Today I attended a memorial service for a friend’s son who died from a drug overdose. He was in his early twenties and had recently been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. This is not the first time I have heard this type of tragic news. I imagine the same is true for many of you.
That is why I felt compelled to write this piece, even though it strays a bit from the topics I typically address in this blog. In this post, I refer mostly to parents helping their children who are struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, or addiction. However, everything I say is applicable to any relationship in which one person notices at-risk behavior in another, such as sibling to sibling, or friend to friend.
A person may become depressed when coping with a disturbing life event, loss, or change. This may be a discrete incident, such as the death of a loved one, starting college, or losing one’s job. In other cases, a person may experience persistent stress, such as being the target of prolonged bullying.
At times, there may be no specific external catalyst for a mental health crisis, whether it be depression, or another mood or anxiety disorder. It is almost universally accepted that brain chemistry is a major contributory factor to mental illness.
Nearly every adolescent, teen and young adult experiences one or more of the stressors described above. Those who have not learned or developed coping strategies may turn to prescription drugs, illegal drugs, and/or alcohol to numb the pain that results from struggling with a mental health issue. So-called “experimentation” can morph into addiction, without the user realizing it until they have crossed over the line.
The problem is pervasive. Did you know that:
- Out of 44 million “emerging adults,” one in five struggles with mental health issues?
- Accidental prescription drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning are one of the two major causes of death among US teens and young adults?
- 60% of young people entering college wish they had been better prepared for the transition from high school?
- Last year, more than half of all college students experienced “overwhelming anxiety” and over one-third admitted to such crushing depression “it was difficult to function”? (Statistics from the JED Foundation 2016 Annual Report, p. 7)
All too often, people do not seek help for mental health issues as they would for a physical ailment, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. They won’t discuss it with a friend or family member, even one they trust implicitly. They dismiss the idea of consulting a professional. Why? Because there is a stigma attached to mental illness unlike almost any other disease.
When I had cancer almost seven years ago, I didn’t care who knew. However, I discuss my depression and anxiety with only a small group of people. I don’t want to hear, “What have you got to be depressed about?” or, “Just go do something fun to cheer yourself up,” or “Everyone feels sad sometimes. It’ll pass.”
That last statement is true. Yes, everyone does feel sad sometimes. And if it is indeed a certain kind of sadness yes, it will pass. But mental illness does not pass. It lingers, like an intrusive house guest. The pain it causes is real and it is debilitating. All too often, it may be lethal.
The statistics I cited above are not likely to improve anytime soon. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to shrug and say, “There’s nothing I can do about this.” Some steps anyone can take are:
- Learn how to recognize when someone is suffering from mental distress. Speak with your family doctor or another professional whose judgment you trust, such as a school counselor. Have them review with you which behaviors may be indicative of a problem. Ask them for referrals to mental health care providers and/or crisis centers. Articles—either printed or found on the internet—may be informative as well, if the source is reputable.
- Don’t hesitate to seek help. Many of the signs (e.g., withdrawal from friends and family; losing interest in activities; sleeping too much or too little) may be symptoms of a wide range of ailments, so you may feel unsure. Don’t worry that you might be “overreacting.” Better to err on the side of caution when someone’s life could be at stake.
- Make sure you ask for a referral for yourself as well. It’s critical for you to become educated on how to support the other person in their recovery, as well as learn how to care for yourself during the process.
- Understand that mental health is as much a priority as physical health.
- Work to erase the stigma of mental illness. Speak up if you hear someone make an unkind or erroneous remark. Seek out organizations that advocate for those who suffer from mental illness, such as the JED Foundation (jedfoundation.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org). Volunteer to help in any way you can.
NOTE: If you are a mental health professional and you spot some misinformation in the above post, please let me know. I will revise what I wrote accordingly, and share the correction with my readers.
For LDK, MPO, AMD, and AVP
If you have a moment, it would be an enormous help if you write a comment—no matter how brief—on this post in the Comments section below. It really helps to encourage the discussion I think so many of us are craving around these important topics. Using the “buttons” following this post to share it across the social media platforms of your choice would help as well. Thanks in advance.