May is mental health awareness month. One in five American adults or 46.6 million of us experiences a mental health condition annually, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. How will we ever break the stigma around mental health and mental illness if we don’t start sharing and speaking out more? I’ll start.
My journey with mental health started in my teen years. I didn’t share my struggles with friends, teachers or the youth pastor. Seeking medical help wasn’t even an option I knew of. My high school locker was feet away from the counselor’s office but the only thing I ever talked to her about was what classes I was going to take, future career considerations or college choices. I never sought help on my own.
From the outside looking in, I was living a slice of the American dream. But inside, I was struggling. I tried so hard to make the pain I felt go away that nearly 25 years later, I have blocked some of it out. I didn’t care about the outside because I had so much going on the inside of myself.
My mom witnessed a moment of me walking out in the middle of traffic with a truck swerving to avoid me. She sprang into action, realizing I didn’t care at that moment if I ended up crushed under that truck or not.
I don’t remember the truck moment. But she does and recently reminded me of it as we talked on the phone. The next day, my dad came and took me out of school. I would have done just about anything to get out of school except to go where we went.
My parents took me to a psychologist. At first, I felt forced to talk, almost trapped. I didn’t want to share. I was embarrassed and felt my parents overreacted. As a parent today, I know wholeheartedly they were addressing my mental health problem before it was a crisis. My mom saw the warning signs and together my parents took action.
I remember the room we sat in and saying very few words in front of my parents and the psychologist. I agreed to return, by myself, and continued, weekly and then monthly in my later high school years.
What I learned in my teen years was that no matter how alone, empty or confused I felt by the circumstances I couldn’t fix or change, I could move forward. My parents’ action of connecting me to a mental health professional gave me direction. I also learned at home that my family needed me, no matter how broken I felt. Not everyone has a supportive family network at home, and you and I can be a listening ear and support for others around us. Check in. Ask. Encourage. Listen without judgment.
Through professional help, I learned coping techniques, how to identify stressors, how to overcome the emotional pain I felt had been swallowing me, and I built an inner strength that prepared me for future struggles. Most importantly, I learned I wasn’t alone and could seek professional help whenever I needed it.
I want speaking out about a mental health struggle, condition, diagnosis or recovery to not be a taboo topic any longer. Can we break down the stigma that is tied to mental health and mental illness? Yes.
Everyone is different and somehow we have to give each other permission to talk about our own mental health and love each other through it.
If you don’t know where to start in seeking help, talk to a friend, clergy, go to your local medical provider who can connect you to a mental health professional, schedule an appointment with a mental health provider or call a hotline. In my home state of North Dakota, dial 211 or by calling 701-235-7335, you are connected to First Link’s 24-hour helpline. Calling 800-273-8255 connects you to a 24-hour suicide lifeline nationwide.
Today as a rural resident and working in the agriculture media industry, I see and hear of how difficult economic times coupled with the lack of access to mental health services are impacting individuals, families, and communities. We are in this together. You are not alone.