By Carolyn Cullen
Last spring I taught mental health awareness to groups of Pelham children. I began by asking the children to tell me what they know about mental illness. One girl chimed in that mental illness was something that only happens in New York City. This innocent belief captures the idea that many of us as adults have about unknown or scary topics – that is something that happens to others who are far way, not me and mine. Pelham Together is built on the premise that connections count, and together we can make a difference in seeing that young people do not suffer needlessly from depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Talking to a trusted other makes a difference, and mental health treatment can be life changing.
As a psychotherapist and mental health educator who has been working in the field for 25 years, I have heard many stories of people who wanted to get help sooner for mental health issues but hid their problems. In fact, some talk about how family members, friends, school personnel, or other key individuals silenced them when they tried to get help. One such example of this was a bright young man named Michael* who dropped out of college after isolating himself in his dorm room for months. He first felt depressed in high school and thought about talking to someone as a teenager. Then, a student in his high school committed suicide. He remembers a teacher told his class that no other student would ever get to such a point. This blocked Michael from feeling ok about talking about his own depressed feelings, some of which included thoughts of suicide. He was able to keep his depression hidden until he could no longer bear it and had a breakdown in college. Through psychotherapy and medication, Michael was able to get back on track and make a return to his undergraduate studies and finish his degree. More importantly, he learned to develop coping skills, one of which involved building meaningful friendships with other people who could act as a support system. Pelham Together is working on building opportunities for young people like Michael to come forward easily and let others know when they are feeling mental pain in the same way they can when they have physical illness.
Unfortunately, many adults are still misinformed about mental illness and may see it as moral failure. This misunderstanding was seen in reactions to the recent suicides of two wealthy successful, middle-aged icons Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It seems shocking, and left many adults wondering, “Why?”. The answer is most likely depression or mental disorder in a world that sometimes values individualism and material wealth over connection and belonging. This can make people not want to reach out and talk about personal difficulties or ever share that they have or have had mental health issues. Too often over the years, I have heard clients talk about how external trappings of success did not provide them with the happiness for which they longed. In fact, for many of the people I have worked with, the attainment of success left them feeling empty and hollow. This can be especially hard when people grow up in families where their parents did not give love and attention freely but instead based it on external accomplishments.
A person suffering from depression may look like they’ve got it made on the outside, but on the inside, life is excruciatingly hard. As the writer Andrew Solomon describes, a person who is depressed may have a lot of voicemails from friends, but instead of thinking something like “wow, it’s wonderful to hear from my many friends!” will instead think something gloomy like, “that’s a lot of people to have to call back.” Changing these thought patterns is not easy and requires work, which usually involves psychotherapy sometimes combined with medication. Depression shows itself in many ways and is something that even the most successful among us can experience. According to a leading advocacy and support organization, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, depression is the number one cause of disability worldwide, and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
Depression is a medical illness with many symptoms including physical ones. The most common symptom associated with depression is the feeling of sadness, yet some depressed people totally deny feeling sad. Instead they might report other common signs of depression including: anxiety, feelings of pessimism, loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies, decreased energy and fatigue, difficulty sleeping or over sleeping, appetite or weight changes, muscle pain or headaches, or even thoughts of death/suicide. While depression is more common in adults, children can experience depression and show irritability and anxiety as their main symptoms. Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom.
Major life changes, trauma and stress can put one at risk for developing depression. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma that prevents many from getting help as soon as possible. If someone has been feeling sad, hopeless or irritable for at least two weeks, it is critical to get help right away. Earlier intervention can lead to a quicker and easier recovery in the long run. Recovery is possible; we all can play a role in breaking down the stigma so more people get the help they need when they need it.
The most common treatment for depression is psychotherapy and in some cases in combination with medication.
- To get help, individuals and families can find therapists on the Pelham Together website and Psychology Today website where local therapists are listed. You can find insurance plans accepted on the bottom left hand side of the therapist’s Psychology Today page.
- A 24/7 nationalCrisis Text Line is offered by texting START to 741-741 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available free of charge 24/7 at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
* All personal information has been altered to protect the identity of any individual.