In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I'm going to share some true stories with you to illustrate what struggling with mental health really looks like, what gets in the way of asking for much-needed help, and how treatment can really make a difference.
What Mental Health Conditions Really Look Like
I'm going to tell you a story about two women I know (they have given me permission to share).
First, I want you to picture a successful woman working in a professional office setting complete with cubicles, status meetings, and all the free coffee you can drink. She is conscientious and works hard. She is good at her job and they reward her handsomely for it. She sometimes works long hours to get that important project done and occasionally feels a bit stressed out by her job, but she goes out for drinks with friends after work to blow off steam from a difficult week and laughs and jokes about how closely their lives resemble the cartoon Dilbert. On the weekends she spends time with friends, goes out to dinner or "girls night" and visits family. By all accounts, she has a wonderful life.
Now I want you to picture the second woman: Her alarm goes off in the morning and she groans because she slept terribly last night. She doesn't want to get out of bed because her entire body feels like it's covered in one of those lead x-ray blankets. She seriously contemplates pulling the covers over her head and hiding from the world for the day, but decides she has to go to work. So, exerting what feels like a Herculean effort, she peals herself out of bed and goes into the bathroom to take her anti-depressant medication. She gets in the shower, which takes at least 30 minutes because she spends half of it crying out of sadness and frustration that she still feels this way. She goes to work and tries to be productive, but sometimes she is so overcome with stress, or anxiety or hopelessness that she runs off to the bathroom to cry so that none of her coworkers see her. She pulls herself back together and returns to work, trying to pretend that everything is fine. A co-worker asks her how she's doing today and she smiles and tells them "Great!", meanwhile on the inside she feels like she's dying and wonders how much longer she can continue this desperate charade. At the end of the day she gets in her car and bursts into tears, beating the steering wheel out of frustration. She goes home and pours herself a drink to take the edge off and sits down to watch TV alone, just trying to forget her miserable life for a little while.
Now, if I asked you which of these two women suffered from a mental health condition, I'm guessing you'd quickly say the second one. But what if I told you that they both do? You might be thinking, "How could the first woman be suffering from a mental health condition? Her life seems perfectly normal!". But in reality, they are just two different sides of the same woman. And the reason I know this is because that woman was me, about 10 years ago.
5 Myths About Mental Health That Get in the Way
- Mental health conditions are rare, I don’t know anybody with one.
I doubt it. Do you know more than 5 people? Ok, then you probably know someone struggling with a mental health condition. According to the the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1 in 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental health condition in any given year. They just might not feel safe enough to share it with you.
- People with mental health conditions are crazy, violent, or unpredictable!
Wrong again. I know that there has been a lot of publicity around this in recent years with school shootings, but according to mentalhealth.gov, only 3%-5% of all violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. Most people with a mental health condition are non-violent. And pro tip: They don't like to be called "crazy" either.
- Mental health conditions are the result of weakness/lack of willpower.
This is a common misconception about mental illness, especially more common ones like anxiety, depression or substance abuse. People struggling with these conditions cannot just "try harder" and magically get better. These conditions affect their brains and bodies in ways that cannot be overcome simply by willpower.
- If I can still work then I don’t have a problem
There are many people with mental health conditions that work just like everyone else, usually because they have to. Just because someone is high-functioning and able to hold down a job does not mean they are not suffering mightily underneath the mask they wear to work everyday. You never know what's going on behind the scenes in someone's life unless you ask.
- There is no hope, mental health conditions are permanent
Luckily, this is also false. Many people with mental illness are able to improve their condition through treatment. The best treatments are highly effective; between 70% and 90% of people have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with the right treatments and supports. I was one of those people and now live a happy and healthy life where I guide others through similar struggles with the knowledge and insight I've gained along the way.
How Stigma Prevents Healing & Happiness
Because of the stigma associated with mental health due to the myths above, there are many who won't seek the treatment they so desperately need. According to NAMI, nearly 60% of people with a mental health condition did NOT receive treatment in the past year. That means more than half of the people suffering don't get help! Maybe it's because they don't want to be labeled as "crazy" or they believe that asking for help means that they've failed or weren't strong enough to conquer it on their own. But I assure you nothing is farther from the truth: asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Think of therapy like a back really good back massage: it's awfully hard to do it for yourself. It's much more effective if you go to a trained professional.
What You Can Do About It
If we all work together, we can start to shift the stigma surrounding mental health conditions that prevents so many from seeking the treatment they need. For more information on what you can do, or to get tested for stigma, check out NAMI's Cure Stigma campaign.
If you or someone you love could use extra support, I'd be happy to talk about finding ways to support you with whatever difficulties you're facing in a healthy and balanced way.