Melanie Dallas

Note: the following column was submitted by Highland Rivers Health. – KtE

In Highland Rivers Health’s 2020 annual report, there is a profile of an individual named Deborah. She lives in one of the communities served by Highland Rivers and has received services from us for many years – so long that she was first seen by Three Rivers Behavioral Health, which was merged with another agency to become Highland Rivers in 2003.

Now in her 60s, Deborah has lived with schizophrenia for more than 40 years. She was on her high school basketball team and in the middle of a game began hearing voices. At first she thought it was the crowd, only the voices didn’t stop when the game ended.

When she was being interviewed for her profile in our annual report, she was asked if she still hears the voices. Yes, she replied. Asked how often she hears them Deborah responded, “I hear them right now.”

But what she next was even more compelling: “I’ve learned to put them on the backburner, so they’re low and I can function.”

What’s also compelling about Deborah is that even though she lives with a serious and persistent mental illness, she lives in the community with her mother, she attends a peer group at Highland Rivers, and she works – in fact, since she started with her employer almost two years ago, she has not missed a single day of work.

Deborah’s story provides a good context for a couple of important ideas about mental illness. First, for too many people, the words ‘mental illness’ bring about visions of severe illness – of hearing voices, psychosis, and violent criminals. That’s unfortunate, because severe mental illness is actually pretty rare.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 44 million Americans are diagnosed with a mental illness each year. Of those, only about 1% are diagnosed with schizophrenia. The most common mental health diagnosis by far is anxiety disorder (19%), followed by depression (8%).
Further, while some people will have chronic or even lifelong mental health conditions, in many cases mental illness may be temporary.

All types of mental illness are treatable – and after receiving treatment, many people may not experience symptoms again. We do a tremendous disservice by assuming that once a person has a mental health diagnosis, he or she will always struggle with it. That’s simply not true.

What is true – and this is the second important idea from Deborah’s story – is that people with mental illness, even severe and persistent mental illness, can recover, and live in recovery in their community. In this sense, even though Deborah is perhaps unique because of what she has accomplished while living with a complex illness, she is also not unique – thousands of people live in recovery with mental illness.

They might be your neighbor, your child’s teacher, your pastor or your coworker. They, too, have learned to manage their illness, their symptoms, so they – like Deborah – can function. And in so many instances, they function just fine.

Facts like these, and stories of individuals living in recovery with mental illness, are really the point of Mental Health Awareness Month. And if you remember nothing else about mental illness, remember these three things. First, mental illness is common – as I’ve written many times before, one in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Second, mental illness can be treated. Finally, and most importantly, recovery is always possible – it happens every day all over the U.S., including in our communities in northwest Georgia.

I will leave you with some final thoughts from Deborah, her perspective and advice:

“If you think something is wrong, talk to somebody. Don’t be ashamed, you just happen to have mental illness. Be a conqueror. Believe in yourself.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.

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