Mental Illness Awareness
Every year, millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental health condition. Whether you yourself suffer with mental illness or you have a friend or family member who suffers, we have all been affected in some way by mental illness. Despite this, there continues to be a stigma against those with mental illness that often leads those suffering to: isolate themselves, feel ashamed, avoid getting treatment, and to even take their lives. Every year during the first week of October, the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) works across the country to help raise awareness and to fight the stigma. Along with educating the public and provide support. Today, I’ve asked my friend and local holistic therapist, Meghan Freeman of Abundant Life Partners to speak on mental illness and how we can show love and support to those suffering in our community.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE MENTAL ILLNESS MEGHAN?
I would describe mental illness as mental health concerns or symptoms that negatively impact one’s ability to experience the fullness of life. As you can tell, that is a fairly vague definition by scientific terms, and you’d probably get a different answer depending upon therapist’s theoretical orientation. For better or worse, we generally look at mental illness from the disease-model which includes the application of a diagnosis based upon criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which attempts to classify disorders to ensure uniformity of diagnosis.
BESIDES GENETICS, WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF MENTAL ILLNESS?
I look at mental illness from a biological, psychological, spiritual, and sociological perspective. In addition to genetic predispositions, brain abnormalities and chemical imbalances have been linked to mental illness. Psychological factors that contribute to mental illness include stressors such as trauma, negative life events, and maladaptive thinking and coping patterns. Psychological factors can also include sociological or environmental factors such as unsafe living environments, childhood maltreatment, chronic financial stress, racism, etc. The diasthesis-stress model describes this interplay in which there is a diathesis (predisposition) which only manifests as mental illness in the presence of a stressor. All this said, from my personal experience, professional experience, and philosophical inquiry, I’d be remiss not to include the spiritual element. In some cases there are existential questions that contribute to mental illness – Why am I here? What is my purpose? Ultimately I also think perhaps the most honest answer to the cause of mental illness is a humble, “I don’t know” as I do believe that there are limits to the knowledge the created mind can know about itself.
ARE MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS DIFFERENT FROM HAVING A MENTAL ILLNESS?
Unlike physical disease, the diagnosis of mental illness is a much more subjective process. Strictly speaking mental health concerns become a mental illness when criteria is met per the DSM. It’s important to know, however, that these criteria are decided upon by committee, based upon subjective data, and change over time (hence the reason we’re on the DSM V now.) I tend to look at thoughts and behavior functionally, so if someone’s mental health (or inner world) is preventing them from taking valued actions and living fully, it’s worth addressing. Insurance will generally only cover “medical” treatment (ie therapy), however, if criteria for a psychological diagnosis is met.
WHAT ARE THE CURRENT METHODS OF HEALING MENTAL ILLNESS?
Traditional approaches to treating mental illness generally include individual and/or group psychotherapy, often in conjunction with psychiatric medication. Neuromodulation therapies are less well-known but include neurofeedback, TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy.) It is important to know that there are a wide variety of therapeutic approaches and modalities which stem from different theoretical orientations of practitioners.
IN YOUR PRACTICE, YOU AND YOUR ASSOCIATES TAKE A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO HEALING. CAN YOU TELL US WHY THIS IS SO IMPORTANT?
This question is really the culmination of all the above questions. To me a holistic approach to treatment is the natural outgrowth of a bio-psycho-social-spiritual view of mental health/illness. In my ideal world I would have a holistic team under one roof to serve clients using medication management, dietetics, somatic therapy, massage, chiropractic care, pastoral counseling, yoga, personal training, etc. I also believe in networking and connecting clients with the community – facilitating healing can include helping clients find meaningful work, solve practical problems with a great house cleaner or babysitter, connect with a social network through a Bible study or community group, find reliable transportation, etc.
DESPITE THE STIGMA, IT SEEMS THESE DAYS THAT MORE AND MORE PEOPLE ARE BEING OPEN ABOUT THEIR MENTAL ILLNESS, HOWEVER THERE ARE STILL SO MANY WHO CHOOSE TO KEEP QUIET. WHY IS THAT AND HOW CAN WE SHOW UP TO LOVE AND SUPPORT THEM?
I think a lot of this comes from the outdated perception that mental illness is solely a moral failure rather than a product of a preexisting biological condition. Traditional approaches to combating stigma by emphasizing the biological component and aggressively removing blame from the affected person concern me because that can also eliminate hope for the person suffering. If my actions didn’t cause it, it might follow that there’s nothing I can do to change it. Honestly I think the best way to combat stigma is to be humble, to realize our own sinfulness and imperfection, and from a Christian perspective, seek God. The more we know God and how He views his creation, the more we can authentically love those who are different from us. From a scientific perspective, I would tell people to study and learn about mental illness. We are often afraid of things we don’t know or understand. Knowledge goes a long way in reducing stigma.
I think one of the best ways to support those with mental illness is to be with them. The Bible talks about grieving with those who grieve, and that is often the best way to support those struggling. It is tempting to try to solve the problem, and it can be uncomfortable to really listen to those who are struggling and realize that in some cases, there really isn’t a clear answer, but presence truly is a gift. Knowing resources in the community and facilitating connections with those resources is also a great way to show support. NAMI meetings, 12-step meetings, Celebrate Recovery, treatment centers, therapists, psychiatrists, etc…. there are so many resources out there, and it can be difficult for those struggling to find the hope to access them. There is also a misconception that help is expensive; the reality is insurance covers treatment for mental illness in most cases, and there are many free community resources. Offering to go with a friend or loved one to find help is a great way to show support.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO ENCOURAGE THE PERSON STRUGGLING WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS WHO IS WARY OF GETTING HELP?
I would ask them to consider what the worst outcome of seeking help would be. Mental illness is challenging because it’s the only form of illness that tells us we don’t have it. I hear this often – “I’m not sick enough…I wasn’t sure it was that bad…I’ve always just been like this…I just need to stop being lazy…I just need to exercise and read my Bible…I’m not as bad as XYZ…” Our own mind isn’t able to objectively assess (or fix) our own mind. It makes so much sense that it would be difficult to get help – in addition to the stigma, there’s the unknown. What will it be like?? There’s also the reality that hopelessness is embedded in many mental illnesses so there is little motivation to get help that the disease tells sufferers won’t make a difference anyway. I would challenge those suffering to ask themselves what they would do if they weren’t afraid, depressed, anxious, etc., and commit to taking that next logical step, regardless of how uncomfortable it is.