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Mental health disorders and stigma: Crossing the bridge to treatment

Many members of our community live with mental health conditions, but they don't need to live with stigma. City High 10th-grader Rohit Agarwal digs into some common conditions and some of the ways that we can support our friends and family who experience stigma.

/Rohit Agarwal

Mental health stigma is prevalent in our society and can prevent people from seeking treatment and help. This stigma can make people afraid to discuss their own mental health issues because these topics can be  neglected or frowned upon by society.

According to Dr. Gregory Mallis, a clinical psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, many of his clients often reference something along the lines of being afraid to go to therapy or treatment. “They are afraid of being perceived as weak or crazy,” says Dr. Mallis. The first step we can take in helping people living with mental illness is recognizing and validating their illness. Living with mental health issues is not something that makes one weak, “crazy,” or damaged, but something that should be treated like any other illness. Eliminating mental health stigma will allow those who need help to seek treatment and discuss it openly with their friends and family.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental health disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, GAD affects roughly 68 million adults in the US annually or 3.1% of the US population. This excludes the population below 18 years of age and those who have decided not to seek help.

Symptoms and signs of GAD include some combination of:

  • Feeling constantly nervous or on edge
  • An increased heart rate
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Hyperventilation, sweating, quivering, fatigue, and insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating

Many of these symptoms may appear in someone without GAD, or, they may not appear at all in some GAD patients. According to Dr. Mallis, the key to discerning whether it is GAD or not is by looking for two things: if it is causing functional impairment or, if the symptoms are persistent. He recommends seeking professional help when in question. As they say, better safe than sorry.

My close family member who suffers from GAD stated that they had “recurring thoughts about non-stop worry.” What they meant was their thoughts often went out of hand. To elaborate, they would irrationally worry about various day to day things. They often jumped to astronomical and baseless conclusions because of their anxiety. Also, because they are in a state of high alertness, stress and anxiety, they have trouble sleeping or relaxing.

There are various ways that mental health professionals help people with GAD. One method is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where therapists analyze the thought processes that make a client anxious and replace them with thoughts that would lead them to be less anxious. Mental health professionals can also prescribe medication for GAD. However, these treatments can only be performed by a licensed professional. You should not attempt to treat GAD at home.

Outside of professional help, friends and family can help in a variety of ways. They can help by checking in, and when they do, instead of telling them not to be anxious, validating their anxiety and being empathetic toward them is the best method. Just being there to listen as they relieve themselves of their built up tension can make all the difference. If you really want to, you can try to get them to question their own anxiety and think their thoughts through more rationally. This should be approached in a calm, friendly and logical manner.

One last thing Dr. Mallis said, “no one is ever too far gone”. Seeking help as early as possible is ideal but if one decides to seek help at a later stage, that is also helpful. GAD affects so many and those affected are often unaware.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is another common mental health disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in eleven people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. Studies have shown that women are two times more likely to have PTSD than men.

According to Dr. Mallis PTSD occurs when someone experiences a significant traumatic event causing them emotional trauma. Often, we see veterans with PTSD because they experienced a lot of trauma that resulted in significant stress.

According to Dr. Mallis, experiencing a traumatic event that caused a heightened sense of emotions causes PTSD. PTSD comes in many forms, and much like GAD, it has many different symptoms. Everyone experiences it in their own way. One common factor in all patients is identifiable trauma that leads to flashbacks or an overactive response to things. For example, if someone had trauma relating to a car incident, they may experience PTSD symptoms if they heard a car honking. There are PTSD symptoms unrelated to the incident itself, these manifest themselves similar to GAD’s symptoms (insomnia, excess anxiety, etc.)

Dr. Mallis says that professional help is strongly recommended for PTSD. Being there and validating the feelings of those living with PTSD certainly helps, but to a very limited degree. Professionals can use a different form of cognitive behavioral therapy in which the client and therapist go through the story of their trauma, almost reliving what happened. They listen to what their clients tell themselves as a result of their trauma. Overall it is a very intricate process that should only be performed by a licensed professional.

One of my family friends, who lives with PTSD, said that there are certain sounds that are similar to the ones at the site of the incident that triggers their PTSD. When they hear the sounds they begin to panic and feel as though they are at the scene of the original incident. They experience high stress and anxiety, and sometimes feel dizzy. PTSD is a serious disorder and should not be taken lightly.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance Use Disorder is not as common as GAD or PTSD but it is still a prevalent issue. Substance Use Disorder and addiction are two completely different animals. Dr. Mallis describes Substance Use Disorder as having an unhealthy relationship with the substance in question. Addiction is when someone requires the substance to be physiologically sound. When someone has Substance Use Disorder, it does not mean they are addicted to the substance, it means they are emotionally reliant on the substance. They feel as though the substance is filling an emotional void for them. Substance Use Disorder also comes with a variety of symptoms outside of the substance use. Some of these include:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep issues
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Difficulties with social interaction

The main symptom of Substance Use Disorder is someone using a substance in a way that it impairs their ability to function. Professional help is 100% required. Dr. Mallis says that Substance Use Disorder is a disease where you cannot regulate yourself. Sometimes patients are addicted to the substance as well and require a medical detox to cleanse their system of the substance.

Usually this disorder is triggered by an emotional stressor and the substance is used as a coping mechanism. This emotional reliance can lead to addiction. When it comes to this disorder, seeking help early is CRITICAL. Friends and family can help with the emotional part of Substance Use Disorder by validating the patients problems and being there for them. Substance Use Disorder requires immediate professional help. No one should use a substance as a coping mechanism or to fill an emotional void.

Mental health disorders affect all aspects of a person’s life. It is critical that they are recognized and validated just like any other ailment. Friends and family should be open to listening and empathizing with their loved ones. Anyone with a mental health disorder should always consult a mental health professional as the first and most important step toward their recovery. The goal is to create a healthy society without stigma or fear of judgment for mental health.

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