Are You Mentally Ill? Am I?
What Is Mental Illness?
Who, exactly, qualifies under this banner? Surprisingly, it’s not rare, nor is it only the wild shooter out on a rampage that ends in suicide, or “suicide by police.” That’s only the more severely affected, and the news media is ever eager to jump on the sensational stories. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is their motto and m.o.
When a person loses it completely, and ‘goes off the deep end,’ there have usually been plenty of clues; it’s just that the average person doesn’t know how to spot the danger signs. Hence, you have the surprised and horrified neighbors remembering, “…they were such a nice, quiet family…”
Still waters run deep. This may be a trite and overworked expression, but it is true. Those who struggle with being open, and discussing problems and issues, or their own emotional distress, are the ones liable to blow. You can only “stuff” things like that for so long before it has a negative effect on both your body and your psyche.
In this piece, I speak from my own experience with some of these conditions, and the treatment I have found helpful. I've also relied upon research, and accounts both in the news media and from acquaintances.
There Are Many Components to Mental Illnesses
Emotions Are Powerful Things!
Our emotions cannot be separated from our physical bodies. Remember: Mr. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans are a fictitious race of people. We humans do not so easily take up such an even-tempered, logical outlook on life with its humps and hollows.
Stress Used to Be a Useful Thing
Back in the days when we lived in caves, and perhaps had to out-run or outsmart dangers such as saber-toothed tigers, it was all about raw emotion. Anything that could eat us was dangerous.
That sets off the fight-or-flight response, releasing a mix of preparatory chemicals (specific hormones) into our bloodstreams. This internal cocktail gave us temporary extra boosts of speed or strength to help us survive.
Sadly, our emotions, and emotional response to stressors, have not evolved as quickly as our modern society. Therefore, when we have a cranky, picky boss at work, the primitive parts of our brain and nervous system sends that same chemical soup into action.
However, since it is not considered the done thing to whack the boss with a tree limb, we are left figuratively ‘stewing in our own juices.’ Running away would equally cause loss of the job; so, robbed of their original purpose, the adrenaline, and other stress hormones are left to wreak havoc upon our physical and mental selves.
Built up over time, repetitive episodes like this start to harm us. We could get an ulcer; have a heart attack or stroke; or simply become so distraught and distracted that we could walk right in front of a moving car because we were so worked up we were not paying attention to our surroundings.
What Are Those Stress Hormones?
The National Institute for Health gives an in-depth discussion of the various stress hormones, and their effects on the body and mind.
The article is fairly technical in nature, being more oriented toward the medical profession, but it has valuable information nonetheless.
A Wide Range of Disorders
Mental illness is many things, ranging from the mild to the severe. The reference manual for professionals in the field is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM (now in its 5th printing). This book is a good 2 inches thick, and represents over 10 years of research and input by professionals around the globe. The first edition came out in 1952, and the volumes have gotten progressively thicker as more nuances of various disorders were classified, and as new ones were included.
The fact that new disorders have been added is a good thing, because previously, the people afflicted led very difficult lives without recognition of their problem as a medical issue. Hence, they had no recourse to any kind of assistance or treatment. These include the range of severity on the autism spectrum for example. Some sufferers have a very mild form, and are able to function in society at a very high level, while others are barely able to even speak or make eye contact. There are so many sub-groups of this particular disorder that I won’t even try to mention them, as it would be an entire article in itself, and besides, I’m not a psychiatric professional, so am not qualified to discuss them.
In a nutshell, however, nearly every person on the planet has probably suffered at one time or another from a mental illness or disorder of some form; the most common of these being anxiety and depression. Both of these often go hand in hand, working together to make us feel miserable. When these two conditions become chronic and severe, so that self-help no longer works, it is time for the medical team to step in.
Anxiety and depression are the two most common types of mental illness, from which nearly everyone suffers or has suffered at some point in their lives; of course, there are varying degrees of severity here, as well.
I was surprised to discover that my lack of ability to understand and grasp mathematical reasoning is actual classified in the DSM 5 as a 'specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics..' Wow! I even have a code: "DSM-5 diagnostic code 315.1.
It did not help one little bit that a 4th grade teacher I had should have sought a different profession; addressed in my article on homework. I struggled greatly, and continue to do so in many areas involving numbers, including occasional errors in my checkbook, which is never a good thing.
In addition to my lack of skill in calculations, I am also somewhat dyslexic where numbers are concerned. Dyslexia is the tendency to see or perceive things backwards, such as reading 'saw' for 'was.'
In numbers, it affects me with a tendency to transpose digits, seeing $1.89 instead of $1.98, for example. This is where I get into trouble with the checkbook now and then!
You’d Be Surprised…
…very surprised indeed if I were to lay a wager that you, dear reader, are very likely to have a mental illness. I know I do. Yes, that’s right; I’m ‘coming out’ and owning it. I have suffered from anxiety and depression for many years now, and have only in the last 2 years been able to access treatment.
