ESA

We are all familiar with service animals that are trained to provide help for their owners in a variety of different ways.  Service animals can be trained to lead a blind person, support the head of someone having a seizure, or detect an imminent panic attack, among other tasks.  However, new on the scene are emotional-support animal(ESA) that provide emotional support to students on a college campus suffering with a mental illness, i.e., depression or anxiety.  The animal is not specifically trained (as would be a service animal) to give emotional support, which can lead to such an animal being indistinguishable from a regular pet.  Inasmuch as the number of college students with clinical depression or anxiety is today rising, ESAs are becoming more common on campuses.

As a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which describes a service animal as one that is trained to perform a task its owner can’t, schools have formulated and implemented a clear policy pertaining to the use and housing of service animals on college campuses.  However, the use of ESAs (as reported in a January 23, 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer article in The Region section) is a more recent development, and there is less of a clear-cut policy defining the use of an emotional-support animal.  At the moment, permission for having an ESA in campus housing is granted based on a letter from a medical provider explaining that the person requesting an ESA has a diagnosed mental illness and that an animal is necessary to help this person cope.  Unfortunately, a problem arises when students feign mental health issues in order to obtain permission to have their favorite pet accompany them to college.  This is a kink that needs to be worked out, and may prevent a doctor from writing the necessary letter.  This all being said, there are other avenues to take in order to get the needed letter that will allow someone with a mental illness to bring an ESA to campus.  If you can not get your doctor to write the required letter, there is an organization called CertaPet (that is but one of a number of such organizations) that is able to certify the need for an ESA after conducting a clinical assessment by phone with a person who is requesting emotional support.

There is plenty of research that has been conducted in thfield of ESAs, but little of this research proves the if, how, or why an ESA works.  There were a number of students who were interviewed for the Inquirer article giving glowing reports on the benefits of having an ESA, but all the data received was anecdotal information.  Molly Crossman, a researcher at Yale who focuses on human-animal interaction, is cited in the Inquirer article as noting that research has been limited to short-term interactions which does not give a full picture of the benefits of an ESA.  It seems as though the final chapter has yet to be written on the benefits of an ESA, but nothing appears to suggest that ESAs do not serve a helpful purpose.

 

References:

National Alliance On Mental Illness

National Institute On Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

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the mood changed

“ We talk about mental-health in a reactive way, after a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain commits suicide.  Part of me wonders, if we were to normalize talking about mental health, how many people could we keep from that kind of suffering?” (This sentence appeared at the end of an article that I read recently.)

Most people just do not want to talk about mental-health illness.  The topic of mental-health illness is not found on any list of acceptable subjects for polite conversation.  If the topic creeps in during an evening gathering, the tone of the conversation changes.  People get quiet.  A hush comes over the room.  Eye contact ceases.  People begin to look down into their laps or off to the side.  They squirm in their seats, and sit counting the minutes until the conversation can be changed.

Just the other evening I was with a group of wonderful, bright, witty women, all of whom happen to have partaken in therapy at one time or another.  They are no strangers to the concept of seeking help, and of knowing the benefits of that help.  However, only one of these women knew that I had actually suffered from depression and anxiety.  We were all laughing, drinking, eating, and sharing personal stories.  After awhile, each person had made an off-handed reference to their experience with therapy, leading me to feel safe enough that I could share my story with these wonderful, bright, witty women.  At a moment in the conversation that seemed apt for an appropriate segue, I shared that I write a blog about mental health, and in particluar about the stigma that is so unfortunately attached to it.  I was immediately aware of the change in the mood around me.  Everyone got quiet.  No one knew what to say.  Wonderful, bright, witty, women, all of whom had some experience with a mental health issue, and perhaps even the medications that often accompany a mental health problem, were embarassed by my acknowledging my own battle with mental illness.  To this moment, I do not remember how the conversation moved forward.  I became self-concious, and I know I stopped talking.  The evening continued on, but this incident will certainly make me think carefully before sharing that information again.

If this can happen to me, someone who writes a blog about mental health, someone who can speak about it a bit more freely than many others, how can we expect the average joe to find this topic comfortable?  If the people who understand it are uncomfortable, then how can we expect those who have no idea about mental health illness begin to gain a level of comfort in a conversation dealing with this topic?

