Forty-nine-year-old Kim* has battled depression for 20 years and has also experienced chronic anxiety for the past six years. A series of tragic circumstances triggered both conditions. Her resulting grief turned into a lifelong health journey which she continues to manage today.
Twenty years ago, if someone told Kim that she would be facing a lifetime of dealing with mental illness, she would not have believed it. Then when she unexpectedly found herself mourning the deaths of several close family members within a short time period, her life turned upside down.
“When I feel depression, I look back and regret parts of my life,” she said. “And when I feel anxiety, I look ahead and worry about the worst that can happen.”
Initially, Kim tried psychotherapy to address her symptoms. Eventually she was treated with medication for a chemical imbalance in the brain, but it took her about a year to embrace the notion of taking medication. Over the years, her prescription medications have changed as she juggles a dual diagnosis.
Surprisingly enough, even though Kim learned to grapple with the tough times she has faced, the stigma of seeking treatment for her conditions has been the most challenging part for her.
“Early on, the stigma of seeking treatment was self-imposed. I believed I should power through it. Later, when I felt that something must change, I decided to contact the employee assistance program at work to locate an area therapist. I was grateful for the coping strategies I received to help me navigate how I felt and to help me start treatment,” she said.
While friends and family were largely supportive, Kim remembers an interaction with her boss that simply underscored the stigma she felt. “I would open up to my boss and share that I suffered from anxiety in order to offer suggestions about how to work with me. My boss told me this was not “my issue,” which was cold and uncaring. I now understand why the stigma of mental illness can prevent people from reaching out to others.”
At this point, Kim has bravely continued along her path to getting better with regular medication monitoring and adjustment. She said that although she now feels less stigma in seeking treatment, she has become more selective about sharing her story with others. “My supervisor that I have now is very understanding. I feel best when I take one relationship at a time.”
The Many Faces of Stigma
The stigma of seeking treatment is an age-old reason why individuals who face various forms of mental illness are hesitant to seek help. The dilemma can take the form of reluctance to admit that one is experiencing illness, or can manifest itself by trying to handle it alone, or can be born from a belief system that does not embrace taking medicine or going to a therapist.
Dr. Jesslyn Koloras, Psy.D, is clinical director at the York Office of Cognitive Health Solutions. The practice also sees patients in Hanover, Pa. Specialists offer individual, couples and family counseling, evaluations and assessment for ADHD, and assessments for learning disabilities and psychological evaluations. Patients are seen for depression, anxiety, functional issues, marital concerns and family issues, among other reasons.
Koloras observes that the stigma of getting treatment for mental illness can be a severe hindrance to reaching recovery. Patients who are starting treatment after having left an inpatient or crisis setting may be especially vulnerable. “Not dealing with a diagnosis because of stigma often exacerbates mental illness,” she said. “Such issues should not be ignored because that will impact the time it takes to heal.”
The many faces of stigma have evolved through the generations. “I notice that older adults may have ingrained societal viewpoints about mental illness. Historically, media portrayals of mental illness have been negative. Cultural beliefs can also lead to stigma surrounding acceptance and treatment of mental illness,” she said.
Koloras notes that among younger generations, stigma does still exist but said that it is not as difficult to overcome. “People who have been raised in recent decades may be more open-minded and less concerned with how others view mental illness. That is because the stereotypes and prejudices that were once so common may no longer be present. This is a general observation, which may or may not apply in every case.”
“I like to think stigma is getting less pervasive as time goes on,” she says. “I have been practicing a dozen years and I have noticed that with more educational initiatives, society is beginning to realize that there is no shame is admitting to a diagnosis of mental illness.”
Koloras points out that no one expects that they will face mental illness in their lives or in the lives of loved ones. When tragedy or negative situations erupt, personal experiences may lead to a change of mind about how mental illness is perceived,” she said. “Once a person goes through the experience, this overrides the negative stigma others project because in the end, the person needs help and cannot go through it alone.”
What can help to convince someone who is reluctant to reach out for help? “When people realize that humans have the capacity to be resilient and to eventually heal with time and assistance, this may motivate them to take the first step towards getting help. Going through an experience also motivates people to reach out. Moreover, service providers must increase the level of public education efforts that are currently underway.”
Resources and Connections
True North Wellness Services serves Hanover and several other locations in Pennsylvania with behavioral health and wellness sessions, including treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.
Tracy Selby, LCSW, director of counseling at True North Wellness Services, said that while mental illness was typically viewed as a weakness in years past, the disorder is not a reason to cast blame.
Yet, people may suffer in silence, depending upon the situation and the setting. Selby has suggestions to help surmount the potential ambivalence surrounding seeking treatment. “First, turn to someone you know and trust and have an honest discussion. Embarrassment is natural and one may feel hopeless. But taking small steps towards reaching out for help can make such a difference between healing and crisis. Utilize your connections and get referrals. There are many resources for help out there today,” she said.
Why the First Step to Help is the Most Important
Dr. Evan Kay, D.C., B.S., B.E.T.P, is a natural health care provider and chiropractor with Kay Chiropractic and Natural Health Care Center, which serves Hanover among other locations.
Kay’s philosophy of care is to use a holistic wellness approach with various types of healing services, which range from chiropractic to nutrition to detoxification. Kay is not a physician and does not prescribe medication. However, he does see patients with early stage depression and anxiety, among other issues, and has observed how reluctant patients can be to get help in the first place.
Kay prescribes five steps to wellness.
“First, a person needs to admit that they have an issue going on,” he said. “Second, people will find help when they want to get better. Third, they need to want to make lifestyle and dietary changes which impact their condition. Fourth, it is important to address triggers that exacerbate symptoms like a difficult relationship or a toxic job situation.
“Fifth, when they believe that taking steps towards healing makes wellness possible, individuals can start to see a difference,” he said. “That doesn’t mean this is an easy or smooth process. There are many obstacles along the way. But there are also many resources and forms of assistance which make me hopeful that the stigma of seeking treatment doesn’t have to stand in the way.”