I was as green as a kale infused smoothie. All dressed up in my floral scrub top and crisp white pants, with a box of Tic Tacs in my pocket. I felt rattled. Would I be able to cut it?
It was 1998. My first job as a RN, on a psychiatric unit at a local hospital in Bridgeport, CT.
Going through a divorce at the same time, made matters worse. My brain was fried before I hit the floor. But, I had to pull it together.
A year earlier as a new grad, I worked on a medical unit. It was a hornet’s nest of noise and chaos; beeping cardiac monitors and nurses sprinting in and out of patient’s rooms monitoring blood transfusions, IV pumps and vital signs. It was palpable.
Transitioning to psychiatry wasn’t. It was foreign territory.
“Personally, I didn’t know any mentally ill people. I had my own biases from caricatures in movies and TV shows.”
Or, the random, disheveled, person standing on the street corner or pacing outside the grocery store talking to himself or an imaginary person– ensconced in his own little world.
You know, the ones we see and don’t see.
Yes, I had book knowledge and clinical rotations up the wazoo. But, it paled to being airdropped into an emotional battlefield. But, I was intrigued, none-the-less.
“I had lots to learn about the complexities and nuances of chronic mental illness.”
Seeing it intimately on this locked-down unit and years later as a home care nurse, put me in an unique position to observe how emotional health circles the drain.
Mental illness is taboo. One of those things we don’t want to talk about. So, we don’t.
And, when we do it is interwoven with fear, misinformation and judgment. Void of empathy.
It doesn’t make for small talk over dinner, cocktails, vacations, holiday gatherings or on the golf course.
It is easier to bury our heads into the sand or become condescending or hurtful.
“It is disturbing that we have more insight about erectile dysfunction and gastric reflux.”
The discourse needs to be normalized and moved out of the closet to the center of the table. We are all hardwired differently. And, therein, lies the epic problem.
I saw it on my friend’s faces; ghastly expressions. I was often asked by many of them if I was afraid to work with those ”crazy” people. This is the ”C” word I detest. Along with f#@%## up, nut, weirdo, basket case and loony. Offensive words that stigmatize and demonize people because of their behavior. If they could help it, they would.
“I hate labels of any kind. Unless they are affixed to perfume or wine bottles.”
I don’t laugh at jokes at the expense of shaming people who are vulnerable.
Over my career, I have worked with patients diagnosed with clinical depression; anxiety; bi-polar; schizophrenia; borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mental illness has many faces: all kinds of folks from all walks of life and all kinds of places. To be clear: no one is immune. Shit happens.
For some folks, there is a family history and for others, it can be situational. It’s a huge burden, not only to the person afflicted. But, it takes a toll on their families, social life and work life, if they are able to maintain a job. It is a revolving door of doctor appointments, hospital admissions and taking medications– that may or may not help.
“According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 out of 5 people have mental illness.”
Nearly 42 million Americans (2016). And, many suffer in silence–hiding in plain sight.
Depression is the most common form, affecting 26% of the U.S. adult population. These numbers are staggering. By the way, this type of chronic depression isn’t when you are feeling a little blue because you’ve put on ten pounds and can’t get into your favorite jeans or your husband forgot your anniversary.
Chronic depression can last for years. Symptoms may include hopelessness, lack of interest in activities you enjoyed before, low energy, low appetite, low self esteem, sleep changes and poor focus.
The key to fighting the stigma is education. The media does a poor job. If I had a dollar for each time a TV reporter or anchor described a person with multiple personality disorder as a schizophrenic, I would be living the life in Dubai.
A schizophrenic has a disconnect from reality exhibited by paranoia; delusions and hallucinations. A person with multiple personality disorder, has 2 or more distinct personality identities. Journalists, please check your facts, so you don’t keep regurgitating wrong information to the public. There’s no excuse, when Google Search is at your fingertips.
“We must all educate ourselves.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but, unfortunately, it pretty much falls on deaf ears. Most folks I’ve talked with, who are not medical professionals, don’t know anything about it. Much more must be done to wave the red flag!
Recently, Kevin Love, a 29-year-old NBA player with the Cleveland Cavaliers, revealed he had a panic attack last November while playing against the Atlanta Hawks. This was a bold move for a stellar athlete who is normally private. I have nothing but respect for his bravery. Hopefully, it will encourage others to face their truths and lift the veil.
So. If you are having a hard time and feel you need help, don’t ignore your symptoms. Don’t keep them bottled up inside. Listen to your gut.
Early identification is key to getting proper treatment. Talk with someone you can trust who can lead you in the right direction, if you can’t advocate for yourself.
Seek professional help from your primary doctor who can refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist. Mental illness will not go away by itself.
“Support a friend with mental illness.”
- Listen. Don’t change the subject if they want to talk about it. Yes, it may be uncomfortable for you. But, how do you think they feel? You may get a call at the break of dawn or in the middle of the night. Be prepared.
- Show your support, You can do it without being intrusive. If they confide in you, don’t run your mouth to others. And, if you do, you aren’t much of a friend.
- Educate yourself about the disease. Dig in. Research. Expand your scope of knowledge. A vast world exists beyond the stereotypes. Remember mental illness doesn’t always come dressed in a neon sign.
- Ask what you can do to help and deliver on it.
- Ask if they are getting the treatment they need.
We are all in this together. You never know what someone is going through.