Here’s something Americans do not discuss enough: mental illness, like depression and anxiety. Therefore, I am going to talk about it, and I am also going to do so VERY LOUDLY, because I spent so many years being quiet, and that cost me a great deal of time and pain. I want to spare others from that. So here we go!
If you are suffering for more than a few days from strong emotions like pain, anger, sadness, hopelessness, worry, fear, or anything else you cannot control, you may be experiencing a real disease.
You may also be a teenager. It is not your imagination. And it is not something for which you should be judged, nor judge yourself!
Mental illness is a real condition–a real disease–with physical causes like chemical imbalances in your brain. Yes! Anxiety and depression are diseases, just like diabetes.
What Are Depression and Anxiety?
Okay, before we begin, let’s do some quick definitions. There’s a difference between “being sad” and “being depressed.” Also, you can feel some “pre-work jitters” and not have an “anxiety disorder.”
It is perfectly normal for every human being to feel strong emotions like sadness, fear, anger, etc. from time to time. In contrast, the terms “depression” and “anxiety disorder” come into play when you experience these strong emotions (or complete lack thereof!) for more than a few days… especially if they are adversely affecting your life, and/or you are unable to overcome the emotions in order to resume your normal state of being.
(No, I do not have a source for that definition. That is Floxmonster™’s Rule-of-Paw. And no, I am not a doctor, so if you do feel any of the above, I urge you absolutely to seek out a medical professional! It never hurts to ask, “Hey, do you think I’m depressed?”)
Anxiety and Depression Discussion
In this entry, I am discussing primarily depression and anxiety, because a.) I know them best, and b.) they are so widespread. You will also see that I lump “anxiety” and “depression” into the same handbasket. That is because, in many cases, they appear to have the same physical causes (more on that below), and they frequently “co-occur” (meaning that the same person has both).
You Can Pick Your Friends but Not Your Family
Moreover, In the same family with anxiety and depression, there are examples such as: PTSD (a.k.a. “Post Traumatic Stress Injury”), panic disorder (similar but stronger than anxiety), postpartum disorders (which typically appear after giving birth), and “suicidal ideation” (meaning you think about killing yourself a lot). Quite a family, huh? I would skip the reunions for that one!
That said, let’s talk about how mental illness affects us all.
Depression & Anxiety Are Everywhere
Mental illness impacts a stunning percentage of Americans. The respected John Hopkins Medicine has found that a whopping 9.5% of Americans have major depression, and 18% have anxiety disorders1.
How does that translate? Well, picture this: more or less, If you are sitting in a restaurant with 10 people, one may not give a crap what’s on the menu and two may want to run away.
Think About It
Think about those statistics for a moment. Even if some of those percentages overlap–that is, if we assume some of the people who have anxiety also have depression–it still means a gigantic group of ordinary people is suffering from mental disease. At the time of this posting, the Population Clock put the U.S. population at 332,894,885 people. That means 31,625,014 Americans (9.5%) have depression. 31 million!
That really puts a new light on going out in public, doesn’t it? Take a moment to look around: mothers, fathers, waiters, movie ticket-takers… everybody. Mental illness is all around us.
Therefore, I want to address something very important, which presents problems for nearly all who suffer anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions.
Break the Silence
In American society, even though we have progressed greatly in recent years, we still do not discuss mental illness / emotional illness as openly as we should. There is still a significant stigma or reluctance to talk about depression, anxiety, and especially suicide. Because of that, many people suffer silently without help–sometimes for years, sometimes even for decades. (Trust me, I know exactly what I am talking about, here!)
People suffering from mental illness may hide it out of shame, family pressure, or perhaps fear of social retribution. What I mean is, they are ashamed of being sick, or their families tell them not to say anything, or they’re afraid of being called crazy! Sometimes they might even be afraid of losing their homes or their jobs (with or without reasons).
The point is, there are far too many people who do not seek out, accept, or receive the treatment they so desperately need for mental/emotional illness. We need to fix that, right away.
We must change Society’s Stigma, Now!