Most disorders are due to some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain. Anxiety and depression though, can be temporary, and situational, meaning that you become anxious and depressed due to something that has happened in your life, but feel better once whatever it was has been resolved.
However, if the situation does not resolve, and the anxiety and depression become chronic, this can lead to changes in the brain, making it not so easy to recover.
The thing that makes it so difficult to understand, and has people reacting with shock and surprise to learn that a neighbor is mentally ill, is that this is an invisible disability. Sufferers look perfectly normal, and may function in their jobs and at home just fine; or, they may not. But you cannot, as the old adage says, judge a book by its cover.
Has a Mental Illness or Disorder Been a Problem in Your Life?
What Is Anxiety?
The short version is: anxiety is constantly worrying about things over which you have no control. That “crossing the bridge before you come to it,” scenario; always worried about all the dreadful things that could go wrong (but probably won’t).
Of course, it is not a literal bridge, but any life event you may be anticipating (or dreading). Happy occasions can cause as much stress, sometimes more, than sad or scary ones. Look no farther than the stressed-out bride-to-be as she juggles all of the details in planning her wedding.
Maybe it’s not such a happy time, but a time when you lost a job, and had trouble finding another; or the death of a parent or other relative, or even of a beloved pet.
All are anxiety-producing events.
- What if I can’t find just the perfect dress?
- What if my dress isn’t ready on time?
- What if I catch a cold?
- What if I trip and fall walking down the aisle?
- What if no one comes to my wedding?
- What if the caterer runs out of food?
- That wasn’t fair! I didn’t deserve to be sacked!
- What if I can’t find a new job?
- What if my resume isn’t good enough?
- What if my old boss gives me a lousy report for references?
- What if I go broke and become homeless?
- What if I get in an accident, and I don’t have insurance anymore?
A Death in the Family:
- Oh, my gosh—I really loved my sister, but the last time we spoke, we argued! I never got to apologize; what if she died still mad at me?
- My father was my mentor and best friend; now I’m drifting in the world—what if I never find myself again?
- Oh, I can’t believe my dog died—we’ve been together since I was 8. What if I’d gone to college closer to home—he might still be with me.
Too Many Imaginary Problems
What if…what if…what if … the list of anxiety-producing ‘what ifs’ is nearly endless, and can be very stressful. The personality who habitually lives in the world of ‘what if,’ is an excellent candidate for chronic anxiety, and falling into depression. No matter what happens, they are never happy, for they are too busy worrying.
“What ifs” are so counterproductive that my karate instructor will not answer those questions, because it can derail the entire class session, as more and more students chime in with their own imagined scenarios.
As a child, my younger daughter was guilty of this, to the point of earning the nickname of "iffer-sniffer." And yes, to this day, with a family of her own, she's had several bouts with anxiety and panic attacks. It's not a funny thing: one such incident put her in the emergency room, convinced she was having a heart attack. Nope; just anxiety.
So, what would happen if you decide to stop ‘what-iffing’ everything, and just be aware in the moment, and do what needs to be done right now? I wager you'd find more peace in your life.
There are 2 days in a year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is tomorrow. So today is the perfect day to love, believe, do, and mostly live.”— Dalai Lama
It’s Time to End the Stigma
Being mentally ill to any degree has always triggered images of the stereotypical “nut house,” or “insane asylum,” in which the inmates are seen as wandering about babbling nonsense to themselves, or are drugged into a stupor to keep them calm.
Indeed, at one time, that was more or less accurate, because doctors did not understand the issues, or the mind-body connection. They also did not understand other issues, such as disorders involving development of the brain, such as Down’s Syndrome. People with these kinds of problems also used to be institutionalized along with the mentally ill, just to ‘warehouse’ them, and keep them out of sight of society at large. It was a very wrong thing to do.
People with mental illnesses may sometimes need to be hospitalized, but usually only for severe cases, where medical intervention is needed to stabilize the patient on medications.
Now, however, we have all sorts of ways to manage the majority of mental issues, and most people would never guess who is and is not in treatment just by looking at them. The term ‘mental illness’ conjures negative images, and the associated stigma from the past. It’s time to end that, and understand that there are so many degrees and types of mental problems that the number of sufferers might even come close to exceeding the number of those unaffected.
Some problems are permanent, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain; others are temporary, caused by some situation beyond the person’s control. In either case, medications are available to relieve the symptoms, and effect a cure in the milder cases.
“There are 2 days in a year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is tomorrow. So today is the perfect day to love, believe, do, and mostly live.”— The Dalai Lama
Some Easy Coping Skills
Skill to Use
medical issue; overdue bills; auto accident; etc.
calming activities--meditation, soothing music, yoga
being insulted; feeling cheated/being cheated on; missing out on a promotion
redirection--hit a punching bag; beat up on a pillow; talk to a trusted friend
missing a friend's event; not doing your share; lying
apologize, then let it go--the other need not accept; the apology is for you--knowing you did the right thing
The Mentally Ill Are Not Stupid
This is another misconception. In fact, some of the brightest minds are most subject to anxiety and depression, precisely because of the stress of being always on the leading edge.
