The perception surrounding mental illness and mental health is complex. It’s a tangled web of stigma, misunderstanding, failed policy (and nonexistent policy) and inaccurate and sometimes inappropriate representation by the media and entertainment industry.
It’s not often that one comes across a piece that celebrates champions of mental health and wellness, let alone sheds positive light on mental illness. You can imagine how excited I was when a colleague of mine sent such an article my way. On January 17th, CNN’s Wayne Drash recognized nine “mental wellness warriors” who are advocating for improved treatment and working to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness. Among these individuals include pop star Demi Lovato, Active Minds leader Sarah Spitz, and journalist Pete Earley. The nine individuals represent a diverse group of advocates, from people with “lived experiences,” to experts in their respective fields. As an alumna of the College of William and Mary, I was most relieved to see Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds among the nine “mental wellness warriors” listed. In November 2013, Sen. Deeds lost his son, Gus Deeds, to suicide.
Gus Deeds , a member of the William and Mary Tribe (’14), has been gone for over a year now. I still remember the last time I saw Gus back in September 2013. I had recently returned to the US after spending some time overseas. It was early in the afternoon and I was visiting my alma mater for the first time since graduation. Gus, who was sporting a comely beard and a warm grin, stopped me on the brick pathway in front of Blair Hall. We chatted for a brief moment, and he shared that he had returned to the College to complete his studies and was excited to be back. At the time, I had no idea that Gus was living with bipolar disorder (a manic-depressive illness that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks). I also did not know that our short encounter would be the last time I would see him before he took his life. On November 18th, 2013, Gus was turned away from a Virginia mental health center, as there were no psychiatric beds available. The following morning, November 19th, Gus stabbed his father several times. Shortly after, he completed suicide. Today, his father fiercely advocates for mental health policy reform, in hopes of helping those like Gus.
It’s not uncommon for everyone in society to interact with individuals who live with a mental illness. Chances are that you know someone who has a mental disorder, regardless of whether or not this person has been diagnosed. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults – approximately 61.5 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year. Other studies by the US Department of Health and Human Services and Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica estimate that 20% of the US population (ages 18-54) are affected by a mental disorder in a given year. Furthermore, 57% of the population will have a diagnosis of a (or a diagnosable) disorder in their lifetime.
So what does all of this mean? For starters, mental illness is much more prevalent than we think. Additionally, we are not always aware of warning signs that someone may be living with a mental disorder, or that he or she may be at risk of experiencing a crisis situation. With this is mind, what can we do about it?
In my recent post, I encouraged readers to get trained in Mental Health First Aid. This training, which familiarizes participants with warning signs and how to respond in crisis situations, is just as important as getting certified in First Aid; I recommend getting trained in both right away. You can look up mental health first aid trainings and sign up for a training in your area. There are two kinds of mental health first aid trainings: one for assisting adults, and one for assisting young people.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to get trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, which was facilitated by two dedicated and passionate representatives from NAMI Southwestern PA. As a mental health and wellness advocate since 2011, I understand that I do not know everything, nor do I have all of the answers. That being said, I admit that I learned a great deal in this training. It should be noted that these types of trainings are not intended to teach participants how to diagnose a mental illness, nor do they allow mental health first-aiders to function in place of a mental health professional after the training. Rather, the training equipped me with methods for how to assist a young person who may be in the early stages of developing a mental health problem, or be in a mental health crisis, so that I know the proper resources and information to refer individuals to (see below). I would recommend this course for anyone who has frequent contact with youth or young adults, such as parents, school staff, sports coaches, youth workers, volunteers and mentors.
I plan on doing the adult course later this Spring. However, until then, I wanted to shed some light on some of the topics discussed during the training, the most important being how to respond if there is an emergency. Once you assess that an individual is in crisis, at risk of suicide or self-harm, or is in danger of harming others, call 911. You should take action quickly, just as you would if you were to witness a car accident or other medical emergency. These crisis situations should never be ignored, avoided or minimized.
Something I found to be very useful at the training – particularly when interacting with an individual who is not in crisis, but shows signs that he or she may need professional help – were the clear definitions of mental health professionals. That way, should you encounter an individual who may need to seek help from a professional, you know of specific resources that you can refer them to. Hopefully you’ll find these just as useful as much as I do:
Mental Health Care: People Who Can Help
- medical doctors, pediatricians and neurologists – they look for possible causes of the mental/behavioral health challenge and can prescribe medication if needed
- psychiatrists – medical doctors who specialize in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders
- psychologists – may provide psychological evaluation, assessment, testing, and treatment, but may not prescribe medications
- licensed social worker – trained to help individuals deal with a variety of mental health and daily living problems to improve overall functioning; states have varying requirements and licensing practices – for example, in some states, only a licensed certified social worker-clinical is able to conduct psychotherapy
- social workers – may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and are helping professionals who focus on both individuals and their environments
- counselors and therapists – provide advice, support and specific mental health therapy to a person or group of individuals (such as a family); a licensed professional counselor is a counselor with a specific legal license
- nurse practitioners – registered nurses who have advanced education and clinical master’s level training in a health care specialty area (such as psychiatric mental health, women’s and newborn health, and school or college health); they recommend medications and areas of treatment, and, in many states, they are allowed to prescribe medication
- peer support providers or specialists – individuals with “lived experience” and work to assist others with similar experiences; often have expertise that professional training cannot replicate; though in recent years, several states and national organizations have developed certification processes to ensure peer support specialists’ knowledge and skills meet consistent and high standards of performance
So go out, get trained, and join other mental wellness warriors. It might sound cliché, but your actions to get certified in mental health first aid (for youth and/or adults) can equip you to support someone you know or love in a mental health problem or crisis – and even save their life.