Mental Illness Awareness Week

Mental Illness Awareness Week  is being celebrated this year between October 7th thru the 13th.  It was established back in 1990 by the U.S. Congress and the efforts of NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, to raise awareness and diminish stigma so that individuals and families experiencing mental illness are able to find hope, help, and community.

So, what is mental illness? Mental illness can refer to a range of conditions, from minor to severe, but all could be described as affecting an individual’s ability to think, feel, and/or relate to others.  It gets in the way of daily functioning so that even the everyday activities of life may seem overwhelming at times.  It is also important to know that mental illness can affect anyone no matter their age, ethnicity, religion, or income.  And most importantly, it can get better with help.

As a practicing psychotherapist, family member, and friend to those dealing with the challenges of mental illness, I understand that many may hesitate to seek help. I’ve discussed these issues in my previous blog entry.  For instance, if you are considering asking for help, you may worry that this means you are “weak” or “crazy”.  But what it actually means is that you are in-tune with yourself (body, mind, and spirit) enough to recognize that something is wrong, and smart enough to know that your usual means of coping with life’s challenges just aren’t cutting it to overcome this particular obstacle.

How can we best celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week? Let’s challenge ourselves to be educated, to learn about the terms we hear on the news, the terms that maybe we even throw around lightly, the terms that label our friends, family, neighbors. Let’s challenge ourselves to increase understanding so that types of mental illness are not simply labels – used to identify, stigmatize and isolate – but rather are explanations that foster empathy, curiosity, advocacy, and community. Let’s challenge ourselves to seek the help we may need, as well as, support others on their journeys towards mental well-being.  And, let’s challenge ourselves to keep this inspiration going well outside the limits of one short week, because mental health is a cause worth our attention all year-long.

Hide or Seek Therapy?

As I launch my website for my practice of psychotherapy, I am forced to think a lot about my audience: To whom am I speaking? What do I hope they take away from visiting my site? Well, let me start by answering the first question. I believe I am speaking to both familiar faces as well as complete strangers, and I believe they also lie somewhere on the spectrum of believers to non-believers of the usefulness of my work. That last part is sometimes hard to swallow; to think that some people find it easy to dismiss the thought of ever needing or desiring such services. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and I do not know exactly what has led them to this opinion. I can only ponder…

Media is presumably one of the main reasons some people have a negative view of therapists or psychotherapy in general. I simply sigh with hopelessness when I see yet another portrayal of the therapist whose only contribution in an entire session is: “So, how does that make you feel?” or the story-line that leads to the therapist having an intimate relationship  with the client with no basis in the reality that such a decision would come with some serious ethical and legal repercussions. I must admit, these depictions drive me nuts. They do nothing for the magic I have seen unfold in my clients lives when we put our best efforts together to create change, nor the mundane realities of what life is really like for me as a therapist. But, hey, it’s entertainment.  Maybe if I was in another profession, I would have similar complaints.

However, what I think makes these portrayals so detrimental to the field of psychotherapy is that it is hard enough to ask for help when we need it without others misrepresenting the help that is available. My experience of American culture is that we pride ourselves on being hardworking, goal-driven individuals. And, it is probably because of this mentality that we are able to accomplish some pretty amazing feats as a country. But, I wonder, too, if this mentality gets in the way of us being the best we can be mentally and spiritually. When everything is so fast-paced, it can be difficult to be in-tune with ourselves to first know that something is wrong and then to take the time to deal with it. Also, so many people hold on stubbornly to the idea that they have to be able to deal with it all by themselves – that something is wrong with them if they can’t.  At what point did being honest with ourselves and asking for help become such shameful things?

Let me discuss some other cultural considerations here as well, because it is not uncommon for cultures besides American culture to shy away from psychotherapy. In both my professional and personal lives, I have seen resistance from many minority cultures. This, I believe, happens for specific reasons. For instance, many of these cultures oftentimes take advantage of the built-in support from their families and local communities. These are great resources to have.  But what happens when these resources are not enough? Why can’t such support systems work hand-in-hand with professional services? I believe they can.

So, what do I hope my audience takes away from visiting my website? I hope they are OPEN: open to the voice inside them, their natural intuition, that lets them know when things are going well and when they are not; open to the effort that will be needed for change and growth because nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy; and open to the possibility that psychotherapy may be suitable to their needs and that asking for help outside their comfort zone may be one of the smartest choices they ever made for themselves and/or their families.