Video clips that help reduce the stigma of mental illness

It can be challenging to talk about mental health issues, but that is one of the reasons stigma survives. These clips can help make it easier to start a conversation, as they feature famous celebrities from the world of entertainment and sports who are willing to share openly about their own struggles. There are many things we can learn from hearing their stories, including the lesson that mental illness is treatable!

First, here is Demi Lovato speaking out about Bipolar Disorder and the difficulties of having a mental health diagnosis. Length: 8 min

In this next clip, numerous celebrities discuss the stigma of mental health and how it affects us all. Length: 3.5 min

Here is a great slideshow featuring celebrities over the years who have suffered from mental health disorders. Length: 13.5 min

For an helpful overview of mental health, here is a short clip from Australia with great graphics. Length: 2.5 min

We hope you find them useful, and please let us know what other videos you have found helpful by leaving a comment below.

10 tips to mental fitness

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

While mental fitnessstress feels unpleasant, it is also unhealthy. This is because our bodies are involved as well as our minds, responding to stress by moving into a state of readiness, a heightened, stress induced state. The consequences include an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression and anxiety. Stress is also related to lowering immune defenses and brain function. Research supports making certain lifestyle changes to improve health, adding both quality and quantity of years. As May is Mental Health Month, here are 10 tips from the Live Your Life Well program of Mental Health America.

  1. Turn to family and friends. To feel supported, valued and connected, allow yourself to accept help or a word of advice and encouragement.
  2. Stay positive. Studies have shown that optimists have a lower risk of dying.
  3. Get physically active. While experts do not know exactly how this happens, exercise can boost mood!
  4. Help Others. Forget your troubles by helping someone else with theirs.
  5. Get enough sleep. Stress is often the culprit in preventing a good night’s sleep, yet sleep is so important to helping us cope.
  6. Create joy and satisfaction. Give yourself permission to participate in fun, relaxing activities on a regular basis.
  7. Eat well. Nutritious food boosts your brain power as well as your mood while helping to fight disease.
  8. Take care of your spirit. There have been correlations to longer life among those who regularly attend religious services while meditation has shown to increase activity in the feel-good part of the brain.
  9. Deal better with hard times. A healthy way to deal with a difficult life challenge is to talk through an issue with a friend or adviser to explore options and choose a course of action.
  10. Get professional help if you need it. If you are not able to feel better on your own, don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. Call the Mental Health Association in Niagara County at (716) 433-3780. If you feel you have reached a point of crisis please call the Niagara County Crisis Services Hotline at (716) 285-3515. I hope you will consider making healthier choices starting today!

Original publication date: May 24, 2015. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

To download an easy-to-print version of this article click here: 10 tips to mental fitness

 

Support groups offer friendly and effective therapy

TitleRe-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

paper cutoutsPicture this: you are facing a crisis. Maybe you just got diagnosed with major depression or a chronic illness, or perhaps you have suffered a significant loss. What do you do? In addition to receiving treatment from doctors and professional, you are likely to seek out emotional support and even advice from family and friends. But sometimes more is needed. When faced with a stressful life challenge, receiving emotional support is an important part of accepting, adjusting and recovering. While your friends or family may be there for you, sometimes they are not able to offer all the help you need or even understand what you are really going through.

So where can you find a safe place where others in the same situation are willing to listen to you, share their own experiences and even offer advice and support?

A mutual aid support group can provide just that. Support groups can be considered “informal therapy” as no referral is required, the meetings are often led by peers, and there is no commitment. A professional may serve merely as an advisor or co-facilitator, and you can be as passive or as active as you’d like. This provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, which may be exactly what you need to convince yourself it’s worth a try.

How effective can peer-led, mutual aid support groups be? In many situations, research is proving it to be comparable to one-on-one therapy with a professional. One study looked at people suffering from moderate depression and found that there was little difference in the outcome for those attending peer-led mutual support groups versus those working with trained therapists. For bereaved parents, involvement in a support group led to a greater sense of control and decreased depression, guilt and anger. Similar findings were found in groups for the elderly, former mental health patients and those diagnosed with a chronic illness.

The level of participation in a support group does make a difference.Studies have shown that individuals with strong attendance and involvement in the group have the best outcomes. In the area of substance abuse, for example, high attendance at a self-help meeting was related to lower use of alcohol.Additionally, members of support groups who were highly active tended to report higher levels of self-esteem and more effective coping skills.

