Mental Health Awareness Month

Last Thursday I was sitting in an elementary school cafeteria waiting on the little girl I mentor. I was armed with pizza, spicy Funyuns (both by special request since it was our last day together), and a folder containing a collage of the various projects we worked on over the year, a photo magnet of her with the Googly Eyes eyeglasses propped back on her head, and a note reminding her that she is an amazingly smart, talented, and funny person who is unforgettable (one of her worries). My heart rate was spiking, there was a pressure in my chest, and I recognized that I was having a small anxiety attack. I closed my eyes and took deep focused breaths. “You’re ok, just breathe. Focus on your breath.” My heart rate didn’t come down.

When I got back to work, I still felt the pressure pushing down on my chest. All of the small things were suddenly too much. My colleague with asperger’s dropping by to over-explain something, which normally doesn’t bother me, made me want to pace back and forth. Then everything came to a head when another colleague, whom I adore, requested help with something quite simple. I’m not sure what played across my face in that moment, but they stopped speaking, stared at me a moment, and said, “you know what? I’ve got this.” Which was a good thing, because where I normally feel like a super hero who can do darn near anything, I suddenly just couldn’t. Their request was overwhelming and impossible. In fact, their request was freaking me out. I started sobbing at my desk trying to logically work through what was happening. I repeated, “you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok” – the mantra I’ve used since Jay’s death to help me re-focus, and then I quietly whimpered out loud, “I’m not ok.”

For those of you who don’t know me, I don’t cry easily. I get mad easily at perceived injustices (don’t take on one of my people; I’m always on their side). I fume easily. Heck, if you need someone to rant along with you, I’m your girl. I also have a long fuse. Hrmm… I guess I did just say I got mad easily. Well, life is full of contradictions and so is this paragraph. Your main take away from this is that I’ve never been much of a “cry-er.” At least that was true until Jay died, and my anxiety attacks began.

Once I calmed down, I dug around my brain looking for the root cause, then I realized that in addition to it being the last day I would ever spend with the girl I mentor, and she had quietly announced over pizza that her 29 year-old aunt had passed away over the weekend; she didn’t understand why (the news took me completely aback). I had her talk about how she felt and then had her tell me stories about her aunt. I also realized it was exactly two months until the 3rd anniversary of Jay’s death. The brain is such an amazing and complex thing, working ever so tirelessly behind the scenes (thanks, brain – you’re a champ). And still, even with a basic understanding of the psychology and physiology behind my anxiety attack, I felt like I was being weak. I felt pitiful and pathetic. I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep it together. “Oh no! It’s two months until an anniversary. Oh dear! You’re not going to see your mentee anymore. First world problems, Beth. Boo hoo. No one has ever experienced that before. No one has ever lost a spouse before. It’s not like you saw it. Stop being a baby over nothing and get it together. What is wrong with you?”

I told one person about my attack, because I didn’t want to burden anyone else over a trivial meltdown, and even then, I assumed the person I told thought I was being overly dramatic – that clearly I was sharing the news because I needed attention. It’s highly unlikely that that’s what they thought, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was using them to personify how I felt about myself.

Well, today I decided to share that small story about my anxiety attack for a few reasons:

  • There is a stigma associated with mental health issues, and I am part of the problem. Where I can talk to you logically about depression, bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia on the one hand, and how the person is not at fault for suffering – how they are at the mercy of the chemicals in their brains, I absolutely will not forgive myself for crying at my desk – for not powering through – for embarrassing myself by not being stronger. It’s just an anxiety attack, get it together. In fact, typing it now doesn’t change how I feel about myself, and that’s a problem. Every time I tell someone about Jay and I cry, I also get on myself. You see, I’m also part of the problem. If you think the way I do, you’re part of the problem, too.
  • May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and we all need to be aware.

Below are some statistics from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), and from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) that are important for you to know:

Key Mental Health Statistics Include:

  • 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lives with a mental health condition.
  • 1 in 25 (11.2 million) adults in the U.S. lives with a serious mental illness.
  • 46.6 million adults in the U.S. face the day-to-day reality of living with a mental illness.
  • Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24, but early intervention programs can help.

Suicide Statistics:

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide.
  • In 2017, there were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts.
  • The age-adjusted suicide rate in 2017 was 14.0 per 100,000 individuals.
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular.
  • In 2017, men died by suicide 3.54x more often than women.
  • On average, there are 129 suicides per day.
  • White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2017.
  • In 2017, firearms accounted for 50.57% of all suicide deaths.

Mental health is such an important issue, and affects so many that you owe it to yourself, your friends, and loved ones who may be struggling to educate yourself and gain a better understanding of mental health issues. You owe it to yourself, your friends, and loved ones to help remove the stigma that often prevents people from seeking the help they need. Understand that mental health is not a weakness, nor is asking for help when someone is suffering. Once we as a society embrace that idea, then we can begin to work towards making real changes – changes that get people the critical help they need – help that is affordable, and available to all.

Below are resources from the NAMI website for you to use if you find yourself in an emergency or crisis situation:

In An Emergency

If you or a loved one is in immediate danger calling 911 and talking with police may be necessary. It is important to notify the operator that it is a psychiatric emergency and ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

In A Crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255)

If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will work to ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.

Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741

Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.

National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)

Trained expert advocates are available 24/7 to provide confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking resources and information. Help is available in Spanish and other languages.

National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)

Connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area that offers access to a range of free services. Crisis chat support is available at Online Hotline. Free help, 24/7.

Please consider making a donation to one of those organizations – to help fund research, and help promote education for mental health issues.

In November, I will be participating again in the Out of Darkness Walk here in Austin, Texas. If you’d like to support AFSP and their mission during Mental Health Awareness Month, please consider making a small donation of $10 to our team the “Jay” Walkers. You can do that by clicking HERE. Be sure to visit the AFSP site to gain a better understanding of how your donation will be applied. As always, thank you.