Time to Talk Mental Illness

It’s hard to believe it is 2017!  I am not sure where the time has gone, but I do know after all these years of living with the stigma of mental illness it is for sure past time we talk about it.  There are so many anti-stigma efforts and I do feel like we are moving the needle some, but it is not enough.  And from my perspective it is not happening fast, it is a slow drip-drip-drip.

I never thought I would have to live with some illness called bipolar disorder that many people really did not understand and if you said you had a manic episode they really would not know what you meant.  Really I wasn’t sure what it meant for many years, until I studied it so much so I could manage it.  In reality, everyone with bipolar disorder experiences it a little bit differently.  Clusters of symptoms may be the same, but how we behave and handle our illnesses are generally not a carbon copy of it.

We have to talk about mental illness because quite frankly it is so complicated it is hard to understand.  Some illnesses are easier than others but I would argue for even the people who have anxiety disorders they will find not everyone understands how debilitating that can be.  Many people believe you should just be able to take a pill and “get over it.”

With 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness that equates to about 20% of the populations.  Yes, there are far less of us who have severe mental illness like bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, but we still represent million of people.  This really means that everyone knows someone who has a mental illness…and if you think you don’t it is probably simply because they don’t talk about it.

I want you to ask yourself the question, “If I found out my best friend had been struggling with severe depression for years, would that change how I felt about them?”  What about if you found out your sister had been struggling with postpartum depression with psychotic features would you know what that meant?     How about your boss at work who seems to have major mood swings between being very gregarious and not talking at all.  What do you say?  What do you do?

If we don’t talk about mental illness we will continue to find ourselves in these socially awkward situations where we don’t know how to react or what to say.  Granted it is not as bad as it used to be, but it could be a lot better.

Of course I don’t believe everyone should write a blog or a book about their struggles with mental illness.  But I do believe people should not have to be afraid to tell others they are struggling with a mental illness.  It is truly a shame to have to keep something a secret that occupies a great deal of time and effort.  Managing a chronic mental illness is a HUGE effort.  There are doctor and therapy appointments, medication side effects to deal with, prescriptions to refill, and symptoms to deal with.  It is at times a very hard road to journey on.

My one wish is that other people could feel more free to talk about it so there will be a greater understanding.  Maybe then those who live with mental illness will feel more supported.  Maybe then there will be more research dollars to help fund better treatments with higher efficacy.  Maybe then there will be better access to care.  Maybe then people with mental illness won’t be housed in jails and prisons.  Maybe then our society will be more compassionate.  Maybe….just maybe people won’t have to suffer in isolation.

Bipolar Disorder: Until There’s A Cure

When I first started writing about mental illness and specifically bipolar disorder, I wanted to shed light on topics that affected me. I know I am not the only one in this world who has been met with life altering effects from an illness that does not have a cure. I cannot even begin to imagine what a cure would do to the many people who struggle with this chronic illness.

But the reality is we have no cure for bipolar disorder. With continued research there is always hope that one day others may not have to suffer with this relentless illness.

The good news is we do have more treatment options today than we did even five years ago. The medications are more tolerable and can help stabilize those of us who manage the mania and depressive swings. I only wish that it were not so hard for some people to seek treatment and know that life can get better when your mood swings aren’t controlling your daily living.

When I was working the other day a young man came into the store and ask me to help him. I started talking with him only to find out that like me, he too suffered with bipolar disorder. The more we talked the more apparent it became that he was unstable. I ask if he could get medical attention and he said he had access to care but didn’t believe in it.

My heart was breaking as he told me his story. He was sleeping in a local truck stop in the lounge at night because he was afraid to go to the local homeless shelter. He had been living on the streets for nearly four years. I told him that must be a tough life to which he replied, “It’s not bad living on the street if you have money.”

As it turns out this 24 year old young man had access to social security, but because of his state of mind he had ended up living on the street. He explained to me that he had recently gotten out of jail for making threatening comments to a police officer. He spent two months in jail not exactly a good place for receiving mental health treatment.

He left the store without buying anything and continued walking through the parking lot to other businesses. I thought to myself it is just a matter of time before he ends up back in the hands of law enforcement.

I wanted so much to help that young man, but there was nothing I could do except continue to raise awareness about mental illness. It caused me to pause and think about how fortunate I really am. Even though my life has been altered I have been blessed to have many safety nets in place and fortunate enough that my own mental illness did not take me down until much later in life.

By the time I was 24 years old, I had already walked into Olympic Stadium in Seoul, Korea as an Olympic Athlete; completed a college degree and was working for a Fortune 500 company.  My journey included many struggles with mental illness but those struggles got worse as I got older and my illness worsened. Many people are not as fortunate as I have been and for a moment in time I realized that those of us who have been blessed have a responsibility to others who are less fortunate and may not have a voice.

I don’t know why any of us have to suffer from a mental illness, but I do know that until there is a cure we must continue to raise awareness that mental illness can be treated. Lives are precious and those who cannot help themselves are dependent on those of us who can make a difference.

 

 

When the good day arrives!

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One of the things I learned in a recovery workshop is to create new dreams after having your life interrupted with a psychiatric illness. I created a dream to become a mental health advocate, but I soon learned that creating a dream is one thing and living it is another.

I think my impatience is a result of having too much time on my hands. Not all days but some days a few hours of free time can feel like sitting in the dentist chair having my teeth pulled. When I am feeling good and overall having a good day I feel like I can accomplish so much more.  But on those bad days, like yesterday, I have no desire to do anything.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me when the good days would bless me with their presence. I could be so productive if I had something of value to do. But what kind of job out there rewards people for having outstanding days periodically? There are so few that I have found I need to get creative and figure out a way to utilize my time more wisely.

Yesterday I read an article about a research project that NAMI conducted. It said that people with mental illness had an 80% unemployment rate in the United States. From everything I have read it seems that most other countries fall about in the same statistical ratio. So what does this say about mental illness and employment? The article does not address those of us who may be underemployed, which is an entirely different issue too.

What are we supposed to do when we have those good days?  I guess reading and writing is one way to spend time in a valuable manner. I just have to keep from getting too frustrated with myself because I recognize having too much time on my hands is not the best thing for my mental health. I am a goal directed individual and the more goals I can have for myself the better I feel.

The problem comes when I start wishing there was an immediate “feel good” solution for me on those days when I am far more capable of doing complex tasks.  These are the times when I focus hard on positive self-talk. It’s really easy to go down the path of “let’s beat up Amy today,” even though I know it is not a healthy thing to do. I may say something like, “If I tried harder I could accomplish more.” “I need to be more organized with my time.” Then I get all excited about having a new plan of action and I wake up the next day and getting out of bed may be the best I can accomplish.

This up and down road makes it a harder to check off the “to-do” list. It also makes it more difficult to have consistent approaches to various goals ultimately making it harder to have achievements. Certainly it is not impossible, just more difficult.

If I had one wish I would hope for more resources to be placed in helping those of us living with a mental illness to have working projects where we could utilize our skill sets. Maybe a collaborative writing project where we contributed to a group writing project. I don’t know the answer. I just know I need something I can feel good about.