I am reminded of a funny, and true story I read many years ago, that illustrates this principle:
A fellow was driving along, and got a flat tire. He pulled over to the side of the road, and began to change the tire. He had put all the lug nuts inside the hubcap, so as not to lose them. As luck would have it, however, he bumped the hubcap, and all the nuts went tumbling down into the ditch next to the road, and were lost.
The guy was upset, and wondered where he might find help, when he looked up, and noticed he was parked outside the fenced yard of a mental institution, and one of the patients was standing there watching.
He noticed the motorist’s predicament, and suggested, “Why don’t you just take one nut off of each of the other wheels, just until you can get to town and get it fixed?”
The motorist was taken aback at this seemingly reasonable suggestion, and asked, “Well, that’s a good idea—but if you’re so smart, what are you doing in that place?”
The patient replied, “I’m in here because I’m crazy, not because I’m stupid.”
And that’s it, in a nutshell. But note that ‘crazy’ is a word that has since fallen out of favor as being derogatory.
Thankfully, we have come a long, long way from the days when those with a mental illness or disorder of any kind were hidden away in 'asylums,' shunned even by family, and not spoken of. There, they underwent cruel treatments, including electric shock therapy, water therapy, and other quack medicine practices that did more harm than good.
Therapy often comes into play when the illness has been ongoing for some time. Whether the person is seen by a medical doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist, or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), depends upon many factors. Initially, a person might consult their regular medical doctor, as they are the ones who can make a referral to further help. You don’t just waltz into a psychiatrist’s office without a referral, in most cases.
The difference, by the way, between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is this: the former is trained in the workings of the mind, and can counsel the patient in coping with their illness, while the latter is a medical doctor first, with a specialty in psychiatry—they are the ones who can prescribe medication—the psychologist cannot.
There are also many people who are helped by group therapy. This is a class-like setting, led by a moderator who is usually an LCSW, and not a doctor. There may or may not be an accompanying workbook, with each session focusing on the coping skills addressed in each chapter. The moderator or facilitator gently leads the direction, but does not take on the role of teacher, per se, but merely guides the group as they learn and discover.
I attend just such a group, and it is very beneficial, for in such a safe environment, when you talk about what’s troubling you; causing your anxiety, often, you get helpful feedback or suggestions from other members of the group who have had a similar issue, and you learn the most important lesson of all: you are not alone in this!
It is safe, because the number one rule is, whatever is said in-group, stays in-group; sort of like Las Vegas, but without losing your money.
Of course, a patient might use more than one of these avenues to wellness. Besides the group, I also have private sessions with a counselor (LCSW), about every month and a half, and see the psychiatrist infrequently, when and if my medication needs adjusting.
People used to call those in the clinical field “headshrinkers,” or “shrinks,” due to the mistaken belief that they were out to brainwash the patient, and put them all into the same holes, to match societal conventions. It may have been true in the ‘bad old days,’ but that is far from the case today.
Instead, today’s mental health professionals guide the patient into coping skills to manage their respective disorders, and help them learn to be comfortable in their own skin. They gently guide the patient into looking within themselves for the answers that usually lie within, but have been buried in the deepest corners of the mind for many years.
From a Personal Perspective on TED Talks
While the gentleman in the "Ted Talk" above, speaks about Africa, and African men in particular, his words are so true, and do apply worldwide.
No More Shame
There is no shame in having a mental illness or disorder.
It is not your fault.
You did not cause or choose this.
It’s time to bring it out of the shadows and closets, and into the sunshine, so everyone can learn and be more understanding and supportive. So let your inner circle be aware if you have one of the issues on the mental illness spectrum.
Then people will know: if you’re having a bad day that you’re not mad at them, or just being a bitch on general principles. That in turn will help their own mental health, by not taking it personally, because they’ll understand you are getting treatment for a specific problem.
No one deserves to be put down or called by rude epithets. The mind is part of the body, and just like the rest of the body, it can get sick. You don’t call someone names because they had appendicitis, the flu, or a heart attack. It should be no different if the person suffers from some form of mental illness or disorder.
Please be kind to everyone; you never know who might be suffering from this invisible condition.
Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain.
"How Stress Affects Your Body and Behavior." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.
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Medina, Johnna, M.A. "Specific Learning Disorder." Psych Central. Psych Central, 17 July 2016. Web. 20 July 2017. <https://psychcentral.com/disorders/specific-learning-disorder/>.
Mientka, Matthew. "Why Smarter People Are More Likely To Be Mentally Ill." Medical Daily. Medical Daily, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 July 2017. <http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-smarter-people-are-more-likely-be-mentally-ill-270039>.
Rettew, David. "Is There a Single Dimension of Mental Illness?" Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 July 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/abcs-child-psychiatry/201501/is-there-single-dimension-mental-illness>.
Rapid Symptom Reduction Program How to be Emotionally Savvy. Jim Boyers Ph.D., Kaiser Permanente
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© 2017 Liz Elias