Mental health: Want a quick fix or the real deal?

Cheryl Everett

The newspaper headline read: “Exercise can treat mood disorders, depression.”

Messages like that always make me cringe.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Mood disorder is unlikely to simply go away on its own. It may get worse over time …. [and] may increase your risk of suicide.” The clinic’s website urges readers to “Seek professional help before your mood disorder becomes severe.”

Severe depression can blast through the strongest fitness routine. I know.

Exercise didn’t “treat” my depression. If anything, it masked it for many years while “something” constantly sucked the brightness from my life.

To the end, I was proud of “not needing” medication. Except that I did.

Now when I mention being a depression survivor, the response is usually something like: “You? I never would have guessed!” Or an uncomfortable silence followed by a change of subject.

Maybe people don’t know what to say. Or maybe it’s because — as a former city councilor and still an active community leader — I don’t fit the stereotype of someone with mental illness.

For me, the headline above conjures up a familiar stigma of mental illness: That it afflicts only those who aren’t strong enough to handle it “on their own.” Translation: Without treatment, and especially without medication.

I don’t walk around in a T-shirt that reads, “I survived depression.” But one person’s “coming out” can encourage others to proudly own, rather than hide or apologize for, their battle against a very serious, often fatal illness.

“Often fatal” is not an exageration. Rio Rancho’s suicide rate is nearly double the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Our public safety personnel face the grim reality of untreated mental illness on almost a daily basis.

Rio Rancho is fortunate to have a chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which offers group support and service referrals to individuals and families affected by mental disorders.

Sandoval Regional Medical Center eliminated its 12 inpatient mental health beds when the last county hospital mill levy was voted down. But nearby UNM West now plans to open an outpatient mental health clinic in October. UNM West is also shifting its curriculum toward health sciences career training, which can spur economic growth in Rio Rancho.

Dr. Christoper Morris, designated director for UNM West’s new outpatient clinic, recently conducted a free “Mental Health First Aid” workshop at the Rio Rancho facility. The event taught skills for reaching out and encouraging another person — family members, friends, co-workers and others — who show signs of a mental disorder.

Ideally, this outreach occurs early after the onset of symptoms, when mental illness is easier to diagnose and treat.

As for exercise, it’s a factor in both mental and physical fitness, and a mood lifter for almost any healthy person. But for someone suffering from serious mental illness, exercise alone may not be enough, or even feasible.

For that person, professional care — including medication when needed — is “the real deal.” And there should be no stigma in that.

Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.

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