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Mental Illness Awareness Week - "What I Wish I Had Known"

With 1 in 5 Americans suffering from mental illness every year, while living in a society that often negatively stigmatizes mental health, it is no surprise that there's an entire week dedicated bringing awareness. Considering that half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, people need to be educated about mental illness and the struggles that they entail.

This year, Mental Illness Awareness Week is being highlighted a bit differently - the National Alliance on Mental Illness has themed the week "What I wish I had known", and broken each day down into a sub-category with regard to treatment/information those suffering from mental illnesses wish they'd known sooner in their lives. Here at Send HEPi, we have decided to utilize their list and provide information, examples, and resources for each day's category, and house them all here in a single post.

The whole point is to shine light on true stories and highlight problematic circumstances that may be affecting others in the mental health community!

Monday: Stigma

To say that mental illness is without stigma would be one hell of a lie. It's so engrained in the way that society works around us, that often times people are negative and don't even realize it. My grandmother studied psychology back in the 60's and 70's, and she's told me that it was mostly utilized for criminal understanding, or the institutionalized - not your neighbor feeling anxiety in her day-to-day life. When Cognitive Behavioral Therapy started up in the 1960's (this is a very common therapy practice still utilized today), the stigma started that something was wrong with you if you needed therapy - your brain wasn't right, you were a "crazy person", etc.

I remember growing up in the 90's and 2000's, and the idea of mental illness was like a big joke - celebrities having mental breakdowns and being turned into punchlines, and even in my own home both my parents suffered from mental illness, and when I would start to display symptoms and not understand what was happening, would cry and tell my mom I "felt crazy", she would panic and tell me that I wasn't crazy.

It always felt like a gross secret I had to keep, and not like something that was relatively common, and that I could definitely have found help for.

Even now, I am 28 and have a loose abnormal depressive diagnosis - I experience mania, and depressive episodes, and riddling anxiety. I have had psychologists tell me I am bi-polar. I have told this to my friends, causal and in conversation (because I grew up in a toxic mentally unstable household, and I don't think people should live in silence), and I always receive the same answer: "Don't say that."

Like it's something wrong. As if my diagnosis, or blend of diagnosis, is going to suddenly turn me into something horrendous in front of everyone. Someone at this bar finds out I have depression, now I turn into a werewolf and eat everyone?

No. It's not a big dirty secret, it's not a sign that you're a bad person, and it's not penance for past actions. Mental illness is something that affects so many of us, and I personally believe it's extremely important to vocalize your needs, with friends, family, and casual acquaintances. I would feel so bad if I was out and someone in the group was feeling overstimulated, or anxious, and in me not knowing I perpetuated their stress! I don't want to run the risk of anyone I'm with feeling that way, or thinking that I would rather them not tell me, so I always leave the door open for communication. '

There is no stigma in informing your loved ones how to love you best.

Tuesday: Medication [National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Understanding and Recovery]

Medication can benefit you in so many ways. There are a lot of options available, and obviously you will want to discuss them with your doctor - but these are some examples of medications either I (or my direct family) have utilized and how they have benefitted us. I want to remind our readers: I am not a medical professional. I am a social media creator who happens who have a lot of personal experience with mental illness - both in myself, and my loved ones around me. Before you take new medication, mix meds, or stop meds - talk to your doctor.

Mood Stabilizers - mood stabilizers do pretty much exactly what they say they do. They stabilize your mood. Usually they're used for mania treatment in bi-polar disorder, but can also be paired with anti-depressants to boost those effects. They level out the abnormal chemical balances in your brain, which cause a lot of the 'mood swing' type behaviors often found in bi-polar people. They can cause some interesting side effects, but pretty standard is itchy skin, increased thirst (and therefore frequent urination), and an upset stomach. Most of the side-effects go away after short term usage, so don't let that deter you from getting your treatment!

Anti-Depressants - anti-depressants do a very similar job to mood stabilizers, except the opposite way. Mood stabilizers are usually trying to level out the chemicals that are already there - anti-depressants usually increase the levels of the chemicals that are there. Depression comes from a lack of serotonin in the brain (in the most general conclusion of a very challenging and awful mental illness), which anti-depressants target directly. Increasing the balances of chemicals in the brain can boost a positive response, and can provide relief from the symptoms of depression. Anti-depressants do come with their own side effects too, though. Dry mouth and some weight gain are common, as well as directly affecting your sex drive/sexual functioning.