There are many theories about why support groups work. First, there is the social aspect which contributes to reduced feelings of isolation. There is an instant sense of community when people identify with each other and relate to each others’ struggles.Second, the members of the group offer a pool of knowledge that is a professional is unlikely to have.Support group members have “inside information” cultivated from their own experience, which can be a great help to other members making decisions about treatment, personal matters and more.Finally, there is the effect of “helper therapy”. Those members who contribute to the group by helping others tend to feel better and make better progress in their journey to recovery.

As sensible as all this may seem, people can still find many reasons to avoid attending a support group even if they are struggling. A big reason is stigma.While it can be difficult for people to admit they need help, a bigger fear is admitting this to others. They may feel uncomfortable with nurturing their emotional life and fear that others will view them as week or needy.Worse yet, they may fear being associated with anything related to mental health.

If you feel you could benefit from a support group but have concerns about how people will look at you, remember you are not taking your acquaintances with you to the meetings.They will not be privy to your thoughts and feelings. An advantage of a support group is that the people there are strangers, so you have not reputation to maintain.Plus, a general rule among support group members is “no judgment”. Support groups are places of confidence where you can safely share whatever is on your mind.

Finding the right support group for you may take a little effort, but there are many resources available. Some groups are even available online.The Mental Health Association in Niagara County maintains a list of support groups and even sponsors several in Lockport and Niagara Falls. They also provide periodic trainings for support group leaders and have resources for individuals who wish to start one. For more information, visit www.mhanc.com or call 716-433-3780.


The original publication date was February 15, 2015 under the title Crisis Control: Getting by with a little help from your group. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

PamePamela.imagela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Science sheds some light on the winter blues

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

snow covered pathI know, I know. You’re tired of this cold weather, the cloudy skies, the miserable commute. You feel shut-up, unable to do your usual activities, reluctant to face the bitter cold even to fetch a gallon of milk or a cup of hot coffee.

This is typical winter weather in our region, and with the end of the holiday season it is literally darker than ever. This is the time of year when some of us really get down in the dumps. Some of us even get depressed.

One of the downsides of the stigma surrounding mental illness is that we tend to downplay the role of emotions in our health. We discount them as irrational or meaningless. But emotions can serve as valuable indicators. If they are causing a disruption to our lives, we may need to investigate them as well as what is happening in our bodies. If you are struggling to get through the day, feeling tired and irritable, not sleeping well, having trouble concentrating, experiencing hopelessness and avoiding people, you may be dealing with more than a simple mood swing. You may have a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.

Having lived here far above the equator for about 90% of my life, I am statistically more likely to be affected by S.A.D. than someone living in Florida. But is this a sign that I am a wimp? Am I just not cut out for the inconvenience and unpleasantness of our harsh winters?

Whether you identify with my plight or feel inclined to shake your head in pity or disgust, I am pleased to point out that science is here to defend me and all of us battling S.A.D. Research shows that the primary culprits behind moodiness this time of year is lack of sunlight and a disruption of circadian rhythms, and there are tangible physical processes involved that affect both our behavior and our hormones.

First, it is important to understand what a circadian rhythm is. It’s a process that the body goes through along a 24-hour cycle and it can be reset by an external influence. The sleep cycle is an example of a circadian rhythm which is influenced by light levels. When darkness is detected, the hormone melatonin is secreted from a gland in our brain. Melatonin modulates sleep patterns according to circadian and seasonal rhythms. More melatonin is secreted as darkness increases, so as we are experiencing some of the darkest days of the year our levels of melatonin are changing. Our bodies may produce it either earlier or later in the day, causing unusual shifts in our mood.

There is a complex chain of events that can result in undesirable levels of melatonin. As scientists begin to understand the process, they are gaining insight into how to adjust these levels to help people suffering from S.A.D., major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

While the future looks promising, there are also many options available right now for those suffering from S.A.D. For example, light therapy is effective for 50 to 60 percent of people. You can try to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible by getting on a consistent sleep schedule and getting up early to catch the morning rays. A broad spectrum light box can be used as well. For faster results, aerobic exercise is recommended. A brisk walk outside is especially helpful, as it increases exposure to sunlight while improving mood and reducing stress.

Diet also plays a role. You may be craving carbohydrates, but sugary foods only cause a temporary energy spike followed by a crash. To avoid this rollercoaster in your mood, satisfy your craving with complex carbohydrates like rice or potatoes or healthy simple carbs like fruits.

Also, it is important not to isolate yourself, as tempting as that can be when your mood is low. Staying active and interacting with people will boost your mood.