I survived my years of silence, to say this: Our social stigma, fear, and avoidance of treatment needs to change, right now. As a culture, we need to accept mental illness as the genuine disease it is. This illness is not “just in our heads.” It is not some random “craziness.” It is not some “passing strangeness” that will “just go away.” Mental illness is a real disease!
As a society, we all need to foster open, healthy communication. What I mean is, we need to encourage everyone to talk about illnesses like anxiety and depression, without fear of being criticized, called crazy, or losing our jobs. Our society does not, at present, always offer that opportunity. People cannot discuss mental illness openly. Our neighbors still may criticize them, our family still may look down upon it as shameful, and our jobs–especially those with a government clearance–can still be threatened if mental illness is exposed. We need to change that, right now!
No One Criticizes Diabetics
To illustrate my point, I will use the case of diabetes. Everyone agrees diabetes is a real disease. With diabetes, in many cases, there are inadequate levels of the chemical “insulin” in the body. Therefore, the blood sugar becomes unregulated. Diabetes is a very serious condition which can lead to death. For those reasons, when diabetics show up at a pharmacy, no one criticizes them when they pick up the Metformin (or other medications) they need to balance their blood sugar. No one even bats an eye.
By comparison, anxiety and depression are also serious diseases. In these conditions, there are also inadequate chemical levels in the body. Depression and anxiety are also serious conditions which can lead (indirectly) to death, by way of suicide.
Why, then, should anyone care when depressed people pick up antidepressants to balance the chemicals in our brains? What is the difference?
And yet, there is often a stigma with antidepressants. Some people criticize those who take antidepressants… as if that might be some sign of weakness, or something that the depressed/anxious people ought to overcome on our own.
Oh yes, can we overcome it on our own? Well, does anyone expect diabetics to overcome high sugar levels on their own? NO. Of course not! That’s ridiculous.
What is the issue, then? Because mental illness is the exact same situation.
Depression/Anxiety = Real Disease!
To clarify, let me explain: Depression and anxiety are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. They are physical illnesses, just like diabetes. In fact, recent medical research has revealed that, as a result of brain chemicals reaching critical levels, most normal people become very sad, angry, hopeless, nervous, and/or scared. At the moment, ongoing research shows these brain chemicals are primarily “serotonin” and “norepinephrine.” (Don’t believe me? LOOK IT UP.)
“Causes” of Depression and Anxiety
Mind you, I am talking about normal people, here: average citizens. How do they get this way? There are many reasons. First, sometimes a tragedy can trigger an imbalance, like the loss of a loved one or home. Second, sometimes a trauma can do it, like getting robbed, or getting lost when you need to be somewhere important. Third, sometimes you might naturally inherit a “predisposition” toward having an imbalance. (That means your genetics makes you more likely to have natural, imbalanced levels for no particular reason.) Those are only three of many possible ways to “get” depression/anxiety. Remember, it is very common!
Emotional and Long-Term Effects
So, what happens when our brain chemicals reach these critical (usually low) levels? The emotions go haywire. Look at the list above: anger, fear, sadness, even hopelessness. This occurs at levels you can barely control, or not control at all. Over time, these emotions can build up. The emotional effects of the chemical imbalance in your brain can become a persistent condition which health professionals term “depression” and/or “anxiety.” Sometimes, that condition can resolve itself with time and/or counseling. Sometimes, however, it requires the additional assistance of medication.
Mental Illness is a Disease
So you see, this process is very much like any other kind of disease that we, as humans, can experience. There is a measurable cause, usually in the form of a physical imbalance. Sometimes that cause resolves itself by natural processes, and sometimes it requires medical treatment. Either way, mental illness is just another kind of illness we can treat with medicine. It is not magic or hoodoo. It’s a disease.
My point is this: Our society MUST grasp that reality, as quickly as possible. I shall reiterate: Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain. We no longer live in a place where demons cause depression, a woman’s wandering uterus creates “hysteria,” and Tourette’s is possession by the Devil. Welcome, World… meet Science.
In conclusion, mental illness is a real, physical disease. Period. Let’s ditch the Dark Ages, and develop some real compassion for those who live with it.
(Note: I moved the coping methods to their own category: COPING.)
And remember… if things get too tough – Dial 988 and talk to an emergency crisis counselor!
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