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Why do people with mental illness suffer in silence?

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The Facts

  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death at ages 10 to 35 years old.
  • Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death at ages 36 to 54 years old.
  • Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death at ages 55 to 64 years old.
  • Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages.
  • There is 1 suicide for every estimated 25 suicide attempts.
  • An estimated 285,000 individuals become suicide survivors every year.
  • Approximately 130 individuals die by suicide every day.

Yet, we still do not talk about mental health conditions nearly enough.

In fact, we often avoid honest conversations on mental health and judge those who do open up. The world has provided us with an image of who we should be and how we should act. And, when we do not fit into that image, we become the punchline.

It is no secret that there is a stigma on mental health as a whole. There is no doubt that mental health, specifically mental health conditions / mental illnesses, are extremely misunderstood. We all know that mental illness is real, and every single person is vulnerable to experiencing an episode within their lifetime. Yet, we still do not talk about. Instead, we have established a culture of silence. We actually encourage people to suffer in silence every single time we continue the stigma.

What is the stigma?

  • When you laughed at your friend who was crying.
  • The time you said “you are just being dramatic” when someone expressed their emotions or feelings to you.
  • That time you heard about someone self-harming and labeled them “attention-seeking.”
  • The day you heard someone passed by suicide and your immediate thought was “they are so selfish” or “how could they do that to their family.”
  • Every time you told someone to “just think positive” when they described experiencing depression.
  • That time someone opened up to you and you responded, “how are you depressed, you have so much to be grateful for.”
  • When you labeled someone, who was struggling as “crazy, psychopath, sociopath, deranged, maniac, unhinged, or manipulative.”

The truth is, we have all been both a victim and a perpetuator of the stigma cycle.

We grew up in a world where our favorite television shows made fun of people who went to therapy, used fat-shaming jokes for a laugh, displayed the individual living with mental illness as violent, and made light of many mental illnesses. And we grew up in a world where the news described the most violent criminals as “mentally disturbed.” In a world where no one ever educated us about mental health. No one talked to us about how to take care of our mental health like they did our physical health.  These inaccuracies, cruel jokes, and ignorance made mental health conditions either a punchline or a death sentence for most of us.  In fact, until we struggle ourselves or we witness a loved one struggle, we often do not get an accurate representation of mental illness.

We grew up in a world that made a culture of suffering in silence the expectation. That culture is no longer acceptable. The silence ends here and now.

Even so, with a rising suicide rate, why are people still struggling in silence?

Because, we have not created a safe space. We have not chosen to educate ourselves and our peers on how to engage in a validating conversation. Because we choose to judge people for their vulnerability instead of celebrating it. And, because we have allowed a culture of silence to be promoted for far too long.

In today’s world, people fear missing school or work because of their mental health. People are afraid to be honest because someone might laugh, and that invalidation is too much for them to handle. Treatment options are unaffordable for many people. There are still insurance plans that do not cover mental health treatment (including medication and therapy). Medication and therapy are deemed for people who are “crazy.” Why would someone feel safe to open up and seek help with the stigma on top of the lack of treatment accessibility?

Do not get me wrong, we have come a long way in mental health awareness. We have made wonderful progress toward removing the stigma and opening conversations. However, we have so much more to go. The journey is not over, until every single person feels safe enough to say, “I am struggling, and I need support.”

What can I do?

  • Listen to others.
  • Use supportive and validating statements.
  • Engage in conversations.
  • Remove stigmatized words and phrases from your vocabulary.
  • Educate yourself.
  • Check in with your loved ones regularly.
  • Follow mental health organizations, advocates, and nonprofits on social media to learn.
  • Volunteer with mental health nonprofit organizations.
  • Amplify voices of mental health advocates.
  • Amplify voices of mental health professionals.
  • Amplify voices of people who want to share their mental health journey.
  • Take care of your own mental health.
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How do you advocate for your mental health?

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When it comes to your mental health, be tenacious. Advocate for yourself. Find support systems and treatment options that work for YOU.

One thing I have come to realize, through my own journey and hearing the stories of others, is a lack of assertion. When it comes to our mental health, we often take a long time to reach out for support. At first, we tend to ignore our symptoms. Then, we question if they are real or in our heads. Next, we compare ourselves to others. Then, we deny any potential conditions. And, finally, after the symptoms and/or condition have overwhelmed us, we reach out for support.

