI know a lot of conversation has sparked around depression and self-harm in the short few days Robin Williams has been gone. While I can appreciate the sentiment behind a more proactive approach to mental health, those of us who have battled depression and self-infliction know that it takes more than a Tweet, 20/20 special, or hashtag to feel like someone is out there on our side. In fact, most of the people inciting major promotional movements behind these issues probably don’t understand what it really feels like to be the end user of those campaigns.

I am a digital marketer, sufferer of depression, and prior sufferer of self-harm. I can tell you that I don’t care about hotlines, Tweets, hashtags, branded swag, or inspirational selfies. Those initiatives, while respected for the intent behind them, are not what I need. I need the few people in my life I trust to be educated on what I’m going through, and to become diligent and aware enough to know when their help is needed. Because I won’t always ask.

I know when I first showed signs of depression and anxiety, I had already been heavily self-inflicting as a young teen in the late 90s. I was frustrated with being miserable long before someone noticed. You don’t really know what to look for if the knowledge isn’t out there. With the current widespread push to acknowledge mental health issues on an equal level with physical health issues, there are more resources and more resolutions. With that comes more campaigns, crusades, causes. The problem is that many of these are directed at the sufferer, and most of the time that person is too far in to help themselves.

I haven’t self-inflicted in nearly 13 years. I’m grateful that my support system was able to help direct me towards healthier solutions to my mental barriers. Currently, I still battle anxiety and bouts of depression, which have led to minor addictive habits with alcohol and medication in the past. I can tell you something, though; when I am in my weakest moments where I feel like I can’t get past these barriers alone, I don’t turn to Twitter, or the TV, or a hotline. I turn to those I love, and those I trust. Those people have built an awareness to my mental health issues over the years, and have endlessly instilled their trust to me to use them as an outlet before I get too far in again. I have had slip-ups, I’m still human, but I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for them being in the back of my head at all times, those slip-ups would have been far worse.

I don’t want to speak for the entire community that battles these mental health issues, because some of these campaigns have certainly aided in their recovery. I do want to speak as someone who has experienced the ultimate feeling of hopelessness: a firm hard look in the eye from a loved one with emotion and dedication to getting you better because they know you cannot do it for yourself leaves a far bigger impression than the ones companies are paying for through Promoted Tweets, TV spots, or hashtagged tees. I hope that as these movements grow, they grow in the appropriate ways: to educate outsiders looking in on those battling mental health issues and how to know when it’s time to intervene, and what to do. That is what will save lives.

To bring it back full circle, I am sad for many reasons that Robin Williams is no longer here. I am sad his depression skewed his vision on life, and how he impacted all of ours. I am sad his self-worth disappeared, leaving the personalities of Mrs. Doubtfire, the Genie, John Keating, and Dr. Maguire as only memories while we mourn. I am sad that one of his famous lines became his reality:

I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

              — Robin Williams as Lance Clayton (2009, World’s Greatest Dad)

If you feel like someone in your life is struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health barriers, don’t make them feel alone because you don’t see the signs. They already do that to themselves. Utilize the many resources available and educate yourself. Use the Promoted Tweets, hotlines, TV specials; because they most likely won’t. Reach out, and take action. There’s no other solution.

Mr. Robin Williams, this is how I will always remember you. An endless source of light when things feel dark. I hope you find your soul again, wherever you are now.

Robin Williams

                                                           O Captain, My Captain (1951-2014)