I first remember feeling anxiety in junior high, for some reason, though I loved school and had lots of friends, I felt anxious. I don’t know if it was insecurity, or if it was a stomach issue I was battling, or what. But I remember wanting to not be at the place I loved. I remember quitting activities I enjoyed doing. It wasn’t until I was older than I could pinpoint it as anxiety, but the feelings were there.
Flash forward to being a 23-year-old, college graduate, living and working in Washington D.C., and I had flown home to Arkansas for the weekend to attend a beauty pageant. Attend, not compete, simmer down now. And I loved to fly. I flew all the time. I flew for work; I flew for pleasure, I flew for vacations, I flew for events. I flew alone; I flew with my parents, I flew with my friends. I actually enjoyed turbulence. I had no fear of terrorists.
And I flew to Arkansas that Thursday perfectly safely.
When it was time for me to return to D.C. that Sunday, my friend dropped me off at the airport, under no unusual circumstances. I checked in, went through security, arrived at my gate and sat down. And something came over me. I felt like I was having a hot flash about 20 years too early for menopause and my chest felt tight. I thought I was going to throw up or have an accident in my granny panties. I went to the restroom thinking perhaps it was the repercussions of a hangover. Nothing happened. I walked back out to my seat at the gate, and the sweats were so heavy I thought surely my clothes would wash straight off my body. I picked up my cell phone, and I called my parents. I explained that I was most likely dying and wanted to say farewell. After my mom, the mental health professional, told me that I was definitely not dying and I needed to pull it together, I hung up thinking I’d just board my flight and carry on as normal.
They started boarding, I was in the third group to board, and as the folks trickled on the plane, my sweats, nausea, chest tightening and dizziness retook control.
I was no longer in the driver’s seat of my body.
I grabbed my bag, thankfully I didn’t check it, and headed to the exit.
I called my parents and explained that I would not be boarding that plane and needed to rent a car to drive back to D.C. 23 hours. Alone. After a weekend of partying with friends.
My friend came back to pick me up at the airport that she had just left me at, and my Dad started the trek from Fayetteville where I grew up, to Little Rock where I was to fly out. He picked me up, and we started out on our cross-country drive together, back to D.C. He rented a car and drove me the entire way, including somehow driving us to West Virginia when I dozed off and stopped navigating. This was the first time I can remember having a panic attack. Though at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was.
About 14 months later, I had moved home to Arkansas, and I was living in Little Rock enjoying life, with very few cares in the world. Until December 1, 2016. My Dad unexpectedly passed away that day. His death left me reeling. I felt very numb. Very lost. And I experienced a deafening sadness inside of my body that I had no clue how to deal with it. I started drinking more, though not to a noticeable, intervention level, amount. I did not receive professional help at the time of his death, looking back now, that is something I regret. I just continued going through the motions of life. As the days went on and I began to learn more and ask more questions about the heart attack that took his life, the depression I was suffering from forced my mind to adopt symptoms that correlated with his death, but were not actually happening to me physically.
I began to have those same feelings from the airport the year before, where I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Or a brain aneurysm from a headache. It didn’t help that I went through a significant neck surgery due to an attack while working with disturbed children, which led to all kinds of weird and new pains. All that to say, I was fairly convinced I was dying, or about to pass out, or stop breathing multiple times a week, then numerous times a day.
The anxiety and depression were winning.
I finally went to the doctor and started taking medication to help ease the symptoms. And that would work for a while and then I’d have to switch prescriptions or dosages.
Today, I can thankfully say, I am much better than I ever remember being. Sure, there are moments, every once in a while, where I still struggle. But most of the time I am fine. I think a lot of things have contributed to that healing in my life: medication, exercise, eating better, more water, less drinking, a fantastic husband, a little boy to live better for, and incredible friends who know, sometimes I just need to get out of the car and take a walk even if we are in the woods. And most importantly, Jesus.
Right now, in our country, we are reeling from crisis after crisis. Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, the Las Vegas Massacre. The hits keep coming.
The battles in Washington D.C. surrounding health care have stalled out. And yet, we have no better solutions, or answers, for those in need. Just a handful of campaign promises unkept.
One aspect of healthcare that is continually overlooked by the public, and habitually decimated by our public officials, is the mental health care system.
We, as a society, have no problems supporting our friends and family and encouraging them to get treatment when they have cancer. We rally around our neighbors in need when they must have surgery. We donate funds all the time to different gofundme sites we read about on social media, sometimes for people, we don’t even know, who are dealing with the expenses of a physical crisis.
And all of these things are good. So good!
But why are we so quick to encourage friends to seek medical treatment for diseases of the body, and so scared off by the thought of helping them get help for diseases of the mind?
Mental illness is by definition, “a wide range of mental health conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior.”  Some examples of mental illnesses are: depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and addictive behaviors, along with many more.
Have you ever been sad for longer than a day or two? Lost the motivation to get out of the house? Distanced yourself from friends and family? Cancelled plans because you were nervous you might feel uncomfortable? Been overly critical of your body, no matter how hard you are working out?
None of those issues are things to be ashamed of nowadays. The truth is the more I’m open and honest with people about my battle with anxiety, the more I hear, “me too!” This life is crazy, this world is insane, and we are all finding our way. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in this struggle. We are all in this together, or should I say, we should be!
