The miserable catch 22 of mental illness


Anxiety and depression can make it harder for people to reach out for the help they need.

I’m depressed.

I’ve dealt with mental health issues for decades now. Nothing fancy or interesting like multiple personalities or hallucinations. Just run-of-the-mill boring ones — good old depression and anxiety, and maybe some undiagnosed PTSD to go with it.

Mental illness has a stigma, but most sufferers are like me. Boring. Struggling. Outwardly pretty normal. Not a threat to society. Sometimes we even push our way through work, relationships, raising kids, or — in my case — graduate school.

Lately, I’ve been splitting my time between hating myself and working on my thesis.

It’s kind of odd to go back and forth between reading academic journal articles like a functional grown-up and curling up in the fetal position in bed like a child. If you saw me in public, you’d never know anything was wrong.

The bigger problem, for those of us who suffer, is the lack of a safety net. If you have a family who can support you and help you, great. But a lot of folks with mental illness get here because our families were dysfunctional in the first place.

There are cases where families all heal together, and it works out in the end. The alcoholic in the mix stops drinking, everyone goes to the appropriate therapy, 12-step program, or both, and the family comes together.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the problems can’t be fixed. Sometimes, rather than being your support system, your family is your problem. What then?

Well, you have to work a full-time job just like everyone else, if you’re lucky enough to have one. You have to find a therapist, and go every week — and pay your bills, do your dishes, and cook your meals just like everyone else.

Doing all of that stuff while depressed isn’t easy. It’s no easier than trying to do all of those things with the flu — by yourself, without help.

Even with Obamacare’s improvements to mental health coverage, getting care isn’t always easy or affordable.

In the past two years, I’ve tried five different therapists without luck. Four were covered by my insurance, and for the last one I forked over $75 cash just to talk to a woman who didn’t help for an hour.

I’ve had good psychotherapists before. I believe in therapy. But it’s exhausting to go through the process of finding a therapist, getting a referral, making the appointment, and then pouring your heart out to someone you barely know just to find out they actually aren’t a good fit for you.

And what are the other options?

If you can afford it, you could go to a psychiatrist to try antidepressants, or try more therapists at a time. For the suicidal, there’s hospitalization. For the long-term debilitated, there’s Social Security disability. (Not that it really pays enough to live on, nor does it address the actual problem.)

There’s a catch-22 element to the problem.

I feel unable to do what I’m supposed to in my life because of anxiety and depression, and I’m anxious and depressed about what I have to do in my life. I’m panicked about making a mistake, so I become paralyzed with fear and make lots of mistakes.

And if your response is, “That’s not rational,” well… yeah. That’s why they call it mental illness.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know the status quo is not okay. Millions of Americans are suffering, and sometimes your very problem, mental illness, makes it harder for you to reach out for the help you need.

By Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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