Each year, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) selects a theme for Mental Health Awareness Month in May. After the last year of isolation and separation from one another, there could be no better theme than “you are not alone”. Mental Illness is often referred to as an invisible illness — someone diagnosed with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses may not “seem” sick in ways that are easy to recognize. Battling mental illness can be an incredibly lonely experience because of this invisibility. Those around us may not know what we are going through, and broaching the topic can seem impossible at times, leaving us to continue our silent struggle. This year, NAMI wants to remind those facing mental illness that “you are not alone”.
This sense of isolation related to mental illness can feed into unhealthy coping mechanisms, especially for young adults who are still learning about their own emotions and how to handle them (a skill that most adults, of course, can benefit from reflecting on as well). Teens struggling with mental health may be more likely to take part in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or drug and alcohol abuse. Addressing mental health with our loved ones can help ensure that they have the support they need to make healthy decisions in every aspect of their lives. As with many of the topics we address here at PATH, being open and honest about mental well being is a great way to start these conversations and normalize the difficult topic. I try to be as open as I can about my own mental illness because I know, especially for the youth I work with, that when I am willing to discuss my experience, it opens up the door for someone else to open up about theirs and potentially seek out the help they need.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder about 3 years ago. While receiving that diagnosis was incredibly difficult, it was also a foundational step towards wellness that I needed. It helped me achieve a better vocabulary for expressing my experience and it helped me find better tools for addressing my specific mental health needs. My mental illness does not make me broken, it does not make me weak. It is an incredibly difficult battle a lot of days; I won’t sugar coat that and pretend I am some shining beacon of triumph. But I am doing my best each day to take care of myself and to be better than I was the day before. I am honest about this when in the classroom, because I hope my students can see that even with a diagnosis like my own, you can lead a happy healthy life. It also helps to legitimize the healthy practices that we teach — I know these practices work because I use them myself as a way of coping with my own mental illness. Most importantly, I hope it helps them understand that there are people they can talk to who will understand, that there are others who have been in their place and made it through. They do not have to face this by themselves; no one does. This month, and always, remember: You are not alone.