May is Mental Health Month

One in every five people in the US carry some sort of “mental Illness” diagnosis – 20% – making it almost twice as common as killer heart disease, yet people hear the term “mental illness” and pictures of unshaven, alcohol-soaked homeless men and babbling old women with uncombed hair and too many cats come to mind (Don’t judge me!).

In reality, that’s far from the common truth. The umbrella term of “mental illness” includes everyone from your depressed cousin, your churning anxiety over political situations, and Uncle Louie, who served in Iraq and spends most days with his friend Jack Daniels. It includes the teen with autism who works down at the laundromat (don’t jump on me; a strong majority of autism includes OCD and anxiety, with phobias topping the list at 30%), the hoarder you drive past on your way to work, that girl on the cheerleading team who wears a baggy size 0, and that guy at work who stays four hours later than anyone else and talks so fast you can’t follow him. It includes celebrities, like Robin Williams, Margot Kidder, Robert Downey Jr, Brittney Spears, Carrie Fisher, Brooke Shields, and so many more.

“Mental Illness” is more common than COVID.

While some introverts have fared well through the pandemic and quarantines, many people have not. Rates of depression in adults went from 8% pre-pandemic to 28% – almost one in three – after. For those who lived alone, the rates approach 40%. Isolation, job loss, poverty, loss of loved ones, anxiety, and long-haul COVID symptoms all play their part in feeling crushed by a microbe. Among children, who can’t always understand the details of what’s going on, rates of depression and anxiety straddled 40%.

Unfortunately, our image of “mental illness” is tainted by historic images of schizophrenia, the king of all mental illnesses, and often the most resistant to treatment. We watch movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, while not remembering that these movies depict mental illness treatment from as much as 70 years ago, when diagnoses were vague, medications were ineffective and dangerous, people believed in insulin comas and the disaster of lobotomies, and there were no PET or MRI scans to show exactly what the problem was. There was a time not very long ago when the number one treatment for syphilis was mercury. Times have changed, and chances are there’s actual help for that now.

How can something affecting 30% of the population be abnormal? Here’s a fact: it’s not, but our refusal to admit it keeps people feeling ashamed and afraid to seek treatment. If you feel down, if the social distancing and anxieties are getting to you, if your child is fearful and withdrawn and having trouble sleeping, reach out! Help is just a phone call away. No insurance? No worries. There are places to help you get medical coverage, and places that work on a sliding scale. There IS help, for everyone. Don’t be afraid to ask.

If you feel like life is overwhelming you, if you are worried about a loved one, if you are struggling with just getting through your day, CALL the CT ACTION line (Adult Crisis Telephone Intervention and Options Network). It’s available 24 hours a day, because the worst thoughts usually happen during the night.  1-800-467-3135,  or just call 211, which is the general help line for state services.

Don’t want to feel like you’re the only one on the planet feeling down? Check out these popular books and films on people having difficulties. Chances are, yours aren’t that bad.

Turtles All the Way Down

It’s been almost six years since YA uber-author John Green has published a new book (something we wrote about a while back). That’s almost  generation’s worth of his target audience – many teen readers will have been too young for his last book, The Fault in Our Stars, when it was published in 2012. The rocket-like success of that book (and subsequent movie) was both a blessing and a curse for Green: his books were being read by millions more people, but that success resulted in a period of crippling anxiety for the author. The expectations for his next book felt so overwhelming, that for a while he could not write at all.

Green has not made a secret of the fact that he’s wrestled with Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder most of his life, and what it’s like to live with mental illness is the overriding theme of Turtles All the Way Down. Aza Holmes, the narrator of the book, struggles mightily to control the obsessive thoughts that often consume her, which she calls “thought spirals” that grow more and more tightly coiled until she is driven to a compulsive behavior to quiet them.

The ostensible plot of the book is a mystery: the famous father of a childhood acquaintance has has skipped town to avoid legal troubles, and Aza’s BFF Daisy is convinced the two of them can figure out where he is and collect the $100,000 reward.  TATWD has all the John Green-isms we’ve come to expect: the quirky best friend, the seemingly impossible task, the sweet love story, and everyone’s got a poem or literature quote ready to go at a moment’s notice, (John Green characters are a bit more well-read and well-spoken than the general teen-aged public). But the real journey the reader is taken on is what it’s like to live in a hijacked mind.

Aza has a dread of germs. One of the first compulsions we witness is Aza forcing open a wound on her fingertip, so that she can clean and sanitize it before covering it up with one of her constant supply of band-aids, a ritual she performs so often that the wound never completely heals. Hand sanitizer is used combatively –  at one point she even starts drinking it.  Aza’s helplessness in the face of these thoughts and compulsions can be painful to read, and there’s no “all better now” resolution at the end – the prevailing takeaway is it’s ok not to be ok sometimes. Green has managed to paint a picture of mental illness that is more matter-of-fact than sensational, and the writing is evocative and mature. It’s a thoughtful novel that will appeal to adults as well as teens, and well worth the six-year wait.

Five stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Three Sisters by Susan Mallery

This is a story about three very different women who live in three very distinctive homes on the same street.  Because theirs are the only homes on the street, they are thrown together to forge a very special bond.

Andi is jilted at the altar in Seattle and decides to make a drastic change in her life by buying a rundown home on Blackberry Island.  Being a pediatrician, she plans to have her practice on the main level, and live on the floors above.  Of course, the contractor she hires is single and sexy, but has his flaws too.

Deanna is the “perfect” mom, “perfect” wife, “perfect” homemaker.  But by being perfect, she’s in danger of losing herself and her family.

Boston is an artist who married her college sweetheart.  The death of their six month old son puts her marriage in jeopardy.

The stories of these three women and the men in their lives are intriguing, relateable, poignant, and compelling.  The author weaves emotional tales of love, tragedy, courage and friendship.  I felt so connected to the characters, that I actually cried at the end!