In case you haven’t heard, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While I’m a believer that we should be doing something all year long to raise awareness of mental health, illness, and treatment options, now is a great opportunity to use this month-long occasion to start a dialogue of your own. Even the briefest conversation can make a difference in someone’s perception of what mental health is all about.
I clearly remember the days when I did all I could to keep my depression and anxiety a secret. It was exhausting and only added to the heaviness to my painful symptoms instead of alleviating the stress of appearing to be “normal.” Normal, in my case, was lying about going to my primary care physician for a sore throat, when, in reality, I was going to my psychiatrist for a medication management session. Normal was taking an anti-anxiety pill before getting on a flight while telling my travel companion that it was a decongestant. Sadly, normal also meant trying to come up with a valid reason for my public crying outbursts, when inside, I didn’t know where on earth these spells were coming from.
We, as a society, have come a long way, in terms of eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness – but we still have a very long way to go before it becomes an acceptable topic, just like a physical illness with visible symptoms is discussed openly and without prejudice. I speak from personal experience, as several times in my past whenever I even broached the subject of my depression and anxiety, I was told by others that it was all in my head and I should be thankful for what I have, (“because millions of people all over the world were suffering with real-life matters like starvation and homelessness).
Exactly one decade ago, I took a six-week leave of absence from my job. I had planned on resigning because the stress of constant traveling and absurd corporate pressure caught up with me. During my meeting with the head of Human Resources, I learned that since I had been at the company for several years, I didn’t need to resign, that with authentic documentation from my doctor I could take a paid leave for medical reasons – physical OR mental. This didn’t sit well with any of the higher-ups who counted on me to bring in revenue. They couldn’t SEE that I was falling to pieces on the inside and accused me of taking a vacation. Upon my return, a friend confided in me that while on leave, one of my colleagues, someone I mistakenly thought would have compassion for my situation, had berated me in front of my fellow co-workers, some of whom were not aware of why I was out of the office for so long. Shaking off the shame and hurt, I wondered that if I had taken the same six weeks off for maternity leave if I would have received the same type of reactions. I knew the answer.
It’s extremely liberating to be writing about mental illness, no longer having to make up excuses for who and what I am. Anyone who doesn’t want to be part of my life because I have an invisible illness which scares them, well, that’s their loss, not mine. There’s always going to be someone who thinks psychiatry is a made-up illness by the drug companies; or that depression is simply self-pity for those who seek attention and anxiety is a fear that’s easily overcome “if I just stopped worrying so much.”
We are the ones who are going to change the face of mental illness by talking about it. It takes courage, and not everyone is ready to speak up, and that’s understandable, it takes time and support from others.
What I’ve done is surround myself with people who bring out the best in me. We all have them, they are anyone who can make you smile and feel good inside. You never know when and where you will meet these people, so the key is to live your life and you’ll accumulate your own list of those with whom you connect – and they’re usually from places you’d least expect.
So, let May be the month you begin to talk, talk and talk some more, about mental health. It will get easier over time and I promise that you will be pleasantly surprised when you find out how many others are sailing in the same boat.
Adrienne Gurman has over 20 years of experience in advertising, marketing and magazine publishing. She is currently the Vice President of 1212-Studio, a product design company in NYC. A native New Yorker, Adrienne lives with her husband and their vivacious chocolate lab, Anya. Adrienne began volunteering for Bring Change 2 Mind not long after the organization was founded, and has since been a leading advocate for fighting the stigma that surrounds mental illness. She has lived with Major Depression since the age of 12. Adrienne writes a weekly blog for esperanza magazine and continues to be a growing voice in the anti-stigma community.