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Mental Health Awareness Month Week 1: Mental Health of Parents

What do you think of when someone says, “My friend has a mental health issue and I don’t know what to do?”

Do you think that this person is unstable? Do you think they must be living in a hospital or recovery place? Do you think that this person must be on a lot of medication? What do you think this person looks like? Are they messy, disorganized, not dressed or they don’t have good hygiene?

What does mental illness “look like” to you?

Mental illness affects everyone. It may have a direct effect or an indirect effect to you or someone in your life. You may know a family member, friend, colleague or child who is dealing with mental illness.

In fact, in the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness believes that one in five adults experience mental illness in any given year.

According to the Mayo Clinic, mental illness may look like:

· Excessive worry, fear or extreme feelings of guilt

· Confusion, inability to concentrate

· Feeling sad or down

· Withdrawal from friends

· Low energy and insomnia

· Inability to cope with daily problems or stress

· Extreme mood changes

· Excessive anger or violent tendencies

· Trouble relating to situations or people

· Detachment from reality, paranoia or hallucinations/delusions

· Changes in sex drive

· Increased alcohol or drug use

· Suicidal thinking

Signs and symptoms can vary depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness can affect behaviors as well as emotions, thoughts and sometimes the symptoms are more physical with back pain, headaches, stomach aches and unexplained pains in the body.

With so many of us experiencing these symptoms, I find it quite odd that the conversation about mental health isn’t as normal as talking about the weather or your vacation plans. Yet, many of us still believe it is best to keep their issues bottled up, even when it becomes too debilitating and overwhelming. This is where the stigma needs to shift.

Mental health is not a phase or a negative judgment on yourself. It isn’t something you will just “get over” if you will it away. Having a mental illness can be a heavy burden and it is important to acknowledge this, appreciate it and create coping strategies to help you learn to manage it more efficiently and prosperously.

The negative stigma in our society today can cause feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness and depression; however, there are resources available and there is hope to help you create a happier life.

Start a conversation about mental health. The Millennial generation are more apt to actually discuss their mental health as they grew up hearing all about anxiety, eating disorders, suicide and depression.

Don’t be afraid to talk openly about mental health and what that means to you. Talk about your mental conditions like you talk about your physical conditions. I’ve been doing this with my son for years when I am too anxious. I tell him my anxiety is a little high right now, so be patient with me as I try and maintain my “cool” and he knows exactly what I mean.

Learn about your own battle with anxiety, depression, excessive worry or fears. Learn as much as you can and share your struggles as well as what works for you to lower your anxiety or stop worrying so much. Many others are struggling too and if they know they don’t have to do it alone, they may just understand and can use your tools too. Normalizing the conversation will help stop the underlying stigma of mental health issues.

Think of mental illness more like a chronic illness. It is a disease and you shouldn’t shame anyone for having it, no more than you would shame someone for having diabetes.

Show empathy, compassion, support and simple acts of kindness so they don’t think they are alone. Let them know you understand, especially if you also suffer from racing brain, worry, fear or anxiety. Avoid being judgmental, especially if someone trusts you to open up about their struggles. Don’t say “you’re overreacting” or “you’ll snap out of it” as these statements minimize their true struggles. Listen to them and ask them if they want an ear to listen or some solutions.

Reach out to a professional to talk about your struggles. You tell your friends of family what your primary care doctor tells you, so why not share what your therapist says. Share your journey so others in your life know how you are doing and can step into your shoes. Who knows, you may just inspire a friend to seek help too so they are not struggling so much.

If you have a loved one with a mental illness and talking face to face is too much for you, opt for a quick text or phone call to check in and see how they are doing. Once the conversation is started it becomes easier to talk openly about feelings, emotions and thoughts. Support is so important for everyone going through tough times, especially with a mental illness. Nothing compares to that personal connection.

Don’t add to the stigma. Just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you are not a productive member of society. Show everyone how you can live a meaningful life even when dealing with a mental illness. Inspire others by telling them your coping strategies; meditation, journaling, coloring, mindfulness, daily walks, nutrition and quality sleep.

Mental health issues are very common and very treatable. Some don’t even require medications and most require a more mindful shift to living in the moment and tweaking your diet. Finding a combination that works for you starts with the conversation about what is happening to you or a loved one.

The key is to remember, you are not alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a great resource you can use to guide you in the right direction:

One tip that has helped me is to share my story. For many years I didn’t even know I had high anxiety, until I was doing research for a live webinar and I was able to click off all of the symptoms for high anxiety. I then knew it was time to finally claim how I had been feeling for many decades. That was a huge lift of weight off of my shoulders. I now knew why I had been feeling the way I felt and I now had some coping strategies I could start using to keep my anxiety in check. It was amazing to see the support I received from friends and family who finally understood and realized they, too, had anxiety and didn’t realize it.

Mental health stigma is when you, friends, family or even colleagues or neighbors view a person in a negative way just because they are anxious, depressed, have OCD or other mental health issues. Some can describe this as a feeling of shame or judgement, which is hard to handle when those who suffer do not have control over it. Some may even confuse the “feeling” bad with “being” bad and that is definitely not what needs to happen.

Circumnavigating life with a mental health condition is hard, lonely, confusing and sad at times. When there is a stigma around a mental health condition it can create more isolation, blame, secrecy and can make it more difficult for those suffering to reach out for help.

Did you know that mental health conditions are the leading disability across the United States? Many face rejection, discrimination, bullying and isolation from friends, family and co-workers which can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Less than half of the adults in the United States, who need help, get help. Sadly, many do not even know how to ask for help and even more sad is that they do not believe they have a mental health illness as this has been their “normal” for so long, they don’t remember not feeling this way.

Here are some statistics that scared me; one in five Americans is affected by mental health illnesses. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24 who do not realize that their thoughts are causing them distress and can be treated with therapy, supplements, food and prescriptions that will help balance out the neurotransmitters in their brain so they can feel “normal” again.

The mental health stigma is toxic to everyone’s mental health, but mostly teens and men because it creates an environment of shame, fear and isolation thinking that they are alone and no one else feels like this. The perception of mental health won’t change unless we make the changes whenever we can.

NAMI created an amazing Stigma Free Quiz. Take it and see where you land:

How can you “Be the change we want to see in this world” when it comes to mental health stigma? I started by telling my story and supporting others with high anxiety, OCD, and depression.

Here is a great pledge by NAMI that you can incorporate into your life:

"I promise to change my behavior to support everyone affected by mental health conditions. I will listen more and judge less. I won’t use harmful words that prevent people from seeking help. I will be an ally to friends, family and coworkers."


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