“People don’t understand mental health issues and so they have one of two responses: they fill in the gaps with their opinions and feelings (instead of facts) or they’re afraid of it,” said Gabe Howard, emphasizing his words with his hands, as if he were holding a vessel full of experience. Looking at the confident man with a host of regional event, advocacy, and public affairs experience, you realize this guy means what he says.
Howard was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder at age 26. Howard said, looking back, he probably experienced symptoms as young as age 13, but the condition was undiagnosed and he was misunderstood. People don’t “get” that mental illness can occur on a spectrum. You can break your leg in one place or 20; it’s still seen as a broken leg. But you can have depression or a full blown schizophrenic episode, and because of the term “mental illness,” that’s seen as the same thing. The label promotes stigma. Often, when seen by a different person – a professional for instance – they recognize the condition because of their training. “For example, take a mole on your skin,” he said, making an analogy. “To you, that mole is the same thing, in the same place, every day. You live with it. You don’t think about it. Your spouse might see it differently and encourage you to make an appointment. To the dermatologist, those irregular edges could be something more serious,” he explained.
Howard’s bipolar disorder manifested as a crisis. He was feeling suicidal, had a plan, and the means. Recognized by a friend as something more serious than ‘the blues,’ he went to the ER at her encouragement. The day before, he was considered “not sick.” Within 48 hours, it was “my illness,” he said. When contacted, his grandmother’s first response was to get an attorney to ‘get him out of there’. She didn’t recognize that’s where he needed to be for his own safety. At first, he kept his family at arm’s length because there is so little information and there was such a lack of understanding of mental illness on their part. That’s how they found NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where they learned that each individual is different, that one size doesn’t fit all, and they learned more about his condition.
NIMH, The National Institute of Mental Health says, “Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time.” The NIMH site explains that there are “unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called ‘mood episodes.’ Each mood episode represents a drastic change from a person’s usual mood and behavior. An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, a mood episode includes symptoms of both mania and depression. This is called a mixed state. People with bipolar disorder also may be explosive and irritable during a mood episode.” There are different types of bipolar disorder, types 1 and 2, as well as “non-specific.”
Pomegranate Therapist Cory H. explains, “Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated effectively over the long term. Proper treatment helps many people with bipolar disorder—even those with the most severe forms of the illness—gain better control of their mood swings and related symptoms. But because it is a lifelong illness, long-term, continuous treatment is needed to control symptoms.” When people stop their medications abruptly, a relapse is possible.
Just as each illness is different, each person’s response to an illness or to treatment is not exactly the same, whether physical or mental illness. Howard was at OSU Harding for three and a half days for crisis stabilization and attended six weeks of intensive outpatient therapy. He takes his medication and doesn’t notice any difference, except that the experience has fired up his sense of advocacy and life purpose. Howard said to think of diabetes as an analogy. You watch your diet and take insulin; you can control diabetes. Sometimes patients get rid of it and sometimes they have an episode when their blood sugar doesn’t cooperate.
He said that for teens, any mental illness is that much harder to diagnose. A teen girl might wind up crying because One Direction broke up and you assume that’s normal teen hormones and emotions. You don’t want to stigmatize what might be “normal” behavior since teens are so much more likely to have a response that is “feelings based” than adults, who have the benefit of additional insights and experience. There’s the added challenge that at 16, you’re not really in control, your parents are; at 18, all of a sudden you have total control, can vote, go to war and carry a gun. This is a literal overnight change. That’s a cause for mental health concern right there. [Research shows brain development is not fully mature until the at least the mid-20s and impulse control may still be developing.] There are increasing numbers of 18-24 year olds who are having difficulty transitioning to adulthood with the current economic and social climate, with attendant health concerns.
Howard explained, “The one valuable thing to know is that everybody has ‘mental health.’ Some days you’re sad; some days you have an emotional crisis. That’s what mental health is. One day you’re physically well; the next day you might have the flu. This is the way people live. We need to understand each other better, that the same treatment doesn’t work for every situation.”
Because of his passion for the topic of mental wellness and a strong belief in education, Howard has founded a non-profit organization – Speak Our Mind – and is a public speaker on the topic of speaking to businesses, doing workshops, and training to defeat stereotypes and provide education to corporate HR, EAP, and business/community groups. (www.gabehoward.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Howard said, “Businesses lose productivity and wages to time off; there is waste in training/retraining. Because of misperceptions, lack of guidance, resources, and policies, they lose employees, morale is affected, and the climate can encourage stereotypes to flourish. When you’re dealing with a mental health crisis, you need to know how to respond to a mental health crisis. With the climate we have now, business are open to consultation with the new disability law, and many have budgeted for education and training,” he explained. Howard headed up NAMIWalks in 2010, 2011, and 2012 for NAMI Franklin County, the three most profitable and well-attended events in recent history. It’s this experience and his own life story that continue to inspire him to make a difference in the community.
Don’t hesitate to contact Gabe at email@example.com
[photo credit: Teenage boy with eyeglasses by Exactostock/SuperStock 1555R-179034]