Mental Health Awareness Month


One in five Americans experience a mental health problem in any given year. Yet many people suffer with their symptoms in silence. The stigma that continues to surround mental-health problems prevents them from getting the help they need.

It’s a common problem I have seen all through my life. People often wait years to seek help. Even though their symptoms are treatable, they were afraid to tell anyone about what they were experiencing or too prideful to admit even to themselves, that they need a little help.

Parents may see signs of depression or other mental health issues in their children, but are unaware of how to deal with them, so they just hope that their kids ‘grow out of it’.

Some people fear that a mental health diagnosis could affect their lives: Will people take me seriously if they know I take medication for my depression? If people know I have anxiety, will they assume they can’t trust me in ANYTHING? Do I need to tell my boss I’m taking medications?

Others worried that people would label them as “crazy”: Will other parents let their children come to my home if I go to counseling? If my neighbors see me in the waiting room, will they treat me different?

Many of these concerns are legitimate, however my philosophy has always been: “We all have our own ‘crazy’! Even if you are doing well, there’s a good chance you aren’t 100% mentally healthy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates only about 17% of adults are in a state of “optimal” mental health. And who is the judge of ‘optimal mental health’?

Despite ongoing efforts to educate the public about mental health, misconceptions remain. Before we can stop the stigma, we need to debunk these five mental health myths:

  1. You’re either mentally ill or mentally healthy.

Similar to the way a physically healthy person may still experience minor health issues—like bad knees or high cholesterol—a mentally healthy person may experience an emotional problem or two. Mental health is a continuum and people may fall anywhere on the spectrum.

  1. Mental illness is a sign of weakness.

Why does society assume people with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions are mentally “weak.”

Mental strength is not the same as mental health. Just as someone with diabetes could still be physically strong, someone with depression can still be mentally strong. Many people with mental-health issues are incredibly mentally strong. This mental strength I’m talking about is most admirable because as mentioned above, it is difficult to first admit that we need help and then second, making that a daily choice to live in that new found ‘strength’ does not come natural.  However, anyone can make choices to build mental strength, regardless of whether they have a mental health issue.  I call it, taking captive EVERY thought that enters our mind and then dealing with it in the light of, “is this just something I am ‘feeling’, or is this indeed true?” While ‘feelings’ are not always bad, they can lie to us.  If it is not based on truth, get rid of it.  This is how we strengthen our mind.  We do not need to waste our time on the random things that pop into our minds. Life’s too short.

  1. You can’t prevent mental health problems.

You certainly can’t prevent all mental health problems—factors like genetics and traumatic life events play a role. But everyone can take steps to improve their mental health and prevent further mental illness.

Establishing healthy habits—eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, participating in regular exercise—can also go a long way to improving how you feel. Similarly, getting rid of destructive mental habits, like engaging in self-pity or ruminating on the past, can also do wonders for your emotional well-being.

  1. People with mental illness are violent.

Unfortunately, when the media mentions mental illness, it’s often in regard to a headline about a mass shooting or domestic violence incident. Although these headlines frequently portray many violent criminals as being mentally ill, most people with mental health problems aren’t violent.

The American Psychological Association reports that only 7.5% of crimes are directly related to symptoms of mental illness. Poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, and homelessness are among the other reasons why people commit violent acts.

  1. Mental health problems are forever.

Not all mental health problems are curable—schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t go away. But most mental health problems are treatable.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that between 70 and 90% of individuals experience symptom relief with a combination of therapy and medication. Complete recovery from a variety of mental health issues is often possible.

Getting Rid of the Mental-Health Stigma

Even though suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in America, most public-service announcements and government education programs focus solely on physical health issues like cancer and obesity. Raising awareness of mental health issues and debunking the most common misconceptions could be instrumental in saving lives.

What is it Really Like to Live With Mental Illness

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month I thought this blog should be something about mental health. I had many ideas, but I thought maybe the best thing to do was to just talk about what every day life is like for people who deal with mental illness.

