Mental Health Awareness Month

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    As relatively few outside the mental health community know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. During the next few weeks, I hope AN members will join me in sharing information and educating ourselves and others about psychiatric illness and its costly---and often devastating---consequences to both sufferers and to society.

    Raise your hands: How many readers know that in addition to mothers and deceased war veterans, the month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness?

    Give yourself a gold star for the day if you were able to lift a palm in the affirmative. Most Americans---including healthcare professionals!---don't have a clue. And if you, like me, are someone who cares about mental health, it should alarm you that statistics show as many as one in four Americans is affected, either directly or indirectly, by a diagnosable mental illness.

    That's a lot of misery. Some of the more well-known disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are relatively common and may affect as much as 10-12% of the population, depending on who you ask (my info is from the National Institute for Mental Health). But there are also millions of Americans who suffer from what some experts call the "serious" mental illnesses, which include schizophrenia, manic depression, and borderline personality disorder, and the cost of these conditions in terms of lost productivity---and lost lives---is staggering.

    And yet these brain disorders are some of the best-kept secrets in America....that is, until a massacre at an elementary school, or some other atrocity, is splashed all over the news media. Then the mentally ill become the scapegoat for the nation's moral failings and the object of political fearmongering, not to mention a convenient target for judgment by a society which knows little (and cares even less) about those who live outside what it considers "normal" boundaries.

    What so few ever care enough to see are the real, human stories behind the stereotypes. For every mentally ill man or woman observed wandering the streets and yelling at trashcans, there are many, many more psychiatric patients who are everyday people---sometimes even people we know and love, though we may not realize that they suffer.

    There's the mail carrier who delivers our bills and never fails to smile; we don't see the severe depression that sometimes drives him to hide under the bedcovers for days at a time.

    There's the hairdresser who cuts and styles our hair perfectly every time, and never charges a dime more than she knows the client can afford. Who knew that she occasionally sees people and hears voices that aren't really there?

    There's the Realtor who lives down the street in a gorgeous home she bought thanks to her annual six-figure commission earnings; you'd never guess that she has social anxiety disorder and must literally force herself to go out and sell houses every day.

    And yes, there's the RN who manages the health needs of our aging parents and oversees those of eighty other elders while struggling with the highs and lows of bipolar II.

    When viewed in this light, does it still seem OK to label anyone as "crazy", "psycho", or, in the words of a (supposedly) educated public figure, "lunatic"? These are functional, productive members of society. The reasons for their success are as individual as they are, but what almost all of them have in common is good medical care, strong support systems, and an unquenchable desire for wellness.

    Sadly, however, the first is woefully lacking in this country; the second requires faith in one's fellow humans (often problematic when difficult behaviors cause friction in a patient's relationships); and the third is all but impossible in the absence of the first two. Hence, the stereotyping and poor treatment of the most vulnerable among our mentally ill population.

    But, prejudice and discrimination are not limited to those of modest means. Being "mental" in the eyes of one's work culture can damage, or even kill, a career. I cannot speak for others, but my own diagnosis in February 2012 was devastating to my prospects for promotion and created a very awkward relationship with my superiors, who once respected me and encouraged me to keep reaching for the stars. I am the same nurse they hired in October 2010; the only difference is that now we all know why my performance has been brilliant at times, but often erratic.

    It is time for a change. The time for suffering in silence---and for fearing the social and occupational consequences of disclosing a mental disorder---needs to be over. Now. And this change needs to begin with us.

    Over the next month, fellow AN member and mental health advocate, wish_me_luck, and I plan to post informational articles about the conditions from which we ourselves suffer, and we invite those of you with personal experience in living with mental illness (or caring for someone who does) to do the same. Between all of us, we can open up a dialogue that will be shared not only with other AN members, but an audience of clinicians from other disciplines and parts of the world.....and who knows what might come of it if we raise our many voices in support of more research, better access to care, and the elimination of stigma?

    Let's find out.......together.
    Last edit by Joe V on Apr 29, '13
    verene, Blanca R, bella_, and 23 others like this.

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    About VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

    VivaLasViejas is a registered nurse, writer, and mental health advocate who has been an member and Guide for many years. She works as a health services director in assisted living, and enjoys blogging and gardening in her spare time. She also battles bipolar disorder and anxiety, and strives daily to achieve wellness.

    VivaLasViejas has '17' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'LTC, assisted living, geriatrics, psych'. From 'The Great Northwest'; 56 Years Old; Joined Sep '02; Posts: 25,315; Likes: 37,013.

    Read more articles from VivaLasViejas

    30 Comments so far...

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    Your message rings true as always. Yes, it is time for a change. It is time for folks to take awareness seriously and become mindful of their reactions and treatment of individuals with known diagnosis.

    We all have things for which we may be judged, isolated, and even feared.

    And you know, the sad thing is society as a whole tends to get wrapped up in names and in letting diagnosis define who we are.

