Despite our growing understanding and efforts to educate, there is still plenty the public doesn’t know about mental illness. There is an ongoing stigma and a wealth of misinformation when it comes to the topic. This was made clear following the recent suicide death of actor Robin Williams. The shocking celebrity loss sparked discussions online and in the news about the topics of depression, mental illness and the possible link between these issues.
Social media can help and hurt, and it did both in this case. Many people were quick to offer uninformed or erroneous information about depression, while others urged anyone feeling hopeless to reach out for help. The postings from people who had been through rough times and managed to “get over it” couldn’t fathom what Williams had to be sad about. It highlighted just how far we have to go in truly understanding mental health issues like depression.
Mental Illness Misconceptions
The topic of mental illness makes some of us squeamish and we’re just not comfortable discussing someone’s depression, anxiety, PTSD or bipolar disorder. That may be because we don’t understand the cause or know how to help.
Others question whether these are even real disorders and urge sufferers to just “cheer up.” Unlike a cancer diagnosis or a broken leg, where treatment methods are clear-cut, mental health issues can seem more nebulous.
What Causes Mental Illness?
Many factors actually contribute to mental health problems. They can be a combination of biological factors (genetics, physical illness, injury, brain chemistry), life experiences (trauma, a history of abuse) and family history. Whatever the root cause, people with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely.
Mental health issues can often go hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Those suffering from depression, bipolar or other problems can attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. It may mask their disorder for a time or bring some temporary relief, but in the end it just adds to the problem. In fact, a high percentage of those in treatment programs are found to be dealing with a co-occurring mental health issue in addition to their addiction.
Suicide By the Numbers
It’s a myth that suicide is relatively rare. In fact, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US, accounting for the loss of more than 38,000 American lives each year (CDC, 2010), more than double the number of lives lost to homicide. Suicide impacts more people than you might think and its effects are far-reaching. Each year, more than 8 million adults think seriously about taking their life, and more than 1 million make an attempt (NSDUH, 2011).
Key risk factors include prior suicide attempt(s), alcohol and drug abuse, mood and anxiety disorders like depression or PTSD, access to a means to kill oneself and a triggering event (breakup, job loss, financial issues, death of a loved one). Prior to a suicide attempt, there are signs that can alert loved ones.
What to look for:
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
Most people with risk factors will not attempt suicide, but if you suspect someone is at immediate risk, take action. If you feel someone is in imminent danger, call 911. If you’re unsure of the risk, stay with the person in a private, safe place and seek professional help.
Offering True Help
Stigmas may persist, but there are more treatments, services and community support systems than ever before for those with mental health issues. Treatment varies depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy or both.
For those with a loved one suffering from a mental illness, it’s easy to feel helpless, but there are things you can do. Simply reaching out and making it clear that you’re available to help can make a big difference. You can also learn the facts about mental illness and help dispel myths. And it’s important to always treat those suffering from a mental illness with respect — don’t define them by their diagnosis. Finally, help them find access to professional help, and encourage them throughout the process.
If you or a loved one is struggling with a co-occurring disorder that includes mental illness and substance abuse, call us today. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process.