Mental illness hits closer to home than you might think

By Kim Eaton

Did you know?

In an average US city with 20,000 people, 840 will have been diagnosed with depression. That is an average of 13.3 million people in the US with diagnosed depression.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It can impact anyone and everyone, not just in Tuscaloosa or Alabama, but nationally and internationally.

“Depression has increased by 18 percent since 2005 and is now the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide, with more than 300 million people suffering,” said Dr. John Burkhardt, an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine for the College of Community Health Sciences and a practicing clinical health psychologist at University Medical Center, which the College operates.

That number is only those diagnosed with depression, Burkhardt added. There are many people suffering from undiagnosed mental illness. Depression also puts people at risk for other medical conditions, like increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and to raise awareness of this health issue, faculty from the College’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine provided, throughout the month, media interviews and patient information about various mental health topics – depression, anxiety, substance abuse, ADHD and healthy lifestyles – as well as weekly mindfulness segments for College employees.

So, what is mental health?

Mental health ultimately has to do with how someone functions in his or her world.

“All of us will go through periods when we may experience depression or anxiety,” Burkhardt said. “And for some of us, we will experience more problems functioning in one or multiple areas, whether it be work, home or interpersonally. Being in good mental health means having the resources and coping skills to manage these times, but most importantly to remain functional, which means being able to manage the various areas of your life successfully, such as work, parenting, play, relationships, exercise, home, etc.”

Since Burkhardt moved to Tuscaloosa two years ago, he has seen a broad range of mental illness in his clinic at University Medical Center. He sees a lot of depression and anxiety, but said Alabama as a whole has problems with drug abuse, either prescribed or non-prescribed. He also sees many people trying to cope with some form of trauma in their life.

“There is not one common problem,” Burkhardt said. “Mental illness exists in many forms and is closer to home than we think.”

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, access to care and being able to afford care are two of the biggest challenges for individuals. When looking at mental health provider ratios, top US providers have a 360:1 patient-to-provider ratio; Alabama is 1,260:1; and Tuscaloosa is 890:1. This is the ratio of the county population to the number of mental health providers, including psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists, mental health providers who treat alcohol and other drug abuse and advanced practice nurses specializing in mental health care. About 30 percent of Alabama’s population lives in a county designated as a Mental Health Professional Shortage area.

To help fill in the gap, The University of Alabama and the College offer multiple resources to students, faculty and staff, as well as the community. These include the Betty Shirley Clinic at University Medical Center, Student Health Center, Counseling Center, Psychology Clinic, Employee Assistance Program and the Capstone Family Therapy Clinic.

Another challenge is the stigma surrounding mental illness, which might prevent someone from seeking help. There are several misconceptions, the most common being that it does not happen to “everyday or regular people” and if someone gets diagnosed then there is something severely wrong with them.

“Stigma plays a big role in this,” Burkhardt said. “Negative emotions and reactions are apparent when the topic of mental illness arises. People get these negative pictures in their head whether it be from movies they have seen or their own perceptions of what people with poor mental health present like. They don’t understand that the severity can range from mild to severe, so they always assume it’s severe. We are now just getting to a point where people can talk about mental illness without feeling like they have been hiding a dirty secret.”

Another misconception is that people should just be able to “get over it” because life is not easy. While it is true life is full of challenges, having poor mental health does not mean they are a failure or cannot manage their life. But it also doesn’t mean they can do it themselves.

“There is help for you,” Burkhardt said. “Just because you have a diagnosis does not mean your life has to stop. Many individuals live a full life managing their mental illness.”