October 4 - 10th is Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). Each year more and more people become familiar with mental illness and the role it plays in all our lives. While not all of us may have a mental illness diagnosis, it is almost certain that someone in each of our lives does. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) selects a theme each year to focus on during MIAW; This year NAMI has shared content centered on the theme of “What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.” While almost all of us likely know someone with a mental illness, we may only know the title to their condition and still be unfamiliar with their story or their lived experience.
Especially as we work our way into the Halloween season, it's easy to think about the scary representations of mental illness that we see in movies and TV shows. Your loved ones with mental illness are not about to become the title of the latest psychological thriller film just because they received a diagnosis. Most people living with mental illness live completely typical lives. While terms like “Borderline Personality Disorder” or “Bipolar Disorder” may seem daunting, the people living with them are not super villains in the making -- they’re family, friends, coworkers, and peers. Ashlynn McNeeley reminds us in her post on NAMI’s website that “I am not my mental illness… it is simply a small part of my identity”. For the sake of flair and drama, the media can often portray ordinary conditions as unrealistically severe. Teens face an ocean of stigma everyday so it's no wonder the hashtag #stigmafree becomes so important during MIAW. With 1 in 6 US youth ages 6-17 experiencing a mental health disorder, we can’t let stigma or fear or media misconceptions stop us from talking about mental illness, this week or any other.
While some may look at mental illness and think it is larger or scarier than it is in reality, others may misunderstand mental illness on the other end of the spectrum. While not all mental illnesses are debilitating, they are still very serious diagnoses that deserve the proper consideration. As much as we wish anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses were like a cold that we could just push through or wish that we could just tough it out -- they aren’t. As with all illnesses, some are more severe than others, some have cures, some don’t. In many cases, a mental illness is not something that will go away but instead is a part of one’s health that one must learn how to cope with and manage. Feeling nervous may be an emotion that some find easy to overcome; they can quell their panicked feeling with reassuring thoughts and maybe a few deep breaths. But for someone with anxiety, feelings of nervousness can often snowball into a full panic attack which can take much more than a few deep breaths to overcome. That person with an anxiety disorder may always have anxiety, but by addressing the diagnosis, better practices can be worked on to lessen the impact that the illness has on their life. Belittling or even ignoring these realities can be detrimental to your relationship with the person with mental illness, and it can block them from the knowledge they need to move forward on their mental health journey. Keep an open mind about diverse experiences and remember that not everyone’s mind works the same way as yours for a wide variety of reasons.
During this week, take some time to reflect on your own and your loved ones’ mental health. Ask yourself, what do you wish people knew about your mental health? And ask your loved ones, what do they wish you knew about theirs? Open conversations with teens about mental illness can help eliminate misconceptions they may have about themselves or those around them. As always, know you don’t have to forge these waters alone. There is a plethora of resources available on NAMI’s website including blog posts, resource libraries, videos, hotlines and numerous other guiding tools to start your mental health journey.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, reach out:
A Positive Approach to Teen Health (P.A.T.H) is a 501(c)3 organization that reaches seven counties throughout Northwest Indiana. Since 1993, A Positive Approach to Teen Health has been working to empower teens to make healthy choices regarding drugs, sex, alcohol, and violence.