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From the brink of despair, we must choose to reach up - Mary Jane Holt

I had been invited to The Carter Center in Atlanta, specifically to a Roslyn Carter Mental Health Symposium. I had even been invited to attend an inner-circle luncheon.

One by one, as Mrs. Carter spoke during the luncheon, she recognized many highly degreed and accomplished professionals from all over the world. As she called their names, they were asked to stand for applause.

Then she described this woman who, through the printed word in daily newspapers, just talked about depression and mental illness very naturally, like across a table over coffee.

She spoke of how such an effort was so vitally important in our culture and how our combined efforts to openly discuss mental illness will do much to erase the stigma of disease.

Nobody stood after she called that woman's name until a gentleman at my table pointed to my name tag and said, "Hey, that's you. Stand up."

Still, to this day I am amazed when I think that what I do makes a difference. Yet, I know that what you and I do together makes all the difference in the world.

So let's review how we can help others cope with mental illness?

First, let's define it. Mental illness is often defined as any psychiatric disorder that causes untypical behavior. Well, that could apply to just about anybody at one time or another!

Then there are the so-called synonyms for mental illness that are too often used: insanity, lunacy, psychosis.

My way of defining it is simply "mental dis-ease" which means mentally-not-at-ease.

Now, do you see why I have a problem with any kind of stigma being attached to mental illness? It's as common as the common cold, perhaps more so. None of us will make it through life without being mentally ill at ease at one time or another.

That said, there certainly are different degrees of mental illness, and sometimes the severity of the problem requires more than open discussions of problems followed by consistent and genuine I'm-there-for-you hugs.

In my workshops I teach that:

Any one of us is only a breath away from having our self-confidence shaken. Personal and professional identities and the income that go with them can be gone in an instant.

Loved ones, with or without warning, can be taken from us. Physical illness, injury, mental anguish, emotional trauma and spiritual battles abound. Sudden or chronic abuse of any kind can send us spiraling and can bring us to the brink ...

From the brink of depression and despair, we must choose to reach up and out, ask the questions we must ask, seek the help we might need, then find ... and take peace and take joy and take a reason to go on living and loving, and caring for and about self and others.

There is not only a connectedness between us and our fellowman, but there is a connectedness between everything that happens to us as individuals.

LIFE is one continuing educational experience! To deny any one part of who we are, to "forget it," to refuse to acknowledge it and remember it as part of our unique life experience, and to be afraid to go back at will and glean anything we choose to uncover and claim, distorts the value of the whole being that we are and robs us of our potential for being more.

Do not let that happen.

I say, "Own it!" Do not be afraid to hold dear to yourself all that is you, even that which is hard to own: the loss, the sadness, the ugliness, the pain, the anguish, the misery which wears a thousand faces. OWN IT.

Just accept the painful "its" of your life as part of the wholeness that is yours to claim in a world where you are always growing and becoming. Claim it all and choose to make something beautiful of it.

You have that power. You have the power to make a difference by reaching out to others at home, at work and at play.

No subject should be off limits. No matter should be beyond discussing. No diagnosis or label should be permitted to stigmatize you or those you care about.

Know that I believe with all my heart in simple, honest empowering communication with everyone around you. But please know, too, that severe, untreated mental uneasiness -- somewhat like untreated pneumonia following a common cold or even a systemic staph infection following a skinned knee -- can lead to death.

The deeply disturbed can become both homicidal and suicidal. Open chats with well-meaning, caring friends are not always enough. Sometimes, professional counselors may be needed to help you, or someone you love, get through a period of mental uneasiness.

Mary Jane Holt writes an occasional column for the weekend edition of the Henry Daily Herald and the Clayton News Daily. You can visit her at: www.maryjaneholt.com.