When do we talk about mental health?

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I had the opportunity to speak with a small group of people today about mental health and mental illness.  After I was done speaking one gentleman in the room spoke and said, “With everything I learned today, I don’t understand why we aren’t talking about mental health everyday.  I mean–I never hear about the things you were talking about on TV.  When the hospital does a Health & Wellness Program it’s always about physical health.  Never about mental health.  And this is a public health crisis!”

He was astonished.  I smiled and said, “That’s why more people need to hear about mental health and mental illness.  Everybody has mental health.  Not everyone has mental illness.  But to stay mentally healthy we’ve got to talk about it more.”

When do we really talk about mental health?  Well, it depends upon what you’re calling mental health.  Some people are more comfortable saying mental health problem than mental illness.  I use both words.  But health implies without illness.  But for the sake of the conversation I’m going to talk about both.

Mental Health is discussed when tragedy strikes

About the only time we talk about mental health/illness is when there is a mental health crisis and someone either dies by suicide, is shot and killed by police or if a person with mental illness kills other people.  The news runs 24/7 when something terrible happens.

When the Las Vegas shooting happened, all the news media were posing the question about this evil man’s mental health.  Did he have a mental illness?  Was there a history?  Which all the evidence came back and said he had no history of mental illness, no official diagnosis.

It is true there have been situations where the person who was violent had an untreated mental illness.  But the fact is most people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of crime than the perpetrator.

Celebrity disclosures stimulate a conversation–but it’s not enough 

On the rare occasions a celebrity comes forward and discloses their mental health struggles, the story usually gets some national exposure.  But it’s a shared secret and then it dies.  It never continues the conversation about how to stay mentally healthy, why it’s important to get treatment early, how it’s imperative to learn about your illness, how mental illness affects everyone differently, how there is a shortage of inpatient hospital beds, etc. The information the public needs is abundant.  But what we get is often misleading and not very helpful, with the exception of knowing if you have a mental illness you are not alone.  And that is pretty powerful.

Employers don’t talk about it

And then of course there are many different situations where our lack of understanding plays its’ way out.  Most people are not comfortable disclosing to an employer they are experiencing a mental health problem/mental illness.  But the number one disability in the world is depression.  Who knew?  Which has significantly high numbers on loss of productivity and loss of work days.  Every employer should be talking about how to stay mentally healthy and how to recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental illness.  And the necessity for getting treatment early.

I’m talking about it every chance I get

Each time I have gone out into the public and had a conversation about mental health/mental illness people come up to me, make eye contact and thank me profusely for starting the conversation.  I remember the first talk I gave to a group of students.  They were relieved I brought the topic up.  They wanted to know if their parents had a mental illness would they get one too.  That gave me an opportunity to explain risk factors, of which genetics is a factor.  Everyone should know mental illness runs in the family just like any other illness.

The statistics tell us 1 in 5 people live with a mental illness.  It’s common.  Anxiety and depression rank highest on the chart effecting a large amount of people.  Everyone should know how to recognize the signs and symptoms, so they can see it in themselves and with loved ones.

When do we talk about mental health?  Not until it’s a public health crisis.  Guess what?  It is.

If you’d like for me to come and talk at your organization or school, please contact me at Amy Gamble Contact

 

 

 

Blame it on the weather

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Over the years I’ve noticed my mood changes when the weather changes.  Like most people, in the spring and summer I’m pretty happy.  But when the fall season starts to come I imagine somewhere in my brain there are all these little monsters who take up residence and it’s their sole job to wreck havoc with my mood.  If they can’t succeed in making me really depressed, than they tend to settle for just detached and a little irritable.  It’s in these moments that I wish I had a team of “ghost busters” to come into my brain and rid myself of these terrible creatures.

How much of this is bipolar disorder and how much is “normal?”

I think those of us who have learned to manage bipolar disorder can get pretty hyper-sensitive about our moods.  Maybe monitoring ourselves to the point of over analysis.  But I have to say it’s really difficult to strike a balance between what is just a natural reaction to circumstances and what is the ugly illness that rears it’s head.

