Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Amanda Buchner is a faculty spouse who lives on campus with her husband, Marc and two children. She shared her very personal story regarding a very public cause with the community in Chapel.

What do Royce White, Jessica Alba, David Beckham, John Mayer, Paula Deen, Whoopi Goldberg, and myself all have in common? We all deal with some form of anxiety disorder, a serious mental health issue that can interfere with the ability to lead a normal life.

I bet that many of you have experienced anxiety or stress at some point in your life. This is a normal, human emotion people experience at times. However, with anxiety disorders it can cause so much distress that normal life can be interrupted with constant and overwhelming fear and worrying. It can be crippling.

For instance, right now, speaking in front of a large group causes me major anxiety. My  heart feels like its beating out of my chest and maybe you don’t see it, but I feel like my entire body is shaking. I have given speeches in front of large groups before, starting in middle school. The symptoms of anxiety I experience while doing so, do not get easier or go away, but I am not afraid anymore. I know I am not going to pass out, have a heart attack, or die, as many anxiety sufferers feel when they are having an anxiety attack.

My anxiety started when I was in elementary school.  It took me a while to make friends because I was overly anxious about fitting in, a symptom of anxiety. While my mother says that I was shy, after much research I know it was anxiety and not shyness that held me back. I say that because I doubt most people today would think I’m shy. They know me as opinionated, honest, and forthcoming.

I almost never raised my hand in class to answer or ask questions because I was so anxious and fearful I would be wrong or seem stupid. I remember sitting in class all the way through high school saying in my head, “Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me.” I am sure I missed part of the lessons because I was so worried I would be called upon and that took up my focus. It took me until I was in graduate school to get over that fear and I had no problem saying to my professors, “I just don’t get it.” I may have had some slight anxiety, but understanding the lecture was of greater importance than fearing the anxiety.

The anxiety I experienced escalated in middle school when I would wake up in the middle of night in a panic, feeling like the walls of my bedroom were closing in around me. My body felt tiny, yet my hands huge. I realize now I was hallucinating to some degree. There was a definite disconnect from reality, which is a symptom of a panic attack. I would have to fully wake myself up by turning on the light and read for a while. Eventually the feeling subsided and I would be able to fall back asleep…..but it drained me and I would be exhausted the next day.

In high school my anxiety sky rocketed even further… began hampering my sports and academic performance. The morning of a test I would feel nauseous, my mind would be racing with test information, yet I couldn’t seem to put it together, and I was so sure I was going to fail.  I was a good student, though, and somehow managed getting good grades despite my constant worry of not performing well. Teachers always described me as a conscientious student, but I needed constant reassurance. Kids with anxiety disorder generally need this constant reassurance and seek to be perfectionists. As a cross country runner and alpine ski racer, I experienced a whole gamut of symptoms on the days of competition.  I used up so much of my physical energy before a race, that I was almost completely drained before the race even began.

By the time I got to college, I was still experiencing these feelings of anxiety, yet I still did not have a name for it. I, honestly, just thought I was crazy. I continued to strive for approval. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my Psych 101 class when the professor put Generalized Anxiety Disorder on the board and began listing the symptoms that I thought, “That’s it! That is what I have!” I can’t tell you how enlightening it was to figure it out. That I was not going crazy. That there was actually something medically wrong with me and I could get help for it. I began talking with the college guidance counselors and then an outside psychologist to begin confronting this disorder.

Between cognitive behavior therapy and medication I have combatted this mental illness to lead a fuller life. While I still experience anxiety and low grade depression on some occasions, sometimes completely out of the blue, I now have behavioral tools, such as yoga and other forms of exercise, muscle relaxation techniques, and deep breathing exercises, in which to deal with them. The medication seems to make a huge difference, too. I do not “shy” or back away from things. I face them head on (most of the time) and know that once I push through them, life will be better. Even though it challenges me, it boosts my confidence when I succeed. Such as when I finish speaking today, a lot of my energy will be drained, but I will have gained more self-assurance that I can prevail over the anxiety.

Many of you probably don’t know this, but when Mr. Buchner and I first came to Peddie I worked as an assistant athletic trainer. I had graduated with a Masters of Education in athletic training and passed the Board of Certification exam, yet working in the field caused me great distress.  I was in constant fear of causing harm to the student athlete, or afraid I would assess their injury wrongfully and then be sued. I needed constant reassurance and approval from the head athletic trainers I was working with.  I would obsess on possible worst case scenarios instead of focusing on the issue at hand. One of the reasons I believe my anxiety was at its worst during the time I worked as an athletic trainer at Peddie is because I was pregnant and was off medication at that time. Therefore, the chemicals in my body were out of balance and on top of that my hormones were raging!

Our daughter was born at the end of our first year. The following fall I began experiencing panic attacks each time Mr. Buchner had dorm duty in a dorm that was separate from the house we lived in at the time. This was in addition to my “normal” every day anxiety. I had a serious case of the “what ifs” as many anxiety sufferers will tell you. By the time our baby was 6 months old, the anxiety and panic were so bad I stopped nursing, sought the guidance of a cognitive behavioral therapist in this area, and got back on my medication. I have tried once or twice (besides the two times I was pregnant) to go medication free, but the anxiety was too difficult to handle with just my cognitive behavior tools.

