May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949. Founded by Mental Health America, each May they encourage other organizations to join them in spreading the word that: “mental health is something everyone should care about.”
Parallels Between Mental Illness and Addiction
The parallels between mental illness and addiction are striking: people lack understanding because they are illnesses you can’t see. Sadly, this creates shame and stigma. By raising awareness, we fight that stigma, reduce shame, and get people the help they need—and deserve—so that they can lead healthier and happier lives. As a sufferer of both the disease of addiction and long-standing mental illness, I am passionate about creating awareness by sharing my experience.
Established in 1909, by former psychiatric patient Clifford W. Beers, Mental Health America is dedicated to helping Americans achieve wellness by living mentally healthier lives. He set about to create reform having witnessed—and experienced first-hand—being treated terribly by institutions. They have educated millions of Americans and reduced barriers to treatment and services. Their theme is Risky Business, ‘a call to educate ourselves and others about habits and behaviors that increase the risk of developing or exacerbating mental illnesses, or could be signs of mental health problems themselves.” They are encouraging sufferers to speak up using the hashtag #riskybusiness, so that they can share without judgment and shame.
Doing so will not only educate others, it may help other sufferers and help people identify if they are showing symptoms of mental illness and get the help they need.
Mental illness is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” The most common types of mental illness with which people can suffer include: Depression Disorders, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Anxiety Disorders, Phobias, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, Bipolar, Dissociative Disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Eating Disorders and Dementia.
Prevalence of Depression
Depression is common; 1 in 6 people will experience it at some time in their life, and it can strike at any time. 1 in 15 adults will experience depression in any given year—even those who live in relatively ideal circumstances. It typically presents during the late teens to mid-20s. Prevalent in women, some studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime. Depression negatively affects the way you think, feel and act. Causes are thought to be genetics, differences in certain chemicals in the brain, personality traits such as those with low self-esteem, or those easily overwhelmed with stress, together with environmental factors such as neglect, poverty, or abuse.
I have suffered from anxiety and depression my entire life. As a child, I recall feeling sad, low in mood, isolated, with little or no motivation to do anything I was moody, shy, awkward. I lacked joy in life. My teenage years were punctuated with such anxiety and depression, that I was socially awkward and withdrawn. In my twenties, my depression deepened and my social anxiety became so palpable that I felt like my chest would explode. I discovered that alcohol and drugs to eased the symptoms and provided temporary relief; they flooded my brain with feel-good chemicals and I finally felt great, albeit temporarily.
The problem with self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is that it worsened my mental illness; I suffered crippling periods of depression where I couldn’t get out of bed and I often contemplated my existence. I had months off work, couldn’t maintain relationships, and my family became increasingly concerned about me. I self-medicated in this way until I was 32. At that point, my tolerance to alcohol had become so high, and depression so low, that I sought oblivion in four bottles of wine a day. I reached a point where I either ended my life or got help. I sought treatment for addiction.
My Recovery from Depression and Addiction
As I began to recover, my brain chemistry was given a chance to recalibrate. My moods began to normalize and I finally gained awareness that there wasn’t something wrong with me, I had been suffering from a long-standing depression and anxiety all of my life. With the help of my doctor, I established a plan of medication and therapy. Slowly but surely, my mental health improved; I began to experience joy, a zest for life, motivation to get out. I no longer felt exhausted and didn’t want to sleep all day. I stopped avoiding calls from friends and family and I was able to go back to work.
Five years later, I still experience days of depression and bouts of anxiety, but I haven’t suffered from long periods of depression, or panic attacks, for quite some time. I feel great. I have made it my mission to live physically and mentally well and I speak openly about my experience to help others.
Living physically well means looking after my body, eating nutritious food, and exercising regularly. Living mentally well means a strong self-care routine; including lots of rest, good sleep hygiene, talking therapy, expressing my feelings, monitoring my mood, self-help groups, talking to friends regularly, walking and hiking in nature, yoga, and meditation.
No Longer Suffering in Silence
One of the greatest problems with mental illness is that people suffer in silence, sometimes because of shame, and sometimes because of a lack of awareness about their condition. When I sought help, I presented with symptoms of addiction, but I wasn’t aware that those symptoms were masking a long-standing mental illness. It is quite common for those who suffer from addiction to display a myriad of symptoms and to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness with drugs and alcohol.
The challenge for me, and many others—with a dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness—is that no program of recovery can treat mental illness. Recovery literature states that sometimes we need outside help—referring to medical professionals. Difficulties arise when people misinterpret that literature and see depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, as a feature of addiction that can be treated solely with a program of recovery. It is paramount that people who suffer from mental illness seek treatment from a trained medical professional.
I feel passionately that we need to create a greater awareness of mental illness and good mental health; not only so that we can better understand the illness, but so that we can support friends, family, employees, and co-workers with compassion in getting the help they need.
You can find more resources about staying mentally healthy here.