Everyone does not have the same issues or problems. Some people suffer a lot more than others or in other ways. Even if two people are diagnosed with the same illness they do not always have the same issues or same medications. So you can not group people with mental health issues into just one big group and think you can solve the problem. What works for one person may not work for another.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder many years ago. I also suffer from a lot of anxiety. I fought my mental for so long. I think at first I did not want to accept that I had it. People are scared of it and when you are not yourself you tend to do things you normally would not do. That can be scary and you do not even realize you are doing these things until you are back to a more normal state. Then you have to pick the pieces of your shattered life. Your life becomes this tornado that is just spinning out of control all the time. You are okay for awhile and then it spins downward into this deep depression, that no matter how hard you try, you just can not get out of. When you have finally crashed to the bottom and think things are back to normal you spin out of control again, only this time you like it because you are having fun and everyone likes you. Depending on what you do though, your money disappears and you don’t remember why or where, bills don’t get paid and you crash hard. Most of the time you don’t remember what you even did but you are left trying to pick up your life and figure out what happened. This is the fun of Bipolar Disorder. You never know which one will strike you. I would try medicine for awhile because I was depressed and then I would go off of it. I did not like how felt once I was over the depression. Always in a fog. I felt stupid. I was not going to live that way. But you do not realize how much it turns your world and your children’s world upside down. Your mind constantly going and feels like it is never going to shut off. People would always tell me I talked too fast and I needed to slow down but that was just normal to me. I did not think I was talking fast. I would have at least 3 or 4 different things going on because I could not concentrate on just one and there had to be noise on in the house. I could not stand it to be quiet.

On top of that I have Borderline Personality Disorder. Basically it is where I see things in just black and white. I either like you or dislike you. There is no grey area. It makes relationships hard because I am so afraid of people leaving that I don’t want to let them get close but yet I need that relationship. I am a big contradiction. There is no medication for this but it is a behavioral change and takes a lot of therapy. To this day I still find myself having to work on this. I will find myself doing this all or nothing thinking at times. Then I have to go back and look at all the work I did in therapy and ask myself am I thinking correctly?

When I finally had enough of the chaos in my head and decided to go back on medication for the Bipolar Disorder some interesting things started to happen. I found a good doctor which is key in the whole process. As my mind became clearer I found myself in a place I had never been and I felt more scared there than when my mind was in chaos. I have been on my medication now for 2 years about and I still get nervous that something is just waiting to happen. Every time I am a little manic or a little depressed it does get scary because every day you don’t know if that will be the day your medicine does not work. You try not to think about it that way but it is always in the back of your mind.

The other thing I noticed as I got better was that I had anxiety I never knew existed. It was so bad that I did not even want to take my kids to the park, or go their concert choirs or the circus. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I am still working on this but I can at least do these things now. I have some tools my counselor gave me and some medication until we get things completely under control. But when you see me you would never know anything was wrong.

That is the problem with mental illness. Unless I am having a total breakdown I can hide my symptoms pretty well for a while. I do not always know what I need or what others can help me with. Sometimes we are just too ashamed to ask because it may seem like nothing important. To us it obviously is important. Our minds just do not work the same way as others. A little understanding goes a long way. A shoulder to cry on or just a listening ear is sometimes all someone needs.

Dear Mom of a Child With a Disability, I Celebrate You

Having a child with a disability can make life different from what other moms of typical children experience. On a day like Mother’s Day, while friends receive cards from their kids, breakfast in bed as a result of the loving attempt from little chefs, and homemade gifts, your heart yearns for the day you hear your child say the words, “I love you,” or a day with no medical complications, or to have someone come along your side and remind you that you are not alone.

Today, I want you to know you are not alone, and I want to celebrate you and the wonderful mother that you are.

I see you in the middle of the day, tired after a long night with little sleep. Your hair pulled back in a ponytail and a stain on your shirt. You sacrifice so much for your child. You are beautiful.

I see you at the doctor’s office, the specialist said there is nothing wrong with your child, all results came back negative. But you know that no matter what the results say, your child is experiencing discomfort. So you stand up to the doctor, shaking inside, holding back the tears, and you demand more tests until they figure out what is going on with your precious son. Your perseverance pushes the doctors to continue to explore what is causing your child so much pain. You are courageous.

