By Christopher Cudworth
For the last six or seven years it has been a joy to rise on an early October morning to support a local race in Batavia, Illinois called the NAMI 5k. The race raises money each year for a local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Originally the race was called the BatRun, a race title I convinced them to change. I just didn’t think the term “bat” or “bats” went well with the serious issue of mental illness. The organizers meant well, trying to relate to the Halloween season and all, but my point was in trying to place the focus on something more important than frightening fun.
For years I’ve pedaled out to the one-mile marker to read times. It is a race after all, and usually the winner breaks 18:00 or so.
But the bulk of runners and walkers cares less about time than participation. The race this year raised $10,000 for the local NAMI chapter. That’s important funding for an organization that provides mental health guidance and resources to individuals and families impacted by people with mental illness.
That’s a wide range of the human population. This fact sheet outlines the scope of people impacted by mental illness in America alone.
One in four people in America experiences mental illness in a given year. Too many don’t want to admit their challenges. They might see it as a sign of weakness or disability. That keeps people from reaching out for help, leaving them to suffer alone.
13% of youth face mental illness issues that legitimately require treatment. Society too often writes these serious issues off as “kids being kids” or “moody teenagers.”
In fact most mental illnesses are a direct product of chemical imbalances in the brain. Some forms of mental illness are not only chronic, they are debilitating. It is estimated that the cost of lost earnings due to mental illness reach $193B per year.
So one would think that there would be more fund raising to address these issues. Certainly the various channels of cancer fund raising are admirable and worthwhile, but perhaps the idea of raising pink funds for “the girls” and breast cancer is a bit more alluring than raising money for darkness of the soul.
Yet it’s possible and people do get the idea that mental illness is a serious issue once they engage with the issue. With one in four people experiencing difficult challenges in mental health every year, it is obvious we are all in contact with people with depression, anxiety and other disorders of the brain that produce dramatic or unseen costs.
So much about mental illness is a question of context. While roaming the race grounds taking pictures the song Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen came pouring through the speakers. In context of the NAMI 5K the lyrics took on a whole different meaning…
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
H-Oh, Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run
Anyone that has felt genuine depression and anxiety knows that there is a fine balance between determination to survive and complete ambivalence at the same time. If that fine line slips there is even the intent of suicide that can creep in. Mental illness can take away the will to carry on or even survive.
The degrees of mental illness put individuals at other risks if their condition removes social constructs or rationality. When people lose their ability to reason their behavior can even run afoul of the law. One of the important NAMI initiatives is working with law enforcement to provide education about how to identify and handle people experiencing profound mental health episodes.
So it was heartening to see families walking in honor of their loved ones or friends with mental health. Some wore placards on their back stating “I’m walking for my mom” or other friends and family.
It was cold. And it was windy. Yet there were breaks in the forest where the winds abated and people ran or walked along without being buffeted by the brisk October weather. It was perfectly symbolic of the entire journey through a life impacted by mental illness. There are calms and there are storms. There are dark moments and also trees bright with color and hope.
Because it is also true that people with mental illness often experience life at a more intense level than some of the rest of us. Certainly the challenge of working with someone gifted with savant capabilities yet nicked by the inability to recognize social cues is becoming more of a mainstream issue. Conditions such as Asperger’s and autism are now discussed with more frequency. Schools have struggled with whether to be inclusive or exclusive in these efforts. But at least there is a social movement to recognize the value of better engagement.
It’s National Mental Health Awareness Week October 5-11th, 2014. Take some time to visit the NAMI website to educate yourself on mental health issues and learn where you can find resources for people you know or yourself. There are many healthy ways to gain better mental health.
I know. I’ve worked through a lifelong engagement with anxiety. The effects have been profound and impactful at times. My running and riding are healthy ways to deal with anxiety and the flipside of depression that can go with it. Through all the frightening challenges of caregiving for my late wife when she had cancer, it was important to get both chemical treatment and counseling to better deal with life events that can accentuate one’s propensity for compromised mental health.
It’s not just something you will or pray away, although cognitive and spiritual attentiveness can help. Good mental health is primarily awareness of your condition and finding ways to not just cope, but thrive in your own context.
It’s very possible, but if you or someone you know is struggling with personality or mental health disorders it is so important to seek help. Don’t be afraid. You are far from alone, and that’s the point. We’re all in this together.