A young, successful financial analyst, Matt lives in downtown Cincinnati. He enjoys the arts, the outdoors and volunteering for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“Educators were not aware of NAMI or its programs when I was in school,” Matt said.
Educators are not the only ones who lack an understanding of mental illness.
“Many parents are in the position of trying to figure out if their child is having normal teenage mood swings or if it is something more serious,” said Dr. Laura Stith, chief clinical officer at Child Focus. “The NAMI warning signs are specific and this is important.”
NAMI has created 10 warning signs of mental illness. They are:
1. Feeling very sad, withdrawn or unmotivated for more than two weeks.
2. Making plans or trying to harm or kill oneself.
3. Out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors.
4. Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing.
5. Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or weight gain.
6. Severe mood swings causing problems in relationships.
In this final article, we will focus on:
7. Excess use of drugs or alcohol.
“People may use drugs or alcohol to get high or feel good,” said Stith. “They may also use them to relieve stress, escape from social/family/job pressures, forget a traumatic event, or to mask symptoms of a mental health issue (often anxiety or depression).”
“In high school, I fell into depression, followed by manic episodes.” Matt said. “During my manic episodes, I drank excessive amounts of alcohol and used drugs.”
8. Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits.
“A person’s personality is generally fairly stable,” Stith said. “If there is a sudden, significant change in personality or behavior, this is often indicative of a major problem, such as a mental health disorder or a substance use disorder. If someone suddenly requires much more sleep than usual or much less sleep than usual, there is the possibility of a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder.”
Due to a traumatic childhood involving abuse and divorce, Matt went a month without eating regularly or going to school. Because of suicidal thoughts he also began to self-harm. Matt’s mother checked him into a psychiatric hospital.
9. Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still.
“Our brains are designed to attend to a variety of thoughts, perceptions and sensations all at the same time. It has the ability to filter out irrelevant or less important things so that we can focus or concentrate on what we need to,” Stith said. “If a child has difficulty staying seated in situations in which that is expected or staying on task, it would be important to have him or her assessed. These types of issues can be caused by a variety of things such as trauma, learning difficulties, depression, anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”
Matt still wrestles with difficulty in concentrating. “I was also diagnosed with ADHD, but I’ve always had a very hard time staying on task. It is something I deal with even now,” he said.
10. Intense worries or fears getting in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.
“Anxiety disorders are conditions in which one feels frightened, distressed or excessively worried, even in the absence of a credible threat,” Stith said. “The more avoidant a person is of a situation or activity, the harder it becomes to get back to doing the activity.” Depending on how long this has been going on, individuals may need the help of a professional to get back to their regular daily activities.
Despite mental illness challenges, Matt finished high school and was accepted into the University of Cincinnati to study bio-engineering. During college his symptoms of severe depression followed by mania continued. “My binge drinking, risky behavior, and isolation got the best of me,” Matt said. “I failed out of the college of engineering — I hit rock bottom. I checked myself into a hospital.”
After his second visit, Matt began to accept his mental illness diagnosis. “After 10 years of ups and downs, good and bad behaviors, medications trial and error, and two hospitalizations, I began recovery. NAMI was step one of my recovery. The NAMI Peer-to-Peer class changed my way of life,” Matt said. “Through the peer-to-peer class I learned to recognize my symptoms and address them head on before they become unmanageable. I present for NAMI because of the warning signs for mental illness. We cover them in the Ending the Silence (ETS) presentations.”
ETS is a program that educates middle and high school students, staff and parents about the warning signs of mental illness and suicide. The ETS for School Staff presentation is a 50-minute presentation that includes information about warnings signs, videos created by high school students, and information about how to get help. Contact NAMI for details.
To find out more about what NAMI Southern Ohio has to offer, visit www.namisouthernohio.org or call NAMI Southern Ohio Executive Director Lance Cranmer at 740-851-4242. NAMI Southern Ohio is a contracted service provider of the Paint Valley ADAMH Board.
(Matt’s name has been changed to protect anonymity).
Danei Edelen is the founder for the NAMI Brown County affiliate, the fastest NAMI Ohio affiliate established in NAMI Ohio history. She is on the Marketing and Communications Advisory Committee (MAC) for NAMI. She educates high school and college students, police officers and businesses about mental health. She can be contacted at 513-436-0010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.