Mental Health :: Let’s Raise Awareness and Remove Stigma

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May is mental health awareness month, so I’d like to take the time to chat a little about why this month is so important. 

Courtesy of NAMI.org

In our society, people have sympathy for patients suffering from physical ailments like cancer, diabetes, tumors and heart conditions. Mental health patients, however, are not awarded the same level of empathy. Nobody is bringing them flowers or baking them casseroles or making them cards.

We must promote the understanding that mental health disorders are not made up diseases. They are caused by abnormal functioning of nerve cell circuits or pathways that connect brain regions. They are also caused by genetic, biological, and environmental factors.

My first exposure to a person suffering from a mental health problem was as a young girl in India in the eighties. My uncle suffered from schizophrenia. He came to visit us, and the neighborhood boys would laugh at him. They would call him Pagla (Hindi word for crazy) chacha (uncle). The name-calling is so cruel and unnecessary.

My uncle was brilliant. He wrote stories for a magazine, he was very well-read and articulate. He was a good singer and he did a great imitation of some Bollywood actors reciting dialogues. My uncle also loved his nieces and nephews. It was sad that he could not hold down a regular job because of his illness. It is unfortunate that to the world he was merely a mentally ill person.

I suffered from some anxiety in my teens and it was exacerbated when I lost my father at fifteen. I felt the ground under my feet was swept away and I had bouts of nervousness and self-doubt. However, it was not debilitating. I have never had a panic attack or needed medication.

I used to be a very bold, confident and assertive person in my childhood but my personality changed, and I miss being that person who was not scared of anything. As I have gotten older, I have learned to manage my anxiety. Having a strong, supportive husband who is a steady anchor gives me calm and confidence too.

People are expected by family and friends to snap out of mental illnesses or cure themselves by sheer willpower. They are often told that they need to get out of their funk and stop being lazy. What the mentally ill really need is professional help from licensed therapists. They need early diagnosis and intervention, therapy, and sometimes they need medication for tweaking those faulty neurotransmitters. Parents would never delay going to the doctor if their child had a physical injury, but they hardly ever seek early intervention when dealing with mental disorders.

In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron writes: 

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”

When Robin Williams committed suicide in August of 2014, he was suffering from critical depression. It was indeed immensely tragic and ironic that a man who made millions of people laugh was defeated by the deep darkness of this depressive disease.

Society blames suicide victims for being selfish, for not caring how upsetting their death would be to the family members and friends they leave behind. We cannot blame and shame the suicide victims as we have not walked a mile in their shoes. We have not suffered that unimaginable mental turbulence.

Anxiety is our body’s response to danger. We are on alert and ready to fight or flee in order to survive. However, in some people anxiety can become a chronic condition and lead to chest palpitations, panic attacks, headaches, shortness of breath and other symptoms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. PTSD is widely prevalent in veterans and it is so sad that these heroes who protect us must pay such a terrible price and endure such mental pain and anguish.

Obsessive-compulsive disorders are not just picky ways in which a person arranges his closet or work desk. Some people suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) cannot drive because they fear they may hit and kill somebody by accident. Some fear going to hell if they do not say their prayers the right number of times and in the right order. Obsessive thoughts are the manifestations of anxiety and compulsive behaviors that may seem irrational to a normal mind and are performed compulsively to retain a sense of sanity by those who suffer from this disease.

It is extremely hard to watch loved ones deal with a psychotic break, paranoia, or hallucinations. To lose control of one’s mind is the scariest thing. You feel helpless as you cannot make a separate reality from the voices in their head. They suffer immensely by the torturous thoughts playing in their mind. An anorexic looks in the mirror and sees a fat person and nothing you can say or do will convince them otherwise.

Breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, chanting, family love, and support; a diet rich in fruits, minerals, whole grains and omega-three fatty acids; a good night’s sleep and a positive outlook really help in combating mental disease. Aerobic activity is highly recommended as it releases endorphins which promote a sense of happiness and well being.

Students prone to anxiety can adopt a proactive role by not procrastinating schoolwork, doing something they enjoy to relax and unwind, and learning time management so that they can survive college or school without overwhelming pressure. A person suffering from anxiety once told me that playing soccer keeps him sane. Another friend of mine who suffers from depression said that riding horses is her happy place and brings her joy.

Society needs to stop making fun of mentally ill people. The shame associated with mental illness has led to a culture of silence. Sadly, sometimes we don’t know someone has been suffering until we find out that he or she committed suicide. We need to remove stigma and ridicule. We need to be kind to one another.

In these times of social distancing when the mental health crisis is escalating, we can reach out virtually to those who might be drowning in despair. The tag line of this year’s mental health awareness campaign is, “you are not alone!” Let us show people that we care, let us offer support to mentally ill people.

Some of my favorite quotes on mental health include:

“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”― Juliette Lewis

“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”― Nathaniel Lee

“Don’t worry, everyone is mentally ill, they just haven’t figured out a name for yours yet.”― Chris Sprudz

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”― Friedrich Nietzsche

“To be ill-adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.”― Jeanette Winterson

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, here are five resources that may help.

How do you support those around you with mental illness? What advice or insight would you add to help those around you?

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Growing up in a small town in India, Mona Verma never dreamed that she would immigrate to America. She came to Columbia in 1996 when her husband found a job here and they were newly married. It was an arranged match but she did get to meet her future husband and give her approval and there has never been a shortage of love in their marriage. With a Masters in English and a Masters in Library and Information Science, Mona divides her time between being a part time Reference librarian and a part time writer. She is however, a full time mom to three teenagers, a girl and two boys. Volunteering, gardening, reading, binge watching her favorite TV shows and drinking wine with girlfriends spark tremendous joy in her. She is a very laid back person who likes to live and let live. Cups of hot ginger tea and hugs and cuddles from her family keep her going….

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