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.

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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)