But it is true there is actually an illness called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  When the seasons change the lovely depression is ushered in.  She sits in a powerful position sucking the life out of her victims.  She brings a cloud of fog that gets sprayed directly into the frontal lobe, making memory, concentration and just wanting to get out of bed a challenge.  If depression were a person with a name, I’d call her a B**CH.  And sorry ladies I hate to pick on the females, but depression certainly has the male version as well.  That’s the irritable, mean party where nothing that comes out of my mouth is positive.  That depression is clearly a male and he is a B***TARD.

So just when I think I’m going to spend most of my time writing thoughtful articles about vulnerability and maybe even start writing about other topics as well.  I got stopped in my tracks with a nasty episode that’s kind of dragging it’s way through my nice little life.  I can blame it all on the weather, except the past few days have been beautiful.  Blue skies and sunshine.  Not very depressing.

At the end of the day, I’m just taking a deep breath and accepting what is.  I’m gonna go to sleep early and get up at the crack of dawn.  I’m always hopeful the fog will lift in the morning.  But with a mood disorder, you never know what you’re gonna get.  It’s sneaky like that…not very reliable.

Before I sign off I just have to say, “I HATE depression.”  There.  That made me feel better.

 

 

 

Finding my vulnerability

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“I found it much easier to stand up for other people who may not be able to advocate for themselves than allowing others to help me.  When I finally reached rock bottom and I said those words to my sister, “Help me.  Please help me.”  It was the most vulnerable moment of my adult life.”   Montana Jail Journal- January 18, 2013

In my opinion mental wellness has a lot to do with personal growth.  I know it sounds trite to say, but I was on an expedited train of personal growth while I sat in a small jail cell in Montana because of an under-treated mental illness.  I just didn’t know it. Sometimes when the only thing one can do is think, read and write personal growth opportunities are abundant.

I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s most recent book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”.  I’ve been fascinated with her work and all the many lessons I’m gaining as I read and digest each chapter. I was pleased with myself that I had actually been practicing some of what she suggested.  Having been in pure survival mode from bipolar disorder for many years to finally being well enough to embark upon self-reflection and personal growth is making me very happy.

She writes a great deal about belonging.  It seems like a paradox to talk about standing alone, braving a wilderness and belonging.  But this quote kind of sums it up–

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” 

This statement rang so loud to me.  All the people who live with a mental illness who are living in shame at this very moment came to my mind.  I’ve been there, I know what that’s like to not have self-acceptance, and therefore not belong.  I’ve felt like an outcast with the people who were closest to me.  When you blame yourself for having a mental illness it’s kind of hard to experience a deep level of self-acceptance.

As I’m blessed to experience a time of peaceful knowing, I keep thinking about all the people who need to hear, “you have a mental illness and it’s not your fault.”  When I sat in an Idaho psychiatric hospital and I let those words resonate inside of me, I could feel the shift in me emotionally.

Self-acceptance is something people pay a lot of money to get.  But it’s really not anything you can buy.  It comes from within.  It’s an internal, quiet voice of strength that tells you you’re okay.  It also means that we accept all of who we are–all our life experiences.

This is something very difficult to do when handed the additional challenge of having a mental health condition.  Think about it-if you’re fighting depression the last thing on your mind is accepting yourself.  But here’s the catch, when we accept our experience for what it is it can actually help us to heal faster.  And certainly if not to heal, than to have the energy to fight depression.

Funny thing is…I can read Brene Brown’s quote and smile.  I have experienced it and believe it is true.

Reading her book prompted me to watch her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  I could probably watch it 100 times and still learn something.  But this whole idea of vulnerability peaked my interest.  Because as much I hated jail, it was a time in my life when I asked for help.  I was extremely vulnerable.

Yet, though I had a long journey ahead of me, those three weeks in jail changed my life.  I was learning to embrace vulnerability.

