Mental health challenges range from feeling low in the gloomy winter months (seasonal affective disorder) to struggling with addictions to harmful substances or behaviors; feeling untethered and shaken to the core after a loss – death, divorce or being fired; or experiencing a terrifying disease such as schizophrenia … and they affect more of us than we are often inclined to admit. Anxiety disorders alone affect some 42 million people in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The trick with good mental health is, in many ways, the same as the trick with good physical health, when it comes to managing things like anxiety and mood: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and good habits are key. Focus on prevention, practice good mental health hygiene and see a doctor (or therapist) and take medication when you need to. In many cases, good mental health is a habit, which can be maintained and improved upon.
And when a person attempts the tried-and-true home remedies for a happy mental state and still can’t shake his or her depression, it’s time to call in the experts. Just as you know to call a plumber when your vinegar-baking soda elixir doesn’t unclog the disposal, and just as you know to see your physician when your sinus infection won’t go away no matter how often you use your Neti pot, so should you know that when you are mired in an unhealthy place, you need to call for help. No ifs, ands or buts, and certainly no shame.
What is good mental health? A person who is mentally healthy is someone with a positive mindset, said David Swope, LPC. Swope’s career in counseling spans four decades. He oversees a department of 10, including counselors and interns, at Sunbeam Family Services – and if he were an item of clothing, he’d be a calming, cozy cardigan. This is a man who fills the room with kindness and acceptance without saying a word. “Mentally healthy people are optimists,” he says. “They have a growth mindset, which means that when things come up, they experience a challenge, they enjoy the challenge and look forward to learning something new.”
By contrast, he said, people who are mentally unhealthy operate from a fixed mindset, meaning they believe that neither they, nor their world, can change. They are certain that they’re stuck right where they are, and there is nothing to be done about it but suffer along. “Each person has a set point for happiness, but that can change,” says Swope. Another key is to stay away from toxic people, and try to surround yourself with people who are optimistic.
When you’ve made a concerted effort to lift your mood and the steps you are taking aren’t working, take it up a notch and find professional help. “If depression or anxiety are left to continue over time, they will affect your health, your sleep, your work and your relationships,” Swope says. “Chronic depression means you are down more days than you’re not, and you can’t transcend it.”
“Mentally healthy people are optimists. They have a growth mindset, which means that when things come up, they experience a challenge, they enjoy the challenge and look forward to learning something new.”
– DAVID SWOPE, LPC
Rock of (All) Ages
For 45 years, Red Rock Behavioral Health Services, headquartered at 4400 N Lincoln, has offered Oklahomans, of all ages and from every walk of life, a full slate of mental health services, all on an income-based sliding scale. “We are a system of community mental health centers in Oklahoma. We offer a full range of mental health services for adults and children, including residential treatment, crisis units for adults and for children, substance abuse programs and outpatient counseling services,” says Verna Foust, MS, LPC and chief executive officer.
Foust is a thoughtful woman, whose quiet optimism and genuine desire to help people radiate calmly from her as she speaks. She’s been in community mental health for 30 years, and has known since childhood that her path would be dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives and well-being. “Nothing is untreatable,” she says. “Every condition may not go away, but we can help anyone. We don’t fix people; we help them become the best person they can be. We can establish what their normal is and help them reach it.”
She explains what mental illnesses might feel like, with the caveat that each person experiences things slightly differently. “A person with bipolar disorder, in a manic state, will feel like they have way too much energy. They won’t be sleeping, they will be making poor decisions and will be very impulsive. A manic episode will last for an extended period of time.”
When a person experiences a psychotic break – which means losing touch with reality, and can include hallucinations, delusions or even tasting or smelling things that are not there – Foust says a likely overarching feeling will be fear. “It’s a scary thing. A psychotic break is scary when it happens, and then the person is often afraid that it will happen again. They may be afraid to tell anyone what has happened, for fear of what they think might happen if they do.”
“So many people are struggling with something we can’t see. It is estimated that 8 percent of the total population suffers from PTSD, and 33 percent of those are not diagnosed yet.”
