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May 27th, 2019

swgc mental health awarenessMay is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Southwest Guidance Center wants to help “Stop the Stigma” of mental illness by helping people communicate about it. L&T photo/Robert PierceROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

Many people with serious mental illness are challenged doubly.

On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudices that result from misconceptions about mental illness.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year’s theme, ‘Stop the Stigma,’ centers around correcting some of those issues.

Southwest Guidance Center Director Dr. Leslie Bissell said this first starts with understanding what the word “stigma” means, something she said many people do not.

“We want to make sure and educate around that this year,” she said. “Basically, stigma means thoughts and beliefs that get in the way of people being able to get the help they need. It’s often thoughts like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ‘You’re not worth anything.’ ‘People will make fun of you.’ All of those kinds of things that actually get in the way of folks getting the help they need for their mental illness.”

Bissell said for this year’s campaign, SWGC is getting the word out by awarding Mental Health Champions.

“We’re going to select 10 of our community partners and honor them, giving them a certificate and just honoring them for what they have done within their agency or in the community to help fight the stigma of mental illness,” she said. “We’ll be posting those on our Facebook page and making those presentations throughout the entire month of May.”

Bissell said the next step in combating stigma is to talk about it.

“When we don’t talk about mental illness in a respectful way, that’s where additional barriers start to come out,” she said. “When people start talking about their own experiences with mental health challenges and how they’ve gotten help for those mental health challenges, that makes it more acceptable in the community to talk about. Just like when we talk about diabetes, we don’t have lots of jokes or those kinds of things about folks with diabetes.”

Bissell said this is the aim for the mental health industry as well.

“Mental illness is actually more common than heart disease, diabetes and other disabilities, and yet, it’s still okay in our society to make fun of it,” she said. “We need to stand up and say, ‘No we’re not going to make fun of it anymore. We’re just going to acknowledge that it’s part of our human experience. At least one in four adults, one in five youth have some sort of mental illness at any given time in their life,’ we just take it for what it is and talk respectfully about it.”

As for the number of mental illnesses there are, Bissell said that number is too high to count.

“We have an entire diagnostic and statistical manual on that,” she said. “There are a literally hundreds of different, I’m going to call them flavors, of mental health challenges. When you meet five people who’ve been diagnosed with depression, each case is going to be a little bit different even though they have some commonalities across them.”

Bissell said part of the reason mental health professionals use a diagnosis in the first place is the same reason medical doctors do.

“They take a look at what symptoms you’re reporting or what challenges you’re reporting, and that helps them decide what method of treatment is going to help in that situation,” she said. “We do the same thing in mental health. When you have certain types of symptoms, that helps us as your provider know how to help that and what mix of supports would be the best fit for you should you choose to use them.”

It is well known that physical and mental health are connected in many ways, and Bissell gave just some of those examples.

“Some people when they’re clinically depressed will find it very difficult to eat and as a result will lose a lot of weight, just don’t feel like eating,” she said. “Other people have just the opposite issue. They want to eat all the time. They have a difficult time not eating because they’re trying to cope with the negative feelings of depression, and we might see weight gain as a result of that.”

Bissell said sleep is a similar issue for mental health patients.

“Some people when they’re depressed can’t sleep at all,” she said. “It’s just with what they’re thinking about, they’re just restless, having insomnia. Other people, it’s just the opposite. They have a really hard time staying awake because they don’t have the energy or motivation to even get out of bed in the morning. Just getting out of bed and going to work can be very, very challenging.”

Bissell said other symptoms help clinicians determine what mix of the symptoms is telling them as to what mental illness a patient may have.

“We can use either medications, psychotherapy, case management to help address those specific concerns so the person can live the life they want to live,” she said.

Just as there are many mental illnesses, Bissell said so too is the number of connections between mental and physical health.

“They are many,” she said. “We know from history and from research, our mental health is impacted by the chemicals in our brain. That’s where a lot of that comes from, but we also know when we physically don’t feel well and we have other chemical changes, for example, if you have a thyroid condition or if you have diabetes or those kinds of metabolic issues, that can also impact your mood and impact your mental health.”

In this way, Bissell said a symptom in either physical or mental health can trigger a symptom in the other realm.

“For example, if someone has a new diagnosis of diabetes, that requires a lot of behavior change to address that – taking sugar out of your diet, maybe having to start doing blood monitoring, having to prick your finger regularly and those kinds of things,” she said.

Bissell said behavior change alone is challenging, and that challenge overwhelms many people.

“That can increase feelings of depression, and just the understanding of ‘I have a physical illness that can impact me long term’ can make some people depressed or can make them anxious,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s a chicken/egg issue. Sometimes when people are very depressed for a long period of time, they can start to have other physical ailments.”

Bissell likewise gave the example of the symptom of excessive eating for some who are depressed.

“They become obese, and there’s a lot of health issues associated with obesity,” she said. “They can start to have heart problems, blood sugar problems, sleep problems. It all starts to factor in together. If we address our mental health in collaboration with our physical health, both are benefitted in either way.”

Bissell said treatments for some chronic illnesses can lead to mental illness as well.

“It’s very real that some of those medications that are prescribed for things like cancer treatments or other types of treatments, side effects  of those can be depression or anxiety,” she said. “Some of the skills that we, as mental health providers, can help people learn can help them if they’re going through a major life event.”

For this year’s edition of Mental Health Awareness Month, Bissell said she hopes the community will become more aware of the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Instead of whispering about mental health or keeping those fears to themselves, take the risk to ask about it, take the risk to read more about it,” she said. “There’s lots of good resources. I highly recommend information from the National Alliance for Mental Illness. That’s a great resource just for general information about mental illness. Mental Health America is also an excellent resource to read things.”

Bissell said SWGC officials are also willing to come and speak anywhere about mental health.

“If anyone has any questions or has a group they’d like to partner with us on, I know in the past, we’ve partnered with every type of agency possible, be it with the hospital, be it with the schools, be it with K-State Extension office to help our farming and ranching community,” she said. “Mental health is one of those unique things that goes into absolutely every area of our life. Sometimes, we just have to be invited in to be able to talk about how we can impact that.”

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