There is much of Brene Brown’s research that can really be applied to understanding why it’s so difficult to eliminate the self-stigma of mental illness.  I hope to take a deeper look at that and write about it on a future blog.  Until then, check out Brene Brown’s work.  It’s very enlightening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not sexy to be a mental health advocate

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October is breast cancer awareness month.  I didn’t know that until eight days into October.  My realization started when I went to the local grocery store and every other cashier light (you know the one that tells you when their open) was pink.  And they were asking for donations at the register for breast cancer research dollars.  Still didn’t realize it, because people ask for money for everything now.

Then, I went shopping.  Pink shirts for sale everywhere.  I was so impressed.  Everyone, unless of course you’ve been living under a rock, knows pink is the color for breast cancer.  It’s a highly successful awareness campaign that started in full force over twenty years ago.  Heck, even the NFL is “pinked out” in October.  As a mental health advocate I dream about the day when everyone knows mental health awareness is green and guys like Brandon Marshall (click here for Brandon’s mental health advocacy organization) don’t get fined $10,000 dollars by the NFL for wearing green cleats.

But when something is successful it warrants looking at their model and learning from all the good things breast cancer awareness advocacy organizations have done.  In fact, it all peaked my interest in finding out just how much money is spent annually on breast cancer research.

The answer-cloudy.  Mmmm….what do I mean by that?

Well, turns out that breast cancer awareness and research are lumped into one big estimated sum of $6 billion a year.  Of course there are critics who think all money should be research money.  But you don’t get research donations without awareness.

Why is this important to mental health advocacy?  Because the National Institute of Mental Health has an annual budget of only $1.5 billion.  The National Institute of Mental Health funds research for mental illness and neurological conditions (brain illnesses), like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, depression, etc.  All of these illnesses have a fraction of money spent on research.

I compared the annual budget of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer advocacy organization based in Texas, (well known for the trademarked tagline “Race for the Cure”) to that of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest mental health advocacy organization in the country.  I found the Komen foundation listed as #54 on the Forbes list of U.S. most wealthy charities with $250 million in annual revenue in 2016.  That’s for one year folks.  On the other hand, NAMI based in Arlington, VA has a little over $10 million in revenue.

In all fairness, NAMI has affiliaties in all 50 states who also have revenue, but I doubt even including all of them would break a $50 million in total revenue.

What’s my point?

How are we going to make sizable contributions as mental health advocates when the largest organization of advocacy only nets $10 million a year?  So many diseases to lobby for research on-so few dollars.  So many issues to battle, so few people to do the work.

And then there’s this…

#1)  STIGMA. It’s not cool to be a mental health advocate.

#2)  STIGMA. It’s not sexy to go out and raise money for people who have a mental illness.

#3) STIGMA. These illnesses are misunderstood.  They are often not looked at as an illness.

#4) STIGMA.  People are ashamed to come out and say they are living with a mental illness.

#5)  STIGMA. Policy makers don’t understand it, unless it effects them.

#6) STIGMA.  Family members don’t want people to know their loved ones live with a mental illness.

And…

I could go on and on.  You get the point.  We have limited resources for a very complex problem that most people don’t understand and many fear and are afraid to talk about.

So..if you’re reading this please pick up an advocacy banner.  There’s an enormous amount of work that needs done.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation started with raising awareness for breast cancer.  Mental Health Adovocates have to do the same thing.  We have to help one another do this work.

If you’re local to the Wheeling area you can start your advocacy work by showing up at the NAMI Greater Wheeling Walk on October 21 @Wheeling Park.  Registration starts at 10am.

And…

We even have cool tee-shirts.

 

 

 

Getting passed the whispers!

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I was in the store shopping yesterday. It was a store I frequent quite often and they know my face well. I’d always had good experiences, but yesterday changed all that. As I went to check out I turned my back on the three ladies standing behind the cash registers. As I suddenly turned around they were whispering just loud enough that I caught they were talking about me.

