Recently, the headlines informed us of a former beauty queen who tragically committed suicide. Such events are often followed by a flurry of headlines pleading with those suffering from mental illness to ‘seek help.’ My intent is not to sound cliché but the sad truth is we, collectively, need to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illnesses in ourselves before we can even acknowledge the need to ‘seek help.’ “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States,” and those at most risk probably don’t look any different from you or me. If statistics from 2014 remain true today, then “1 in 5 adults have a mental health issue, 1 in 10 children will experience a major depression episode and 1 in 25 Americans are living with a serious mental illness right now.” Look at it in terms of your own family, are you a family of 5? Then, it’s likely one of you has a mental health issue. I come from a family of five.
As a child raised in the country, I had no fear of horses or cattle that could have easily trampled me, yet, I was terrified of a stuffed bear that sat on my closet shelf. It was a large, brightly-colored bear and missing one black button-eye. I would hesitantly open the door, see that one-eyed bear staring down at me, then I would hold my breath and race as fast as I could to grab my clothes and slam the door behind me. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” my father asked when I recounted this story to him many years later, “we would have gotten rid of it.” The truth is, I don’t know why. Maybe at 5 or 6 years-old I already had the perception there was something “wrong” with me?
At 10 years old, I froze during a piano recital and told my mother I would never do that again, and didn’t. On another occasion, my younger sisters were skipping across a pedestrian crosswalk as I hollered out for them to return. My body had inexplicably flattened itself like a pancake on the concrete ramp. Although I tried prying myself loose into a standing position, I couldn’t even manage to get to my knees. Somehow, I managed to inch myself down the ramp, all the while trying to convince my younger sisters that it was just as fun to stay on this side of the street. I never told my parents about that incident either. My mother told me that once I turned 13, I cried every day. My family called me “moody.” Despite all, I made it through high school with straight A’s, but also as a basketball player that wouldn’t shoot the ball in a game, a band Drum Major who couldn’t play her flute in public, and then went on to graduate college as the student who knew the answers but struggled to put them down on paper when it counted. Yet, I was still considered successful and went on to obtain a doctorate degree. Try driving when crossing every bridge causes you to white-knuckle grip the steering wheel; the larger the overpass, the slower your speed, even down to 10-20mph! People honked and threw fingers. 30 years later I would marry a physician who insisted I see a professional. I was frankly offended as I never considered myself as having a problem. Looking back, there was clearly a history of various mental illnesses running throughout my family that should have provided a clue. Eventually, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and prescribed medication that didn’t make me feel any differently until the first time I realized I was driving over a large overpass at normal speed. Mind blown!
“Despite common misperceptions, having a SMI (severe mental illness) is not a choice, a weakness, or a character flaw. It is not something that just “passes” or can be “snapped out of” with willpower. The specific causes are unknown, but various factors can increase someone’s risk for mental illness including, family history, brain chemistry, and significant life events such as experiencing a trauma or death of a loved one.” If any of these factors apply to you, and you are not quite feeling yourself, please do seek help, even if you think you don’t need it.
I learned about SAMHSA while I was taking law classes. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) has a LOT of resources, as well as, a hotline for those suffering and for families of those suffering from either substance abuse or mental health. As copied directly from their website, here are some strategies for living with SMI (serious mental illness):
- Stick to a treatment plan. Even if you feel better, don’t stop going to therapy or taking medication without a doctor’s guidance. Work with a doctor to safely adjust doses or medication if needed to continue a treatment plan.
- Keep your primary care physician updated. Primary care physicians are an important part of the long-term management of an SMI, even if you also see a psychiatrist.
- Learn about the disorder. Being educated can help you stick to your treatment plan. Education can also help your loved ones be more supportive and compassionate.
- Practice self-care. Control stress with activities such meditation or tai-chi; eat healthy and exercise; and get enough sleep.
- Reach out to family and friends. Maintaining relationships with others is important. In times of crisis or rough spells, reach out to them for support and help.