Grace’s Story: Finding a Balanced Mind
“I was tired all the time, and I felt as though none of my friends really wanted to be my friends,” Grace says, who is now 22. “I had gotten into my top choice school, Amherst College. I should have been so excited about it, but I didn’t really care.”
Instead she wanted to lie in bed. Even though she faced a wall of exhaustion, Grace couldn’t sleep. “I didn’t have any motivation to do much,” she says, “but because I am the kind of person who can’t ignore my school work, my grades weren’t affected.”
Grace thought starting college would be just the ticket to begin enjoying her life again. So she told her parents, Denise and Doug Nash, she wanted to speak with a therapist about transitioning to life away from home. “They were more than supportive, but they only thought I was going because I was nervous about college,” Grace says.
Then in October of her freshman year, Grace returned home to Winnetka for fall break, and her symptoms had graduated to intense depression and anxiety. Her parents then discovered that it wasn’t only pre-college jitters that had made Grace seek out therapy just six months before.
According to Susan Resko, President of the Josselyn Center in Northfield, the stigma of mental illness–such as depression and anxiety-often prevents people from telling their loved ones and closest confidants. Ultimately, it also keeps them from seeking help by walking though the door of a therapist’s office or mental health facility.
Resko, who lives in Kenilworth and has worked in the field of mental health advocacy for the past 15 years, says, “Studies have shown that stigma is reduced when people share their story and talk about it. And for some reason, we haven’t been able to get mental health out into the general public the way we have communicated about breast cancer or some of the other diseases that have really moved forward.”
Why does stigma persist for mental illness, even though it has fallen away for other diseases and disorders like AIDS, cancer, or even erectile dysfunction?
“The brain is the most complicated organ of the body,” Resko says. “It’s ‘the last frontier,’ so to speak, so it makes sense that mental illness is the last bastion of stigma, which is driven by misunderstanding. Also, because mental illness affects our behavior, it’s hard for us to tease apart illness symptoms from personality. That’s why it’s so important for people to start talking about how their depression may cause them to isolate, so we can gain understanding. Someone with depression isn’t necessarily naturally anti-social. It simply means that they are not feeling well.”
In addition, people can be genetically predisposed to chemical imbalances or have brain neurons that don’t function properly. Both can affect the way we think about and perceive the world, Resko continues. Such imbalances can be righted through medication and therapy so that patients feel their internal pendulum swinging back towards equilibrium.
Beyond a diagnosis, patients sometimes resist the steps of treatment due to stigma. “People say they don’t want to take medication that’s going to change their personality,” Resko says. “I tell people that treating mental illness with medication is just like taking a prescription for a brain illness such as epilepsy or a sleep disorder. They all affect our brain’s ability to function.”
Back at Amherst in fall of 2012, Grace Nash remembers feeling as immobile as a brick. “I got drastically worse,” she recounts now. “I started self-harm and could barely get out of my bed to go to classes. My academics were very much compromised during my first year of college.” After time, though, the skies did clear for Grace. With support from a psychiatrist, a therapist, family, and friends, Grace felt dramatically better. After genetic testing ordered by her doctor, she was prescribed Cymbalta for depression, and at weekly therapy sessions with a psychologist near college, Grace opened the window to renewed serenity and optimism.
“By the end of my sophomore year,” Grace reports, “I had tapered off the medication and was back to feeling really well.”
The irony of this stigma is that mental illness is surprisingly pervasive:One in five adults experiences some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“It is one of the most common of all disorders,” Resko says. “When you look at the burden of illness, it is the number one burden in the world. It’s far greater than cardiovascular disease or diabetes.” (Disease burden is the measured impact of disease in terms of cost, mortality, or incidence.)
On the North Shore, the Josselyn Center opens unique access to a full array of mental health services-and that’s unusual. “Comprehensive treatment is more effective,” Resko says. “At the Josselyn Center, we have psychiatry, therapy, and case management all under one roof. That facilitates better care because we have a team working together on cases.”
Furthermore, the doors are open to people who can’t afford the price of private mental health services. More than 80 percent of Josselyn’s clients are Medicaid recipients. “We are the only provider of psychiatric services for low income people within a 375-mile-band,” Resko says. “When you measure from Skokie to Waukegan and Lake Michigan to Arlington Heights, we are it.”
Medicare clients are also welcome, along with people who need to pay fees on a sliding scale. “Because we are one of the few providers in Northern Illinois,” Resko says, “It makes us all the more important. We service those people who have no other options, such as the people who are on Medicaid. If they can’t get to us, their options are no treatment, the ER, or jail.”
On its website, the Josselyn Center tells potential clients that if they seek treatment, “You will feel better.” Resko says that statement plants seeds of hope.
“There’s hope that somebody is out there who cares for those people who often feel that nobody cares about them,” Resko says. “Our clinical staff is very dedicated because we work in community mental health.”
Again, the old cliché rings true: Appearances are often deceiving. “Especially on the North Shore, it seems as if everybody here has it all going on and lives these idyllic lives,” Resko continues. “But in actuality, there are people who live among us who are suffering, both financially and with a mental health condition. So the Josselyn Center is a place where they are valued, where they are respected, and they receive quality treatment that can help them go on to lead more productive lives.”