Hiding Mental Illness | Combating the Stigma
Story by Bill Miller and Bailee Wicks
The stigma that surrounds mental illness “goes way back to the early 1900s or even late 1800s, when there was a belief that mental illness was a moral failing for someone who was depressed, addicted to substances or overly-anxious," explains Cindy Bruns the Interim Director of Counseling Services. "I think we’ve been stuck with that for a long time and Western society, especially white-American society, is a very ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ [society], and I think that plays into it.”
She adds that we have a tendency to not believe in things that we can't see. "You can see someone with a broken leg and think, ‘Their leg is broken. I won’t expect them to hike this hill.’ But an internal experience of being so anxious the person feels frozen or being so sad that it’s hard to get out of bed are things we can’t see,” she says.
“Mental Health is the ability to be resilient, the ability to form connections, the ability to learn from failures and to move towards our values and the things that are important to us,” Bruns adds.
PULSE went out and talked to professionals and students about three of the most common mental illness: anxiety, depression and PTSD and people who are suffering with them.
According to Mental Health America, the number one community based non-profit for treating and promoting mental illness, over 21 percent of adults—about 42.5 million people a year—are affected by anxiety disorders. Although the term 'anxiety' seems to be thrown around often, there is a difference between feeling fearful or anxious occasionally and being diagnosed with anxiety.
According to the NIMH website, "Anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.” In other words, it is normal to have occasional anxious feelings, but not prolonged, consistent and worsening anxiety.
The most common types of anxiety, according to NIMH, are generalized anxiety, social anxiety and panic disorder, but these are not the only types of anxiety that impact people.
Junior Business Marketing Major Kohl Barbour explains after loosing a loved one, her anxiety was more internal than visibly external. "A lot of my anxiety stemmed from the idea of death and dealing with that loss of someone close to me and constantly worrying about others dying," Barbour says.
There are both genetic and environmental factors that affect a person’s anxiety and sometimes they even combine with each other, NIMH states. The current political climate in the U.S. is an example of an environmental factor that can affect a person’s anxiety. “The economic and political unrest has caused people to feel very marginalized and unsafe for an entire host of regions. This is really increasing the general anxiety in the population,” Bruns explains.
According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is defined as “a mental health disorder characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life” with over three million new cases a year in the U.S.
Depression shows itself in different ways, all of which develop in unique circumstances. Some depression disorders, according to NIMH, include postpartum depression (which occurs after childbirth), seasonal affective disorder (which is heightened during fall and winter) and psychotic depression disorder (a major depressive episode accompanied by psychotic symptoms).
People without depression may struggle with the idea of what it feels or looks like. PULSE Associate Editor and story co-author of this story Bailee Wicks describes it as episodes of feeling physically, emotionally and mentally incapable of activity. "It almost feels like an elephant is sitting on you and your entire body aches, but instead of trying to move and get free, it engulfs you entirely. It’s almost like feeling numb and helpless at the same time."
As with other mental illnesses, environmental factors are taken into consideration by professionals when diagnosing someone with depression. Some common causes of depression are specific traumatic events—such as sexual assault, shootings or car accidents—and prolonged traumas, such as childhood abuse, abusive relationships and long-term bullying.
Today's digital age has significantly complicated certain environmental factors, according to Bruns. “The anonymity of the internet has allowed people to be more vicious sometimes than if they would have had to say something face to face. Now we are seeing many more people who are coming in with those personal violence experiences from the internet,” she says, adding that the ability to compare yourself to others on the internet can make it easier to feel badly about yourself.
Some common signs or symptoms of depression, according to the NIMH website, include:
Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness
Hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness or self-reproach
Loss of interest in activities
Speaking or moving more slowly
Difficulty with memory, concentration or decision-making
Difficulty sleeping or unusual sleep patterns
Changes in weight or appetite
Thoughts or attempts of suicide
If you are feeling more than a couple of these, seek help.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is “a mental health issue that some people develop after either experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs.
But it's important to understand that anyone who has experienced or seen a life-threatening event can develop PTSD, according to psychologists David Yusko and Natalie Gay in a 2017 article on Anxiety.org. Car accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault and shootings are just some examples of events other than combat that could cause someone to develop PTSD.
Meradith Cramer, Central's Vet Corps Navigator, says some symptoms that might indicate someone has PTSD can include mood swings, irritability, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, isolation, depression and anxiety.
If you or a loved one has experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event and has been experiencing any of the symptoms listed above for an extended period of time, reach out to see if help is needed. A call to 2-1-1 will connect you, for free, to a trained local specialist to give you some answers and point you in the right direction. Other resources include the counseling clinic in the SMACC building on campus, the Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy in Yakima, and of course the Veterans Center on campus or the VA if the person who may need help is a veteran.
According to Cramer, it’s important to be patient and compassionate when you have a loved one suffering from PTSD. She says it takes some people a long time to admit, or accept, that they need help processing what they’ve experienced and that everyone handles and experiences it differently. She recommends taking it slow, offering to be there for them and knowing the signs and symptoms as it will be beneficial to you both.
Help is available
For anyone who needs help with their mental illness, it is important to know about and utilize the resources available to you as needed.
“We will always see someone who is in crisis. If someone walks in and says they need to talk to somebody right now, we will make it happen, usually in 30 minutes or less,” Bruns says. “[The SMACC] can always bring someone in to talk about their troubles, what services we have and where we are in terms of availability, usually within a week or a week and a half.”
If you, your friend or a significant other is currently suffering or wanting guidance with any mental health issue, please reach out for help despite the stigma. There are programs and people here at Central to support you.
“[The SMACC] encourages students to go through a three-session workshop that teaches wellness skills," says Bruns. "How to be mindful, how to not think too far ahead or get stuck in the past, but rather how to be present in your life today, how to understand what’s important to you and direct yourself towards those things even when there are difficult internal experiences happening."
She adds that you don't need to reveal any personal information about yourself in these workshops; rather, it's about "giving students skills they can use here and now to help themselves."
Another option for students is Mindful Mondays, put on by the Wellness Center. The SMACC provides staffing for a group meeting with professionals and your peers to help students focus and be present in the moment.
For more information on these services, please contact the SMACC or the Wellness Center.
“It is important that if you feel overwhelmed and like you are drowning due to your mental health, that you reach out for some help whether it be someone you trust or a professional,” Barbour says.