Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mental health during COVID-19, some updates October 26, 2021

The message on this shirt references struggles with mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF ANYTHING POSITIVE has resulted from this still raging global pandemic of nearly two years, it’s a heightened awareness of mental health. Finally. Such awareness was long overdue, pandemic or not.

Now, in the context of the stress, anxiety, fear, isolation, depression and other health issues exasperated by living in a COVID-19 challenged world, we are thinking more about our mental health. From educators to healthcare professionals to parents to law enforcement to media. And if you say COVID hasn’t affected your mental health, I will question your truthfulness.

Yet, millions have struggled with mental health issues long before this virus turned life upside down. It’s just that all too often, we’ve closed our eyes and covered our ears to that reality. We’ve used unsavory words like “crazy” and other derogatory terms to label those battling mental illnesses. We’ve whispered and turned our backs and created stigmas. We’ve advised those struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, to simply get over it. As if that type of uncaring advice fixes anything.

Not that many years ago, treatment for mental illness was an add-on to health insurance policies. Unbelievable that individuals dealing with mental illnesses should be treated (or in this case not treated) differently than those dealing with heart attacks, cancer, broken bones… Thankfully that has changed, at least in policy. Still, the lack of mental healthcare options remains problematic, particularly in rural regions. Waits are long. Professionals few in number.

EXCITING NEWS FROM MINNESOTA

That’s why I get particularly excited when I read about plans like those of Children’s Minnesota to open an inpatient mental health center for children at its St. Paul hospital in late 2022. The center expects to treat upwards of 1,000 children annually. This past summer, Children’s opened a mental health day-program for teens in Lakeville.

All of this gives me hope. Hope that the youngest among us will get the early professional intervention and help they need. So many of our kids are struggling now, dealing with mental health issues brought on, or increased, by the pandemic.

VALIDATION FROM THE CDC

Another new development also gives me hope. The Centers for Disease Control recently added mental health conditions to the list of underlying medical conditions associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19. Now in and of itself, that is not good news. No one wants to hear that they are at increased risk for severe disease.

But the addition of mood disorders, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders, to the medical conditions list now bumps those individuals into the high priority category for COVID vaccines. A study in New York found schizophrenia to be the second highest risk factor for COVID-related death, after older age. The possible explanation—immune system issues connected to the genetics of the disorder.

Beyond that, this move by the CDC now places mental health conditions (specifically certain mood disorders) on the same plane as other high risk conditions like diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, etc. For those struggling with mood disorders and those who love them, this is validating. This also moves us closer to erasing the stigma inked next to the words MENTAL ILLNESS.

I’m hopeful that, as we eventually work our way out of this pandemic, we remember the importance of mental health. I hope this is more than just today’s buzzword topic. I hope that we can, as individuals, offer compassion, support, encouragement and help. I hope we recognize mental health for what it is—health. Not something that should be hidden and ignored and stigmatized.

Photographed along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

FYI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information, support, advocacy and more. Click here as a starting point for mental health information. If you or someone you care about is dealing with mental health struggles, please seek professional help. You are not alone. You are valued and loved.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: A Minnesotan writes about her depression May 20, 2021

ARE YOU STRUGGLING with everyday tasks? Unable to get out of bed? Feeling hopeless? Overwhelmed?

You are not alone. I think all of us have struggled during this past pandemic year. Maybe not to the extent of the challenges listed, but in other ways. It’s been a lot. I’m thankful that, if anything good comes from this pandemic, it’s an increased awareness of mental health issues.

I am grateful for writers like K.J. (Kristine) Joseph for opening up about her clinical depression in her powerful memoir, Simply Because We Are Human. The Minnesota author reveals her life-long struggles with an incurable disease caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. And that’s important to note—that depression like hers has a physical cause that can be treated, not cured. Clinical depression is much deeper than the typical I’m-feeling-kind-of-down today.

“If only my pain and illness were visible to the world…then people would understand,” Joseph writes. She’s right. Mental illness needs to be viewed through the same lens as any other illness. Except we know it all too often isn’t. The stigma remains. The lack of understanding remains. The misinformation remains. Too many still think you can will yourself, or snap yourself, out of depression or other mental illness. That doesn’t work.

That’s why books like this are so important in changing perceptions, in educating, and in building empathy and understanding.

For Joseph, her first memory of the darkness which would enter her life occurred at age eight. At age 13, feelings of emptiness, non-stop crying, sadness and, for the first time, suicidal thoughts developed. In her 20s, she would once again contemplate suicide as she stood in her kitchen, knife in hand.

