Growing up, hospitals became like a second home to me as my brother struggled with a severe physical illness, including multiple surgeries and stays in intensive care and rehabilitation hospitals. When I was six and he had his first surgery, my mom was worried about having me visit because my brother looked very ill. The doctor wisely said “What she imagines will be much worse than what she sees.” So began my visits to the hospital and my eventual home in the disability community as a sibling with someone with a disability. Something that many would see as scary became so common place that the fear and shame others saw was replaced with a peace and a passion for me.
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, I am emboldened to work to replace the fear and shame many feel about mental illness with that same peace and passion I found in the disability community. Seeing things with your own eyes and naming them are essential keys to breaking down the walls that contribute to stigma. So today, I want to name my depression and anxiety as well as the depression and anxiety that my children struggle with. To be honest, these names are imperfect and we are still trying them on for size, but they give us words so we can talk about our feelings and struggles, think about how to cope with them, and most importantly take away the power of the shame we sometimes feel.
This morning, my day started at my local Dunkin Donuts where I ran into a friend. We began to talk about our children and their challenges. I talked about my son’s anxiety and how I’m trying to figure out how to handle the tantrums he has at home. And as we were talking, someone waiting in line said “Excuse me but I couldn’t help but overhear. I just want to say I understand. My daughter struggles with anxiety too and so I know what you are talking about. It’s hard to find people who understand.” And so speaking about our struggles with mental illness openly and publicly brought a new connection and some shared comfort and compassion.
And my night ended at a celebration called “Passion & Purpose: Championing Children’s Mental Health” for a local family advocacy organization called FAVOR (http://www.favor-ct.org), an organization run by an old colleague who graciously invited me to attend tonight. I knew little about the organization before tonight but was inspired by the important and amazing work they are doing and by the keynote speaker, Mike Veny (https://www.facebook.com/mikeveny). Mike shared his struggles with mental health as a child and gave me a new perspective with his description of his mix of anxiety, depression, anger, and OCD boiling in the single pot of his head. He gave us three key points to take away as we battle the stigma surrounding mental illness:
Care: Like we are instructed on airplanes, put on your oxygen mask before putting it on another. If we are to do any good, we need to be sure we are taking care of ourselves first.
Communicate: This one really resonated as I think this morning that’s what happened to me. By talking about mental illness openly, it allows others to talk about their experiences and little by little erodes the walls stigma and shame build.
Connect: In order to break stigma, we will need to work together. This is something that is hard for me but that I’m working hard to do better at. I often isolate myself and try to do things alone but I know that’s ineffective. I’m so thankful for those who are already doing the hard work of breaking the stigma, helping families, and helping individuals with mental illness and I hope to work on partnering with them to continue this work.
I encourage you to do your part in helping to break the stigma. Tell your stories – they are important. Connect with others, even if – no especially if – it’s hard for you like it is for me. And take care of yourself so you can help others!