Why do we wait so long to receive treatment that we deserve? Think about it. When your arm starts hurting, especially after a trauma, do you wait years to get an x-ray? When your vision starts to worsen, do you wait years to get glasses? When you have a cavity, do you wait years to get a filling? When you have a headache, do you wait years to take medication? When you live with a heart condition, do you wait years to go to the cardiologist? Yet, when you live with a mental health condition or you are facing poor mental health symptoms, why do you take years to see a doctor?

Then, once we see a professional, we often assume they know everything. Mental health is a tricky field because it is an invisible illness. The doctors, therapists, and / or counselors do not see a picture of your brain that clearly shows a proper diagnosis that results in a specific treatment plan. Because the professionals are not experiencing the symptoms first-hand and cannot see what is going on inside your mind, mental health diagnoses can become a guessing game.

One of the most common misconceptions I have experienced within the mental health community is this idea that your first diagnosis or your first prescription medication or your first therapist is going to be the right one. What many people do not know is that it can take an average of up to 10 years to receive the right diagnosis. Many people do not know that the average person tries more than one medication before finding the right one for their mind and body. Many people, also, do not know that it can take an average of up to 5 therapists to find the right match.

So, if it can be extremely difficult to receive the right diagnosis and treatment plan, what should I do?

Get curious about your mental health diagnosis and treatment plan; and ASK ANY AND ALL QUESTIONS THAT YOU HAVE.

Be tenacious. Research your symptoms and educate yourself on various mental health conditions that relate to your symptoms. Reach out to others who are experiencing similar symptoms and find out what they have tried. Then, create a list of questions to ask the mental health care professional.

Do not be afraid to be “annoying” by asking too many questions. It is your mental health; you can ask as many questions as you would like to. If you do not understand a diagnosis or a symptom, ask the doctor to explain it to you. Ask questions about the medication being prescribed and what side effects to look out for. Ask about alternate treatment options and next steps. Ask what you can do in addition to taking the prescribed medication and / or attending therapy.

Furthermore, do not be afraid to ask what external or internal factors can be affecting your mental health. Have you checked your vitamin and hormone levels recently? Are you exposed to hazardous / toxic chemicals? Do you live in an area of high pollution? Does your home have mold? Advocating for yourself is not only sharing your symptoms, but also asking questions that help you and the doctor get a full picture.

Mental health care professionals are humans, just like us, they may make mistakes or overlook certain symptoms. They do not physically or mentally experience what you are experiencing; therefore, it is difficult for them to know everything about what is going on. By researching and asking questions, you can learn more about what they are thinking and collaborate on the best treatment plan.

Understand that the first medication you try may not be the right one.

Everyone’s body is different. Therefore, everyone’s body reacts differently to medications. If prescribed medication, be sure to understand that the first medication may not be the right one for you. And understand that it does not always mean that no medication will work for you. It simply means, this time around, the medication prescribed was not the right fit.

It is also important to remember that just because the medication prescribed to you works for someone else with the same mental health condition, it does not mean that it will definitely work for you. As noted previously, everyone’s body reacts differently.

However, when you start to experience side effects, especially severe side effects that make you uncomfortable, tell your doctor right away. You do not have to wait it out, because the doctor prescribed it. Call your doctor and share your concerns. It may be a normal reaction as the body adjusts or it may be a sign that the wrong medication was prescribed. Advocating for yourself by consulting your doctor will help you explore your options.

Lastly, look at therapy like you look at dating. You may not find your match the first time around, but the perfect match is out there.

Every therapist is different. From energy to method of practice to personal experience to specialty, every therapist brings a different approach and perspective to the table. It may take time to find a therapist that matches your specific needs.

When you are searching for a therapist, do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you specialize in? What approach do you use (ex. holistic, biofeedback, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy)? What is your availability? Ask however many questions you would like, within the appropriate boundaries. You are going to therapy for you. You are the consumer; you are allowed to be selective in your approach.  

When you finally choose a therapist, if you do not feel like the connection is right, look for a new therapist. You do not have to stick with the same one, even if you have been going to them for years. It is okay to change therapists, just like it is okay to change phones.

I, in my searches, use the 3-appointment rule. I go to the same therapist 3 times before deciding if they are the right fit for me. At the first appointment, I am usually nervous, and the therapist knows nothing about me. It tends to feel a little awkward. Plus, the appointment tends to be more of a focus on history rather than my current situation. During the second appointment, I tend to be more relaxed, and the therapist has a general understanding of my background, therefore, we dive a little deeper into my history and current situation. Then, by the third appointment, I have a good idea of the approach the therapist uses and if it feels right for me. This 3-appointment rule has worked out well for me; however, it may not work for everyone. An important part of advocating for yourself is exploring what you are looking for in support and understanding how long it takes you to get a good feel for those part of your support system.

