Support Systems Key to Combatting Mental Illness

Last year in this space, one of my Opinion editor predecessors, Dominic Ciolli, wrote about his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. It was a brave and valuable piece of writing.

Dominic didn’t just discuss the low points he had experienced. He also detailed the strategies he used to keep himself healthy. He argued — correctly, I believe — that being proactive, “recognizing when things are bad and taking steps to fix them,” is the best thing anyone with a mental illness can do to take care of themselves.

I agree with Dominic. The importance of being proactive when dealing with mental illness is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. But I also want to further the discussion he started.

I want to point out the importance of having a support system.

When it’s an achievement simply to get out of bed, get dressed and go to class every day, taking any proactive measures to improve your mental health can be a monumental challenge. Having the support of people who love you and want the best for you is a necessity.

While in high school, I was diagnosed with dysthymia, a long-term form of depression. The severity of my depression has ebbed and flowed in the years since, and I currently struggle more with feelings of anxiety than feelings of depression. I see a therapist once a week and take medication every day as part of a larger plan I have to take care of myself and get better.

Although things aren’t always rainbows and unicorns for me, my mental health is in a better place now than it was in high school. But I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of the family members, friends and teachers who helped me when I was unable to help myself.

I am incredibly lucky that I have people in my life who see mental illness as a valid form of sickness. I have friends who believe in me. I have parents who care about me and are able to help me with the costs of therapy and medication. I have had teachers who have spent extra hours at school to work with me to complete course requirements.

Not everyone with a mental illness has a support system like I do. They face stigma from people who think they’re selfish, or crazy, or just in a temporary funk. They can’t afford medication or regular therapy appointments. They attend schools where teachers don’t have the resources to stay late to help them.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but when I think about how I’ve gotten to where I am today, I always recall the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I.” It would have been so easy for me to slip through the cracks, to drop out of school, to sink lower and lower into the abyss of my negative thoughts if it weren’t for the people in my life who were determined to keep that from happening. They all saw something in me that made them want to help me, and for that I am grateful.

I’ve spoken to and read about too many high school and college students who haven’t had the experiences I have had. And I’m not the only one. In a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 95 percent of college counseling center directors said the number of students on their campuses with “significant psychological problems” is a growing concern. Seventy percent said the number of students on their campuses with “severe psychological problems” had increased in the past year.

I don’t know what the systematic solutions are to this clearly worsening crisis, but I do believe that combating the stigma surrounding mental illness can help. If more people see mental illness like they see physical illness, it will become easier for them to help their loved ones who are struggling. And the more support someone with mental illness has, the less likely they are to succumb to their pain.

I know from experience.

Morgan Christian is the Opinion editor.

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