    Nick is a father of four children, a husband, a war Vet. He likes flat PBR on Sundays while watching Nascar (and yes, he is well aware as to how horrifically trashy that really is). He used to claim his dentures were made out of wood and take them out at the table just to watch us all squirm. He laughs at bad comedy, re-watches his favorite parts of action films at least six times in a row each and every time without fail, he once tried to shave the family cat with his beard trimmer because "he would look great as a lion!", is the master at the "coin behind the ear" trick, and cries at war memorials.

    But he is a damaged man who suffers from paranoia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, just to name a few. And for the most part, that is how society identifies him.

    But that is not who he is.

    He is my father.

    Quote from VivaLasViejas
    And yet these brain disorders are some of the best-kept secrets in America....that is, until a massacre at an elementary school, or some other atrocity, is splashed all over the news media. Then the mentally ill become the scapegoat for the nation's moral failings and the object of political fearmongering, not to mention a convenient target for judgment by a society which knows little (and cares even less) about those who live outside what it considers "normal" boundaries.
    And yet did society or Washington call for increased funding for research, study, treatment and resources for mental health? No.

    They called for gun control.

    Politicians make me want to assault a sea mollusk.

    NRSKarenRN, aknottedyarn, poppycat, and 10 others like this.
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    What a GREAT story about your father!! I'd love to meet him.......sounds like my kind of fella.

    Yes, that gun-control issue really makes me want to spit nails, or punch a refrigerator like I did one time when I was in my 20s. (In retrospect, one of my finer bipolar moments. I couldn't even move my hand the next day. Told the doctor who X-rayed it that I "fell" on it. He said "Next time you 'fall' like that, you're gonna break every bone in your hand.") The politicos who thought that one up obviously never read the statistics that say mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Either that, or they just don't care. Ignoramuses. (or is it ignoramI?)
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    Again Viva you bring to light things that are so important, but often forgotten. I work with and advocate for mental illness every day in the LTC setting and it brings me to tears when management wants to wait and document behaviors for months before treating these poor suffering souls....and that is when I get on the band wagon and advocate for the elderly.
    poppycat and VivaLasViejas like this.
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    This is fantastic.
    Last edit by NurseDirtyBird on Apr 28, '13
    VivaLasViejas likes this.
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    Well said. Thank you.
    VivaLasViejas likes this.
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    Great article. Thanks for the reminder.
    VivaLasViejas likes this.
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    I love it, Viva! Kudos to you, it should be posted on National news networks--so well written. I will have mine up soon.
    VivaLasViejas likes this.
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    I very much appreciate the comments this piece has received thus far. But I didn't write it for myself; I wrote it for those who can't speak out or advocate for themselves, and of course to raise awareness that mental disorders are medical conditions that can and should be treated, if not cured.

    Funding for mental health care and research is often the first to be cut when healthcare resources are limited. There aren't anywhere near enough psychiatrists to go around; in my area alone, with a population of some 150,000 souls, there are all of six actual MDs and a single psychiatric nurse practitioner. It takes as long as six months for some people to be seen even by a Psy.D., let alone a psychiatrist. I was extremely fortunate in that I have good insurance and was able to get in for my first appointment within 3 weeks; many (if not most) area residents aren't nearly as blessed, and often don't get seen until they land in the psych unit or commit suicide.

    Even if one is lucky enough to have a doctor, a great number of patients get only a 15-minute visit every few months for medication management, and perhaps therapy or a support group. And out of the insured population, few have the luxury of full 60-minute sessions with their psychiatrist in which not only medications are discussed, but therapy and support are also given. Mine does cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, in which dysfunctional thinking patterns are examined and then replaced by healthier ones under the guidance of the provider. But again, I feel EVERY psychiatric patient deserves what I have---access to proper medications and treatment, and a competent, caring practitioner who is available to his/her patients and treats them with respect and dignity.

    Stepping down off my soapbox now......but only for a little while.
    poppycat, marydc, Aviationurse, and 2 others like this.
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    Such an important issue to me. I have major depressive disorder and PTSD, and I work SO hard to be successful. I've been hospitalized 7 times, and in almost every inpatient setting I've been in, even the staff have bad attitudes toward patients. There are some wonderful psych nurses out there, but they're few and far between, in my experience. I try so hard to be understanding and compassionate with my patients who suffer from mental illness, because I get it.

    I was a cutter in my younger years, and I don't hide my scars anymore. For one thing, it's really hot where I live. Secondly, it's a part of my story, part of who I am. When I first started at my current job, my boss freaked out about the scars. It took a lot of reassurance to get her to understand that 1) I don't do it anymore, 2) Patients and families rarely ask about it, and when they do, my standard answer is "It's what it looks like." Some people think the scars are from an accident or a burn. Some know exactly what they're looking at. If they probe, I redirect the conversation. Our encounter is not about me, it's about them, and 3) I'm a damn good nurse. I may struggle, and that struggle happens to show on the outside, but I'm good at what I do. I'm a reliable, loyal employee, I get along with people, I work hard. I try to be a good person. Just as if I had diabetes, sometimes my illness gets out of control and I have to go into the hospital. But I am not my illness. I'm so thankful for the people in my life that see beyond my struggle and see me.

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