May is Mental Health Awareness Month

By Dave Hamolsky

For a moment, I would like you to think about your personal mental health journey. My journey begins as a very young child. So young, I do not even know how old I was and so young that my memories are an interesting mixture of family stories that have been told to me, conversations that I have had with my father and sister and old pictures that I have seen. This amalgamated memory is of my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother was, as the story goes, “schizophrenic.”  Sometime during 1956 – 1960 (when I was young), she was hospitalized in a state mental health institution. My mother and sister would go visit her in the hospital on a regular basis, and sometimes she was brought from the hospital to a family event.

In my distant memory, I remember such an event. My grandmother was sitting at the head of the table very calmly and serenely with a gentle, friendly smile. Even as a young child I knew something was “different” about her. She was not like my other relatives. I was not really scared of her because she appeared so relaxed and friendly, and yet I was wary and standoffish. I do not remember if I asked questions, as young children often do, or whether my parents made some attempt to explain my grandmother’s “difference” to me. The memory stays with me. I wish I had really gotten to know my grandmother.

So that is the start of my rather long and complex mental health journey that involves my relatives, my nuclear family, my friends, and me. Along the way mental health has become my chosen career and life work. During my journey, as I have grown older and learned about mental health, I have asked questions about my grandmother. My grandmother and grandfather had six children, including my mother. It turns out that after each of the births she was hospitalized with what my family assumes were psychotic or schizophrenic-like symptoms. She would then get better and be released from the hospital and return to her family and her life.

At some point, this apparently was too much for my maternal grandfather, and he abandoned the family. This meant that when my grandmother had another “psychotic” episode the children had to be placed in an orphanage. Was this schizophrenia? I have wondered from the extended distance of time and sketchy knowledge perhaps my grandmother experienced post partum depression with psychotic features. It is at one level interesting to speculate about the challenge with which my grandmother struggled and at another level it is irrelevant. What matters is that whatever the mental illness was it had a profound effect on my grandmother, on her children, on my mother and therefore on me.

So, what is your mental health journey? Everyone has one. That is the point. Behavioral health (I would like to expand “mental health” just briefly to include substance use disorders) impacts the vast majority of people (if not everyone) in some form or another.

How has mental health affected you and your loved ones? How does it influence your life now? Why does stigma so powerfully surround mental health? There are many complex answers to this question. However, I would ask you to consider one “simple” explanation. Mental health stigma involves how we perceive, react to and deal with “difference.” Some people refer to our challenges as human beings when we relate to “the other.” “The others” are those people we perceive as different from ourselves, and often when we perceive that difference, we respond with fear and with distance. We convince ourselves that “the other” are not “us” and are “less than” we are. “The other” contains all the “bad” qualities that we do not possess and all our “good” qualities are not evident in “the other.” In other words, we tend to de-humanize “the other” thereby justifying our fear, our stereotyping and often our bias and discrimination.

If you look back through the history of mental health in the United States during the 20th Century through to the current day, it is very evident that the recognition that mental illnesses are stigmatized in our society is not a new realization. Numerous national commissions, research studies, scholarly articles, newspaper stories, and acts of Congress have proclaimed that this stigma exists and that we are going to “fight” it. Well, it is a really sticky problem and while we have made a lot of progress, stigma still exerts a profound force on those challenged by mental illness and their loved ones.

So, this is a lot of what Mental Health Awareness Month is about. Let us raise awareness about persons standing up to mental illness and those who love, care for and work with them. Let’s start and continue the conversation about how perhaps “the other” is more like us than different from us. Perhaps let’s acknowledge our own journey and the journeys of our loved ones. Let’s try to provide accurate information. Let’s do whatever we can to make a difference and stand up to the stigma that impacts all of us.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Learn more at http://www2.nami.org/template.cfm?section=May_is_Mental_Health_Month

National Children's Mental Health Week: May 3-9: Learn more at https://www.ffcmh.org/awarenessweek

National Children's Mental Health Day: May 7th: Learn more at   http://www.samhsa.gov/children/national-childrens-awareness-day-events/awareness-day-2015

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