All in all, remember to always speak up. Ask questions. Do not let people patronize you or invalidate you. You deserve to be heard and educated on what you are experiencing. The mental health care system can feel complicated, but you deserve the right support that works for you. Never stop advocating for yourself and your mental health.

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What age is appropriate to begin the conversation on mental health?  

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What age is appropriate to begin the conversation on mental health?  

My answer: it is never too early to start the conversation.

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding wellness conversations are that you only need to have the conversation once. Like various other wellness and safety conversations, mental health conversations are not a one-time sit-down dialogue when your child reaches a certain age. These conversations should begin at birth.

What do you mean conversations should begin at birth?

Communication can occur in different ways. For example, when a baby is crying, providing support by holding the baby close to your heart, softly singing, or gently rocking them can be not only soothing but also let the baby know they are not alone. Another example would be allowing the baby to scream and cry (as recommended by doctors for the baby’s age) can also teach the baby that it is okay to express their emotions. Then, as your child continues to grow up, providing safe space to express their emotions without judgement is extremely important.

When a child is in grades K-2, these are core years in emotional health. This is when we often begin invalidating and gaslighting them. Although the problems and stressors children face may seem “small” or “insignificant” to us as adults, they are still very real and very difficult for children. By shutting down children when they begin to cry or get upset with phrases like:

  • People are dying.
  • Big girls do not cry.
  • Stop acting like a girl.
  • You are acting like a baby.
  • You are being dramatic.
  • Stop crying.

We are communicating that their feelings are not important, and thus, they should suppress them. Then, as they get older, we often build upon that same destructive message.

In grade school (3-5), we often use phrases like “You are not 5 anymore, grow up” when children express themselves. Often times, we do not pay attention to the drama or problems they are facing, because elementary school bullying builds character and thicker skin. Essentially, we teach them that it is okay for people to be mean to them and it is wrong for them to speak up for themselves.

By middle schools, when gossip and bullying are at an all time high, when children are beginning to explore or understand their sexuality, when their bodies are changing, they are extremely impressionable. This is a key age for self-esteem. However, we often invalidate their problems by saying, “Do not let it bother you. This won’t matter in 5 years.” Essentially, we are teaching them that their feelings do not matter.

Then, we get to high school, where life becomes complicated. Many kids are experiencing or have experienced first love and first heartbreak, grief and trauma of losing loved ones, extreme pressure on grades and SAT scores, stress to decide the trajectory of their life by choosing a college and a major, puberty, bullying, and the list goes on. Instead of having healthy wellness check-ins, we are piling more and more on to their plates with impossibly high expectations.

Then, we see suicide is the second leading cause of death from ages 10-35 in the United States, and we ask ourselves why.

Why is the suicide rate so high among our youth?

Here’s why: we are invalidating them, subconsciously teaching them to suppress their emotions, meanwhile refusing to engage in important conversations.

Imagine if in K-2, we taught kids that it is normal to have feelings AND that all feelings are valid. Imagine if we taught them there are different ways to express their emotions, such as through speaking, drawing, writing, or music.

Imagine if in 3-5, we taught kids what mental health is on a scale from wellness to illness. Imagine if we explained that sometimes, we may move along the scale as the day goes on, and that is normal to not always be happy.

Imagine if in 6-8, we taught kids about early symptom detection. Imagine if we gave them the tools and resources needed to explore their symptoms and emotions, while developing tools to cope with them. Imagine if by the time kids were 13 years old, they understood how to advocate for themselves and their mental health. Imagine if they knew the right questions to ask themselves and their doctors.

Imagine if in 9-12, we taught kids about suicide prevention. Imagine if we taught kids how to have supportive and validating conversations with their peers, as well as warning signs to look out for with themselves and with each other. Imagine if we educated them on various mental illnesses and resources available to them.

Imagine if by the time one graduates from high school, they have all of the tools and resources needed to maintain emotional wellness and cope with life’s stressors and traumas. Imagine if we set the next generation up for success in life, rather than throwing them into the world with no real understanding of mental health or how to maintain it.

So, when should we have the conversation? Every. Single. Day.