Guest Commentary

Getting mental-health care can make a world of difference for both individuals and their families

There's an old song, "Smiling Faces Sometimes," with lyrics that say, "Smiling faces tell lies," and, "A smile is just a frown turned upside down." These are two truisms that remain on point in 2008.

Emotional trauma and pain often remain hidden behind smiles. We may think that a person is just quiet or likes to be alone. But the pink elephant in the room is mental illness, which affects millions of Americans.

Issues that don't get dealt with can come from a variety of unresolved circumstances. Substance abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence can cause pain from the inside out. People-pleasers or those who are codependent without acknowledging personal wants and needs can suffer from self-esteem issues. If not dealt with, these, too, can turn into behavioral-health issues.

Many of us live with illnesses like manic depression and anxiety disorders. Many of these illnesses are treatable after having an assessment done and talking with a behavioral health-care professional, or after combining therapy with the right amount of prescribed medication.

The real danger lies in circles where we don't address or acknowledge that emotional pain is real, and people move through life in a daze, second-guessing themselves.

One reason I went to school to obtain a master's degree in guidance and counseling was to help me better deal with the issue of mental disorders. My dad was bipolar; to say this caused dysfunction and confusion in our household is putting it mildly. When my dad took his medication, he was fine--but as I have learned over the years, many people don't like how Lithium or other medications that deal with chemical imbalances in the brain make them feel. Phrases like, "I feel dull," "I can't feel," and, "I can't create," are common from people living with this disorder.

When Daddy was "sick," as my mother called it, life was rough. In a manic state, he would stay awake for days, talking and ranting to anyone and everyone who would listen. When he would finally crash, my sister and I would walk on eggshells under the threat of a spanking if we awakened him. Thankfully, for the last 15 years of his life, my Dad was spared both the stigma and the personal struggle of dealing with his illness. There were no more episodes.

I also don't want to downplay serious illnesses like schizophrenia. I had an aunt whom I loved dearly who spent most of her adult life in halfway-housing situations. One of the Creator's sweetest souls, she was not able to make it "out here" alone. She would come and stay with us when she got her "leaves." I miss Aunt Minnie and the card games and talks shared over our Pepsi Cola and her cigarettes, and the Saturdays she spent working on my hair, shampooing and drying it, and then working magic with a pressing comb and jar of Afro Sheen.

As I go through the perils--and I don't use that word lightly--and reality of menopause, night sweats and hormone-replacement therapy, I've wondered at times if I've been clinically depressed, or if this is just life. I made an appointment here in Tucson to talk with someone and determine whether the genetics of bipolar disorder had been passed down to me. It seems that it has not; instead, I've been feeling the effects of what a woman goes through while living without ovaries, those wonderful body parts that produce estrogen and keep us sane, on some level.

If you or someone you know needs to speak with a mental-health professional, CODAC Behavioral Health Services is one local agency, at 127 S. Fifth Ave., 327-4505. Many places in town have sliding fee scales for people with low incomes and/or no insurance.

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