– WANA ELLISON, PSY.D., LPC, LADC
We Don’t Need Another Hero
You can only do so much on your own. If you had a terrible cold that lasted for a month, you wouldn’t hesitate to call a doctor. What if you had a rash that wouldn’t clear up? Would you call someone then? It’s no accident that the word “malaise” (“mal” meaning “bad”) is used to describe physical and mental discomfort that is not easily identifiable. The fact of the matter is that your brain is an organ, just like your liver or your heart, so it can experience illness or disease, too.
Wana Ellison, Psy.D., LPC, LADC and chief operating officer of outpatient services for Red Rock Behavioral Health Services, is fascinated by the brain. “It’s the only organ we know so little about,” Ellison says. She encourages anyone who may be toying with the idea of calling Red Rock or any mental health provider for help to do it sooner rather than later.
“So many people are struggling with something we can’t see. It is estimated that 8 percent of the total population suffers from PTSD, and 33 percent of those are not diagnosed yet. Some 7 percent suffer from substance abuse issues, 14-15 percent have, or have had, major depression, and as many as 4 percent have schizophrenia,” Ellison says.
Even more people are trying to deal with unresolved trauma. “People think they don’t need help, or they are afraid to ask for help, because although things are much better, mental health issues have not been normalized as much as they should be,” Ellison says.
“In Oklahoma, there are approximately 900,000 people in need of mental health services, and about a third of them get it,” Foust says.
For Foust, recognizing the strength it takes to come forward and ask for help is crucial. “Whether you call, or walk in the front door, I know it takes such courage, but it’s worth it,” she says. “Others who have truly struggled have come to us for help and have left truly feeling that there is hope. Just give it a try. People have ‘what-ifs,’ but the what-ifs are destructive. Try anyway, despite the what-ifs.”
The Kids Are All right?
D’Anna Hope, LPC, has been a practicing counselor for about 15 years. Her career began with a stint teaching elementary school; from there she earned a master’s degree in guidance and worked as a middle school counselor. These days, she works with families and children.
“Depression and anxiety in children can sometimes be environmentally based,” Hope says. “Things like screen time, playing violent video games and what we see on the news – all of the mass shootings, many of which happen in schools – can really contribute. Think about it: We had tornado drills, but our kids have intruder drills. Our kids are growing up with that as normal, and it’s a tremendous source of anxiety.”
As parents, our job is to help our kids learn how to navigate life. Hope said there are some time-tested ways you can provide guidance and structure, and teach kids what healthy mental health habits look like. “Routine and structure are key. Have a consistent bed time, a consistent homework time. I work with families who are sometimes really resistant to creating a routine, and they tell me that winging it is just how they roll. But the truth is that kids like to know what to expect,” Hope says.
Don’t over-schedule your kids, but do make sure your kids get outside and exercise. “An 8-year-old does not have the bandwidth to go to school, plus have three different activities going on. Choose one activity at a time for elementary and middle school age kids. A team sport is a great idea. You can still do more than one activity or sport per year, just play them by season. As they get older, maybe add one more.”
Limit screen time. This includes every screen: computer, TV, phone, iPad and games. “You have to start this early and stick with it,” Hope says. “During the teen years, it’s easy to slip on screen time when a child is keeping up with schoolwork and his or her other responsibilities.” That’s a problem later on, though, because when kids leave for college or are living on their own, they are often unable to regulate how much time they spend playing video games or on social media.
“Video games are addictive,” Hope says. “I see it in my own son. On cold weekends, when he plays them more, it’s really hard to get him to taper off. He changes when he plays more. You’ve got to limit it no matter how old they are. Your house, your rules.”
Talk openly when there is a tragedy. Hope suggests that when a mass shooting happens, you should ask your kids open-ended questions. “Ask if they talked about the shooting at school, or if they had a drill. Ask if they feel scared, and ask how you can help them. Sometimes, talking through your child’s school’s safety protocols can really help your child feel safer.” Do not say that something like this will never happen at their school, because – unfortunately – you do not know that.
“An 8-year-old does not have the bandwidth to go to school, plus have three different activities going on. Choose one activity at a time for elementary and middle school age kids.”
