Come out of the mental health closet, and put an end to the stigma

by Dustin Woods 
Visionary Columnist

There’s a shocking statistic that could help us understand the discomfort people have when it comes to mental health awareness. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness research shows the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is over a decade long at 11 years.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s been recognized in the United States since 1949, yet we attach a stigma to those with mental health issues. We’ve commemorated the month since just after World War II. Yet, most people are still not as comfortable talking about issues regarding their mental health as they are discussing issues of physical health. 

If we discussed mental illness like we did physical illness, I believe mental health would not carry such stigma. Stigma makes the person with mental illness feel like it is their fault. Would we be able to cut the delay in treatment time down dramatically if not for stigma?   

To practice what I preach, I will share with you readers a few of my mental illnesses diagnosed by a clinical psychiatrist. Without giving you the full story, I will say that graduate school for me was like being put into a crucible, and, while going through this, I was also a gay man in a straight marriage that was unraveling. Simultaneously, my mother was going through liver cancer and a liver transplant. 

The extreme external pressures were too much for my mind to take. The fear and anxiety I had learned how to cope with daily had become overwhelming, and I started having panic attacks. I could write an entire article about anxiety and panic attacks. For brevity, I will say a panic attack, an actual level 11 panic attack, feels like you are dying, and there isn’t a single treatment that can save you.

I felt as though I was being crushed from all sides like I was a three dimensional being thrust into a two-dimensional world and was being pressed flat from all angles, every nerve in my body felt like it was crying out for salvation. That was the trigger that pushed me to seek medical assistance for my issues, and it wasn’t long after that I learned what my mental illnesses were.

Anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are my diagnosed mental illnesses, but I don’t see them only as hindrances or liabilities. I believe there are positive aspects to these psychological features.  

For example, anxiety is a good thing in moderation. My anxiety and OCD led me to think about consequences to actions that others wouldn’t, and thus, I’m good at considering the downstream impacts of a particular action.  This action helps in attempting to prevent negative repercussions sometimes, although admittedly, other times, it does lead to negative thoughts I must manage.   

I tell you these things not to elicit your sympathy for me but to get you to sympathize for everyone with mental illnesses, including yourself.  

According to NAMI, only 48.5 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual people with mental illnesses are actually treated for those illnesses. We need that number to increase, and the only way we can get there is first to erase the stigma associated with mental health and mental health treatment.

The Gayly. 5/7/2020 @ 12:45 p.m. CST.