May is Mental Health Awareness Month

I was 14 years old when I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

I remember the day well, even though it’s been 16 years ago. I was sitting in my family doctor’s office, and both of my parents were there. Something was obviously wrong with me, and no one really knew what to do about it. I was often physically ill, and I would go days without wanting to do anything other than sleep.

I was missing days upon days of school, and I was always exhausted. I was usually a great student, but I was falling behind in my courses. In fact, I was falling behind in everything, and I was quickly descending into the vice-like grip of depression.

I wish I could tell you that the doctor found the root cause that day and that he prescribed a miracle drug that cured all of the symptoms. That isn’t the case. He gave me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, and, after a while, the edge was gone. I was still anxious and depressed, but I could again see the light.

However, to this day, I struggle with the black cloud of depression and the pain that is anxiety. I have a great life now, and I had a great life when I was first diagnosed. Sure, I was dealing with the usual school bullying (and, of course, I still deal with bullies these days, too), but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. My parents were fantastic, and I had a stable home and even a supportive church family.

So, why the depression? Why the anxiety? I’ve spent years – and thousands of dollars on doctors and prescription drugs – trying to figure out the answer to that question. It turns out there’s no easy answer, and there’s definitely no easy solution.

A few years back, I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is the “trendy” mental health disorder everyone likes to say they have when they prefer a tidy house or tidy car. While I do have some of those compulsions, I am on the side of OCD where you obsess with worry over things. It keeps me up at night, and it burns holes in my stomach. It strangles my energy and can be so overwhelming at times that I struggle to get air into my lungs.

Mental illnesses are invisible diseases, and they are like cancers in the sense that they spread and consume you over time. Unfortunately, some people do not survive these illnesses. I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support system, and I have been vocal enough about my struggles to where my friends and family members can see when I’m drowning and rescue me. I’m fortunate enough to have health insurance and the ability to see a doctor and have medication that dulls the most severe of the effects.

Millions of Americans aren’t so lucky. The cost of mental health care is tremendous, and the stigma associated with these illnesses and seeking treatment is strong. As a result, many people choose to dull their pain with alcohol or illicit drugs, and, when the pain becomes too great, they can be lost to suicide. They become another statistic and a casualty of a broken health care system.

May is recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Instead, it’s a time for us to recognize that nearly one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment. In other words, we’re losing the war against these illnesses.

This year, the situation is even more dire. Experts have warned that a national mental health crisis, brought on by the stress levels associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, is looming. Dr. Jonathan Porteus, a psychologist who oversees the crisis and suicide hotlines in Sacramento, California, recently told WebMD that “…our society is definitely in a collective state of trauma,” and there will be significant psychological fallout.

So, how do we reduce the fallout and start winning some of the battles against mental illness? First, we must challenge – and defeat – the stigmas associated with such illnesses and their treatments. According to a study in World Psychiatry, “…many people with serious mental illnesses are challenged doubly” due to fighting both the symptoms of the disease and the stereotypes associated with it.

These stigmas can be diminished through proper community education efforts and interpersonal contact with those who suffer from mental illnesses, said the study. It’s important to realize that people who suffer from these illnesses are your friends and your neighbors, and some of them could be suffering in silence. Being an open resource to them can make you an invaluable and trusted ally in this fight.

Second, we must allocate proper resources to this fight. As it currently stands, our health care system is broken. Many people who need care can’t afford it, and that’s disgraceful for a country of our size and stature. We should immediately take steps to reform the system and make it more affordable for all. Affordable health care shouldn’t be a political issue; instead, it should be a human right.

Finally, we can all strive to be a positive force in someone else’s life. I was telling someone the other day that it seems pointless to smile at someone if you’re wearing a mask (thanks again, COVID-19), but I was quickly reminded that people can see your smile through your eyes. Smile at someone. Offer them an encouraging word. You’ll never know how far that goes when someone’s having a rough time.

We must stand together against mental illness, and not just during Mental Health Awareness Month. Together, we can create real change, and we can make things better for generations to come.