Before you wonder whether I have had one too many gin and tonics, let me explain.
I have an uncle who has battled alcohol and drug issues for decades. When he believe a relapse is imminent, he attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. For him, AA has been a lifesaver, providing stability and support during particularly tumultuous times. In fact, he credits AA with his current sobriety.
For mental health sufferers, where is our “Alcoholics Anonymous?” More specifically, where is our support group for struggling individuals mired in the throes of a depressive episode? Or a relentless panic attack? A proverbial safe space where we — the 40 plus million Americans battling mental health issues — can share our mental health trials and tribulations without judgment.
For me, one of my biggest challenges has been finding a mental health support system — people who understand the daily struggles of managing my mental health. In particular, a mental health support group would have been a tremendous resource during my initial mental health diagnosis. When OCD bullied me into submission during my college years, I remember the shame and anguish churning inside me. Here I was an 18-year-old kid — in a rigorous academic program — besieged with tormenting thoughts. Without any understanding of OCD’s machinations, the thoughts felt inescapable, pinballing in my mind as I tried, futilely it seemed, to focus on something — anything — other than the barrage of negative thoughts.
I needed help. But at the time, there was a sense of apprehension — even dread — at disclosing my mental health struggles to, well, anyone (as you can see, I have gotten over that fear). As an anxiety-riddled 18-year-old, though, I worried that divulging these horrific thoughts would have far-reaching — and disastrous — consequences. A counselor would think I was “crazy”; an academic advisor would report me to the dean; an RA would contact my parents.
In hindsight, I needed a mental health support system — and probably a bear hug. A mental health support system (our own Alcoholics Anonymous) would have provided some context on the intrusive thoughts, calming my frayed nerves (“Matt, this is just you OCD mind talking”) and providing an invaluable resource when the OCD thoughts flared up. And for me, someone who concealed OCD from loved ones for years, a mental health support system would have minimized my own shame and self-doubt.
I have learned from my fateful teenage years. Over the following years, I have cobbled together my own self-styled support system. There is the good friend from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the friend of a friend who battles OCD, and the readers who detail their personal struggles in poignant emails. But, truthfully, building a support system hasn’t been easy; it has taken years to find a group of people I can openly discuss my mental health struggles with. And, at times, I have felt as isolated as your most remote island.
So, I repeat, why isn’t there a Mental Health Anonymous? A place where we — the 40 million plus mental health sufferers — can discuss our mental health issues without (fear of) disparagement and mockery. A place where all of us can commiserate over our shared struggles and rejoice over our shared successes. Without my current support system, I shudder to think where I would be.
Perhaps, in a sadly ironic twist, at an AA meeting lamenting the lack of mental health support.
A longtime Psych Central contributor, I will be chronicling my mental health insights and struggles in personal, self-deprecating terms (chuckling at yourself — and your occasional eccentricity — beats the alternative). As I blog about my own successes and stumbles, I look forward to building relationships with you.