It was the death of a 17-year-old friend in high school that propelled Joseph to open up about her depression. I especially appreciate Joseph’s assessment of Matt’s depression-caused suicide: “Matt took his own life because he was sick, and that was how I saw it.” By writing that, she helps ease blame and guilt which often follow a suicide.

In telling her story, Joseph also writes about ways in which she manages her clinical depression. And that is via medication, hard work and taking care of herself. She is a runner, a life-long interest/activity tracing back to childhood. In high school, she ran on the track team, even competed in the state meet. Running helps manage her depression, putting her in a calm, meditative state.

Therein lie the additional strengths of Joseph’s memoir. She offers hope. She reveals how she navigates her depression, what works for her, including taking medication. She acknowledges the reality of her mental illness. And she is open about her struggles. I applaud Joseph for writing about her clinical depression, for her raw honesty, for sharing her stories. For it is through personal stories that we most connect. And begin to understand.

TO PURCHASE Simply Because We Are Human, click here.

FYI: If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, please seek help. You are not alone. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 800-273-8255 (free, confidential and available 24/7).

National Alliance on Mental Illness

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. I pledge to continue my efforts to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Please read previous reviews I’ve written on books about mental illnesses by clicking here, then here, next, here, and, finally, here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: What you can do, what “we” can do March 10, 2020

 

I photographed this at an ethnic celebration last fall at the Northfield Public Library. This message refers to the struggles with mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

THEY’RE NOT NUTS, crazy or whatever other derogatory term you want to tag to someone with mental health struggles.

Such uninformed, inaccurate and offensive words continue to perpetuate the stigma, the blame, the discrimination against those diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more.

If you sense a bit of anger in my words, it’s because I’m trying to come to terms with something offensive I saw in small town Minnesota this past weekend as it relates to mental illness. I’m currently processing this, recognizing that a knee jerk emotional reaction won’t help.

 

This sculpture outside the Northfield library is called “Waist Deep” and addresses the topic of mental health. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

So let’s set that aside and talk about positive things that are happening now to raise awareness and educate about mental health. This Thursday, March 12, Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is organizing “Mental Health Day on the Hill” at the Minnesota state capitol in an effort to strengthen and expand our mental health system. That’s much-needed in a state with a severe shortage of mental healthcare professionals. A rally is set for 11 am to noon in the capitol rotunda.

 

A sign explains the story behind the “Waist Deep” sculpture. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Rallies are effective because they draw attention to a cause. But we need to do more. And that starts with each of us individually, personally. We need to educate ourselves, to show support, care and compassion to our families, our friends, our neighbors, anyone who is struggling with their mental health. Just like we rally when someone is diagnosed with cancer, we need to give that same support during a mental health crisis. But how many GoFundMe pages or local community fundraisers have you seen for someone facing insurmountable medical and other bills due to a mental illness? Not many or none, I would guess.

However, there are exceptions. Recently a Faribault police officer took his own life. In an obit published in my local newspaper, the family shared this about their loved one: He took a medical retirement after a 10 year career. He was diagnosed with PTSD and lost his battle with the disease by taking his own life. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover his funeral expenses with any extras going toward his children’s education. We read often in an obituary that someone died after a long, brave battle with cancer. To read about someone battling a disease like PTSD is equally as important, especially in ending the associated stigma.

There’s a reason mental illness is sometimes called the “no casserole disease.” In Minnesota, I’d say, the “no hotdish disease.” It’s time for that to change—time for us to start taking hotdishes to, sending cards, visiting, calling and otherwise supporting those who are in the throes of a mental health crisis or recovery. (And their families.) Just as we do when someone is hospitalized during and after surgery or going through chemo or…

 

A close-up of that reaching hand on the Northfield, Minnesota, sculpture. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

And we need to speak up when people use stigmatizing words like “nuts” and “crazy.”

I appreciate that this week, and again in late April, Faribault Community School is offering an 8-hour youth mental health first aid training course to help adults identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness or substance abuse. The more we learn, the better prepared we are to help one another.

NAMI is a fantastic resource and help for anyone dealing with mental health issues. With state chapters nationwide, you can often find a nearby peer or family support group. My community doesn’t offer a family support group. But neighboring Owatonna and Northfield do.

No matter who you are, where you live, dealing with a mental health issue or not, we need to work harder on ending the stigma, raising awareness and showing compassion. I am committed to that. I hope you are, too. This affects all of us, even if you don’t realize it.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling