Yes I Have a Therapist--and I Believe Everyone Should
“Our country must make a commitment. Americans with mental illness deserve our understanding and they deserve excellent care."
President George W. Bush
The phone in my classroom rings. My mouth immediately goes dry hearing, “Your daughter has been in an accident. She is being transported to Cortland Memorial Hospital.” Those words set my heart pounding in my ribcage. Tears roll down my face as I look out at 30 bewildered and startled students.
Stressors, pressures — we all cope with them as part of our daily lives, from childhood to old age. Elementary students face pressures from peers, parents and schedules that would make an executive cringe. Adolescents struggle with choices that affect their future and the extraordinary social and academic pressures that make suicide the third leading cause of death in young people age 15 to 24. Adults face divorce, career choices, job layoffs and grieving over the loss of loved ones.
Who hasn’t experienced anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, and the occasional celebration or escape with too many cocktails? These are all symptoms of a condition that no one talks about: mental illness.
Why? Most of us are uncomfortable talking about mental illness even though about half of all Americans will experience some type of mental disorder sometime in their lifetime. Mental health disorders don’t discriminate. They occur in both men and women and to people of all socio-economic groups and ages.
Even as I write this, nearly 50 million Americans, about one in six people including nearly 10 million children, are suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder. Unfortunately, less than half of those 50 million will seek treatment for their mental illness over the course of the next year. Many will wait years or even decades before seeking help. Some will never receive treatment.
Statistics say that from half to 70 percent of visits to primary care physicians are for medical complaints —headaches, nausea, decreased appetite, memory loss, high blood pressure or insomnia — that stem from psychological factors such as anxiety or depression.
Just as there are many different kinds of physical illnesses, there are many different kinds of mental illnesses – more than 200. Common mental illnesses are depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), attention-deficit or hyperactivity disorder, conduct, anxiety and eating disorders, and schizophrenia.
The stigma attached to mental illness shrouds mental treatments in secrecy. And it was in secret that I began going to a clinical social work therapist several years ago. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had issues.
I was living with a verbally abusive man who criticized me constantly. I started drinking to escape, living in an alcoholic haze. I became so withdrawn that I didn’t leave my house, except to go to work. I didn’t answer my phone and slept 14 hours a day. I was suffering from clinical depression.
I never told anyone that I was seeing a therapist. Hush, hush. They might find out that I was learning strategies that were contributing to my mental health. I hid my condition from everyone. I didn’t discuss my failings with co-workers. I had convinced myself that they knew nothing of my unhappiness. In retrospect, how could they not have known?
Even behind the normal facade of a successful middle school teacher, I suffered constant tension. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and handicapped by headaches and high blood pressure. Mental illness is a term for a group of such disorders that affect a person’s thinking, feelings, and behavior. Mental health problems can make it difficult to maintain relationships with people or cope with the ordinary demands of life.
When I hear people criticize women for staying with abusers I know they can never understand the amount of control the abuser has over the abused, whether it be verbal or physical. My husband controlled me. I was unable to leave him. Living with him had made me mentally ill.
It took me nearly two years of counseling to develop the strength to end my marriage and in so doing walk away from my life. Shaking inside the whole time, I obtained a restraining order to have my husband removed from the house. I filed bankruptcy, resigned my position as a teacher and moved. The courage it took to escape from my husband was only developed through sessions of soul-searching therapy. I could not have healed myself any more than I could have healed a broken arm without medical treatment.
I believe everyone should have a therapist, even those who are not suffering a mental disorder. When pressures and stressors come, we need a working relationship with a counselor or therapist. We would never think of withholding medical treatment from our children. We take our children for yearly physical well visits. The same should be true for our mental health. If we have routine mental checkups with a therapist or social worker, then when we grieve the loss of a family member, when a spouse leaves us, or when rain ruins our wedding, we have a trained professional who knows our mental history and can help us grow, heal and develop new coping skills.
And while many of us turn to friends and family in times of mental stress or anguish, the trained professional offers an objective perspective, unclouded by the emotions and biases that our loved ones feel. Through therapy, and with this clinical relationship, people can learn to make choices that can bring happiness into their lives and into the lives of their families. Adults can find strategies that empower them in the workplace and enable them to work through issues that arise in couple relationships. Children can learn to identify and talk about their feelings. Parents and their teens can develop better communication and trust.
Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from treatment do not seek help because they are unsure about where to seek help, or have limited or no mental health insurance coverage. When mental illness goes untreated, it costs Americans in the social service and disability payments paid to the unemployed, lost productivity, and premature death. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Research has shown that almost all people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorder.
I continue to see my therapist. Every time that I leave his office, I know that I have made progress, even when that progress is painful and difficult. I tell my friends and co-workers that I see a therapist, proud of the progress that I’ve made. It is my hope that everyone can be proud of the progress they will make on a daily basis toward their own mental wellness.
People with Mental Illness Who have Enriched our Lives
The list of people whom many feel have suffered from some form of mental illness includes many famous and influential people throughout history. This list includes:
Abraham Lincoln • Virginia Woolf • Lionel Aldridge • Eugene O’Neill • Ludwig van Beethoven • Gaetano Donizetti • Robert Schumann • Leo Tolstoy • Vaslov Nijinsky • John Keats • Tennessee Williams • Vincent Van Gogh • Isaac Newton • Ernest Hemingway • Sylvia Plath • Michelangelo • Winston Churchill • Vivien Leigh • Jimmy Piersall • Patty Duke • Charles Dickens
Ending Discrimination in Health Insurance. (2006): http://www.apa.org/practice/paper/homepage.html
Mental Health Facts. NAMI, The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: http://www.namimass.org/facts.htm
What is Mental Illness. (2003): http://www.mhaofnyc.org/6aboutmi.html
Dana Literary Society. March, 2007.