Finally, if you suspect that professional help is needed, therapy and medications can be very effective. These are available by talking to your doctor.

The overall message, beyond the importance of treating mood disorders like the winter blues, is that to maintain wellness we must consider our bodies and our minds. If we want to live life to its fullest, we cannot afford to allow fear and stigma of mental health issues to prevent us from taking care of all aspects of our health, including our mysterious moods.


Mind Matters is a regular column of Greater Niagara Newspapers. The above article was published on January 18, 2015 in the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun Journal and Tonawanda News.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Re-casting our view of the holidays for better health

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.ornament msoffice

The holidays are here! Time for parties, shopping, gifts, amazing food, fun entertainment and kisses under the mistletoe!

Or….spilled drinks, carpet stains, poor sleep, cranky children, arguing spouses, overtime hours, meddling family members, heavy traffic, bad directions, late arrivals, ingratitude and over-spending.

With each holiday season, we often have an image about what we would like it to be. We tend to dream and plan for the best possible scenario, and tend to be influenced heavily by images we see in advertisements. We see warmth and beauty, togetherness and cheer, and sometimes begin to feel that we need to re-create those scenes in our own lives in order to be happy. Of course we may know those images in the media are misleading, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced.

Furthermore, we are influenced by our own family customs and how we have celebrated in the past. While we may have many good memories, circumstances often change that make it difficult to reproduce all the pleasant emotions of previous years. Perhaps cherished family members are unable to be part of the annual gathering. Maybe you have recently moved, changed jobs or lost a partner. These things can be significant sources of stress in life and can affect your view of the holidays. You may not even feel like celebrating.

You can prevent a holiday let-down by approaching the holidays with a sensible plan. You can get yourself into trouble emotionally when you become attached to one view of the holidays, or form an unrealistic expectation about them. While you may have participated in the same activities for the last ten years, it’s possible that this you are not feeling up to it. If you are grieving or simply stressed out from certain challenges in your life, it’s perfectly reasonable to need something different—and you can give yourself permission to pursue what you need without guilt or regret.

Since pressure at this time of year can vary from person to person, assess what you need to stay emotionally healthy. Adapt traditions and favorite customs to fit your current needs whether that means serving foods that are easier to prepare, going away rather than staying home, or spending less money on gifts. Give yourself permission to relax and enjoy being with people you care about. Rather than wishing for more, regretting what is not there, or feeling bad about thing beings “different”, take a moment to appreciate the good things around you.

This is especially important to remember for those who have recently experienced a personal loss, whether through a break-up, divorce or death. Those individuals may wish to avoid familiar activities because they are painful reminders of the past, or they might appreciate a quite cup of coffee and pleasant conversation rather than a loud, festive gathering.

As you re-imagine your vision of what a “happy holiday” is, spend a moment to picture yourself in those alternative situations. Of course, you can expect people to notice that you are not celebrating the same way. Prepare close friends and family ahead of time by letting them know why you are making the changes and how they can support you. For example, inform them you don’t feel comfortable attending a certain gathering or that you will attend but may excuse yourself early. Also, picture the potential highs as well as the lows: what will be nice about the new way of celebrating and what might be difficult? How will you respond to questions?

As you take care of yourself this holiday and approach the celebrations on your own terms, you may find peace, joy and comfort in ways you never imagined. By removing the pressure to experience the holiday in a certain way, or as you always have, you are more likely to enjoy the moments that present themselves. You are now free to appreciate the new experiences and the caring people around you! You may even inspire others to follow your lead and re-imagine for themselves the “perfect” image of the holidays.


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on December 21, 2014.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Robin Williams’ Suicide Brings Mental Health Issues to the Forefront

By Stacy Knott, Coordinator, Compeer Niagara for Adults
sbowman@mhanc.comTransit Drive In

“While we are deeply saddened by Mr. Williams’ unfortunate passing, we can celebrate his greatest efforts to lift our spirits by entertaining us with his movies, while hoping to provide help to others who someday may need their own spirits lifted on their darkest of days.” – Transit Drive-In

Note: This past fall, the Transit Drive-In Theater in Lockport, NY, selected the Mental Health Association in Niagara County as the designated charity for a Robin Williams triple feature film tribute on Labor Day weekend, as well as a double-feature tribute the following weekend. During the films, the Mental Health Association was on-hand to present educational materials to the public at an information booth. Stacy Knott managed the table several evenings and observed the public reaction.

