Recently, I was asked to be interviewed by Melanie Luxenberg, a mental health advocate and writer, who blogs for the International Bipolar Foundation. In recognition of Mental Health Week in Canada and Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, Melanie asked me to respond to several questions about mental health, stigma and support for people with a mental health condition. With Melanie’s permission, I’m reprinting her interview with me below, or you can link to the original blog post on the IBF site here.
The Canadian Mental Health Association first introduced Mental Health Week in 1951, and it has since become a yearly tradition. This year, Canada celebrated its 65th annual Mental Health Week from May 2, 2016 to May 8, 2016. In the US, Mental Health Month takes place throughout the whole month of May.
Both Mental Health Week and Mental Health Month are opportunities to spread awareness about mental health, provide support, fight stigma and GET LOUD for mental health!
As a person who lives with bipolar disorder (type II with rapid cycling) and anxiety disorders, I like to find out as much as I can about my condition so I can understand what is happening to me and so I can understand past behaviours. I subscribed to BP Magazine early on and began reading books, blogs and articles to find comfort from bloggers who have been on similar journeys and from mental health advocates, psychologists and doctors who can provide insightful information and follow many of them on Twitter and Facebook.
One mental health advocate/psychologist, David Susman, PhD, whose blogs I enjoy was available to answer a few questions for Mental Health Month that could be shared with the readers of International Bipolar Foundation’s blog.
How do you define Mental Health?
Mental health means different things to different people. But I like the definition provided by mentalhealth.gov (US Department of Health and Human Services): “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
Do you believe stigma prevents people from seeking necessary treatment?
First, let’s say what we mean by stigma related to mental health issues. It’s a complicated term, but it includes negative beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that translate into bias, prejudice and discrimination toward people with mental health concerns. Yes, stigma definitely gets in the way of people seeking appropriate mental health care, as several large-scale surveys have clearly shown.
What do you see as the biggest barrier to ending stigma?
In some ways, ending stigma may be as difficult as ending poverty, hunger, or war, since it’s so well-entrenched. I think one of the biggest barriers is that stigma isn’t really even on the radar for most people as even being a problem. They are totally unaware that stigma toward people with mental health issues even exists.
What do you think is the most effective way to combat stigma?
It all starts with raising awareness and education. Getting the word out about stigma and its negative effects on people is key. Getting personal accounts from consumers of mental health services about the effects of stigma is critical to bring a face and a voice to the problem.
Many people try to “self-diagnose” by googling their symptoms, or once diagnosed, google their diagnoses. Do you think this is harmful behaviour?
The Internet is full of both good and bad information. The overwhelming majority of people search for health information online, so that trend isn’t going away. It’s important to help people find reputable, well-researched health sites online so the information they find is reliable. But you still need to have a formal assessment and diagnosis by a health care professional to make sure you receive the correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment options.
What would you say to a person who was recently diagnosed with a mental illness?
Your mental illness is a disease just like diabetes or high blood pressure. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy or broken or hopeless. You didn’t bring this on yourself and it’s not contagious. There are very effective treatments including counseling and medications, and you can still have a really good life and achieve many of your personal goals. There’s also a lot of support out there to help you along the way. But you will have to do your part by learning more about your illness, how to manage your symptoms and take some time to learn and practice helpful coping skills.
What advice would you give to caregivers, family and friends of people living with a mental illness?
Be there for your friend or loved one with a mental illness. Learn more about their condition so you will understand what they’re going through. Above all else, let them know you still love them and care about them and that you’ll do your best to help them.
What advice would you give to the significant other/spouse of a person living with a mental illness?
When you live with someone with a mental illness, it’s sometimes stressful or tiring. In addition to what I said above, it’s important for significant others to also take care of themselves. You can’t help others if you are physically or emotionally exhausted. Connect with support groups where you can talk to and learn from other families going through the same thing.
There are many smartphone “apps” for mediation, mindfulness, mood tracking etc. Can these be effective tools?
I just heard a webinar on this topic. Many people are using mental health apps, but the jury is still out on how effective most of them are, because the necessary research hasn’t been done yet to show if they really work. In the meantime, apps may be a useful tool just like self-help books or websites, but remember they don’t replace working with a health care professional.
How important is it for a person to have a work-life balance?
You hear this term a lot, but it’s really so, so important to have balance in all areas of our life, whether it’s work, home, fitness, spirituality, hobbies, relationships, or health care. This balance is tricky to achieve, but if we’re intentional and planful about it, our chances to improve the balance are more likely to go up.
What are your recommendations for achieving mental wellness?
Have realistic expectations. Problems or struggles aren’t solved overnight. Change is slow and often challenging. Celebrate the small victories along the way. Surround yourself with the important things in life that bring you comfort and happiness: friends and family, pets, enjoyable work and activities, humor, faith, physical activity, good nutrition, adequate rest and sleep, and a positive attitude.
What advice would you give to a person who is struggling with low self-esteem or with a lack of self-confidence? Do you have any resources you would recommend?
To gain confidence in any endeavor, look for the easy wins first. In other words, try to accomplish a simple step toward a larger goal first. for example, if your goal is to learn to play the guitar, first say you will learn to play one chord. Even making small progress can be very rewarding and can give you momentum to keep working toward your ultimate goal. On a related note, be forgiving to yourself when you aren’t making as much progress as you would like. One particular book which I’ve found helpful is The Self-Esteem Workbook by Glenn R. Shiraldi.
Thanks again to Melanie Luxenberg for interviewing me. She’s an excellent writer and advocate. Please take a moment to learn more about her and check out some of her other blog posts here. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!