A while back, I blogged about where Science and Stigma must meet. Now, I am adding where research and education must meet to fight stigma and end our mental health crisis.
In this blog, I will share some personal snapshots. I’ll begin by telling you what started me down this path in working with several others to create our advocacy group.
My son passed away while he was in graduate school studying to become a school psychologist. I have never known a kinder person in my entire life than my son, and I can say this regardless of the fact that I have had, and still have, the great honor of being called his mother.
I had no idea that school psychologists did anything other than test students to see if they had a learning or emotional disability, and then meet as a team to make plans for these students. I didn’t know they could specialize in a particular field. Well, my son wanted to specialize in the areas of emotional challenges for children and suicide prevention for adolescents. We found this out after he passed away.
If you can only imagine for an instant the impact of the loss of your child, you would know, without a doubt, that you would want to carry on their desire. In this instance, it is a wonderful cause. My son wanted to help young people who suffered with emotional difficulties. So, of course, now I want to to do the same.
The only difference is that I originally wanted to go about helping in a different way. This way was by advocating for research into mental health conditions, so that we could find the root causes for disorders, develop curative therapies, and cut them off at the pass – so to speak. In forming a coalition of like-minded individuals, I soon found out what an arduous task this would be. We formed the ‘Cure Brain Disease Coalition’, and have been advocating for more funding for research in the area of serious mental health conditions, which we deem as Brain Diseases.
I am still focused on this task. We must find the root causes in order to find curative therapies.
However, the question of education looms overhead. It seems my son was onto something equally as important as advocating for research. And this is educating our children.
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I remember as a young girl, in the late 1960’s, going through what I now know was a deep depression. I didn’t know what was happening with me, but I dreaded each day with an ominous feeling, and this increased as each morning wore into late afternoons. Late in the afternoons were especially bad for me. I developed phobias, and my OCD increased with each passing day. Of course, no one knew what OCD was at the time, nor had they heard of anorexia, which I developed at age 11. The only thing that saved my diminishing body was that I was at an age where my parents still had a certain amount of control over me and forced me to eat. Later, we would learn of this eating disorder.
Between my depression, my phobias, OCD, and anorexia, I can only remember thinking ‘how unusual’ I felt that I was. It seemed that no one else had “my issues”. I had no idea, at the time, that we had a history in my family of major depressive disorder and OCD. Not that it would have ‘cured’ me, but I believe that understanding there may be a genetic “predisposition” for my feelings, as well as knowing I wasn’t alone, would have helped me tremendously.
(Please understand that if you are ‘genetically predisposed’ to a condition, it does not mean you will automatically develop a disorder.)
So, this is where education comes into the picture. Many children and adolescents are going through mental health conditions, but they feel helpless, hopeless, and alone. Why would they not reach out for help? One reason is they may feel that they are abnormal, and are, therefore, ashamed of reaching out for help. Another reason is they do not realize they may have a ‘real’ medical disorder affecting their brains. This is because they have never been taught about these mental health conditions. So, they continue to suffer in silence. There are a host of reasons, but it all comes back to the central theme of lack of knowledge which feeds stigma.
My son wanted to help these children. He wanted to help these adolescents. Now, upon reflection of my own past, and because of his desire, so do I. But how do we do it?
The answer is pretty basic. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we must have a mental health curriculum, from Kindergarten – 12th grade which is mandated. Teach the children about the signs and symptoms of depression, OCD, anxiety, ADHD, addiction, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders (on age appropriate levels) – just like we do with physical health diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, and the list goes on and on.
And in the meantime, tell our young people that there are, indeed, possible genetic links for many of these conditions. We can’t pretend that genetics don’t play a part. They don’t paint the whole picture, but certain genetic links predispose some to a mental disorder. And there is no blame or shame in this.
With more funding, we will continue our research into the causes, and will, hopefully, find cures in the not so distant future. You may ask, ‘But what about now?’ And the answer is that while we wait for research to catch up, there are many specialists who can, indeed, help. The simple fact of knowing there might be a cause, and knowing you’re not alone is very empowering. I know this would have helped me.
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