I personally had the pleasure of sitting at the table for hours and disseminated countless pieces of literature but what struck me the most were the questions from so many in wonder of how could someone with so much going for them, possibly feel depressed to the point of suicide? It made no sense to them that an individual with so much money and fame could take their own life. Undoubtedly, there’s a certain amount of reason for this belief but the reality is that depression (like all mental illnesses) doesn’t take personal factors into account. Depression can affect anyone at any time.

I also discovered by running the table that the stigma of a mental illness is a huge problem. It was almost as though many feared approaching the table because the table cloth read “Mental Health Association”. Each time I walked away and the table was “safe” to approach for free information, several gathered round. Although I was elated that the information was being sought out, it was disheartening to see firsthand that people with a mental illness often suffer more from the stigma than they do from the illness itself. It drives many away from getting the professional help they need based on fear of what others will think.

Williams actually died of a disease—a terrible, terrible disease. Depression consumed the man, and it killed him, too, even if it used his hands to do it. I can’t help but think: if we as a society talked more frankly and openly and without shame about depression, if we took depression more seriously as a disease rather than as an issue of deficient willpower or character, maybe we wouldn’t lose so many irreplaceable  people—our heroes, our visionaries, our friends, our family—year after year”

-Graham Bishop

Typically, glamorizing suicide is the absolute worst thing you can do but in Williams’ death, it seems as though the media created an opportunity for people to open up about their own struggles. Thank you, Transit Drive-In, for offering this tribute and for selecting our agency to participate. Our agency searches for various opportunities to break down the stigma surrounding mental health. It is the selfless generosity from large-hearted people that continue to make it possible for us to take on this issue.


This article first appeared in 2014 fall edition of our newsletter, The Voice.

Facts over fear: The myths and truths of mental health

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each Other

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

How common is mental illness? Chances are you know someone who suffers from some form of a diagnosable mental health problem. Every day you may encounter people at work, at school, at the mall and maybe even at home. Does this seem possible?

The reason the prevalence of mental illness comes as a surprise to many of us is that we just don’t understand what mental illness is, we don’t talk about it and, as a society, we tend to buy into the myths instead of the facts. The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the United States had a diagnosable mental illness in 2012—about 44 million adults. This number includes people who are minimally impaired. So while you may interact with people who suffer from depression or anxiety, the illness is not obvious.

This has a couple of implications. The good news is that if you realize that mental illness is common and does not necessarily disrupt a normal life, then you might start viewing mental illness as less threatening. On the other hand, if it is so common, then why do we know so little about it? Why don’t we talk about as easily as we might talk about physical ailments? Why don’t we have more support systems in place to help the millions of individuals who are dealing with mental illness in all its forms?

At the root of all these questions is the problem of stigma. Misconceptions and stereotypes about mental illness prevent us from dealing with it openly and honestly. We take the fear instead of the facts. As a result, many people avoid addressing issues with their own mental health and people with a diagnosis suffer from discrimination.

Many of our fears are based on the misguided belief that all mental health disorders are life-long, debilitating ailments that have no effective treatments. The facts are that many disorders may last less than a year, can have mild symptoms that do not impact work, and can be resolved with proven solution-centered talk therapies in a reasonably short period of time. In many cases, no drugs are needed.

Another common myth is that mentally ill people are dangerous. However, statistics have shown that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, the headlines in the media often dramatize the opposite message. As a result, we reinforce our negative stereotypes and build another reason to fear mental illness.

Still another myth is that people with a mental illness are weird, crazy, socially awkward or inappropriate. We think we would be afraid around them, and may even avoid people when we learn they have a diagnosis. Yet in reality, there are “normal” people all around us who might battle depression, cope with a phobia, take medication for bipolar, or receive regular therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone with a mental illness can hold a job, raise a family, or be a volunteer. They may seem more well-adjusted and less stressed than you feel. They may even have better coping skills as a result of training and cognitive-behavior therapy.

Since the topic of mental illness is not a comfortable topic for most people, the myths remain unchallenged. Those with a diagnosis are reluctant to admit it for fear of being treated differently. Yet this leaves the misleading impression that mental illness is not relevant to all our lives. Worse yet, people who need help are often afraid to ask for it, and may not even know where to start getting help.

In the months ahead, I will continue to explore myths and truths about mental health, all in an effort to break down the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to get the help they need. If you need assistance, please call the MHA at (716) 433-3780. We are here for you!


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on November 16, 2014.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.