Mental Health Awareness Month: 10 things I know about mental illness

Mental Health Awareness Month: 10 things I know about mental illness
Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles/

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and although millions and millions of families are affected by mental health issues, I have found that mental illness is one of the least talked about topics. In fact, I would go so far as to call it taboo.

My family is no stranger to mental illness and how it wreaks havoc. As I’ve recently discovered, various degrees of mental illness go back generations.

This post isn’t about my family in particular and I’m not going to get into specifics. That’s a whole series of blog posts for another day. I only share with you that I have personal experience in this area in order to let you know that I know of what I speak. I’m also not a mental health professional and my statements below are my opinions, based on my experience.

  1. People with mental illness are not stupid or lazy. Some of the most intelligent and most accomplished people in the world have suffered from mental illness. Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Sylvia Plath, and Vivien Leigh are just a few people who are known to have suffered from mental illness and no one would call them stupid or lazy.
  2. People with mental illness don’t want your pity or to be condescended to. First and foremost, people with mental illness want and deserve to be treated with respect. Take your cues from them. Be patient. They can’t always get their thoughts out quickly, but by being patient and not rushing or cutting them off shows respect, treats them with dignity, and re-enforces their value as people.
  3. Mental illness is not a personal failing. Most mental illness is caused by some sort of hormonal mix-up (yep, that’s a medical phrase). Yes, there are things we can do to ward off mental illness, but we cannot control it completely. Mental illness isn’t caught like the flu; you can’t get it by associating with someone who is mentally ill. It is, however, genetic. That means that if mental illness runs in your family, you need to be aware of it, understand your pre-disposal, and act accordingly. Mental illness is no one’s “fault” and in no way makes the person with mental illness less worthy of love.
  4. Mental illness isn’t necessarily permanent. A person who suffers from depression or anxiety (or other mental illnessess) may be suffering from situational depression or anxiety. For example, a person may be dealing with the death of a loved one and normal grief, but their grief may morph into clinical depression. Through treatment, they can recover completely. However, one severely depressive episode makes them more likely to have another. Additionally, even people who suffer from more chronic mental illness can learn tools to help deal with their illness and live a fully productive life.
  5. The best way you can help someone with mental illness is to listen. Listen. Don’t judge. Don’t say things like “you’re  just crazy” or “I simply can’t handle being your friend because you suffer from mental illness.” Offer assistance like a hot meal or to run an errand or help the person get to their doctor’s appointment. Trust me, people with mental illness often don’t want to be around themselves either. You get to go home at night or end the phone call and go back to your life. I’m not saying don’t draw boundaries. You should. Boundaries are healthy and can help the person with mental illness too. They need a strong support group.
  6. Getting help for mental illness is not shameful. It’s a sign of strength. If you know someone who needs help, be encouraging to them. You would never tell someone with cancer not to seek help. Why would you suggest to someone suffering from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness that it’s bad to get help or make fun of them for doing seeking help? Sometimes they may need a helpful nudge to get help. You might offer to take them to their first few appointments or have dinner with them after their sessions so they don’t just immediately go back to an empty house and focus on their the issues they’re working on and become (more) depressed.
  7. There are many different types of treatment for mental illness. Sometimes hospitalization is required, but most treatments for mental illness are done on an out-patient basis, working with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, or Psychologist (collectively “therapist”). You and your therapist may choose from traditional psychotherapy (aka talk therapy), Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), group therapy, and others. Often multiple types of treatment are used together for the best results.
  8. Taking medication is not a sign of failure. Depending on the illness and the severity of it, medication can be incredibly helpful. Yes, there can be non-medication solutions for the long-term, but medication can also help to get a person regulated in order to them move them to more natural or non-medication solutions. No treatment for mental illness, whether talk therapy or medication, works immediately. It all takes time and medications may need to be adjusted, either by changing dosages or changing the medication, in order to find just the right mix for you.
  9. Caregivers need support too. I’ve had friends, family, and significant others leave when they learned that I’m involved with my mom’s caregiving. That’s really hurtful. Some have told me why, but most haven’t. Most have just left only to let me speculate or find out from a mutual friend why I lost someone I considered my friend. The most hurtful thing I’ve ever heard was the night my mom slit her wrists and I called a friend to say I couldn’t go out that night because I was cleaning up all the chaos at my mom’s house before my grandmother arrived in 18 hours for my brother’s high school graduation. I was cleaning up blood and much more. My mom was in lockdown at the hospital where they watch you 24/7 to prevent another suicide attempt. My friend’s response to me was, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re going through. My mom’s going through menopause.” It wasn’t even remotely the same thing. What I needed at that moment was dinner and some help. Needless to say, I didn’t speak to that friend for months and our relationship is still strained 20+ years later. The kindest words you can say to a caregiver going through a crisis with their family member are “can I bring you dinner?” or “let’s just go for a walk.” Luckily, I now have my own incredible support group.
  10. If you’re a caregiver, you can’t be fully effective unless you’re taking care of you. Seek out counseling if you need to. Find friends who will support you. Not to listen to you bitch and complain, but who will really be there. Most importantly, however, you need to eat right, exercise, sleep, and whatever helps you feel centered. You won’t be effective or a good role model unless you care for yourself. Learn about mental illness so that you can provide your loved one with the best care. Take the Family-to-Family program through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

If you’re struggling with mental illness and having suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately by calling 911.

In the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff area, we have a depression and suicide text line. Anyone can text the phrase “847HELP” to 274637 anytime 24/7/365. A mental health professional will text you back to continue the conversation. Most communities have similar phone or text helplines.

NAMI also has many resources for the person with mental illness, family members, friends, and other caregivers. Many of their resources are free or a nominal cost. I’ve personally found NAMI to be an enormous gift in my life.

Mental illness will always be a taboo topic unless people talk about it. I know too many people who are afraid to admit that they are in therapy, that they have suffered from mental illness, and/or that they have family members who suffer from mental illness. I’ve been one of those people for far too long. The conundrum is that unless we talk about mental illness and own it, it will remain in the shadows and taboo. That only serves to further isolate people who have mental illness or who feel they would benefit from some help, even temporary help.

Did you enjoy this post? Read my other posts about mental illness, 17 Ways to Help Yourself When You Have Mental Illness and End Mental Illness Stigma, Save Lives.

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    A native of Chicago's Northwest Suburbs and resident of the North Shore, Little Merry Sunshine comes by her name honestly. The story goes that as a child, she was always so happy that she even slept with a smile on her face. Her mom nicknamed her Little Merry Sunshine. It stuck, along with her insatiable desire to focus on the good in the world and to leave it a little better than she found it. She does this by sharing her passions and dreams, what inspires her, and maybe you too, and furthering the discussion about how we can listen to our better angels. You can reach her at LittleMerrySunshineCN[at]WowWay[dot]com.

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