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.
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the results of mental illness are projected to the outside world, they are still intangible: stress, crying, yelling, withdrawn behavior, sadness, fear, paranoia, nerves, etc.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.