Thoughts on Mental Illness Awareness, from Someone Who Suffers from Depression and Anxiety

Part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s ongoing campaign to de-stigmatize depression and other mental illnesses. (Retrieved from

One of my favorite lines—and I mean this wholly facetiously—from opponents of restrictions on firearm ownership in the wake of some mass shooting is the notion the problem is not a gun control issue, but rather a mental health concern. It’s not the gun’s fault—it’s the crazy people who decide to shoot up a classroom, movie theater, or office. This is like when a jihadist invokes Allah when firing upon innocent bystanders, and suddenly, the fact that he or she is carrying an assault rifle is unimportant—it’s “radical Islam” that’s to blame. And presumably Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton. If the GOP had their way, they’d blame those two for AIDS, ISIS, swarms of locusts, and any number of deleterious phenomena observed in the world today. For members of the NRA and like-minded staunch defenders of the Second Amendment, there is always some way to argue or excuse away the role guns play in mass shootings and homicides, and thus resist the call for sensible gun law reform. Guns don’t kill people—people kill people. If the killer wanted to, he could have gotten that gun illegally anyway. Maybe if the victims all had guns, this crisis could have been averted. Yes, more guns! Guns, guns, guns! Let’s make sure we put the safety on while we jerk off to the sight of our precious, wonderful guns!

Now that I’ve shaken an angry fist at gun apologists, let’s revisit the whole mental health angle. Why I hate this mention of mental illness in relation to violence—you know, besides the free pass given to the gun lobby amid all the misdirection—is that the desire of those who point to mental health to do something substantive about the pervasiveness of suffering in adults and children in the U.S. is dubious, at best. These mass shootings are about mental illness, huh? Well, do you want to do something about mental health and mental illness in this country, then? You’ll volunteer your time to work with and interact with at-risk individuals? No? How come you only talk about mental health after someone terrorizes a college campus, or walks into a church and starts unloading? Maybe we’re all just not praying hard enough for all this gun violence to end. Gee, golly gosh!

If those naysayers who jump at the chance to throw mental illness under the proverbial bus and stand in the way of common-sense gun law reform were to legitimately consider how much of a mental health crisis the good ol’ U.S. of A. realistically faces, they would stand to be astounded by the numbers behind the trends. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, on its official website, cites several statistics that hint at how severe and widespread mental illness is in America in this day and age:

  • Close to 44 million adults in the United States experience mental illness at some point in a given year, with 10 million of them suffering from a “serious” mental illness that “interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
  • More than 20% of people aged 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point.
  • Roughly 18% of American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
  • About half of all American adults with some form of substance abuse disorder also experience some kind of mental illness. Mental illness is also prevalent among the homeless, as well as juvenile and adult criminal offenders.
  • Last year, just over half of children between the ages of 8 and 15 received mental health services.

These are clearly not insignificant figures. Additional statistics cited by NAMI highlight the implications of the high incidence of mental illness in the United States:

  • Serious mental illness costs us close to $200 billion in “lost earnings” annually.
  • In terms of human cost, on average, people with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than their counterparts without it.
  • For adults aged 18 to 44, mood disorders such as depression are the third-most common cause of hospitalization.
  • Suicide is the 10th-most common cause of death among Americans, and for people from age 10 to age 24, it is the third-most common.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program, around 20 veterans die each day as a result of suicide.

You can accuse the National Alliance on Mental Illness of fabricating or skewing these tallies all you want, but at face value, the data are staggering. Indeed, based on the prevalence of mental illness in the United States, whether moderate or severe, chances are you know someone in your personal life who suffers from some sort of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or both. I could say I don’t, but I’d be lying. Not only do I know a number of people who suffer from some sort of mental illness, or playing the amateur psychologist, suspect some do, but I’d have to ignore my own hand being raised.

