By Paula Lau
The young man stood before me with tears slowly streaming down his face. His bedraggled appearance and red-rimmed eyes told an all too familiar story. As his instructor, I had watched him go steadily downhill during the weeks that class had been in session. Missed classes, late homework and poor grades were only part of the story. With each successive week he looked more tired, less well kept and had a glazed-eyed look that I learned was due more to personal problems than my teaching ability. He approached me one day after class to tell me of family rejection, a broken relationship, his struggle with bulimia and weeks of being unable to get any rest. His depression was so deep that he could see no avenues of hope or escape. This young man had descended into the malaise of mental illness.
What determines whether someone is mentally well or mentally ill? It’s a distinction that is hard to define with 100% accuracy, but there are good indications when a person truly needs to seek help from a trained professional. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness (NIMH) mental disorders are common worldwide. About one in four Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. This figure translates to roughly 57.7 million people. The old joke is that if you know that your three best friends are normal, then guess what? The reality is there are times when either we are struggling with the effects of mental illness or someone we love is.
The stigmas of yesteryear that kept many from seeking help are slowly starting to change. Many are coming to recognize that medication and therapy can truly provide solutions to optimize their mental health.
How does one know when seeking psychiatric treatment is warranted? Generally speaking, if a person struggles for a period of three to six months with issues such as lack of sleep, depression, mania (intense periods of increased activity), increased irritability, obsessive/compulsive activity and/or continuous thoughts of suicide or self injury, it is important to seek help from a trained professional for evaluation. Loss of the ability to function in normal, every-day activities such as school, work or care of children is another indicator that serious attention may be needed.
A few years ago I was having increasing difficulty sleeping. I would wake suddenly at 3:00 a.m. and then worry the rest of the night, unable to go back to sleep. The solutions I came up with in these dark hours generally made no sense in the light of day. As the months went by I started suffering the accompanying side effects of my lack of sleep: depression, weight gain, a general sense of apathy and an inability to accomplish much during the day. The solution was medication to help me sleep. For a period of two years, I took the medication regularly. The great thing was that after re-establishing my sleep pattern I started sleeping normally and am now able to take my medication on an as-needed basis.
Most people do not realize that taking medication for mental illness may, in fact, be a temporary solution. I explain it to my clients like this — if you broke your leg, you would want to put it into a cast until it was stronger, right? Well, medication and therapy can be prescribed in the same way. They serve as temporary supports while we get things back on track and our lives return to normal.