Recognizing Mental Illness Awareness Week: What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know

By Dr. Geoffrey Grammer, Chief Medical Officer for Greenbrook TMS

Mental Illness Awareness Week, coinciding with World Mental Health Day 2020, is a time to highlight mental health conditions, and, for us at Greenbrook TMS, a time to advocate for our patients.

This year, Mental Illness Awareness Week begins on October 4 and culminates with World Mental Health Day on October 10. Since the theme this year is "What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know," I want to take this opportunity to address a few misconceptions about mental illness and mental health care. If you are a concerned friend or family member of someone experiencing depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), debunking some of these misconceptions may help you better support them.

Mental Illness Is Real Illness

The more we learn about mental illness, the more we understand it is associated with biologically-based changes in brain function. If you develop moderate to severe depression, your brain isn't working correctly and you need medical help—not just a shift in attitude.

You wouldn't sit around with a broken leg and say, "You know what would make this better? Watching a funny movie." Yet, somehow, people tend to think those with mental illness, especially depression, will feel better if they would just pray, eat well, exercise, and do fun things. I think some people are afraid to acknowledge that the way we think and feel is controlled in part by an organ, the brain, because we want to have more control over how we think and act than we actually do. Regardless, if you know someone who is suffering then helping them to access medical care is the appropriate approach.

It's Okay to Help

If you feel someone you care about is experiencing depression, anger, or fear; is acting in a way that is no longer productive; or is acting differently from their typical behavior, it's okay to reach out. Rather than avoid the subject, you can let them know that you've noticed changes and that you care.

Also let them know that help is available. A person with mental illness needs to see a professional who can make an accurate diagnosis and start them on a formal treatment plan. An easy place to start is their primary care physician, who can refer them to a behavioral health specialist if necessary.

If you're worried someone is unsafe, you can ask them if they're thinking about hurting themselves or if they're suicidal. Studies show, asking questions about suicide does not encourage people to attempt suicide, so you don't have to worry about that.

However, being suicidal is not a requirement for accessing mental health care. We should not forget the medical consequences that depression can cause, even if your loved one isn't suicidal. Untreated depression can decrease your life expectancy up to a decade due to its many physical consequences. If I said you have a health condition that can cut ten years off your life, how seriously would you take it? That level of seriousness shouldn't change just because we're talking about mental illness instead of, say, diabetes.

Treatment Options for Depression

Like other bodily injuries and illnesses, modern medicine has afforded treatment options for people with depression. Antidepressant medication can be effective for about two-thirds of people. The types of medications prescribed for depression don't control the way you think or make you someone you're not, and you will not get addicted to these medications.

Therapy can be effective, but it has to be the right kind of therapy, not just a friendly, compassionate person talking with you about events from your week. Specific schools of therapy are like physical therapy for the brain, where your mind is reconditioned to think more accurately about the environment around you.

For many people with treatment-resistant depression, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) succeeds where medication has failed. Among patients with Major Depressive Disorder who have received TMS, two out of three have reported a reduction in depression symptoms after completing the acute phase of treatment.

Mental Illness Is More than Depression

There are many conditions that fall under the mental illness category. While depression is more commonly discussed, it can be particularly challenging when someone has another condition that is less common and less well understood by others, like OCD. OCD can lead to inexplicable behaviors and consuming thoughts that don't necessarily make sense. You can't rationalize someone out of those thoughts and behaviors because the networks in the brain that allow them to switch from one set of thinking to another are impaired. A friend with OCD may shower thirty times a day, and telling them they're clean, they're wasting water, and their skin is going to get raw will not help them stop.

Like with depression, medication and therapy can be helpful. TMS is another option for treating OCD.

Getting Help

If you know someone who is experiencing symptoms of a possible mental illness, encourage them to seek medical care. Their symptoms sometimes can be more apparent to you than them and prompting them to seek care may be the push they need to get help.

Accessing help isn't as difficult as it used to be, but be careful with seeking all your information from the internet, which can descend into pseudoscience pretty quickly. Do listen to someone trained and licensed to provide care.

We at Greenbrook TMS want you to know that you are not alone. We provide free consultations for TMS therapy, and if you know someone who needs immediate help, please refer to our list of emergency resources. Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness to learn more about Mental Illness Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day 2020.

If Covid-19 and social isolation are heightening your symptoms of depression, Greenbrook TMS therapy may be able to help. At Greenbrook, we specialize in TMS therapy — an FDA-cleared, non-invasive treatment for treatment-resistant depression and OCD without harmful side effects. See if TMS therapy is right for you by clicking here to take a brief assessment:

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