About six or seven years ago, I was formally diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In some ways, I feel as if this should not be surprising to those who know me personally, though maybe it is only obvious to me because a) naturally, it involves me, and b) I tend to dwell on these kinds of matters, perhaps more than the average person would. On the anxiety front, I often feel that by the end of the day, the cumulative sum of the situations that cause me stress have me outright exhausted. When I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar or a place that tends to be crowded, I obsess over how and where I’m going to park my car long before I get to my destination. Direct eye contact with people is a challenge, and I’m often so consumed with fear about saying something that will offend the other person or even anticipation of what the other person will say that I find it hard to engage with people in the first place. The act of public speaking is enough to turn my throat into the Sahara Desert and choke my interior train of thought such that getting through a 10-minute speech is a chore. Sometimes, my leg or foot will shake because I’m nervous just thinking about something—and I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I worry about the future. I sweat it when items in public spaces at work are not where they’re supposed to be. I could go on, because the circumstances that cause me anxiety in a given day are myriad and limitless, and it’s at times a struggle to focus on the task at hand and to remind myself there’s only so much I can control. You’re probably exhausted now just reading about this!

As for the depression aspect, I’m not about to tell you a sob story about how I wasn’t hugged enough as a child, or how Daddy didn’t tell me he loves me, or how I had no friends, or how hard I’ve had it growing up. Truth be told, I’ve probably had it better than most. I’m very fortunate to have lived in a town that’s relatively safe (knock on wood), with parents that support me, a job, an education, a car, a roof over my head. I’m grateful for the things I have. And I think because of these things, some people will think that I have no reason to be depressed. Right then and there, though, I feel like this sentiment taps into misconceptions and misunderstanding about depression. Through my Internet search, I came across a number of lists of “myths about depression.” Five myths about depression. Seven myths about depression. Nine myths. Ten myths. That there are so many of these mythical lists is vaguely depressing in it of itself, but I digress. Here are some of the more common ones:

1. “Depression isn’t a real illness.”

F**k off, it isn’t real! If we’re having to argue to get past this point, we already might be at an impasse, but depression is, um, an actual thing. It just so happens the causes behind depression are potentially complex, so while it may be tempting to write off the whole illness just because it’s harder to understand, it doesn’t necessarily make it correct.

2. “Depression is purely emotional/mental.”

Except that it’s not. Just ask someone with symptoms of depression and you’re likely to hear about any number of physical symptoms that manifest as a result of suffering from this mental illness. including aches and pains, fatigue, and insomnia. Besides the notion that antidepressants target specific parts of the brain and neurotransmitters. But forget about it. It’s all in people’s head.

3. “Depression is a sign of weakness.”

You know, for a long time, I actually believed this. Depression is not the result of some weakness of character. Often times, depression is mediated by some traumatic event or specific set of circumstances, but not always, and either way, on behalf of those who suffer from depression or depressive symptoms, this much should inspire sympathy, not criticism. In fact, for people like myself who are able to live with depression—albeit with a lot of help and not without occasional lapses, if you will—the ability to cope makes us stronger, not weaker.

4. “Depression is just a fancy word for ‘sadness.'”

Wrong. Sadness is a symptom of depression, but like any emotion, is temporary. Depression, meanwhile, is a chronic condition often marked by sadness, but in other cases, there are feelings of apathy or emptiness, and since anxiety and depression have a tendency to co-occur, some people who suffer from depression simply live in a state of constant tension. It’s not just a shade of blue with people who deal with depression. It’s a permanent coat of paint that weighs on those it affects.

5. “Depression is always related to a traumatic event.”

Much as not all traumatic events lead to depression, not all depression is caused by the death of a loved one, a divorce, a serious injury, or some other watershed moment. Depression and its symptoms, by definition, occur over a prolonged period of time, and they tend to recur among people who struggle with this illness. In other words, as often tends to be the case, people do not “snap into” depression, so the idea they can simply “snap out” of it would seem likewise ill-conceived.

6. “Antidepressants cure depression.”

Do pain pills cure headaches and other maladies? No, they block the pain. The underlying cause or causes of the discomfort are still there. The same concept applies with antidepressants. They may alleviate symptoms of depression, but owing to the complexity of this mental illness, the root of the problem must be dealt with at more than just a physical level. What is typically recommended in treatment is a combination of prescribed medication OK’d by a psychiatrist and regular therapy sessions with this same professional or by a licensed psychologist. Of course, this means of combatting depression tends not to run cheap, which is why, in large part, so many Americans eschew treatment. When the stigma of mental illness is not enough to deter those individuals who might benefit from professional help, the cost factor might instead be the deal-breaker.

