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CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE – It’s Time for a Mental Health Movement

MORE THAN A DOZEN groups and causes have designated May as a month for awareness. Mental Health Month is just one of those. This month also marks the 17th anniversary of my own battle with depression.

I thought I’d escaped the family “curse,” but 2001 proved to an overwhelmingly powerful storm of angst and life stressors for me.

The sudden loss of my six-figure job in Winston-Salem precipitated a frantic job search, landing me  in Charlotte. My mother, more than 1000 miles away, was beginning her end-game with Alzheimer’s and fighting my brothers and me as we moved her into a memory care unit and sold her house. A very close life-long friend died unexpectedly. I was facing a home sale, home purchase and move to go with the new job I had managed to secure. I felt disoriented.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time, though in retrospect, I should have.

Within days after starting my new gig, the sporadic anxiety I felt while interviewing morphed into a constant presence in my life. I was paralyzed by the fear of meeting new people, assimilating into a foreign corporate culture, and navigating my way around a new city. My head continually whirred around a lopsided cul-de-sac of paranoia and irrational thought playing a recurring tape of horrid what-if scenarios.

I came home from work to an empty apartment, as my wife stayed in Winston-Salem to sell our home. The isolation fed a defeatist narrative about how I’d make the new, larger mortgage when I lost my freshly acquired job – an inevitability I came to both expect and welcome.

Only one week into that new job and sustained panic attacks fueled by a continual state of dread landed me in the emergency room. My diagnosis: Major Depression.

The American Psychological Association defines depression as extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than a few days. It interferes with the activities of daily life and can even cause physical pain. Also: depression, also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States.

More than 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the prior year, according to a 2015 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health. Despite the staggering numbers, stigmatization and cultural misperceptions surrounding depression all too often drive sufferers underground where treatment avoidance, self-medication and prolonged despair exacerbate suffering and too often, can lead to sufferers to tragically choose a permanent solution to this temporary problem – suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that more than 50 percent of all people who die from suicide suffer from major depression. In 2016, nearly 45,000 deaths in America were reported as suicides, the tenth leading cause of death in our country.  Every day in America, approximately 123 people take their own life.

Often people don’t seek the care that could help them, despite its effectiveness. Those suffering with depression can be aided in their recovery by a dedicated support network, access to competent medical care and a belief that things can get better.

For me, help was accessible and came in many supportive ways.

During my emergency room visit, I was evaluated by a psychiatrist and immediately placed in a highly structured and supervised outpatient program. Talk therapy–group discussion led by psychologists and trained social workers–was a daily part of my treatment. Several in my cohort informed me things were likely to get worse before they got better, and they were right.

Six weeks after my diagnosis, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. Food no longer interested me nor did any other activities or passions I had shown regular interest in. I was prescribed antidepressants and anxiety medication, impatiently waiting weeks with no discernible impact. “You’ll only notice their effect in retrospect,” my psychiatrist told me.

And slowly, the fog began to lift.

My greatest source of comfort came from my wife. Spouses and significant others bear a heavy burden caring for the clinically depressed. She recognized the depression for what it was–an illness that I couldn’t simply “snap out of.” She helped me see I could feel better and quite literally saved my life.

Depression, suicide and mental health issues continue to disrupt the lives of between six to eight percent of Americans annually, yet that critical public tipping point where looking the other way yields to national attention and action, remains largely unrealized.

Depression treatment is ready for a mainstream movement. Everyday, non-celebrity conversations. Friends calling out friends when they notice things aren’t “right.” Helping others find and access community mental health resources. Sharing personal stories. After my recovery many colleagues and outside friends told me they too had bouts of depression. I never knew. Why aren’t these discussions as common as those around heart disease or cancer?

A collective movement of those on the sidelines in the mental health battle can drive the conversation to the forefront. Greater awareness, shared success stories, inspiration and motivation will help those affected to seek the help they deserve and come to live vibrant productive lives.

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