I was aware of taking care of my family’s mental health, but like most people, I never had any reason to seek further information; it simply never crossed my mind that I may have to cope with it someday. That changed last year when my family was set on a whirlwind path of confusion and concern because we were unaware that our loved one was suffering from a mental health disorder.
When I noticed that my loved one’s behavior seemed off because they were reacting to situations that were out of character for them, a red flag shot up that alerted me to consider that something bigger was going on, that maybe these behavioral changes and seemingly over dramatic emotions had a deeper meaning. My concerns increased when their chest pains, headaches, and shortness of breath became frequent, and we realized these were panic attacks. The doctors related most of these to stress, which I found unacceptable as the only reason for these health problems.
After doing some eye-opening research, I began to realize mental health disorder could be the answer, especially after several lab work and visits with different doctors still led to unclear answers since the tests were not focused on mental health. It was frustrating because no answers meant no prevention to the terrifying episodes we had to endure like watching our loved one pass out multiple times. These episodes were sometimes mixed with seizure-like reactions. Many times, this caused my own heart to race and panic. I felt defeated and at a loss.
Fortunately, I saw that my school was offering a free youth mental health first-aid training certification class. Although it was targeted toward youth, which is when mental health disorders begin and can be later triggered in the adult years, it was helpful and provided clarity to what my family member was experiencing.
The class was not meant to teach us how to diagnose anyone with mental illnesses but to provide us more facts about mental health disorders and how to properly help someone who may be suffering from a mental health crisis. The class also provided resources for mental health disorders in our city. My biggest takeaway from the class was that mental health disorders do not discriminate on age, race, or socioeconomic status and that they include things that people may not realize are a mental health illness, such as anxiety and panic disorders.
After taking the class, I encouraged our loved one to get a referral from their family doctor to see a psychiatrist. They did and thankfully, we received some answers even though they were answers no one ever wants to hear: that your loved one has a mental health disorder. Little did we know that discovering this reality was the easy part, to say the least. Now, we’re in it for the long haul as we’ve been placed on this difficult journey that is filled with struggles to find resources and ways to cope with our new “normal.”
Finding the right doctors and therapists with availability was upsetting as some of them did not have an appointment for several weeks or months. Finding the right medication and dosages can take some time to figure out, too. Lifestyle changes play a major role in treating mental health disorders, as well, but adjusting to them can be challenging. There is also the stress of dealing with health insurance since our insurance at the time did not cover the expenses of going to the therapists, an essential part of the treatment of many mental health disorders.
Overall, it has been a long, exhausting step-by-step process for both our loved one diagnosed with it and for us who see them daily. Being a close family member of someone with a mental health disorder is overwhelming. Unless you are proactive about seeking it, you are usually not the one offered therapy for what you’re feeling or provided coping mechanisms as to how to handle something so momentous. I often feel sad, angry, lost, alone and discouraged. Our loved one is suffering from this health problem but since I have to cope with it, I feel like I’m suffering from it, too.
The hardest part, among all the challenges, is the stigma behind it. I often feel like I have to hide this from people and at times, I still feel a sense of embarrassment that someone close to me has this disorder. I also feel hurt when other loved ones do not acknowledge the reality of what we’re going through and that is why support groups help. Someone who understood the challenges and feelings I was facing made a good point that if this was a disease that people were familiar with, they would bring over a casserole and would understand that you’re grieving over the loss of what you once had — the healthy, “normal” person you knew.
I’ve accepted that this is our family’s new normal, and we still have a long way to go. There are good days and bad as we continue the struggle, therefore, being surrounded by loving, supportive, and positive people helps tremendously. I have to accept that I’m trying the best I can, and I can’t control every little thing.
However, I can make a difference by taking opportunities to create awareness, which is the other big takeaway I received from my mental health first-aid training certification: the importance of breaking the stigma associated with mental health disorders. That starts with talking about mental health, which is the reason I’m sharing our family’s journey with battling it. I hope our story can help others out there break the stigma because mental health disorders are common. Also, taking the time to research mental health illness and how to prevent it, particularly among children in our lives, is worthwhile seeing as one in five of youth and adolescents experience a mental health challenge.
If you suspect you or someone you know may have a mental health disorder, don’t ignore it. If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed, I recommend attending support groups where you’re surrounded by people who understand your journey. We began attending a local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support group. The following organizations are local places to contact that offer mental health resources for youth, adults, and families:
Mental Health Resource Center (MHRC): 904-642-9100
Jacksonville Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 211 or Jacksonville and Duval County 904-632-0600
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255