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Mental Illness: Breaking the Silence

For far too long, mental illness has been buried beneath stigmatization. Local activists and organizations aim to change that.

Story by Eddy Hoyle

Imagine that you were injured in a car accident and had to have surgery. Friends and family would circle the wagons to ensure you had the support and help you needed. They may bring meals, drive you to medical appointments or do errands. Get well cards and phone calls would let you know that people care. In stark contrast, however, when the diagnosis is mental illness, people expect you to push through, to try harder to “get over it,” and are often in denial about the reality of your condition. If your child had a broken leg, you would get them to a hospital for treatment without hesitation, so why is mental illness any different?

NAMI Lowcountry (National Alliance on Mental Illness) wants to “change the tide in the community to one of acceptance,” said Michelle Taylor, vice president of NAMI’s Board of Directors.

Too often in society there is a stigma and shame associated with mental illness.

“Mental illnesses are medical diagnoses, but most people believe them to be separate and different,” Taylor said. “But that is changing. This is a big message, and an important one, so that early diagnosis is possible. People experiencing mental illness have far better outcomes when symptoms are identified as quickly as possible. Historically, mental illness was thought of as the ‘big, scary diagnoses’ such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, most of us have been touched by mental illness through anxiety or depression  during times of change, around the holidays, after the loss of a loved one, or even going through another medical diagnosis. I believe these experiences to be the starting point to our community’s discussion around mental health and wellness.”

Depression can be situational, feeling like a deep, blue funk, or it may be chronic and get to the point where you feel like cooked spaghetti — so limp and weak that you can’t even get off the couch. Anxiety can make you feel out of control and panicky.

NAMI board member Brody Kenneweg explained that signs and symptoms are too often missed. She has firsthand experience with her brother. “He was charismatic, beautiful and had a great career,” she said. “At 23 years of age, things started to change. He couldn’t stick to deadlines at work; he was one credit short of earning his degree and couldn’t finish. These were signs that something was wrong, but they were missed.”

Friends and family made excuses for his behavior, calling him lazy and unmotivated. The reality was that he was experiencing psychosis (i.e. delusional thoughts, hallucinations) and it took four years and several hospitalizations to get a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Kenneweg recognizes the importance of getting help early.

Kenneweg and Taylor are concerned about the pressures children are under, particularly because of suicides and recent incidents of guns in schools. “It’s time for us to consider that the pressures our children are under are staggering and that there are significant health implications as a result,” Taylor said. NAMI’s goal is to become a resource in schools to open a dialogue with students about depression and anxiety, to work with kids who need to be heard and acknowledged who may be ostracized and isolated, and to help them find their voices.

Susan Williams is the vice chair of the board of Island House, a recovery center for adults diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness. She emphasized that isolation and withdrawal are dangerous signs that could lead to suicide. “The caveat is that if you feel someone isn’t themselves, or if they’re unusually blue or down, you must open a conversation. The worst thing you can do is not bring it up and offer support. You can say something like, ‘I notice you seem really down lately and I’m concerned about you. Do you want to talk about it?’”

If you suspect mental problems, it’s time to break the silence. Both NAMI and Island House can provide information, help and resources.

NAMI offers peer-led support groups, education and socialization, and plans to start support groups for children. or 843-681-2200.

Island House provides personalized and individualized care for adults with severe mental illness on their journey to recovery. It offers day programs to help clients understand their illness, use healthy coping skills, teach daily living skills, and to manage stress. or 843-757-8650.

Therapy is now available in the palm of your hand through an online counseling service called ThriveTalk. Life can be hard. Having someone to talk to can help you make positive changes. Therapy isn’t just about discussing your past, it’s about helping you set and reach goals. You don’t have to go it alone anymore. Check out

NAMI’s Mardi Gras Gala

NAMI invites you to come together as a community to raise awareness and funds for those affected by mental illness in the Lowcountry. You are invited to the 2019 Mardi Gras Gala from 5:30-10:30 on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Sonesta Resort. The Sonesta Resort will be transformed into a Mardi Gras-themed venue filled with silent and live auction items, a New Orleans-style menu, and a party hosted by Crush Entertainment! Your attendance will fuel the free programs needed to ensure our community remains the safe haven that we call home. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased on the NAMI Lowcountry Facebook page.

Good news: You’re not crazy

Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I crazy? Is there something wrong with me?” The easy answer is no, you are not crazy. The term “crazy” is commonly used to describe anything from losing one’s temper to experiencing a psychotic break. It is certainly not used as a medical diagnosis. All mental illness is a medical condition, not a judgment of your character. Mental illness affects about one in five adults and is nothing to be ashamed of.

Here are early signs that you may be suffering from a mental illness:

• Extreme mood changes, causing you to feel very low or (conversely) ecstatic
• Obsessive thoughts
• Difficulty concentrating
• Oversleeping or insomnia
• Delusions or hallucinations
• Paranoia
• Excessive fatigue
• Suicidal thoughts
• Binge eating
• Not eating until it becomes absolutely necessary
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Extreme anger and aggression
• Difficulty forming or maintaining relationships