I see you at the therapy office programming your child’s speech device, entering phrases and words to help her communicate with others. You lean over to your spouse with a grin and push a button, I hear the computer’s voice say, “I farted.” You are funny.

I see you at the support group. New parents are visiting with their baby, they seem scared, nervous, and they are trying to deal with the diagnosis. You approach them, ask questions, affirm their feelings, and assure them it won’t always be easy, but it will be good. You are compassionate.

I see you walking into the school for the third time this school year. A binder full of notes, lists, and goals.  You don’t feel your child’s team is following the IEP, and you won’t give up inclusion for your child. You will do whatever it takes to provide the services that your child needs. You are resilient.

I see you at the hospital, a place you are too familiar with. Tubes, machines, tests, and specialists. Your child’s feeding tube is the least of your concerns. You are brave.

I see you at the restaurant, with a menu in your hand. But the noise is too much for your child, the smells and unfamiliarity overwhelm him. Soon, he is yelling and screaming. While people stare, you exit the place and get into your car as quickly as you can. You are flexible.

I see you at church asking one of the new moms if you can bring her a meal on Tuesday afternoon. You have so much on your plate, but you also remember how hard the first few weeks are after a baby comes home. You are generous.

I see you at social gatherings where well meaning people ask ignorant questions about your child or her disability, they make hurtful comments, or fail to recognize that your child is a child first. You don’t get angry, you don’t yell. Instead, you smile, answer their questions politely, and you educate them in a gentle manner and thank them for their concerns. You are gracious.

I see you out there in the world, living a selfless life. You give so much, you feel so deeply, and you love so abundantly. You are admirable.

These qualities you display are precious gifts you give to your child and to those around you, they don’t go unnoticed.

Dear mama, today is your day, and I celebrate you!

Ellen Stumbo, Disability Parenting

Summertime Safety

Whether you have children with disabilities or not, it is starting to warm up outside and that means kids are ready to fill the sidewalks, backyards, pools, parks, and anywhere outside they can think to have fun.  With the outdoors come many safety issues.  Being a parent and pediatrician makes me a little neurotic when it comes to outdoor safety.  My kids could probably recite my entire outside “rules” right back to me.  Well here it goes, this could have been written by my 8 year old.

Sunscreen – You should apply sunscreen anytime you will be outside.  The exception to the rule is that babies younger than 6 months old should be kept in the shade and out of the sun completely.  Don’t forget that you can get sunburned on a cloudy day.  Choose a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB or what is called broad-spectrum.  What about SPF?  Most children’s brand sunscreen is 15, 30, 45, or 60.  Any of them are good, what matters the most is how you use them.  They should be applied 30 minutes before going outside.  They should be reapplied every 2 hours or more often if getting wet or sweaty (even if they are water proof).   Don’t forget the ears, hands, feet, and for little girls don’t forget the hair part.  Sunglasses, hats and SPF clothing are great combined with good sunscreen application.  Each sunburn increases your risk of skin cancer, so use lots of sunscreen and reapply often.

Helmets – Anytime my kids get on anything with wheels they know that their heads have to be covered with a helmet.  That includes tricycles, scooters, skateboards, bicycles, four wheelers, and motorbikes.  My smart alec 8-year-old has said to me “Well, the car has wheels, do I have to wear my helmet in there?”  Ahh, kids can be so challenging sometimes.  The helmet should fit well with the front sitting down on their forehead not back in their hair.  It should fit snug, not floppy and loose.  The chinstrap should be adjusted so the helmet fits snuggly.  It should be appropriate for the activity, for example a bicycle helmet should not be worn on a four-wheeler.  There are different helmets for different activities so make sure you have the proper head gear.  The most important part is that the helmet is only good if it is on the child’s head, so make sure your children know how important it is to wear their helmet.  You could even reward your children for wearing their helmet without you having to ask them.  If your helmet has been through a fall or crash it should be replaced, it has served its purpose and it might not provide adequate protection in another crash.