– D'ANNA HOPE, LPC
Suicide on the Rise
In 2016, Oklahoma ranked 8th in the nation in number of deaths by suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Oklahoma Watch reported that in the first week of 2017, 14 Oklahomans died by suicide. The Oklahoma youth suicide rate increased 41 percent since 2006, compared to a 33-percent increase in the youth suicide rate nationally for the same time period, according to data from the Oklahoma Violent Death Reporting System and the Oklahoma Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released in October 2017.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in Oklahoma, behind unintentional injury,” says Amy Shipman, LPC and director of counseling at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “Suicide most often occurs between the ages of 15 and 35. Males tend to ‘complete’ their suicides at a higher rate, and females tend to make more attempts. That is often due to the means; males tend to use more lethal means than females. For each completion, there are as many as 200 attempts. People who die by suicide are getting younger each year – Oklahoma now tracks death by suicide beginning at age 10.”
Shipman’s department is responsible for short-term mental health services and support to Oklahoma’s Catholic parishes and schools. “We are the first to respond when there is a tragedy, like a self-inflicted death of a student, teacher, staff or parish member.” In the period 2011-2012, Shipman and her staff found themselves trying to cope with five youth suicides in six months. Those deaths prompted Shipman’s department to develop and offer a curriculum of free community mental health classes on subjects ranging from mental health first aid to suicide prevention.
“Suicide contagion is real,” she says. “There are signs that some people will give you when they are ideating about suicide. They may not be able to directly say ‘I am thinking about killing myself,’ but they might say something like, ‘Pretty soon you won’t have to worry about me.’” Another tip-off could be that they are giving away prized possessions, or quitting activities that are meaningful to them without replacing them with something new.
“If you suspect someone may be planning to self-harm, it’s important to ask about it very directly,” Shipman says. “Ask ‘Are you planning to kill yourself?’” Further, Shipman said, ask whether the person has decided the means, and whether they have begun to actively plan. This will help you determine whether you need to act immediately, i.e., calling 911.
Death by suicide is almost never a person’s first option, according to survivors, Shipman said. “Usually they will try many things to end their emotional pain. People don’t usually take their own lives because of one thing; it tends to be a multitude of smaller things that build over time.”
If you suspect that someone is planning to attempt suicide, call someone. Do something. Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you’re wrong, you might feel a little silly, but if you’re right and do nothing, it could cost someone his or her life.
“We all have a running mental dialogue with ourselves, planning what to do next, making mental lists and keeping tabs on what we are doing. It’s important to stop and say to yourself ‘How am I feeling today?’ and then ‘What do I need to do to take care of myself?’ and to give yourself permission to do something to care for yourself. It might feel funny at first, but self-care is important.
– AMY SHIPMAN, LPC
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Shipman said the ability to check in with oneself is one of the most important skills we can foster. “We all have a running mental dialogue with ourselves, planning what to do next, making mental lists and keeping tabs on what we are doing. It’s important to stop and say to yourself ‘How am I feeling today?’ and then ‘What do I need to do to take care of myself?’ and to give yourself permission to do something to care for yourself. It might feel funny at first, but self-care is important. It doesn’t mean taking a spa day. It can be something small; just 15 or 20 minutes spent taking a walk, listening to music or taking a bath can help you fill your tank.”
Different people recharge in different ways. “If you’re more of an introvert, maybe being still and reading is a good way to recharge. If you are an extrovert, you might recharge by being around people. Just be proactive with your own well-being,” Shipman says.
Can’t think of anything you like to do? That’s not uncommon. Shipman asks people what they liked to do when they were children. “What was something you liked to do when you were 10 years old? Or 15 or 20? It’s not that you would necessarily do those things again, but it’s a way to get the ball rolling and get you thinking about things you enjoy,” she says.
If you feel like you’re in over your head, one of the most crucial pieces of advice you could get is this: You don’t have to try to go it alone. There are experts, and they can help. Reaching out to one of these agencies could be the first step toward a better future.
Red Rock Behavioral Health Services
Multiple locations throughout the state.
Call 405.424.7711 or 855.999.8055 for
access to treatment at any Red Rock location.
Sunbeam Family Services
1100 NW 14th, OKC
Catholic Charities OKC
1232 N Classen, OKC
405.523.3000 or 800.375.8514
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Call 2-1-1 or text your ZIP code to 898-211