In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, on May 21, Women of Colors invited four panelists to have a conversation about mental health and suicide prevention. Hosted by Vicki Hill, Time to Have a Conversation featured powerful storytelling and a call to continue the conversation.
Mental health awareness is especially important today given the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Georgia Conic, L.L.P., who served on our panel, says that one of the major impacts from the pandemic was the impact on folks who are not normally considered mentally ill: “People who know they have a mental illness usually have a way of dealing with it. They have a therapist; they may take medication. They could adapt to the situation better than people who did not consider themselves mentally ill.”
Dr. Conic observed an increase in people struggling with 1) anger and 2) paranoia in the early months of the pandemic. “Many people were just really angry and did not know how to express that anger or deal with it [in a healthy way],” she says. “People were so afraid that they were going to get the virus and afraid of other people having the virus. Stress does cause an inability to cope sometimes, and I think that inability to cope is enough to get you into somebody’s office to talk about this and work out a plan.”
How do you know if it’s time for you or a loved one to seek professional help? According to Kevin Fischer, the Executive Director for Michigan’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, common warning signs include changes in behavior pattern, sudden or excessive fear and worry, excessive sadness, confused thinking, changes in appetite, changes in hygiene, disassociation from or loss of interest in activities that previously brought you joy, and increased risk taking.
Kevin strongly believes that stigma kills: “Stigma is the leading barrier that prevents people from getting the early diagnosis and treatment that leads to the best outcome. If you are not ashamed to have high blood pressure, cancer, or diabetes, then you should be no more ashamed to be living with a mental illness diagnosis than any other. A mental illness is a medical diagnosis; it is not a weakness of character. We have to fundamentally change the way we look at mental illness in this country because it is quite literally killing us.”
Early diagnosis and treatment are key. “For most people, when they receive that, they tend to go on to live very productive, very normal lives,” Kevin says. Just like a physical illness, the earlier a mental illness is diagnosed and treated, the better: “I can be diagnosed with stage-four cancer, or I can be diagnosed at stage one. If I am diagnosed at stage one, my odds of recovery are much improved than if I ignore it until it’s stage four. That’s what we tend to do in this country when we talk about mental illness. We ignore it until it reaches crisis. We ignore it until people become a danger to themselves or others.”
If you want to help destigmatize mental illness, consider sharing your experience(s) with others. Panelist Matisa Berry-Ellison, a survivor of suicide loss, believes in creating awareness about mental health and suicide prevention: “It’s my privilege to share my daughter Renee’s story. Renee was full of life, love, and caring. She enjoyed spending time with her family and friends. She had an awesome smile. There was nothing she could not do. She was very passionate about basketball, volleyball, and track and field.”
Matisa believes that by telling the story of her daughter’s battle with mental illness, she can help other families experiencing a similar situation. “I found myself, about a year after Renee’s passing, asking God why,” says Matisa. “I told God, ‘I did everything that a parent should do. I was there. I supported her. I don’t know why this happened.’ And I got my answer. A certain peace came over me and said, ‘This is not your story. This is her story. I want you to go tell it. I want you to go tell her story to save another child.’”
If you struggle with a mental illness, get organized and educated about what resources are available to you before you need them. Barb Smith, the Executive Director of the Suicide Resource & Response Network, recommends that people who experience suicidal thoughts always have the number for a 24-hour crisis line. “When you have those thoughts, in that moment, just say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to do it right now,’” she says. “Call your crisis lines, your friends, or your support person. Most people do not go back to suicide if we can get you through that crisis and help you find someone to ease your pain.”
If you don’t know what to expect when you contact a crisis line, of course, you may hesitate to make the call. Barb explains how the process works: “Very few times are paramedics or law enforcement called when people call those numbers. That number can often get people to stop and think and come up with another plan. When you call 1-800-273-TALK, you’ll first go to a local crisis line center. You’ll listen to a little bit of music, and when you get connected, an individual will just ask you, ‘Tell me why you’re calling today. Let’s talk about what’s going on today.’ They will hear you, get a sense of where your pain is, and give you some local numbers and resources.”
1) Share this article with someone who may need encouragement to take care of their mental health.
2) Listen to the full conversation on the Women of Colors Facebook page.
3) Save these important numbers in your phone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK or Crisis Text-line: 741741