You Are NOT Alone
By Carrie Kubacki
May is traditionally the month to bring awareness to mental health. This year, however, with COVID-19 causing even more emotional strain on our lives, it seems even more appropriate to bring attention to the symptoms of mental illness. This year’s theme from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is “You are NOT alone.”
NAMI statistics show that 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children in the United States will experience a mental illness this year. The highest number of diagnoses (around 20%) are anxiety disorders, some of which include separation anxiety, phobias, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental illness symptoms also typically begin at young ages with 50% of the diagnoses occurring by age 14 and 75% of the diagnoses by age 24. The sooner we recognize the signs of mental illness, the sooner we can get treatments and supports in place.
Each type of mental illness has its own unique symptoms for diagnosis. However, it can be helpful to look for common warning signs—especially emotions and behaviors that have significantly changed over time. Some of the warning signs of a possible mental illness include:
• Intense worries or fears that impact daily functioning
• Feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks in row
• Severe risk-taking behavior that can cause harm to self or others
• Seeing, hearing or believing things that are not real
• Significant changes in weight, mood swings, personality or sleeping habits
• Increased or excessive use of alcohol or other drugs
• Thoughts, plans or actions to harm or end one’s own life
Recognizing that we are not alone in the experience of mental illness is the first step in getting help. Together, we can provide each other support and hope. If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, please contact your health care provider, call the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-6264 or go online at www.nami.org.
Mental Illness in Children and Teens
By Carrie Kubacki
Most American youth are physically and emotionally healthy; however, recent youth mental health statistics are surprising. Between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 youth are diagnosed with a mental illness during childhood or adolescence. Mental health disorders can begin at young ages with 50% of diagnoses occurring before age 14 and 75% of diagnoses occurring before to age 24. Experts with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also report that rates of youth mental illness have increased over the past 10 years. During this time of crisis, it is important for parents, guardians and other adults to identify the warning signs of mental illness in youth and where they can go for help.
The most common types of mental illness in youth include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The criteria for diagnosing specific disorders is varied and can only be done by a medical or mental health professional. However, some common warning signs to look for, especially if they are impacting daily life, are listed below:
• Changes in appetite, weight and sleep patterns
• Loss of interest in usual activities (hobbies, sports)
• Major changes in school performance
• Severe worry and anxiety that gets in the way of normal activities
• Impulsive or risk-taking behaviors
• Substance use and abuse
• Severe mood swings
• Difficulties concentrating and focusing
• Self-harm behaviors and/or suicidal thoughts and plans
If you do have concerns about a youth, the first step is to remain calm. Mental health disorders are treatable, and the earlier you seek help for a child or adolescent, the better professionals can provide treatments and support. The second step you can take, depending on the age of the child, is to talk openly with the youth about their experiences and your concerns. Though the conversation may feel uncomfortable at first, you want the youth to know that they do not need to feel ashamed, embarrassed or afraid about their emotional concerns. Third, help your youth to identify people they can talk to and other healthy coping strategies they can use to manage their emotions and behaviors. Help the youth to plan for those times when they might need to take a break or ask for help. Finally, reach out for professional help as soon as possible. Whether it is a primary health care provider or a mental health therapist, they can evaluate your youth and provide treatment options. The sooner we act, the sooner youth can realize that they are not alone and that help and support are there. For more information about child and adolescent mental health, please visit: https://nami.org.
Self-Compassion for Well-Being
By Carrie Kubacki
As the coronavirus pandemic moves into another month, our lives continue to be impacted on a daily basis. The loss of normalcy and sense of control can be creating even greater feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, sadness and grief, and these continuing emotions are likely to further disrupt our functioning. Many of us, however, may still have very high expectations of ourselves to be able to manage everything—our work, families, emotions—perfectly. This can lead us to experience high levels of self-guilt and shame when we are unable to meet those idealistic goals.
Self-compassion is the ability to recognize when we are struggling and to take steps to care for ourselves the way we would for a loved one. Self-compassion is not self-pity or selfish. Rather, it is a healthy way to allow ourselves to be imperfect and to actively respond to our own needs. Self-compassion consists of three main components:
• Mindfulness—the ability to be in the moment and recognize and validate our true feelings,
• Self-kindness—the ability to care for our own needs in healthy and positive ways, and
• Common humanity—the ability to connect with others so we can recognize we are all in this together.
Research conducted at Stanford University has demonstrated that a lack of self-compassion results in an activated stress response and a lower ability to manage our emotions and behaviors. The researchers also showed, however, that when individuals practice regular self-compassion, they have a greater sense of control and well-being especially during times of crisis.
So, what are some steps that all of us can take to develop self-compassion during this difficult time? First, recognize that life is difficult and scary right now and that it is okay to have those feelings. Second, honestly acknowledge how your life and ability to cope have changed because of COVID-19. Third, allow yourself time and space to practice daily self-care, including basic hygiene, relaxation, hobbies, exercise and stillness. Finally, maintain connections with others to remember that you are not alone and that when we share support, we are stronger together. For more information and resources about self-compassion, please visit: https://self-compassion.org/.