As is a trope of ubiquitous advertisements for prescription medicines, all too commonly, the possible side effects are numerous and potentially worse than the problem being treated. Returning to the example of pain pills, a risk of extended use not talked about enough in today’s climate of healthcare is the chance the user will become hooked on this class of drugs. As for antidepressants, the list of common side effects from prolonged use includes agitation, anxiety, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue/sleepiness, insomnia, irritability, nausea, sexual dysfunction, and weight loss. And worst of all, suicidal thoughts and urges may increase as a result of taking antidepressants, which is bad enough, but all the more troublesome when you consider THIS IS THE MAIN F**KING REASON YOU’RE TAKING THESE DRUGS IN THE FIRST PLACE. To die in a terrible way, and a terribly ironic way, at that, seems especially tragic.

For me, these side effects are nothing compared to what happens when I don’t take my meds. Because they have such a short half-life, necessitating a daily dose, forgetting to take a scheduled pill produces some noticeable physiological effects. First, I start getting headaches and stomach aches, and swing more easily between happy and irritable moods. Then, the vertigo sets in. If I somehow were to run out or miss on back-to-back days, it starts feeling as if some sort of electric pulse is continuously moving through my head, making it that much harder to get to sleep, and even when I do finally get there, my dreams will often be so scarily strange I’ll end up waking up in the middle of the night anyway, reluctant to go back to sleep and risk another bizarre nightmare. There’s nothing that says one has to be on medication for as long as he or she lives if he or she suffers from a mood disorder like depression (bonus myth!), but I am not about to start lessening my prescription for fear of what might happen. I understand I may be a lifelong taker of antidepressants, as much as I might wish otherwise.

Why the public service announcement on mental illness and the personal reflections? Do I want your pity, or something? Like I said, there was a time when I thought my depression was a weakness of mine, but now I understand it is not only more common than I once believed, but something that is a part of who I am—without letting it totally define me and how I live my life. So, no, it’s not pity I seek. Rather, part of the reason I bring this all up is trying to help in some small way reverse the stigma placed on mental illness in our society. The late Mitch Hedberg had a funny joke about alcoholism being the only disease you can get in trouble for, contrasting the normality of the sound of “Dammit, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” with the absurdity of the comment, “Dammit, Otto, you have lupus!” But I think mental illness should be viewed the same way as the latter, rather than that of the former, which, too frequently, it is. After all, if you have trouble seeing, you see one or more vision specialists. If you have allergies, maybe you see an allergist or try some over-the-counter remedy. Why should be it different with depression, anxiety, and the like? There’s no shame about it—or at least there shouldn’t be.

The other big idea with this whole post here is to promote awareness of, well, awareness. It turns out October 2 through October 8th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. I just happened to hear about it in passing; otherwise, I wouldn’t know myself. And I’m guessing you were probably oblivious of this fact, too—through no fault of your own. The state of healthcare in the United States is a larger concern, but mental illness, as pervasive as it is among both the adult and youth populations in America, deserves to be at the forefront of the conversation of improving this aspect of life in the U.S., and internationally, as well. Mental health should be more than a throwaway reference after mass shootings, and we need to strive as a society to speak against the various misconceptions that dog and stigmatize depression, in particular, and those who suffer from it. Depression is real. It is not all in people’s heads. It is not a problem at which to throw drugs and fix just that simply. The more we as a country ignore this fact, the longer it will take to find an authentic solution to the high incidence of people with mental illness, and the longer those who suffer from it are at risk of severe health problems or suicide. From someone treated for anxiety and depression, it’s time to shine a light on mental health and mental illness. For those of you who may be in the dark yourselves, it may make all the difference.

For more information on Mental Illness Awareness Week and how you can help spread the word on this event and on mental health awareness in general, please click here. Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mental Illness Awareness, from Someone Who Suffers from Depression and Anxiety

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