The solution to getting rid of the stigma that accompanies mental illness needs to start with us – the people who have a mental illness.  We need to be the ones to speak up and out about our own experiences.  Let people know that we are normal, wonderful, bright, witty, people with a health issue.

Resources

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute on Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

Inch by Inch

Inch by inch and step by step we are making progress in the battle against the stigma related to mental-health illness.  The progress has been slow for sure, and comes primarily in the form of articles being written about the existence of this stigma.  The stigma is definitely still a factor in the mental-health conversation, but at least people are talking about that stigma.  Does that sound like progress?  Yes, it does, certainly to me, because we are talking about and acknowledging the existence of mental-health issues.  We are not ignoring the topic hoping it will go away.

Each of these articles to which I referred above talks about people, famous and not-so-famous, admitting that they have mental-health challenges.  Carson Daly, host of The Voice and a contributor on the Today Show, admits battling a panic and anxiety disorder since childhood.  Charlamagne Tha God, a radio host and best-selling author of Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, admits that even though he talks and writes about having mental-health issues, he is still not totally comfortable with this persona.  Allison Schmitt, a gold medal Olympic swimmer, Kevin Love, a professional basketball player, Jason Kander, a politician, and so many more well-known people have come forward and raised their hands and said, “Yes, I have a mental-health challenge.” But even with so many people confessing to having mental-health issues, we unfortunately are still not free of the stigma.

Our society has a long way to go to get up to speed on accepting mental-health illness and treating it like any other illness.  Until that happens, people will remain wary and reticent in seeking help for their mental-health issue. Depression will go untreated.  Anxiety will go untreated.  Panic disorders will go untreated.  Bi-polar disorders will remain in the closet.  And this result is so unfortunate, because there are so many ways to get help and lead a healthy, productive, and normal life.

For resources for help please refer to the list below.

 

Resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute on Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

#DamWorthIt

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated(December 17-24,2018), I read an article about the mental health struggles of two student athletes who attend Oregon State University.  One, a male soccer player, and the other a female gymnast, met and began a conversation that gave birth to a mental health support organization called #DamWorthIt.   The focus of #DamWorthIt is on helping to end the stigma that so often accompanies mental health issues, and providing resources for student athletes who need help coping with the myriad of pressures with which they are faced.  As a result of sunrise training sessions, classes, and studying, student athletes find themselves overwhelmed with the demands of their lives.  Depression among college athletes is well documented, with a recent survey performed by Psychology Today noting that “6.3% of student athletes met the criteria for ‘significant’ depression.”

The soccer player, Nathan Braaten, and the gymnast, Taylor Ricci, with the support of the athletic department of Oregon State University, began telling their stories through documentaries and openly discussing their own mental health struggles.  In addition to these efforts, Braaten and Ricci, through #DamWorthIt, developed a survey that is administered by Oregon State University and that assesses the mental health and well-being of incoming freshman athletes.  Programs have been put in place and resources are available to help those students who are having mental health problems.  As a result, the mental health programs are now being treated no differently than the tutoring programs available to help student athletes who are having academic problems.

In order to raise awareness of the #DamWorthIt program, the oganization is giving out bracelets at all home athletic events.  The bracelets either say “#DamWorthIt” or “Mental Health, End the Stigma”.  So far, in less than a year, they have given away 5,000 bracelets, and word is spreading about the program.  I can’t help but believe that word of the program will filter down to non-athlete students who will also be touched by the essence of this extraoridinary program.

On top of the positive steps that are now occurring as a result of the Braaten and Ricci efforts, the Pac-12 conference has approved #DamWorthIt for a $60,000 Student-Athlete Health & Well-Being grant.  It is the first such grant awarded to a student-run organization, and Braaten and Ricci plan to conduct seminars at every Pac-12 school this year with the aim of educating the athletes about the resources available to them to help provide mental health well-being.  It is readily accepted that if a student athlete tears a ligament he/she sees a doctor, and Braaten and Ricci want it to become second nature for any athelte who is having emotional issues to go seek help as well.