Anxiety disorders, as well as other mental illnesses, run in families and therefore can be inherited.  On both my mother’s side and father’s side I have close relatives who suffer anxiety and depression. So not only have I had to battle my own demons, I have had the challenge of confronting their demons as well. In particular, my mother was severely depressed and took to her bed quite often. She never wanted me to tell people she had depression, so I kept her “secret” for a long time. Once I became a psychology major in college and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder I wanted to talk about how her depression affected me. How it affected her. How it affected our family. I have found it therapeutic to talk about it with others.  I talk about my own struggles with anxiety without thinking twice about it. In fact on my very first date with Mr. Buchner I told him that I had anxiety disorder. I figured if he went running the opposite direction then he wasn’t the one for me. But as you know, he stayed and has supported me ever since. While he doesn’t truly understand, he does his best to comfort me and encourage me to push through the panic.

I have noticed recently that my own children seem to be experiencing signs of anxiety. It kills me that they may have inherited this disorder from me, but I am arming them with tools to deal with it. As a child I did not talk about my anxiety; one, because I had no name for it.  And two, I think part of the reason was because my mother was battling depression and I did not want to be a bother. So I kept it all inside and pushed through it. There were times it felt like I had no one to help me face my fears. With my own children I talk about their anxieties and am able to sympathize with them. Yet, I am constantly pushing them to try new things….face their fears head on….follow through with commitments. They are beginning to realize that once they get through it (despite the symptoms they experience) they are better for it. They are more confident in themselves and seem to be happier for conquering the challenge. And it does seem to be getting easier for them the more I talk with them about their anxiety and help them confront their fears.

Mental illness is not something you choose. You choose to do something about it. Get help. Not get help. Or not get proper help and turn to other vices to deal with it, which could become another issue.  According to WebMd “the exact causes of anxiety disorders is unknown, but like other forms of mental illness it is not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. Many of these disorders are caused by the combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress. It may be caused by chemical imbalances in the body, much like diabetes.” So why is there this disconnect between physical health and mental health? Mental illnesses are not always given the same respect as physical illnesses.

Royce White, NBA draft pick for the Houston Rockets, is bringing this matter to the forefront and taking a stand publicly. Royce also suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. He decided to talk publicly about his illness so that others, especially children, do not have to suffer in silence and so that they know there is help. One of his goals is to get people to realize that your mental state is as important as your physical state. White has not currently played for the Rockets because they have been unable to agree on a care protocol for White’s anxiety disorder. As White put it in an interview a couple of weeks ago, “In the NBA if you suffer from a physical injury you are surrounded by a medical protocol and access to the best care money can by, but if you have a mental illness you are faced with more stigma than support.”

With many physical illnesses there is a clear picture as to what the patient needs to do in order to get back to 100% health. With mental illnesses that picture is not quite clear.
For instance, a person with a sprained ankle might not be able to practice or compete for 7-10 days, but if you suffer a panic attack the hour before a game, you might be expected to get right in there and play your best game. Why? Because currently there is no protocol as to how long it takes a person to recover from an anxiety or panic attack and therefore, return to play. With a physical injury you can see it. You see the swelling, bruising, and when it returns to normal. However, with a mental health issue you can’t see it, and therefore, it is much harder to examine.  What folks don’t realize is how incapacitating that attack can be. A person can only handle so much anxiety before it becomes totally debilitating. It can completely zap you of all your energy…..physically and mentally.

Mental health issues are vague under the whole medical health category. But it is important that we begin seeing mental health as part of our whole being. We need to support both  mind and body, and not separate the two. The brain is part of the whole body, therefore we should not be separating mental health from physical health. Mental illnesses are medical conditions and should be treated medically…..not brushed under the rug. We need to work on the language in which to articulate mental health issues so both mental and physical health are respected under the same umbrella of overall medical health. We need to encourage those with mental illness to seek the courage to speak about their illness and seek proper treatment.

Mental illness is more prevalent that you might think. One in ten Americans report being depressed, and anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in America, according to the Center for Disease and Prevention. Mental illness affects us all in some way or another. Unfortunately there is this stigma attached to mental illnesses that people who live with mental illnesses are unstable, violent, or dangerous. According to the Mayo Clinic “there can be harmful effects in relation to this stigma, such as a lack of understanding by family, friends, or colleagues. Discrimination at work or school. Difficulty finding housing. Bullying, physical violence, or harassment. Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental illness. The belief that you will never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation.”

As a parent it is extremely important I take care of my well-being so that I can take care of my family. For many parents who incur mental health problems they are so afraid of the stigma of mental illness they do not seek help. A month or so ago there was an article on CNN about a young mother who after suffering numerous midnight panic attacks decided to seek professional help. This woman found that through medication she became more “flexible, tolerant, and rational. Before, when the kids were being a problem, she would get frustrated and yell immediately. Now, she works through the problem with her children." The same day I read another article about country singer, Mindy McCready, who battled addiction and mental illness, and took her own life. The article went on to say that McCready’s biggest fear was the stigma of receiving help if she were to check into a mental health facility. My hope is that society will realize that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. I have heard people with mental illness say they would rather have a physical illness than live with mental illness, because then people could understand what they are going through, be sympathetic and not turn away.

It’s time we put a stop to this stigma. Let’s talk about it honestly and openly. We can help our friends, family, colleagues, classmates, students by discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental illnesses. It helps those with a mental illness to not feel alone and know that there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel. That one can live a life fulfilled with love, joy, and accomplishment. It can also be educating to those without mental illnesses. They can learn how to support, care, and encourage those who are battling mental illness. We need to start a constructive dialogue.

Bring Change 2 Mind is a national anti-stigma campaign founded by actress, Glenn Close. I encourage you to visit the website and take the pledge to erase the stigma and discrimination of mental illness. “The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2020 mental illness will be the second leading cause of death and disability. At that point every member of society will have to confront the issue.” Let’s work together and face it with open mindedness and candid communication.