Water – Pools, lakes, and rivers are a ton of fun in the summer.  Children of all ages usually love to spend time in or around water.  Once again this is an area that can lead to injury and harm if safety is not kept in the forefront of our minds.  With any age child, adult supervision around water cannot be stressed enough.  The adult supervisor should be able to swim and should not be distracted.  Avoid talking on the cell phone, cruising the Internet, checking Facebook, doing household chores, or any other distraction while you are supervising children in/or around water.  The supervisor of infants and toddlers should be in the water with them and just an arm reach away.  If you are in a boat or raft than the use of a life jacket is very important.  Be sure that each person has a life jacket.  Be sure you have the correct fitting life jacket.  Many are based on your child’s weight.  The jacket should not be loose, make sure you use all necessary straps.  Adults should wear their life jackets for their own safety and also to be a good role model for children.  Life jackets can also be used when in or around water but should never take the place of an adult supervisor.

With these rules in mind, I hope the summer brings many laughs and lots of quality time spent with your children outdoors.  Happy Summer!

May-ALS Awareness Month

The aim of ALS awareness month is to raise awareness about ALS, gather support for those affected by this condition and to encourage funding and research into a treatment or cure.

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a devastating progressive neurodegenerative disease which destroys the ability to walk, speak, eat and breathe. ALS was first recognized as a disease in 1869, by Jean-Martin Charcot, a French Neurologist. However, ALS is sometimes referred as Lou Gehrig’s disease; named after Lou Gehrig, a famous baseball first basemen, whose career was stopped in 1939 when he developed ALS at the age of 36. At that time, ALS was given widespread public attention due to the high profile of this baseball player.

ALS affects the body by attacking motor neurons (nerve cells) of the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurons are cells which process and transmit signals which help to control muscles. Destruction of motor neuron cells leads to symptoms related to loss of muscle control. Typical symptoms of ALS include inability to walk, speak, eat and even breathe.

As ALS is a progressive disease, more motor neurons are destroyed overtime worsening the symptoms. Difficulty breathing and swallowing are later symptoms; paralysis can also develop. After the onset of this disease, fatality usually occurs within 2-5 years.

ALS typically affects people over the age of 40, including those who were previously enjoyed excellent health in the prime of their lives. Whilst ALS affects a minority of the population (in the US about 30,000 people have this condition), ALS is indiscriminate in the types of people who will be affected by it. Famous people who had ALS include NBA player George Yardley, Senator Jacob Javits and former vice president of the US, Henry Wallace.

ALS can be devastating to both the person and to their friends and family. At present there is no known treatment or cure for ALS. If a cure or greater understanding of ALS is achieved, then it is likely that this will benefit research into related conditions like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease. There could be a similar underlying neurodegenerative condition in each of them.

Several organizations which represent people with neurodegenerative diseases back ALS Awareness Month to support those with this condition and to raise funds for research into a cure. These include the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the ALS Association who host seminars and other activities throughout the United States, during May.

To coincide with this awareness month, the ALS Association have in more recent years run a campaign, ‘ALS Across America’. Established in 2008, ‘ALS Across America’ aims to raise awareness about ALS by sharing with the media and public the experience people throughout the United States have with ALS. When we become aware of the plight of people with this serious disease, we are more likely to support them and the related organizations which work to find a cure.


National Autism Awareness Month

The first National Autism Awareness Month was declared by the Autism Society in April 1970.

The aim of this month is educate the public about autism. Autism is a complex mental condition and developmental disability, characterized by difficulties in the way a person communicates and interacts with other people. Autism can be be present from birth or form during early childhood (typically within the first three years). Autism is a lifelong developmental disability with no single known cause.

People with autism are classed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the terms autism and ASD are often used interchangeably. A wide spectrum disorder, people will autism have set of symptoms unique to themselves; no two people are the same.

Increasing Awareness About The Common Characteristics Of Autism

Whilst no two people with autism will have the same set of symptoms, there are common characteristics found in those with this complex disability. Briefly, these characteristics include:

Social Skills: people with autism have problems interacting with others; autistic children do not have adequate playing and talking skills. Mild symptoms on one end of the spectrum may be displayed through clumsy behavior, being out of sync with those around them and inappropriate or offensive comments being made. At the other end of the spectrum an autistic person may not be interested in others.