Like most people, I assumed it must be bad if you have to whisper about someone. I told myself I wasn’t going to let it bother me, but of course it did. And the thoughts were off and running to the races.

I’m a very big woman. I’ve always been a “big girl.” Certainly taller than most women and for sure much bigger all the way around and because I stand out in the crowd I’ve taken my fair share of wise cracks and disparaging comments. So, it’s safe to assume if someone is whispering behind your back, it might not be a positive compliment.

Then…I went down this pathway about how I’m sure I’ve been a topic of some not so nice conversations about my mental illness. But I just keep pushing the envelope on that one. Don’t really think anyone has the **lls to say something to my face. But you never know.

A few days ago I sat down with a reporter from one of the local newspapers. He was writing an article for his weekly sports column called, “Unsung Heroes” When he ask me for an interview I was hesitant. I really don’t see myself as a hero. But I agreed because it was another opportunity to put mental health conditions in the spotlight. Another chance for people out there struggling to read that article and know they are not alone.

I never thought anything of it. I’d already written a book that was pretty revealing, so what’s another public newspaper article. Right?

Well, I’ve learned a few things about myself. #1) I’m not as sensitive as I used to be; #2) I’m still human; and #3) Raising awareness for mental health conditions/mental illness is my number one priority.

It’s nice to know when you find your passion. I fell into mine because I found other people who were taking up the flag in similar ways across the country. The interesting thing is there’s no one quite like me. What does that mean? Small town girl, All-American, Olympian, Fortune 500, mental illness, jail and mental health advocate—and as it all sunk in to my mind this weekend I realized the responsibility I have to continue on this pathway.

A calling as it turn out, is by far more important than the whispers that may come.

Click here…in case you haven’t gotten a copy of my book.

Can you be “normal” when you have bipolar?

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I admit I have dreamt about the days when I wished I was just “normal.”  But what that meant to me was living a life without a chronic illness.  It meant not having to deal with extreme challenges and circumstances.  I was wishing for a life of serenity and peacefulness.  I assumed those who didn’t live with bipolar disorder had all those things.  I learned I was wrong.

The other day I was having lunch with my friend, Bill.  He had recently finished my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  With a sincere look he said to me, “You have a talent for writing.  You should write a lot more.”  And then he looked at me directly and said, “You know you are really unusual?”  Without hesitation I shook my head and said, “Yes, I do.”  In that moment I was actually quite proud he had come to that conclusion.  He followed his statement with, “And I don’t mean because you are an Olympian.”  I nodded.  I knew he meant I’m just different.

What never entered my mind was the fact I was different because I had a mental illness.  That’s not really even half the story.  I’m different and unusual for many reasons.  I’m a bit of a rebel.  I’ve always stood up for other people who might not have been able to stand up for themselves.  I never really went along with the crowd, because I kind of think it’s much more fun to be original.  I like being different and I wear it on my sleeve.

But when I was deciding about what I would write today on my blog, the whole idea of “normal” kept coming to my mind.

On a day when I woke this morning to learn an evil man had gunned down hundreds of people in Las Vegas, a city I used to live in and a place I have visited often–in fact, I’ve stayed numerous times in Mandalay Bay-where the shooter took his wicked perch.

I sat watching the news for a few minutes before coming to work.  As I sat at my computer I couldn’t help but think about the victims and their family members.  I was sad for them and truly for our society as a whole.  To think that we aren’t really safe anywhere we go, is a creator of underlying anxiety for many people.  I personally don’t think too much about things like that-until something like this happens and I’m forced to entertain the what ifsWhat if my sister and brother-in-law were in Las Vegas this month instead of last.  What if our whole family was there at a concert at Mandalay Bay like we were a year ago in July.

So can I be “normal?”  Yes.  I have emotions and reactions just like other people.  I live, laugh, love and cry just like everyone else.  I struggle on days like today, trying to make sense out of why a person would ever do such a horrific act of violence.