Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. You have no doubt heard the tragic news about these incredible talents who recently took their own lives. What you don’t hear are the stories of the millions of ordinary people and families suffering each day. As the mom of a severely mentally ill child, and as someone who was diagnosed with clinical depression at 19, I can attest to the power of this illness.
Because you can’t “see it”, it’s easy to overlook
Because you can’t “see” it, it’s easy to overlook. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 adults and children struggle with mental illness. The use of anti-depressants has gone up 400% since the 1980’s. We are the wealthiest, most powerful, most depressed nation in the world. Our rate of self-medication and suicide are mind boggling, and the numbers continue to rise.
For those fortunate enough not to suffer from mental illness, it is almost impossible to understand what it feels like to live with it every day. If you have a broken leg, people wouldn’t expect you to climb the stairs. If you are in a wheel chair, we will create buildings that accommodate you, as we should. If you have depression, well, suck it up. If you have anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, well, you’re out of luck.
If you are suffering, know this:
YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
While more and more, people are speaking up about mental health, there is still a long road ahead to reduce the stigma that is attached to it. If you are suffering, know that you are not alone. I know it may feel like it, but you are surrounded by a community of people that love and support you. Don’t forget to put yourself on your priority list. While it may seem overwhelming, it’s about one decision at a time.
If you, a friend, or a loved one is suffering with mental health challenges, here are a few things to do immediately:
#1 TELL SOMEONE AND GET HELP!
There is NO shame in asking for help. NAMI Austin (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has been invaluable to our family. There are NAMI organizations in almost every state. They offer support, resources, free classes, and much more. The NAMI Helpline is 800-950-NAMI. If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to a hospital emergency room.
#2 TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Don’t under estimate the importance of exercise, diet, and sleep. I know, when you don’t feel well, these are the last things you want to think about, but as someone who truly gets it, I can tell you it makes a world of difference. Just start by walking to the mailbox, not having a second serving of cake, or going to bed 30-minutes earlier. Baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Exercising 3 times a week for 45 minutes repairs neurons damaged by stress and produces a wealth of good stuff your brain needs to help you function better and improve your mood.
#3 SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE THAT LIFT YOU UP
Get away from people (even family members) that just don’t get it. People told me things like, “But you have so much to be grateful for. Why are you sad?” Or, “It will be fine. It’s just a phase.” Talk about shame. You begin to think, “Maybe they’re right! What’s wrong with me? If I were just better at ____, I would be fine.” WRONG. Depression isn’t just sadness. Anxiety isn’t something to be taken lightly. And other mental illnesses are not a choice. If you could just snap out of it or do one thing differently, this wouldn’t be one of the worst health epidemics in history. Surround yourself with supportive people.
#4 REMEMBER IT’S AN ILLNESS & YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT
Mental illness is not a choice. Just as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and the flu are not a choice. Stop blaming yourself or thinking this is something you have done wrong. This is an illness, just like any other.
#5 STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS
I know some of you are out there thinking, “I shouldn’t feel this way. My problems are nothing compared to (insert name here).” This is called comparative suffering and it is a recipe for failure. Our problems are all relative. Whatever you are feeling and the intensity with which you feel it is real for you. Your challenges, frustrations, fears are valid too. WORD OF CAUTION: We find what we look for. If you spend too much time dwelling on the negative and ruminating, you will be inviting more of that. If you are stuck there, see a therapist. Yes, it’s a PITA, but it’s that important. And you may have to try a couple before you find the right fit.
There is no age requirement for mental illness. My son began exhibiting symptoms before he was a year old and was on his first anti-psychotic by the age of 4. I hear parents say, “it’s just a phase. It’s hormones”. It may be, but do you really want to take that chance? My 16-year old daughter just lost a classmate to suicide. The worst thing you can do is ignore it, hope it goes away, or say things like, “This too shall pass”. Peer pressure, social media, and school demands are greater than they have ever been. Kids are struggling to fit in and keep up, all while their bodies and brains are changing rapidly. Offer support, talk to a school counselor, and talk to your pediatrician. Suffering is not a requirement.
The only thing worse than struggling with a mental health issue is trying to convince people it’s real. It is isolating, overwhelming, and scary. If you or someone you know needs help, there is no shame in asking for it, and if someone asks you for help, don’t dismiss it.
Celebrities aren’t the only ones sharing their stories, they are just the ones you hear about. The only way to reduce the stigma around mental health is to talk about it. I share our story as a way to let people know they are not alone. I specifically wrote Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph because I have learned firsthand what it takes to find courage, how to grow resilience, and appreciate moments of triumph. It is the guide I have used to work through many of my own challenges. And because doing good deeds decreases stress and produces dopamine, I donate a portion of all of my book proceeds to NAMI Austin. Listen to my TEDx talk to see that you are strong enough.
By sharing some of my experiences, many others have felt comfortable doing the same. It is my hope that you will share this post so others know they are not alone.