Throughout the year, many worthy topics are given a designated month of “awareness.” May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is a topic near and dear to my heart, both professionally and personally. I have been a licensed therapist since 2011. I have worked in the mental health field longer than that and have lived with mental health issues for even longer. I started taking antidepressants for both depression and anxiety while in college and in 2020, at age 38, I was diagnosed with ADHD for the first time. Hindsight being 20/20, and knowing what I know now, I can look back and see that my mental health issues have been present since childhood. Knowing that my journey is not unique and that sometimes relief from depression, different forms of anxiety, and other issues like ADHD doesn’t come until later in life, the idea of mental health awareness strikes me as twofold. There is a collective need for increased awareness surrounding mental health, but there is also a deeper, individual awareness that must take place.
The idea from which this post was born, that you don’t know what you don’t know because you don’t know it, couldn’t be more true than when it comes to mental health, or more accurately, mental illness. In the same way that someone who has never experienced a major depressive episode or crippling anxiety can only make an empathetic and educated guess about what it is like, someone who has lived the majority of their life with a brain that is chemically off balance can have a difficult time recognizing when something isn’t quite right. It’s not until medication and therapy correct the problem and one is able to experience life with a chemically balanced brain, and newly developed insight through therapy, that those who suffer from issues like chronic depression and anxiety become fully aware that something was wrong in the first place. It’s like putting on prescription glasses and seeing clearly for the first time. For me, seeing clearly for the first time meant being able to drive down the highway without having chest pains and not missing out on going places because I was too anxious to drive. At 38, with the help of focus medication, seeing clearly was realizing that maintaining focus and motivation in order to complete tasks wasn’t supposed to be so hard. I realized that I wasn’t lazy and less capable, I was lacking dopamine and living with a brain that has deficits related to executive functioning. My own work in therapy has healed what medication could never fix and made me a more compassionate and effective therapist.
This May, as I have reflected on what the importance of bringing awareness to mental health issues means to me, I realize it means speaking up. It means being a voice that helps reduce stigma and sharing my experience so that someone else might also realize that something inside their brain isn’t quite right and seek help. Because, where there is awareness, there is freedom. Freedom is the best way I can describe what it feels like to live life without constant anxiety and the dark cloud of depression.