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Lisa Dishner, Interim Senior Director of Nursing for Carilion Clinic Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine (Virginia March of Dimes Nurse of the Year for Behavioral Health)

Check Your Assumptions at the Door: Mental Illness Can Affect All of Us
By Lisa Dishner, MSN
When you hear the words “inpatient psychiatric unit,” who do you picture?

Unfortunately, television shows and movies often only depict extreme scenarios. The reality is quite different.

I’ve been a nurse in a psychiatric unit for 10 years, and I’ve had the privilege of leading several nursing units for more than 5 years. Of course, I’ve seen those extreme scenarios from time to time, but mostly I work with “normal” people. Think of your friends, neighbors or colleagues – those going through a tough time or coping with a recent loss or change.

They’re not alone. More than 46.6 million American adults struggle with mental illness. Less than half of those individuals, however, receive any type of mental health care.

It’s time for us to check our assumptions of what “mentally ill” looks like and acknowledge that mental illness affects us all.

Stigma keeps many from seeking help. It is so powerful that many of us don’t realize that we, ourselves, could benefit from mental health resources.

I once worked with a patient who was a leader in her academic field. She had never experienced a mental health crisis before. She wondered if she overstated her need – if she was worth “the fuss” of inpatient care. She felt like she did not belong on the unit with the other patients, and it wasn’t because she thought less of them. Instead, it was spurred by a genuine sense of shame that she needed help in the first place.

She probably wouldn’t have questioned a visit to the emergency department for major chest pains. She probably wouldn’t have felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment when teams swarmed to assess her symptoms and treat her. But the shame associated with mental illness is the reality for mental health patients across the Commonwealth, and we need to do more to help those in need.

Statistically speaking, we’ll all experience significant trauma or a crisis at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, cultural expectations often tell us that we can “tough it out” and wait for our mental health symptoms to fix themselves. No one is immune from personal crises, and you or a loved-one might one day need to ask for help.

When you do, my colleagues and I, all across the Commonwealth and beyond, will be there to answer your call.

Consider the current state of your mental health and what you could do to improve your mental well-being. Think about your loved-ones who may be struggling too. Remember that mental health issues can stem from many different factors, and many people around you are suffering in silence. What could you do to diminish the stigma around mental illness and help those around you?

Reach out to your local psychiatric clinics and ask how you can assist, because chances are there is someone there that would hugely benefit from knowing that they are not alone. Consider donating clothing, books, and blankets – anything that you, your child, your loved one, or friend would take comfort in. That small gesture is the ticket to chipping away from the stigma of mental illness.

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