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May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. It was first recognized as such in 1949 when it was introduced by the National Association for Mental Health (now known as Mental Health America). The purpose of this month-long campaign is to raise awareness of, educate, and get people talking about mental illness and wellness. This all points to the end goal of helping mentally ill people and their families get to a place in life that is calm, productive, and secure.
Mental illness has been a misunderstood and taboo topic since ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman times. Back then, people with mental illness were often thought to be possessed, hold supernatural powers (i.e. witches), or were just plain evil. It wasn’t until the 5th century B.C. that Hippocrates started treating those with mental issues differently, focusing mainly on their environment, including their occupations, and began experimenting with medications. Modern-day physicians take the “Hippocratic Oath,” which was named after Hippocrates, to “Do No Harm.”
This stigma of mental illness lasted well into the 18th century when asylums and mental hospitals became a popular, yet often abusive and unhygienic, choice for families to cope with a mentally ill family member. Patients often died from neglect, abuse, and unorthodox medical treatments.
Fast forward to 2022. Much progress has been made toward the understanding and treatment of mentally ill individuals, but proper behavioral health care and insurance are hard to find, many inpatient hospitals are still lacking in services and cleanliness, and mentally ill people are still seen as “crazy.” Many calls to the police involve someone who is not necessarily on drugs or just “acting weird,” but are suffering from a mental illness.
I am personally familiar with the stigma of mental illness. After my daughter was born in 1999, I immediately lapsed into what I know now was postpartum depression. At the time, all I knew was that I felt like I was jumping out of my skin, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t sleep, and was worrying about everything – and I hadn’t even left the hospital with my precious baby girl yet.
Things got worse at home, as I was all alone with a creature who kept me up all night, cried, pooped, and was so demanding, but couldn’t specify what it was she wanted. I took care of her like a robot. I fed her, burped her, tried to play with her, and made sure she was clean. I watched the clock constantly and the days just seemed to drag. I worried non-stop if I had enough diapers (I did) and formula (I did) and dreaded going anywhere. My kiddo was such a great baby and never threw fits in stores, but I wanted to avoid the judging eyes and questions from checkers, and even strangers, asking if I knew that breastmilk was best. Of course I knew! But being the sole source of my baby’s nutrition was too big of a responsibility for me at the time.
Finally, I sank into a deep depression. I was so tired of being anxious and I wasn’t connecting with my daughter in the way mothers “should.” I got to the point where I sat on the couch all day, staring at the TV, waiting to be summoned by my infant. I couldn’t sleep at night, even though my husband and I took turns with overnight feedings. My mother would stay over occasionally to watch the baby at night, but I still couldn’t sleep, and I only got an hour or two of shut-eye even with sleep medications. My appetite was non-existent.
The thoughts I started having didn’t feel like my own. I had fantasies of leaving my daughter in her car seat in a grocery cart inside the store. Surely, a better woman would take her in and take good care of her. Finally, I started planning my own demise. I thought that I was a burden to my family and that they’d be better off without me. I was going to walk into traffic on a highway near my house. But that thought stressed me out, too.
Up to this point, I hadn’t shared what I was going through with anyone – including my husband. The day after I had decided to become roadkill, I ended up begging him to stay home from work and told him everything. He called my parents, and the three of them called around to different doctors and hospitals to figure out how to help me.
I got set up with a psychiatrist and a therapist and was so relieved to hear that I was not the only person in the world who felt like this and that there was even a name for my cluster of symptoms. My shrink started me on an anti-depressant and an anti-anxiety medication, and that’s when I started to function again. I was able to be honest with my therapist because the anti-depressant had cleared my “brain fog” up a bit. I was actually sleeping and eating. It was slow going, but I knew that I had turned a corner toward recovery when I actually made a pot of macaroni and cheese for my family’s dinner! I knew that any outside observer would be thinking, “Big deal!” but to me, I felt like I had just won first place in the Boston Marathon!
After I fully recovered, I decided to go to graduate school. I opened a private practice in 2004, in which I specialized in postpartum mood disorders. I am proud to say that I helped many women and couples during my 10+ years of counseling. My daughter is 23 and in college now, and she is aware of what I went through. She also knows it wasn't her fault.
The moral of the story is that these things need to be talked about. I could have saved myself so much pain and anguish if I had only had the courage to open up to someone about how I was feeling!
My story has a happy ending, but many do not.
We, as a society, need to open our minds to understanding mental illness and how we can deal with it in such a way that helps the patient and his or her family or caregiver. There are too many people being taken advantage of because of their illness, having disability checks stolen, being incarcerated when they really need mental help, and becoming homeless because everyone has turned their backs on them due to a lack of understanding.