Mental illness: it's about what you don't know

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What do you know about mental illness? If you were to ask me that question in October of last year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much. But after diving into many psychology classes at Walla Walla University, I was introduced to the mental health field by way of a class titled “Abnormal Psychology,” which led me to begin volunteering at The Rising Sun Clubhouse.

My mind was then opened to the disorders that touch many lives in our community, and I realized how much more there was to learn.

What about the average person walking down Main Street in Walla Walla — could they give an accurate depiction about what it is like to have a mental illness?

I think it’s time to find out. I am in search of identifying what the Walla Walla Valley knows about mental health and well-being. My hope is for us as a community to see beyond what we now recognize as being abnormal.

Even if you read this column every month, remember that without putting forth personal effort to inform yourself about mental illness, you are most likely not going to gain knowledge about it in your typical daily settings.

The first step to acquiring a greater understanding of a topic is to become aware. A great resource to learn more about mental illness is at www.NAMI.org, the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They’ve shared some tips about how a person can participate in becoming aware of mental illness.

It can be done simply, by watching a movie (“A Beautiful Mind” or “The Soloist”) on a cold autumn night, or as proactively as spending time volunteering in the mental health field.

Whatever method you decide to choose, know that each action causes an effect. These effects may be big or small, positive or negative — but they ultimately lead to further enlightenment within your own life and the lives of those around you.

Another important factor in this process of edification is that myths must be dispelled and facts must be brought to the surface. There is a vast body of information available to those of us within the mental health field. However, the many sources may not always be in conformance with one another. You will sometimes find contradictory findings within research, or unanswered questions because a topic has not been studied enough.

The most popular sources of information regarding mental illness are the Internet (articles, videos, websites, blogs, etc.), the news (TV channels, newspapers or talk shows) and the media (magazines, movies or the radio).

With each of these, information is mostly hand-fed, meaning that little to no effort is needed in order to obtain material from the source. This can be a good or a bad thing, since the information can spread rapidly, reaching a vast majority of people within minutes.

However, these resources often leave people with only a distant feeling of what they actually came to know. Since they aren’t sharing that information with anyone or learning how to apply the new knowledge in their everyday lives, the information becomes faint and possibly later forgotten.

If those options are less than ideal for becoming aware about mental illness, what is a good option? I propose that the best source of knowledge comes from hands-on experience. Even though it may be a less sought-after option, it could potentially be the wake-up call necessary to understand the depth of information regarding the mental health field.

There are some great ways to dive into this approach. You could begin taking classes from the nearby colleges or even privately led courses, or studying individually or with others by reading and researching within scientific journal articles.

That being said, the most beneficial option would be to seek out areas within mental health services and volunteer your personal time and efforts. Not only can you then gain new understanding of the mental health field, but you also get the behind-the-scenes view of a new professional setting.

Be honest with yourself — what do you have to lose? Now consider what you have to gain by educating yourself and seeking out new resources to learn about mental illness. Let me suggest that it’s worth the extra effort.

Here’s a challenge for you to think about and take into effect if you so wish: Get out a sheet of paper and write down what you know about major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Include everything that comes to your mind.

After doing that, spend one week researching those four disorders. Highlight correct information from your original list, but also cross out and change anything you found out to be incorrect. Do this with a friend or family member and discuss what you learned in your separate studies.

Each action is important, and it’s time to move beyond what our beliefs of abnormal are.

Shelby Paulsen is the director of The Rising Sun Clubhouse, and can be reached by email at shelbyrpaulsen@gmail.com.

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