by Jordan DeWald

“Even broken crayons still color.” This phrase stood out to me and I mentioned it in front of my daughter who was six at the time. Coloring with crayons is something that a six year old is quite familiar with, so it peaked her interest. I commented, “When you have a crayon that breaks you can still make pictures just the same can’t you?” She thought a moment and answered, “Yes I still can but it’s a little harder.”

“Broken” has been a description I have often heard used by someone when they are suffering from a disturbance in their mental or emotional health. The term fits the feeling that comes with mood disorders such as depression or anxiety. The person with the condition might feel a lack of control, desperation, hopelessness or just know they are not being themselves. They feel like a broken version of themselves.

Mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, are widespread throughout our society. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.” Despite the growing awareness of mental health disorders, it remains a health issue that is largely unfamiliar and not fully understood. Mental health has a long history of misunderstanding. While there have been many advancements in the study and treatment of mental health, those roots of misunderstandings continue to permeate the subject.

Understanding the truth about mental health is vital because of the likelihood of these disorders touching your life. The rates in which mental health has permeated our society almost guarantees that someone you are close to will encounter a mental health issue or you will face it yourself. Your response and ability to help is founded on what you understand about mental health. The untruths that are often believed about mental illness can cause further hurt.

There are several myths or misconceptions about mental illness.

It’s just a change in mood

While depression and anxiety are labeled as mood disorders, they are far from simply emotional reactions. Mental health affects every part of someone’s overall health. “It is extremely complex, combining physiological, psychological, and social components, and involving an intricate web of biological systems—nervous, digestive, endocrine, respiratory” (Therese Borchard, Everyday Health). A disturbance in mental health often causes disturbances in the other components of a person’s life. Relationships and social interactions are often affected by symptoms exhibited. Withdrawal, emotional outbursts and changes in attitude are just a few examples of these symptoms. Physical changes, such as sleep disturbance, pain and fatigue are common. Participation in everyday activities, job performance and ability to function can be hindered. The combination of all these things tend to exacerbate the disorder which is why it is important to understand the effects the disorder has on the body.

It is a result of weakness or lack of willpower

Depression and anxiety are misunderstood diseases, often seen as simply emotions that are out of control. This leads to people thinking that they just need to try harder, have more faith or just “get over it.” This way of thinking is problematic, because depression and anxiety have medical causes.

Often someone who is experiencing a mental health issue knows that the reaction they are having is not logical. The over thinking that can come with anxiety, the withdrawal that can come with depression, the physical reactions, the lack of motivation, the irrational thinking- those are often recognized by the sufferer as something they do not want in their life. The unfortunate part of mood disorders is that the person just does not see a way out.

The truth is, mood disorders are most widely understood by doctors to be the result of altered brain structure. Nerve cells, chemical function and brain circuits all can be components in an altered mental health state.

The signs are obvious

The world was shocked when both Robin Williams and Kate Spade died by suicide. Williams was beloved for his humor and joyous personality. Spade was known for her confidence, creativity and entrepreneur attitude. It was only after their deaths that most people learned that behind the laughter, and on the other side of the confidence, were long time battles with depression.

Someone with a chronic mental health disorder can often mask the signs. Sometimes this is to hide the disorder from fear of others’ reactions or personal shame. This can also be a matter of survival- when you have a mood disorder, you still have responsibilities that require you to keep performing regular tasks. Sometimes the “fake it until you make it” adage is used- if I keep going about life as normal, maybe it will be normal one day.

There is a singular way to treat mental illness

Consider how someone would approach a diagnosis related to heart disease. There are many approaches that a professional might suggest: medical intervention such as surgery or medication, lifestyle change such as a reduction of stress, dietary changes, etc. Often, it is a combination of treatments used to treat heart disease and those treatments adjust over time based on the patient’s status. The most important thing is the treatment should not be ignored, and someone doesn’t just wait to see if it gets better.

This same approach should be used when considering mental health. There are multiple ways to treat but the most important thing to do is consult a mental health professional and not ignore the symptoms. There are lots of options: cognitive therapy, lifestyle changes, medicinal help, coping skills or natural remedies. Treatments will work differently for each person, and sometimes a combination of treatment is helpful.

Being mindful of what is true about mental illness helps one to cope with the battle that it brings. Mental illness is exhausting, both for the one with the disorder and the people who care about them. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind, when in the middle of what mental illnesses can bring.

  • A person with a mental illness did not choose to have it and does not choose to keep it. If you find yourself frustrated and feel that your loved one just isn’t trying hard enough, remember that if they could fix it, they would. Just as you would not fault them for having cancer, you cannot fault them for having an anxiety disorder.
  • Do not take the symptoms of the mental illness personally. It is not a failure on your part if your spouse is battling depression. When they exhibit an attitude and mood reactions that are hurtful, remember that it is a symptom of a disease and not a personal attack on you.
  • You cannot fix this. You can offer help, such as encouraging them to see a professional and helping them with treatments. You cannot bear the responsibility of making it all better for them.
  • Healing from mental illness takes time. Even when someone begins treatment for their mood disorder, it is a slow process to determine what works best and for healing to take place. Do not be discouraged because the treatments can be very effective at controlling symptoms. Patience is absolutely necessary.
  • Janice Feuerhelm, Licensed Professional Counselor, offers this encouragement- “Mood disorders are treatable and can be managed. You can regain your life again with the proper treatment.” “There are times in a person’s life when the depression and/or anxiety may be situational or it could be the result of an underlying medical condition. It is always good to schedule an appointment with a physician for a thorough checkup.”
  • Mental illness does not lessen the value of a person. Your loved one is still the same person whether they have a mood disorder or not.

Whether you face your own mental illness or love someone who does, if I can give you as a reader any encouragement let it be this: you are not alone. This is not something that you should, or really can, face by yourself. It may seem dark and hopeless right now, but this is not the end.

On the dark days, remember the quote from the beginning of the article- “even broken crayons still color.” Broken doesn’t mean unusable. The most beautiful of pictures can still come from the work of the crayons. It just may be a little bit harder.