As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on June 9, 2019
Mental illness. It seems everyone I know is dealing with it in some capacity.
Statistics bear that out. One in four people experiences an episode of mental illness each year. Most are diagnosed in their youth. What are we to do?
Dealing with mental illness begins by educating oneself about the conditions and the options for addressing them, says Aric Jensen, director of mental health for Fraser, which provides services related to autism and mental health. A successful treatment plan may include therapy, medication, exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet.
Being forthright about it can help, too.
Though mental illness has subsisted in a shroud of shame and silence, candid conversations are dismantling the stigma.
In 2012, KSTP meteorologist Ken Barlow disclosed he was living with bipolar disorder. Sharing his story emboldened others and inspired Barlow’s advocacy outside the newsroom.
Earlier this week, Barlow moderated a community conversation hosted by Hennepin Theater Trust about issues portrayed in “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Tony Award-winning musical that closes today at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theater.
The musical is about adolescents who struggle with issues such as a yearning to be seen and accepted in a digital world. Employing social media interactions as a storytelling device, the story features a teen suicide and the resulting response.
After the community conversation I spoke with panelist Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Minnesota, and posed questions I’d been grappling with, for this subject strikes close to home.
Why are so many people struggling with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and more?
How can others better understand and support individuals with mental illness?
Abderholden reported that mental illness is the most common disability on college campuses. Though there is no one cause for its growing prevalence, social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the concomitant decline in civility surely play a role.
Online bullying is a serious and growing problem among youth, Abderholden says. It used to be that kids who were bullied at school got a break from it at home. But when bullying occurs online, it’s ever-present.
And then there is the lack of proportionality. With picture perfect images populating all sorts of social media platforms, it takes an iron will not to compare oneself and feel inadequate. It’s the rare person who posts images of the actual untidiness of life.
Though there certainly are positives to social media, “Dear Evan Hansen” demonstrates a dichotomy in its ability to both polarize and draw us together. Unfortunately, the latter is often more fleeting than the former, Abderholden says.
Achieving a healthy balance with a means of communication destined to endure requires discipline and thoughtful use, both in time spent and words uttered. Achieving balance may require change, be it weeding out “friends,” taking breaks, or permanently logging off and actually interacting face-to-face with family or friends.
Though the focus is often on how younger generations’ use of social media is impacting relationships, I wonder whether their elders don’t bear some responsibility, for we are their role models. Could we be contributing to what feels like an epidemic of anxiety and a sense of disconnectedness?
It may be useful to examine our own behavior.
Do we respond to texts or calls during mealtime?
Are we even sharing a meal together (at a table instead of in the car)?
Are we checking emails instead of talking to our loved ones when they are in the room?
Are we demonstrating kindness, respect, tolerance, and acceptance in our personal and online interactions with others?
Are we listening?
Discussions about change and the anxiety that can accompany it are timely as the end of the school year brings change for many families.
In short order, young adults who are accustomed to parents driving them to therapy appointments, waking them for school and ensuring they take prescription medications will pack their bags and leave the family home.
What happens when the newly emancipated child who struggles with anxiety, depression or some other form of mental illness settles into a dorm room or apartment? Juggling laundry, bills, school assignments, and a social life without a familiar structure can be overwhelming.
The change may be met with trepidation, excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty.
It’s important for families to make a plan.
Young adults should sign a privacy release, for once they reach 18 their parents can’t access their medical records or providers.
Students should figure out how they will access disability resources at school, remembering that getting extra time on tests when you have ADHD is no different than taking insulin when you have diabetes.
Families should agree on a communication plan. How often will kids call home? How often can parents reach out? What steps will be taken if the student is unable to function?
If, despite the plan, texts go unanswered, there’s always the old-fashioned approach, Abderholden says. “Who doesn’t like to find a letter in their mailbox?”
If, despite the plan, the student falters, parents have to find the sweet spot between stepping in and stepping back. As hard as it can be to watch our kids struggle, life experiences breed resilience. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is also the best thing to do.
Most of all, we need to continue to break the silence by sharing stories about mental illness. Whether it’s via a Broadway musical or a Minneapolis meteorologist, anytime someone shares his or her story it takes a brick off the wall of discrimination, Abderholden says.
If you enjoyed this piece about living the choice to be better, not bitter, you might enjoy Caryn’s award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” packed with stories and lessons about dealing with adversity. It’s available in paperback and electronic forms on Amazon. If you’d like to receive Caryn’s columns in your inbox, sign up here: https://carynmsullivan.com/join-the-list/.