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.

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Our classics pick for April is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I had picked this book a while ago, not knowing it was the 50th anniversary this year of the publication.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I was warned when I picked this book that it would be “terribly depressing” and “Ooo, that’s so depressing I’m not sure I want to read it.” While this book was depressing, that was not the whole of the story.

The Bell Jar is a coming of age story that takes place in 1953 and centers around main character Esther Greenwood, a 21 year old college student. She is bright, but has a difficult time reconciling with the stifling world of the 1950’s.  Esther works for a fashion magazine in NYC during the summer of 1953 and is fascinated with the news headlines of the day, including the execution of the Rosenbergs and a man’s suicide. It appears that Esther may be on the track to bigger and better things.

But Esther is not as stable as she presents herself. This is a coming of age story, like The Catcher In the Rye, but it is through rebirth and pain. Esther begins a slow decline into mental illness, so slowly it’s almost impossible to remember what the “trigger” was for her. In her rejection of conventional models of woman,, like purity, relationships with men, and the fashion world of NYC, she finds herself on the outside looking in. I found myself, when reading of Esther’s first suicide attempt, wondering “Well, where did that come from?” Esther had no reason to try to kill herself, she even says that she wants to see if she can do it.

Plath’s use of language, imagery, and tone in The Bell Jar allowed the reader into the mind and life of Esther Greenwood. Plath is simply a genius when it comes to weaving a story. A slim 264 pages, it was easy reading.

One of the reasons I liked this book so much was that I found so much of myself in Esther Greenwood. At that age, I too was bright, ambitious, and sometimes on the brink. But unlike Esther, I had the mental fortitude and support system to bring me back from the edge.

I listened to this book on audio and it was read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I found her reading to be less than stellar, as she read…. like… she.. was… taking… her… time. It was extremely annoying, but I was able to look past her inept reading and hear the heart of the story.

Rating: 4 stars