Everyone Deserves a Sandra
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and like so many “awareness months” it’s easy to give it a thought or two and move on. If it doesn’t affect you, does it really matter? Maybe it doesn’t mean much to you personally, but mental illness probably touches a friend or loved one. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in the US live with a mental illness. That’s nearly 60 million people. Of that number, about 47 percent received mental health services in 2021. Less than half.
The numbers are higher in the LGBTQ community, especially among young people. According to a recent study by the Trevor Project, 41 percent of young LGBTQ people have considered suicide in the last year and that number increases to more than half for trans and nonbinary young people. That study came out before the current deluge of anti-LGBTQ+ bills making their way through state legislatures. At the time of this writing, the ACLU is tracking 474 of these bills.
Clearly, mental health services are needed, but therapy can be difficult to get—even if you have insurance. This became evident during the pandemic, when there simply weren’t enough therapists for those who reached out for help.
But the truth is, the majority of people needing mental health services don’t seek it. Research shows the main reason people resist getting mental health treatment is stigma. People are afraid of being judged, of change, of what they might discover during therapy. Pride is another major stumbling block to getting help.
Sounds familiar. In my up-from-the-bootstraps family, it took a psychotic break at 16 for me to tell anyone I needed help. It took months and months of hearing voices before I was desperate enough to tell my mother. To her credit, she whisked me off to my town’s only psychiatrist, who I instantly disliked and lied to. But I found out I wasn’t schizophrenic, and began a heavy drug regimen that allowed me to graduate from high school and get the hell out of my small town to college. I was lucky.
In my 30s, I hit a major wall and found a therapist, Sandra, in New York City who changed my life. I also found a psychopharmacologist who finally diagnosed me correctly and put me on the right medication. It took a lot of pain to get me there and I had to work hard. I had a lot of issues, many ups and downs, and I worked weekly with Sandra until I left New York and moved to Delaware. When I got here, I found a psychiatrist I could trust and have stayed on medication.
Stigma is a lot like homophobia; it can be external and internal. If you don’t fight it, it can be deadly. I thought I was OK, I thought I was stronger than my illness, I feared going down the rabbit hole of therapy. Bipolar disorder, which I have, isn’t identifiable to the passing crowd; it’s easy to hide. I was afraid of what my bosses and co-workers would think. Would I have been hired in the first place? Would they act differently around me if they knew?
But mental illness is just that—an illness like diabetes or heart disease. I had no more choice in the matter than someone with cancer. At my last job, over time I let my boss know as well as my colleagues. Just like I let them know that I’m gay. These are two important parts of me. I try not to blurt it out with people I’m just getting to know but I don’t hide any more. These are parts of my identity and I try to live authentically these days. It’s just easier for me.
I reconnected with Sandra during the pandemic, after three friends died of COVID and my world was looking bleak. After three years, we said goodbye again recently. I seem to be doing well lately. I continue to take my medication and need less of it as I get older. I still see a psychiatrist regularly just to be sure. But it’s so good to know Sandra is still there should I need to reach out again. There aren’t enough thanks in the world for what she has helped me achieve—she always called me resilient and I believe it today.
Everyone who has mental health issues and is brave enough to seek help deserves a Sandra. Whether it’s for one session or years together, it can make all the difference. ▼
Beth Shockley is a retired senior writer/editor living in Dover with her wife and furbabies.