Unfortunately, the stalemate in D.C. over healthcare has left the most vulnerable wholly exposed.
With the constant funding cuts for community mental health centers, law enforcement agents are being forced to take those who are mentally ill to jail instead of taking them to get the help they desperately need. The reality is our jail system has become a surrogate for psychiatric hospitals. We are sending thousands of individuals with the severest of mental illnesses to prison cells instead of hospitals.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 people in jails and prisons today live with a mental illness. Their research goes on to say that 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition.  As a nation, we have criminalized mental illness in a very tragic manner. Instead of getting people with mental illness the treatment and support they need, our society far too often puts them in jail instead. A jailhouse is the worst place for recovery; it doesn’t prepare them at all to live life outside those concrete walls. The Treatment Advocacy Center speculates that there are almost 400,000 inmates with severe mental illnesses in our local jails and state prisons. 
We are not helping these people.
We are locking them up, out of sight/out of mind. But their illnesses are eating them alive, and we are sitting idly by allowing this injustice to continue and then complaining when they act out and it actually effects us.
The reality of our situation today is, when a call comes into 911, police officers are dispatched with little to no training on how to deal with people suffering from severe mental illness. So not only are we putting those who are suffering in danger, we are putting our law enforcement officers in danger. As a society, we are placing the pressure on these first responders to fix our crippled system somehow. Most often, the mentally ill offenders are arrested because the officers do not have adequate procedures in place to divert them to a community-based treatment program if one even exists in their area. With the bloodbath of slashing budgets for mental health programs, so many places have had to close their doors permanently. Because we as a nation have not pushed our lawmakers and our communities to provide adequate funding for these community mental health centers, police officers are finding that when they need one, they are nonexistent, filled to compacity, or so far away that they are unable to transport them that distance.
If the debates in the United States Senate have taught us anything, they have taught us that healthcare is expensive. For years the mentally ill have gone without treatment because for some reason our insurance system is set up to divide physical healthcare and mental healthcare. In 2011, the Piper Report published that most mental health, or substance abuse, hospital stays are less expensive than non-MHSA stays. Most conditions that require a hospital stay averaged a total of $9,300. A mental health stay was averaging around $5,700, and a substance abuse stay was approximately $4,600.  The Treatment Advocacy Center continues to speculate that somewhere about 33% of homeless people have a mental illness. 
How on earth do we expect a homeless person to be able to afford a hospital stay to receive the appropriate treatment for their illnesses?
Not only are we failing those who are suffering financially, but we are also failing them just as neighbors, friends, and family.
We have created a society that stigmatizes mental illness. We have spread the idea that a mental illness is just something people don’t talk about ever. We hide that we take medications for our anxiety. In our religious zealousness, we tell people to just pray about it. We have removed all dignity from those who can actually admit they are struggling.
To give dignity to those who are struggling with a mental illness, we would dispel their fear and level the playing field. We scream human rights and civil rights all day long to anyone and everyone who will listen. But to those in the battles of depression or anxiety, or schizophrenia we cover up their issues and encourage them to do so as well by our actions and with our lack of understanding.
Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right. But even they don’t ignore mental health, so why should we?
They’ve made moves like Rain Main, about a man living with autism. What about Bob? A comedy about the hostile relationship between a self-involved psychiatrist and his patient who has high levels of anxiety. As Good As it Gets, a movie about an anti-social novelist living with obsessive-compulsive disorder. A Beautiful Mind, a film based on the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., a mathematical genius with schizophrenia. And Silver Linings Playbook, the Bradley Cooper movie, where after his time in a mental hospital he is forced to live with his parents after he has lost his wife and his job because of his bipolar disorder. 
Movies are made to represent real life, to draw the viewer in and allow them to relate to the characters. These films “work” because they depict a significant portion of our society and their daily struggles.
The World Health Organization’s slogan is, “there is no health without mental health.” Mental health is not a one-size fits all program. There are diverse goals and objectives based on the illness. The hospital stays vary in length and complexity. The counseling sessions last longer based on the severity. Our legislative representatives have got to realize the more funding they cut to our community mental health organizations, the more they are crippling the least of us.
Lawmakers continually complain about overcrowding in jails and understaffed and overworked law enforcement agents. Yet, they take no time to consider that their lack of action on behalf of the mental health community could elevate the burdens they, themselves, have created.
So, what’s the point of this post today?
No, it’s not just to rant!
The point is three-fold.
First and foremost, find a friend or someone you can trust, and open up about what you are struggling with at the moment. Don’t fight your battles alone. You are not alone in this. Someone out there is walking through the same thing.
Secondly, when someone does come to you with their illness, show them the same exact dignity you would show someone who comes to you and tells you they have cancer. Respect them, encourage them, support them, build them up, surround them and just be there for them.
Third, speak up and speak out. Reach out to your legislators. You’ve been calling them about healthcare, Obamacare, Trumpcare, all kinds of care, call them about mental health care. Write letters to your Governors, your state representatives, your mayors. Let them know that you cannot support them and their next campaigns if they continue to remove money from your community mental health center. Money talks, if your cash walks, so do they. Don’t support someone who is in favor of slashing the funding for the mentally ill.
And as Ellen Degeneres always says, “be kind to one another.”