If you have a mental health issue, please seek help.  Share your stories with your peers. Let others know that you have suffered and conquered a mental health challenge.  Listen to the stories of others.  And most important, keep talking.

 

Resources 

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute of Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

 

Ready Again

I would describe the challenges of the past year, some of them sad and painful, and some of them wonderful and validating, but the point of my blog is to help to remove the stigma from the words mental illness,not to provide a diary of the details of my own journey.  However, I will tell you that all of these challenges coming one after the other , both the good and the bad, made the journey of the past year difficult.  And yet, I have made it through, almost intact, by putting one foot in front of the other, and asking for help when I needed it.

Although taking a pause in writing for my blog, I did continue to read articles and listen to interviews about mental health issues.  I realized that there are a lot of people thinking and talking about the stigma of mental illness, and how that stigma is keeping many people from getting the help they need.  That ongoing conversation helps me believe that we are on a path that will lead us to a kinder and gentler world for mental health sufferers.

People are increasingly talking about mental health.  One of the points that is being made repeatedly is that getting help for a mental illness is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.  They are asserting that anyone, from any country, with any kind of socio-economic background, with any kind of job, with any kind of public recognition, with any kind of family, with any kind of profession, with any kind of financial resources, can be touched by a mental health illness.  Just as with any other illness in this world, mental health illness knows no boundaries, and all men and women are equally susceptible.

Below you will find a list of some of the many organizations that can provide help to those who are touched by mental illness and would like to find a path to achieving wellness:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute of Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

Heads Together Mental Health

Part of my luggage

I now believe that once a person has suffered from a mental illness, that person is always in recovery.  I am convinced that all the therapist appointments and medications in the world do not insure that one will never suffer another episode of mental illness.  There is no iron clad guarantee that one’s life will be free and clear of additional episodes of mental health-related problems.  In fact, I believe the opposite.  Once a mental health illness has touched one’s life, the possibility of future episodes related to that illness is almost certain.  It truly pains me to even write this, but I believe it to be true.

After I battled my way through the first episode of anxiety and depression, I thought, okay, I have conquered the demons and now all is well.  I believed I was done with that challenge and ready to move on.  Cured for a lifetime.  One and done!  That was my thought process.  But that was far from reality.  Sixteen years after my first episode, I found myself struggling with a second event, and I was shocked.  How could this be?  I take my medication every day.  I meditate each day.  I understood the issues of anxiety and depression.  I had learned tools for coping.  But there I was, in the middle of another difficult anxiety episode.  Trying to be proactive, I began to see the therapist again, because I was going to nip this in the bud.  But try as I might, the bud pushed open – wham!! – anxiety attacks were ravaging my days.  Shit!  This just wasn’t fair.

To cut to the punch line, I learned a very important lesson the second time around.  There is no such thing as one and done.  I will always be in recovery.  I have an anxiety disorder.  The possibility of additional bouts of depression and anxiety are part of my luggage.  That is my reality.

Treatable Maladies

I remember the pain of suffering from depression and anxiety.  I hated that pain.  It was emotionally crippling, just like having arthritis can be physically crippling.  I don’t want others to feel that kind of pain.  I know that I am not able to eliminate mental health illnesses from our list of worldly challenges, but what I can do is encourage those who need treatment for a mental illness to get the help they need.  There are now many ways to treat the depression or anxiety that is the cause of the pain, and there is no reason to continue to suffer.  Mental illnesses are treatable maladies.

When I suspect that someone is feeling the discomfort of anxiety, I want to reach out with my arms and my words.  I want to encircle them with a hug that will protect them from the reality of their pain.  I want to squeeze them so tight, that there is no room left for their pain.  I want to say something that will magically lift away the weight of their mental illness.  I want to let them know and feel that everything will be all right.  But, this goal is not based in any reality, for I know that healing comes from the within, and each person must do his/her own work to heal.  However, that desire to protect others from the pain of an untreated mental illness is the reason I write this blog.  I believe a productive approach through which I can assist others is to help erase the stigma surrounding mental illness, and hopefully once that stigma is gone, mental health sufferers will be more comfortable seeking treatment.  Treatment will help them eliminate their own pain.