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TL;DR: Mental health is important.
It’s important to seek and support those that need help.
It’s important to find solutions to overcome financial barriers.
It’s important to normalize conversations around mental health.
From young people to CEOs, no person is immune to mental health challenges.
There’s no shame in seeking help.

We’re in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month and I’m FIRED UP. I volunteered to join the Mental Health Awareness Month planning committee at work and we’ve pulled together a great program, ranging from workshops with therapists to open forums that allow colleagues to share their personal journeys. It’s a packed agenda and we hope it’s both educational and impactful.

Coincidentally, this month ties in with some of my own experiences: the Seattle NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) Walk falls on Saturday of this week, and it was two years ago that I left my work as a counselor at a residential eating disorder treatment center – a job I worked to both explore a passion and evaluate a potential new career.

I want to believe I’ve always known the importance of mental health, because of my own experiences with anxiety and panic, but it was only when I worked as a counselor at this residential treatment center that I think I truly understood. At the center, I saw how varied our clients’ backgrounds were (and personalities, and professions, and age, and gender, and…), the disparity between those in need and those actually getting help, and how long the road is to reach active recovery.

As a counselor we’re trained in the basics of crisis management and how to facilitate group therapy sessions using ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), but most of our job is actually bonding with the clients, redirecting negative behavior, and encouraging coping skills. I loved the work – seeing my clients grow and overcome their challenges was SO rewarding – but it was easily the most intense environment I’ve ever worked; the good days were good, but the bad days remind you that they are still deep in the trenches.

If you’ve never worked as a counselor, let me give you a taste of what you might be doing day-to-day:

I…

  • recited guided meditation scripts to clients for 30+ minutes until they were able to sleep
  • sat with clients who were sobbing uncontrollably
  • drove clients to the children’s hospital for tests (where, ironically, they asked if I was the patient because my client had good 6 inches on my height *laughing/crying face*)
  • did bed checks every 15 minutes in the wee hours of the night
  • intervened with those attempting to self-harm
  • enforced clinic rules, like “no cell phones”, “no flushing the toilet without approval”, or even “no standing up for too long”
  • called in the cavalry (the clinic director) when there was an emergency beyond my training

BUT I also…

  • praised even their smallest successes, to help my clients realize what they can accomplish
  • provided distraction during their challenges, to refocus their anxious/fearful energy
  • accompanied them on outings to the aquarium, a park, or other adventures, to reward them for meeting personal goals
  • had heart to hearts with the adult clients that (like me) were still trying to figure it all out
  • built more than just rapport, but deep relationships with each client

 

There were so many rewarding moments, they balanced out the unknown of each shift: would today be a good day or a bad day for my clients? It’s hard work, but it’s important work. I’m saying all of this, not to highlight how terrible this disease is (it is *terrible*), but instead to highlight how critical getting treatment is – as early as possible.

Speaking of getting treatment, I want to turn this conversation to how we can improve our system. Some of the really hard days in the milieu (this is what we called our communal living space) were when a client’s insurance decided they were “well enough” and they’d be discharged after a short 3 week stay (the typical patient stay is 4-12 weeks before stepping down to outpatient care). Insurance is like an airplane. An airplane that you’re supposed to be on, you’ve paid for your ticket, you’ve made it through security and ran to your gate, but they shut the doors as you get there and tell you “Sorry, no flight for you.” And then you watch the plane pull away and take off without you. That’s insurance.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: “Forty-two percent of the population saw cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barriers for accessing mental health care. One in four Americans reported having to choose between getting mental health treatment and paying for daily necessities.”^ Remember my client, discharged by their insurance at 3 weeks? At 3 weeks, a patient has only begun to connect their dots and rewire their brains to replace harmful behaviors. Leaving so early in their treatment almost guarantees a relapse – one which would send them back to the same clinic again (assuming their bed was still available – in my experience, there can be waitlists of up to 8 weeks!). It’s like any physical illness, if you stop treatment before you’ve received an adequate amount of medicine, you’ll end up right back where you started – sick, seeking help, and on a longer road to recovery.

Here’s a somewhat-more-fun fact: “Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24, but early intervention programs can help”^ and “individuals with mental health conditions face an average 11-year delay between experiencing symptoms and starting treatment.”^ Why is this “somewhat-more-fun”? Because it shows that treatment can help – and getting people treatment is something we can start to solve. I’m not a licensed therapist, but I feel confident in saying that it’s better to ask for help earlier, before the problem feels unbearable, functioning in life is hard, or feeling like something is just off. “1 in 5 (46.6 million) adults in the United States experience a mental health condition in a given year.”^ You’ve got company. You’re not alone and you should feel no shame asking for professional help.

While barriers to treatment can often be financial, an equally large barrier is the stigma around seeking help & guidance. We need to normalize seeing a therapist for a tough moment in your life as much as we do going to the doctor for a flu shot or an annual check up. YOU can normalize it simply by making it a topic of conversation: “I can’t get happy hour today, I have counseling at 5 on Thursdays.” Baby steps are better than no progress at all.

By starting to normalize it, we can start recognize that no person is immune to mental health challenges, regardless of status, career, etc. With 1 in 5 people facing their own mental health challenges across the US, it’s quite likely the C-Suite, President, VP or other leadership at your company has faced (or still does face) their own demons – but we only see the highlight reel: the Linkedin profile, the promotions, the family vacation photos; not what’s happening outside of office hours or inside their head. Medical benefits exist for a reason (and they often cover mental health care!) – if you have them, use them. There’s no harm in exploring what your coverage or co-pay is for counseling and using it. [If you don’t have coverage (or good coverage) there are clinics that offer free counseling or sliding payment scales, but you may have to do more digging to find those opportunities.] You can only perform your best when you’re both physically AND mentally healthy.

So, to literally walk my talk, this Saturday I will be walking my 2nd Seattle NEDA Walk to raise money for eating disorder research, fight the stigma around mental health issues, and build up the community of support. Everyone is on a journey, and it’s everyone’s job to support our friends and family and create a safer place to live.

 

#MentalHealthMonth #StigmaFree #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth #NEDA

^statistics pulled from the National Alliance on Mental Illness

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