Empathy:  empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of another person. People with autism find it harder to show empathy to others although they can be taught to acknowledge the others feelings.

Physical Contact in some cases: autistic people do not like physical contact such as hugs, tickling or physical play with others.

Sudden Changes To Their Environment: a sudden change in the surrounding environment may affect a person with autism. This could be a loud noise, a change in intensity of lighting or even a change in smell.

Speech: speech can be affected in people with autism. ‘Echolalia’ is a typical speech symptom in which the person repeats words and phrases that they hear. The speech tone of an autistic person may be monotonous. Where symptoms are more extreme the person may not speak.

Changes To Behavior and Routine: people with autism often display repetitive behavior in which they repeat the same action many times over. For example, a person with autism may repeatedly pace around a room in a certain direction. Any change to their behavior or routine can be unsettling for them. This could be a reordering of daily activities such as when a person brushes their teeth, takes a shower and has breakfast when they get up in the morning.

Other characteristics of autism include an unpredictable learning rate, obsessions and physical tics.

Autism Is Widespread, Awareness About This Condition Is Not

In the United States, autism affects 1 in every 110 children. National Autism Awareness Month aims to make the public more aware about this widespread disability and the issues which arise in the autism community. As about 1 in 150 people in America have autism, the chances are that you know someone with this disability. A better informed public will be more empathetic and supportive towards people with autism.

This month is backed by the Autism Society of America which undertake a number of activities to raise awareness about autism. The Autism Society has local chapters throughout the United States which hold special events throughout April.

The ‘Puzzle Ribbon’ is the symbol for Autism Awareness and is promoted by the Autism Society as means of supporting awareness for autism. The Puzzle Ribbon may take the form of a pin attached to clothing, a fridge magnet or a sticker and are available to purchase from the Autism Society website.

The Autism Society of America also run a year long campaign through their 1 Power 4 Autism initiative, in which people are encouraged to hold events to raise awareness and support for those affected by autism.

Different but not Less

“There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more,” said Robert Hensel. Having a disability does not limit the potential of an individual. Rather than focusing on what they cannot do, focus on the things they can do and you will be surprised. There are things that people with disabilities might do differently, but that does not make them less than everyone else. There are seven billion people in the world and not one of them is the same. When I think about my friends with disabilities, I think about how we are more the same than different.

Disability is a matter of perception. There are many different kinds of disabilities including physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities. This only means that the abilities they have are different. My friends with disabilities want many of the same things that I do. No one should be defined by their disability, but instead should be accepted, included, and seen for who they really are.  Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness. My sixth grade teacher always emphasized the importance of people first language and I have made it a habit to always use it. People first language puts the person before their disability. For example, you should say “she has a disability” rather than “the disabled girl.” Using language like “disabled” and “handicapped” is offensive and diminishes someone’s worth.

Spread the word to end the word. Words like the r-word (retarded) are used carelessly and are demeaning to others. Even if it is used with the intention not to hurt anyone, it makes people feel incompetent, dumb, and worthless. But, these individuals are so much more. They are intelligent, unique, and most importantly, they are able. It was so cool that our Bismarck High School (BHS) peer-to-peer class could create a video that made a difference to spread the word to end the word. The video went viral with over 300 shares reaching 57,000 people around the country.

There are many opportunities in our community for you to get to know some of these individuals, some being through the Designer Genes – Down Syndrome Awareness Group and volunteering for the Special Olympics. I volunteer for these organizations as well as spend time with these individuals through my peer-to-peer class at BHS. We hang-out together in school, at lunch and at high school games. It makes me so happy to see them included and enjoying activities that all teens enjoy. Every time I am around my friends, I am amazed at their abilities, their kindness and the joy they bring to my life. Their positivity makes my day! Building a friendship with someone with a disability not only makes an impact in their life, but will make a huge impact in yours as well.

-Sydney Helgeson, Miss Bismarck’s Outstanding Teen 2017