The Allure of Awareness Months – May was Mental Health (sorry, it’s June now)

I feel silly admitting this, but a couple days ago, right after the month of May ended and the month of June began, I actually thought to myself “Geez, Jessie, you didn’t write about mental health OR lupus in May!”.  How arbitrary is that thought???  Just because the internet and some national associations decided that certain “causes” should be brought to the public attention as a reminder in assigned months each year, I somehow felt limited by that. . .

I understand that these months create an opportunity to start conversations and they perhaps do give sometimes under-recognized issues some space in the public forums, but maybe. . . just maybe. . . by giving them that finite space of time each year, we’re actually limiting them.

I think mental health should be a topic every damn day.  When I ask a friend how they’re doing, I want to know how their mental health is doing, their physical health, and their general life happenings.  I’ll often ask friends a few times in conversation how they are – because the first response is usually what everyone gives – the knee-jerk “I’m good” so that the conversation can stay at the surface level.  Eff that jazz.  I would absolutely love to see a world where people really spoke to each other about more than just the surface, step outside of our weird habits of isolation and self-inflicted loneliness and talk about mental health.  Open up about the highs and the lows.  My friend recently sent an email to a group of our close friends because she recently moved far away and she’s having a rough time and just needed to get it out.  This friend is tough as nails and stubborn to no end, I know how much it took her to write this email.  The thing is, her and I talk semi-regularly on the phone and via text and I would ask how things are – but this never came up.  Perhaps it’s guarding oneself, not wanting to be vulnerable, or the weird difference between how discussing physical health vs. mental health is perceived.

Why is it so uncomfortable for me to say that I’ve been hospitalized for attempted suicide?  But had I been hospitalized for pneumonia I wouldn’t think twice about saying that out loud?  Why are we more comfortable posting on Facebook asking for recommendations of dentists than we are for therapists?  Why is it gossiped about if a coworker goes off to substance abuse rehab, then the same gossipers treat that coworker differently when they return as if that coworker is somehow defective?

Receiving treatment for mental health – therapy, rehab, medication, alternative options (I don’t really know these options but I imagine there are some) – is the important part here.  Just like diabetics, no one shames them.  They have a condition that affects their health and so they treat it.  They know that if they don’t pay attention to their body there can be deadly consequences.  Same with anyone who has to monitor their mental health.  I know that if I don’t take my 6 pills a day (3 different Rxs) regularly, avoid drinking for the most part, and get out in the world, I can very easily fall into my cycle of depression and hypomania.  So. . . that’s why I DO take my medication!

It’s so upsetting to think that there are millions of people not talking about their mental health.  People with anxiety, loneliness, mania, psychosis, depression, eating disorders, fear of rejection, you name it – anything that has to do with our emotions – and they’re just not talking about it.  I never really had an emotionally supportive family growing up – we just sort of ignored that part of ourselves (which definitely contributed to the suicide attempt, not a blaming thing, just a statement).  I wasn’t abused and I knew I was loved, I felt safe.  But I didn’t ever feel like I could openly address my feelings.  I imagine this is how a lot of adults feel without significant others or close friends who they can share their deeper (not surface level) thoughts with.  Fortunately for me, I “came of age” in the time of live journal and myspace and oh man, I typed the sh*t outta my feelings!  I wrote (I don’t think there was the term “blog” yet) all of my angst out at my computer and it was the most cathartic thing any middle class teenager who didn’t drink or do drugs could experience.  I miss those days, when only your good friends cared enough to look at what you wrote (when you actually made it public) and employers had no idea what myspace was to do a pre-employment screen.  It now takes restraint to not turn this blog into a mere online diary (I feel as though this post borders on that line, though my goal is to help others more than get any chips off of my shoulders).

What avenues do we have now to address our mental health?  I’m incredibly fortunate to have awesome health benefits through my job.  I’ve got to get my act together and find a new therapist, but I do have a psychiatrist I like so I’m good there.  But for people without health insurance. .  I’ve been to free/low cost clinics and they can be depressing/scary places.  The good therapists cost money.  And most people don’t know that a lot of therapists offer their rates on a sliding scale for cash patients – I had no idea until I interned at counseling office in college.  Of course a therapist isn’t going to go shouting that out to everyone, “Hey!  If you ask, I’ll talk to you about a lower rate!” but it’s an option few people know of.  For people with substance abuse issues, there’s the AA/NA programs, I can’t speak from experience with those but I’ve heard good things.  The part that I like most about those (that I know of) is the sponsor – you have someone, SOMEONE, to talk to – someone who is in the same boat and can relate on a very human level.  There are other support groups as well however that’s intimidating as well.  Admitting you have a problem to a close friend is tough, but a group of strangers??  Or that may be more your comfort level – whatever works for you.  There are even online support groups these days!  Though I would be wary of online trolls. . .

Admitting the problem to others can be even more difficult if you’re one of those people who avoids recognizing that they themselves have a problem.  I just got out of a relationship where I recognized all the signs of mental health issues in my partner so I tried to help, I tried so incredibly hard.  This person even came around to recognize their mental health issue and admit that they wanted help.  However, it took months of instability to finally recognize, then several months more to decide they wanted to get help, and then many months more of continuing to say they were going to get help until finally that never happened and neither of us were going to be happy in the dynamic.  I can completely 100% relate though so although I’m hurt and not happy with them, I’ve been through it and I know it takes time.  I’ve been bipolar for something like 19 years, I didn’t actually get diagnosed until about 8 years ago, I didn’t start taking medication until about 5 years ago, and I haven’t perfected that “cocktail” of pills until about a year and a half ago.  It takes time.  The first step is recognizing there’s something that’s not working right.

I clearly remember when I told my good friend and college roommate that I was diagnosed bipolar some years after we had graduated and settled into adulthood.  I was sitting on her porch and this was something I felt I had to “admit”.  I said, “Hey, umm. . . so I’m bipolar.” and she said “Well yeah, I could have told you that.”  I just stared at her for a minute, she’s always been super blunt and just says whatever is in her mouth at the moment so I was hoping for some sort of follow up.  She explained that when we lived together it would make sense for me to be bipolar because I would spend a couple months napping every minute between classes and forced social activities then every so often there would be a couple weeks of intense activity and poor decision making.  I looked at her in silence for a minute longer then rather loudly said “WELL WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY ANYTHING?????”  If she saw it, and I didn’t, why the hell didn’t she just say something like “Hey, Jess, I think you should see the school psychologist.  You know, just to talk.”  It could have saved me years of anguish.  But, that’s our society.  There’s stigma around mental health.  We can easily say “Hey, your cough doesn’t sound so good, you should get it checked.” but heaven forbid we tell a friend “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been really avoiding everything for a few months now, is everything ok? Can we talk about anything?  I’m here for you and will always listen.”  That’s nuts.

So though it’s June, I wanted to take a minute to address mental health, a few dates late of its assigned month.  If you haven’t checked in with yourself, take a few minutes to take stock of where your mental hygiene is.  Could you use some freshening up in the mental health department?  Maybe you could reach out to a friend and have a real conversation. Or check out one of those online support groups for whatever has you concerned.  Do you have a friend that you may be worried about?  Check in with them!  Let them know there’s no stigma with mental health for you and that you’re there to listen.  If we all start talking about mental health it won’t be so shrouded in secrets.


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