Bringing mental illness into the light
Having grown up with a strong faith, Gayle consistently turned to her church for support and comfort as she dealt with personal issues. One Sunday, years ago, something happened that would resonate in her mind to this day.
It was common practice to have a ‘moment of concern’ during worship. During this time, the church would recognize those who needed additional thoughts and prayers. Typical concerns would be for someone recently diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, someone undergoing surgery or chemotherapy, and the passing of a loved one. We even prayed for the safety of those traveling, but curiously, prayers were not mentioned for those struggling with mental health issues.
Gayle wondered why.
Why was this not mentioned? What made it so different, so shameful? Why was there such stigma around those individuals in need of support and prayers?
It has taken years for Gayle to break through the stigma and finally get the treatment and support she needs. It hasn’t been easy because, for most of her life, Gayle didn’t fully understand her problems with mental health.
As a child, I struggled with feelings of low self-esteem, learning difficulties, and extreme anxiety. School was very challenging for me even though I never really shared these feelings with anyone. By the time I reached middle school and junior high, I began to steer away from most activities. I felt extremely alone. I was filled with anxiety and acute stress as I attended classes, walked through the halls, and especially when I entered the lunchroom.
Gayle’s anxiety led to depression, which at times was impossible to escape.
Anger and sadness would completely take over. I would become stuck, almost paralyzed in my emotions. I had to work to survive these thoughts. When I was not living in the ‘dark place’ with depression, I was a happy, vibrant person.
Gayle’s symptoms and mood swings continued in college. Following her first suicide attempt, her parents were notified. The fear and shame Gayle felt about how others would perceive her caused unsurmountable anxiety.
This was probably the first time they heard about my depression. Unfortunately, mental health was not taken as seriously as it is today. After one visit to the university counselor, it was dismissed. It was typical for most freshmen to experience emotional difficulty acclimating to college. The first year can be rough. By next year, you’ll be fine.
As time passed and she encountered personal difficulties, she could no longer keep up the façade of perfectionism. Gayle found herself unable to process her feelings alone. She started therapy, which eventually led to her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety. For help, she sought treatment at McLean Hospital.
I began in the outpatient program, which I found liberating, allowing me to speak openly with others who understood and struggled with similar problems. There was no judgment on anything said or anything done, just understanding.
Gayle also spent some time in an inpatient treatment program at McLean, due to consistent suicidal thoughts. Her time at McLean saved her life.
Spending time as an inpatient was invaluable. It was safe and structured while also providing the insight and understanding I needed regarding my mental health. The program outlined tools to help manage your illness, focusing on support systems, utilizing skills such as CBT and DBT, practicing mindfulness, and taking control of your physical health. They provided daily check-ins, medication management, and activities.
My family came to visit daily and provided me so much support, finally recognizing how desperate I really was. I remember being at the family meeting when the doctors explained to them about my illnesses. It isn’t the same depression or anxiety others experience. It just isn’t that simple.
Along with her treatment, Gayle finds exercise to be a tremendous help, and she spends time running and doing yoga. She also loves to engage in creative projects where she can get lost in her happy place. Also, she now has a much better understanding of her illness, which helps her dig deep to find the strength to fight the stigma and move forward. She continues to make progress by consistently doing the work.
Today, I continue to work on my health, happiness, and illness. It is a part of my journey. I am compassionate toward those who struggle with mental health. Most people are quick to pass judgment based on a lack of understanding and awareness. It shouldn’t be an illness to be ashamed of. We are real people with real illnesses. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist and that we aren’t suffering.
Gayle is currently working with her church on a program called Lifting the Stigma—Bringing Mental Illness Into the Light. The initiative is seeking to mitigate the stigma, shame, and silence that often surrounds mental illness.