What to do when you aren’t coping

If you’re affected by mental illness, you shouldn’t be going it alone

Special to The TribuneMay 21, 2013 


San Luis Obispo County has had four insanity murder trials in the past year. Mental illness is once again in the news. But even with all the publicity, the problem is poorly understood. Christopher Shumey had a lengthy history of mental illness when he was convicted this year of shooting his mother. Still, experts disagreed about his sanity and whether he should be deemed responsible for his actions.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as a “medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses result in a diminished capacity to cope with the ordinary demands of life.

Serious mental illness involves a range of disorders, including major depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

The numbers are staggering. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults — about 57.7 million Americans — experiences a mental health disorder in any given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

Children are impacted, too. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 10 percent of all youngsters have a mental or emotional disorder.

What causes mental illness? Experts believe numerous factors are involved. Genetics are a prime suspect; people who have a blood relative with a mental disorder are more likely to develop the problem themselves. Severe psychological stresses, such as physical abuse, witnessing horrific events, extreme loss and neglect can trigger symptoms.

Environmental problems, such as death of a loved one, parental divorce or growing up in a dysfunctional family, also contribute. Finally, cultural expectations surrounding beauty and sexual orientation can negatively impact the way we feel about ourselves.

The symptoms of mental illness vary. But the Mayo Clinic website offers these warning signs:

• Feeling sad or down.

• Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.

• Excessive fears or worries.

• Extreme mood changes of highs and lows.

• Withdrawal from friends and activities.

• Significant fatigue, low energy or problems sleeping.

• Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations.

• Inability to cope with daily problems or stress.

• Extreme feelings of guilt.

• Alcohol or drug abuse.

• Major changes in eating habits.

• Sex drive changes.

• Excessive anger, hostility or violence.

• Suicidal thinking.

Mental illness is treatable. But it’s imperative that sufferers receive adequate care. If left untreated, mental illness can progress and leave its victims vulnerable to further complications.


Seek help. You can’t handle this on your own. You’ll need professional advice and support to get better. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor or a licensed mental health practitioner. He or she may administer various tests in order to arrive at the correct diagnosis. You also may be referred to other professionals. Together, you’ll formulate a plan to help you feel better.

Take your medication. It may be a while before you notice any results. You may even need to try several different medications before finding the one best suited to you. Don’t stop taking it when you begin to feel better. You may eventually be able to taper off. But do so only under the guidance of your physician.

Get therapy. Medication alone is seldom enough. You’ll want to work closely with a licensed mental health therapist to create a lifestyle that supports your mental and emotional well-being. You may explore ways to decrease stress, replace ineffective thought patterns or set realistic goals for yourself.

Find support. You’re not alone in your struggle with mental illness. You’ll benefit from others’ experience by creating a network of friends.

Involve your family. Your loved ones are directly affected by your illness. They’re also your first line of support. Include them in doctor visits. Share literature so they fully understand your illness. Get into family therapy if you need to address unresolved problems or improve communication.

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