Saturday, October 10, 2015

Happy World Mental Health Day!

Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling survived depression and became one of history's best-selling authors.

It's appreciated when high-profile people share their own experiences with mental illness.   These testimonies help counter the stigma that prevents too many from seeking help for thoroughly treatable medical conditions.  Folks like J.K. Rowling, Demi Lovato, Mary J. Blige, Wil Wheaton, Ashley Judd, Sherman Alexie, Halle Berry, Stephen Fry, Patrick Kennedy, Brandon Marshall, Richard Dreyfuss, Sheryl Crow, John Nash, Cee-Lo Green, Mike Wallace ... their stories, and those of myriad historical figures who survived and thrived despite struggles with mental illness, have meant a lot to me over the past three years of recovering from a mental health crisis.  

But I've been even more inspired and heartened by others who are regular folks, people it's a little easier to relate to, who stand up and say - despite reasonable concern about the assumptions that at least some others will make about them - I have a mental illness.  It is part of who I am.  But it does not define me.  

So in that spirit, here's a small gesture to help pass along the love, solidarity, and non-linear joy of working toward self-acceptance.  

I struggle with PTSD and chronic depression.  I'm alive and functioning today (such as I am) thanks to modern psychiatric medications.  My conditions have been with me since childhood, and will probably need to be managed with medication for the rest of my life.

I've had some accomplishments in life that I'm proud of.  But I've also some stellar failures, most of which occurred after my untreated conditions snuck up on me and pulled me into a pit.  Of course, the failures only made the pit broader and deeper.


Mental illness is not a character flaw.  Neuroscientific research is increasingly discovering the organic, biochemical causes of various forms of mental illness.  Genetic research has found specific combinations of gene variations are linked to specific mental illnesses.  Mental illnesses are the product of a combination of genetics and environment, just like diabetes, MS, Parkinson's, or a heart condition.

Because of stigma and ignorance, I and people around me suffered needlessly.  I've experienced a lot more trauma from severe, prolonged episodes of my illnesses than I needed to.  My episodes grew more severe and intractable over time than would have been the case if I'd gotten the right medication for me much sooner.  My life has been much more difficult than it needed to be.  

The curses of stigma and shame have been handed down for generations in my extended family.  "Suck it up and deal" is something of a family credo.  Unfortunately, that approach doesn't do any more for a mental health condition than it would for appendicitis.

We don't tell diabetics to not use insulin as a crutch.  We don't tell people with heart conditions to just suck it up and deal, or "get through this rough patch and then get off those terrible meds."  For some of us, medication helps prevent our brain from turning the stresses and difficulties that everyone encounters in life into a prolonged psychiatric crisis.  It is as necessary to us as insulin is for certain diabetics.

It can be difficult to find just the right medication (or combo) to manage a mental illness.  Each of us have different biochemistry that impacts whether something may or may not work for us.  I had really bad experiences with a couple of medications myself, but those meds work wonders for folks I know.  It took several tries, but we finally found a combo that made a world of difference for me, although we're still working on shooing the remnants of the depression away.

You may think you know all about another person's experience because they're a friend or a relative or someone you have a lot of contact with.  You may think you "get it" because you've been down or had periods of grief (which isn't the same as depression.)  Or you may think you understand completely because you yourself have a mental illness which you feel you best manage without meds.  But no matter how well you feel like you know another person, or how much you think you know about their condition, you cannot know what it feels like to live their experience with their mental illness 24 hours a day.

So please, do not judge folks "weak" if we've decided, on doctors' advice, that we need psych meds to function.

Perhaps you have a mental health condition that you've been advised to manage with medication, but are resisting trying it.  You may think you "should" be able to fix your condition yourself, or maybe you're afraid people will judge you weak.  Please, don't let those things impact your decision.

Don't let mental illness, stigma, and shame conspire to steal your joy, or worse, your life.  Explore all avenues you feel comfortable with to manage your condition.  Know that being willing to accept the reality of any diagnosis that carries a social cost, as mental illnesses can and do, and then working actively to treat your illness, is incredibly brave.  And that's the exact opposite of weak.

We are not weak.  We are #MedicatedAndMighty=)

For more info, resources, and community, look up  www.nami.org and the following hashtags on Twitter: #EndTheStigma  #IAmStigmaFree  #WorldMentalHealthDay


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