Anti-Anxiety - as always, there's numerous different categories for anti-anxiety medication. This has to do with meds you have taken/can take, as well as allergies and specific side effects from your anxiety disorder diagnosis. My family has experience with common anti-anxiety medications - the SSRI's, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Anxiety disorders (again, in the most generalized way) are essentially an over-production/over-absorption of serotonin. SSRI's target the nerves in your brain so they stop over-absorbing the serotonin, which helps regulate anxiety chemical production as well. SSRI's come with a very similar list of side effects to the rest of the pharmaceutical mental health world - dry mouth, fatigue, weight gain, and sexual drive/functions can all be effected.

Wednesday: Therapy

Therapy is, in my opinion, a key ingredient to getting the full span of mental wellness. Therapists are great for a lot of reasons! For starters, and the most obvious, therapy is going to help you talk through your challenges and figure out how to cope, how to process your trauma, and how to go on living your life in a healthy and safe way. You can, however, also use your therapist for positive situations.

As always, treatment starts with the hard stuff - you gotta suffer, you're gonna have to go into the dark before you can come out the other side and sit in peace. Therapists are here for you during that entire process, and their only goal is to get you to the other side of that tunnel - and when they've helped you get there, you can let them go and be free of therapy, or you can continue to utilize them! Stress, anxiety, depressive episodes - that stuff doesn't just go away. It's not like you go to therapy and come out an emotionless monk that can handle anything and everything thrown their way. No one can handle everything!

Utilizing your therapist for normal issues is just as valid, and just as important! You create a really close bond with your therapist - I mean, they literally know all your secrets, all your compulsions, all the 'weird' things about you. It's their job, but it's also their responsibility to provide you with a supportive and caring, safe space. Feeling healthy anxiety about applying for a promotion at your job, and having a meeting with your boss? Your therapist can help you level out your emotions so that you know how to handle that meeting through and through. They're not just here for the traumatic sides of life, they can help you with the positive sides, too!

Thursday: Disclosing [National Depression Screening Day]

Disclosing is very hit or miss - that comes from the stigma, from the stressors that we place on ourselves and that society has placed on us for perfection, and from the fact that we, as humans, don't want to feel judged. Keep in mind, there is no requirement for disclosing your mental illness to an employer, or a school board. There is also no time-frame to do so, if you decide you do wish to disclose.

In my personal experience, I have never really sat down and done a 'disclosure', in any official way. My disclosures come from casual conversation and my story-telling personality, which often reveals all sorts of details about my life and circumstances without it being a serious, or intense, type of situation. I have yet to really receive negative commentary from people around me, other than the sort of awkward stigma 'don't say that about yourself', as if I'm just talking down and not clinically diagnosed. But I think it's extremely important to be honest and open with everyone around you, bosses or otherwise, to provide an understanding and to help lessen that stigma to begin with.

Friday: Caregiving

This one is a rough one. Caregiving is different for every single person that you know who is suffering from mental illness. There are always things you can do for anyone, but those really do apply to anyone and not anxious Jill specifically - things like running an errand for them, ordering dinner to their house, a bath relaxation package, some beer, etc. There's always standard fall back activities that you can do to try and put a smile on your loved one's face, but often times it is more helpful to be specific to your loved one.

In my case, I am also neuro divergent on top of my mental illness diagnosis (they do often go hand in hand). Often times, I have a hyperfixation - this can be an activity that I really like doing, a cup of tea made the same way every time, a particular bagel and cream cheese from my favorite bagel shop, etc. I also have comfort items, like a particular pillow on my bed, a specific blanket that has the right level of scratchy to soft tactile ratio, and a plushie from my favorite comfort show.

When I am in need of caregiving, my partner knows these things about me. He will order me my favorite pizza from the one shop 25 mins away, put on a comfort film, wrap me in my blanket, and bring me anything I need.

Caregiving isn't so much about knowing your partner through and through, but being there for your loved one in a no-questions-asked kind of way. Sometimes, in my darkest episodes, I can't even fathom to eat. Thinking about food makes me sick, makes me want to cry, makes me stressed out that I'm not eating. My partner will make little food for me - half a piece of toast, a spoonful of honey, some feta cheese crumbles in a bowl.

And when it is time for me to be the caregiver, I know what to do because how often I need the care myself. It's important to take care of your loved ones and to show them that their mental illness is not a defining feature - you aren't going to fall out of love with them tomorrow because of their anxiety. You are here for them, you love them, and you will get through it together.

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