Understanding mental illness

Anguish runs deep for a soul troubled with a broken psyche.  The sufferer of a disengaged mind often feels not only the torment of living in an abyss, but also the heartache of indifference from people who don't understand the profound distress of being mentally ill. An Individual who experiences serious mood or mental disorders like depression, anxiety, panic, bi-polar depression or even obsessive compulsive disorder often feels isolated and estranged from family, friends and co-workers.

These diseases of the mind are debilitating and emotionally crippling conditions, and a person often endures them alone and needlessly in silence.

In the summer of 2009, a co-worker of mine killed himself.  He was plagued with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.  I often spoke with him about my own experiences with melancholy and had hoped my words would bring him comfort.

For weeks after his death I wondered why he chose to give up on his life and the loved ones he left behind.  From the many conversations I had with him I came to the conclusion that he must have felt ashamed of his illness and did not want to be a burden on his family and friends.

Shame, embarrassment and guilt are common features of a person struggling with mental illness.  We walk past people everyday and rarely, if ever, give thought to what may be going through a person's mind; or maybe we don't have the stomach for understanding the magnitude of disordered thought.

Mental illness, in its various manifestations, is a frighteningly lonely condition and the stigma of living with such ailments can be more than many who are afflicted can bear.

"Mental illness is a little different from biological illness in that it is probably the most private illness there is," said Dr. Jakub Juros, a psychiatrist working for the County of Los Angeles.  "People don't want to share the fact that they have it."

Add to the isolation and a sense of being marked or stigmatized and sufferers are more likely to withdraw from everyday life activities, creating an even more profound sense of loneliness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a given year approximately 26 percent of the adult population in the United States is diagnosable with some type of mental disorder; that's about 78 million people who are living with serious to severe mental illness.

Chances are someone you know may be struggling to cope with mental illness.  What's important to realize is that mental illness is not something you catch, like the cold or flu; nor does it mean the person is deficient in some way.

"On campus we often hear from students that they have been thinking about coming to Psych Services but didn't come sooner because they didn't want to be seen as crazy," said Dr. Sandra Rowe, Coordinator of Psychological Services at SMC.

Awareness about diseases of the mind as well as empathy must be employed if we want to eliminate the misconception that people living with a mental disorder means they are somehow "different" or "weird".

Dr. Rowe believes this can be accomplished through teaching. "We spend a lot of our time educating students and dispelling some of the myths," she said. "Mental illness often makes people feel hopeless, so most importantly we try to instill hope."

What's needed right now is for attitudes towards people, who with profound courage are battling an invisible enemy, to change and to reach out to those you may feel need the most help, without judgment and fear.

For more information about mental illness visit the Psychological Services department here at SMC or go online to www.nimh.nih.gov and find out more about individuals just like you and me.