Responding to Mental Illness

Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR or at the very least call 911. How many of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that a friend or co-worker might be showing signs of alcoholism?

Several weeks ago, I became a trainer for Mental Health First Aid. This course takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by teaching people to identify and address them safely and responsibly. When more people are equipped to start a dialogue, more people can get the help they need. Mental Health First Aiders can even save lives.

Approximately one in five adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately one in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

If mental illness is so prevalent, why are so many people scared to seek the help they need? For centuries, people suffering from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, were considered insane and locked away in sanitariums or prisons. If you think society is leaps and bounds past that, consider the vocabulary we so commonly use. Terms such as crazy, weird or abnormal to describe behavior does not suggest a nonjudgmental and accepting environment. In fact, this is a big reason why people are so reluctant to seek help. How do we change this? Education, understanding and acceptance.

When it comes to disorders like depression or substance abuse, much of the population still views these as a result of moral weakness instead of complicated diseases of the brain. In turn, those suffering from treatable illnesses frequently refuse to come forward for fear of exposure and sometimes lack understanding of the subject themselves.

Here are some of the consequences people suffer as a result of the stigma surrounding mental health issues:

  • Alienation from friends, family and colleagues
  • Physical violence
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • The belief that there is nothing that can help them

People living with untreated mental disorders often experience serious pain. Advances in science have shed light on the fact that these are diseases and should be treated as such, not stigmatized. Physicians can diagnose disorders and prescribe medication or use psychotherapy techniques to bring relief to suffering patients.

While more people than ever before are going to treatment and getting the help they need, there are still far too many who are afraid to seek help. Most are afraid of the label that is placed on people going to therapy. There is shame and a reluctance to talk about their experience. They beg others to keep their secret.

It is this secret-keeping that perpetuates the stigma and ultimately prevents others who may be struggling from seeking help.

Getting help for depression does not mean a person is weak, lazy or worse—crazy. Without proper treatment, some will turn to drugs or alcohol to ease the pain or escape from their problems, creating a co-occurring disorder of substance abuse and mental illness. Distorted thinking at times plays a role, and the fear of treatment or what others will say is blown way out of proportion.

There’s no denying that society is more aware of mental illness today than in years past. With high profile people speaking out about their disorders, mental health issues are getting more press. Through social media and local publications, we are also privy to stories of survival and personal struggles from people who are just like us. Although there is still a great deal of fear of the unknown, society is acknowledging that these conditions are treatable and that there is hope.

The Mental Health First Aid course is eight hours over two days. For more information, email info@nullkeypeninsulafire.org.

Anne Nesbit is the prevention and public information officer and volunteer battalion chief for the Key Peninsula Fire Department. She lives in Lakebay.

Siren's Song