My best friend, Daniell, knows just what to do when I’m depressed or in a state of sheer panic. She understands me and my struggles to the core and has a good reason to; we’ve been friends since the ninth grade and have gone through so much together. I try to be transparent in life, but it’s hard. Some people know this, some do not… but I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since the age of 12. Daniell is, of course, one of the people in my life who knows this about me.
When someone new discovers I have this affliction, I feel an awful elephant in the room appear. The animal I’m referring to is the stigma associated with mental illness. I’m a confident person, but don’t like the feeling of someone looking at me like I’m helpless or broken. That judgement can be paralyzing.
One of the reasons I chose to work at K9s For Warriors is because I want to help shred this stigma to pieces!!! September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, so I feel this is the perfect time to share my thoughts on the mental health stigma. People don’t choose to suffer from anxiety, depression, or PTSD any more than someone chooses to suffer from lymphoma. Me for example: I’m a hardworking, creative professional with a big heart. I’m a great mom, daughter, sister, and friend. I’m a lot of things. But one thing I’m not is “crazy.” I’m also not my anxiety, just like the warriors who come through the K9s program aren’t their PTSD. Those labels suck and need to stop being slapped on us.
Mental illness is not glamorous but having one does not mean that I am not the good mother, employee, family member, and friend that I know myself to be. I used to be afraid that someone would discriminate against me for my depression, but working at K9s For Warriors has helped me overcome that fear. If someone looks down on me for something that isn’t my fault – that’s their problem, not mine. I’m not even sure how the mental health stigma exists, when so many of us have mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. – 43.8 million experiences a mental illness in a given year. That’s so many people. Like a ton of people!
If you are a person who doesn’t fall into this statistic, that is awesome. Count your lucky stars! But please don’t look at me as someone who is weak or unstable. Because guess what? I can do cartwheels in high heels, bake really mean cupcakes, and I always use an Oxford comma . . . ALWAYS! Veterans with PTSD have to deal with this stigma more than any of us. You may not understand PTSD. You may not care to. But please don’t make a veteran feel inadequate for their struggles. Don’t forget for a second what sacrifices they have made for us. Don’t tell them asking for help makes them feeble. It most certainly doesn’t!
You see, my best friend’s dad, Daniel (aka Mac), was a veteran (retired Navy) who lost the battle. Perhaps, he would still be here today if society was a little more understanding about stress, depression, anxiety, and everything in between . . . if the stigma didn’t exist. Mac took his life when Daniell and I were in 11th grade. It was devastating. During a time in life when prom dresses and football games were all that should matter; she had to learn how to live without the first man she ever loved… forever. We talk about her dad a lot when we are together. She misses him very much and not a day passes when she doesn’t think of him. He lives in her heart and always will.
Daniell is one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. I can’t give Daniell her dad back, but I can use my skills and talents to help diminish the negative outlook that society has callously placed on mental health. The more sensitive and understanding we are about this topic, the more comfortable people will be with reaching out for help. Then, together, as a community, we can save lives. Nearly 43,000 Americans die by suicide every year; veterans comprise 22.2% of those suicides.
You can help break the mental health stigma by:
- Not sweeping mental health disorders under the rug (ahem, insurance companies).
- Addressing societal apathy towards treatments (It’s not fake…my anxiety makes me feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack).
- Addressing the lack of education about the complexity of mental health (Mental health should be introduced to children at a young age, maybe even talked about in schools).
- Addressing adequate approaches, tools, and resources for recovery (Service dogs for PTSD and other nontraditional treatments should be more available).
- Becoming a mental health advocate (Just be nice and open-minded, ok?).
“People talk about physical fitness, but mental health is equally important. I see people suffering, and their families feel a sense of shame about it, which doesn't help. One needs support and understanding.” –Deepika Padukone