How Austinites are working to improve, erase stigma around women’s mental health

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Both men and women deal with mental illness, but there can be differences in their experiences with mental health and how they seek help.

The unique hurdles women face are in focus this week nationally. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this week is National Women’s Health Week

Several of the major mental health support organizations in the Austin area explained to KXAN that there are a growing number of women who are comfortable sharing their stories of dealing with mental health issues, helping to move the conversation about mental health in Austin forward. 

Women and mental health

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (SAMHSA), more than one in five women in the United States experienced a mental health condition in the past year. 

Integral Care, an organization which works to support those experiencing mental illness and substance abuse in Travis County, explained that while men and women experience similar rates of mental illness, the ways in which they experience mental illness differ.

Women, for example, experience depression at roughly twice the rate that men do.

Additionally, girls 14 to 18 years old, have consistently higher rates of depression than boys that same age. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. 

Around one in every eight women can expect to develop clinical depression during her lifetime, and depression occurs most frequently in women aged 25- 54.

According to numbers compiled by the National Council for Behavioral Health, mothers can face additional obstacles, considering that 10-15% of mothers get postpartum depression. While men are more likely to die by suicide, women attempt suicide twice as often. 

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show that suicide rates for women were higher in 2014 than in 1999 for all age groups under 75 years-old. 

Waiting until the “point of crisis” to seek help 

Wendy Salazar, who works as a practice manager for Emerge Services at Integral Care providing therapies and psychiatric services, explains that she sees certain qualities unique to women when it comes to experiencing mental illness.

Women often serve as the “guardians of the family health” who prioritize taking care of their family members first, Salazar said. 

“So it’s not uncommon to find ourselves taking a backseat to our own emotional well being,” she said, explaining that many women do not come in to seek help with mental health until they are at a point of crisis. 

“I think one of the big challenges for women is that so often we live in this culture of thinking we have to be superwomen and get it all done and not look like there’s this struggle to get it all done,” said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Central Texas, the local affiliate of the national organisation that provides free classes and support groups for people living with mental illness.  

“But when we are struggling we need to be vulnerable and let people know that we need help,” said Ranus. “And I do think that can be challenging sometimes we’re so busy getting things done that we don’t even realize that we’ve moved into a place where we might be needing a little bit of help.”

This issue touches Ranus’ life in a deeply personal way: eight years ago she almost lost her teen daughter to suicide. 

“So what I know is that one of the reasons she got to the point of crisis that she did was because there was a lot of shame, she felt like everybody else had it together, that she was the only one who was struggling,” Ranus said. “She thought she was doing all the right things, and what she thought were ‘all the right things’ were her working really hard, she thought that was the solution.” 

Ranus said her hopes for the future are that people would address mental helath as the health issue that it is.

She noted that for mental health issues, there’s a roughly eight to 10-year gap between the onset of symptoms and treatment.

“We don’t have those kinds of gaps for other health issues,” Ranus said, noting that she also hopes to see improves access to mental health care in Austin as well as access to accurate diagnostic tools.

She believes Austin is moving in the right direction when it comes to removing the stigma around mental illness. 

 “I do think we’re really fortunate that we live in a community in which some women have really stepped up, shared their stories, and I think one of the things that’s really amazing that happens, once we open up ourselves and share our own stories, almost immediately, other people say, ‘Oh me too,'” Ranus said. 

Offering help through experience

Kendall Antonelli, Co-Founder of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, has been very public about her own journey coping with depression. She hopes sharing her story helps others feel more comfortable seeking help. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard). 

At Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Hyde Park, co-founder Kendall Antonelli carries out her work, feeling stronger because of her journey dealing with depression. 

Antonelli describes herslef as “having no filter” and will readily share her story, in hopes of destigmatizing mental illness. 

She battled depression on-and-off in her youth. 

“It culminated one scary night in college when I was hospitalized and I was behind locked doors at Georgetown Hospital, and since then I’ve been so grateful for all the resources I received and the hard work I did myself to get myself out of that hole, and I’ve always shared my story one-on-one with people,” Antonelli said. 

Now, fifteen years after her hospitalization, she says it’s much easier to talk about. 

“I do believe that time helps us grow accustomed to who we are and comfortable in our own skin,” she said. 

But as she sought treatment and support, Antonelli remembers worrying at each sign of sadness, wondering if she’d regress.  

She says what is different now from the time when she was hospitalized is that she has a better understanding of the tools to support her. For example, on the anniversary of her dad’s death, Antonelli knows to schedule self-care and surround herself with people who understand how to support her. 

Though she’s publically shared her experience with depression many times, she will still have friends coming up to her in confidence for the very first time, asking how to seek mental health support. 

“It’s still stigmatized and women are still scared, scared about retaliation and what does it mean? And does it show some sign of weakness?” she said. 

To be clear, Antonelli doesn’t think mental illness is a sign of weakness, and she thinks she is stronger for having coped with her own mental illness. She hopes talking honestly about her experience with depression chips away at some misconceptions about it. 

“You can’t just pull up your bootstraps — it doesn’t work that way, even for someone who is out there and wants to get better and wants to seek help, they just don’t know where or how to start,” Antonelli said. 

“But the thing that is so mean or isolating about depression — or other mental illnesses as well — is it tricks you and it makes you think you are alone,” she said.

“Instead if we can all come together and recognize we are all in that darkness together, and we are all trying to crawl out of that pit together, we can advocate for more resources and get the help we need.”

“Sometimes people aren’t necessarily ready to do that when they are in that hole, and there are those of us who have been in that hole and we have crawled out of that hole, and we are there to help the rest of them get out too,” Antonelli continued, wiping tears from her eyes. 

Deborah Rosales-Elkins feels similarly.

She is a peer support specialist with Integral Care, working in Integral Care’s Mood Treatment Center, speaking to clients from her own personal experience dealing with bipolar disorder. 

“We can find other people who have walked the path we have, there is so much healing in that,” said  Rosales-Elkins. “It takes away the shame, it promotes connection and this is a big piece along with psychiatry, medication, therapy, but to have that connection where you don’t feel alone, can be so impactful.”

At 16-years-old, Rosales-Elkins almost dropped out of high school because of the depression she was coping with. After the birth of her second child, she became more depressed and sought out help. 

“I was a single parent, so working was very important to me, taking care of my family, my children. It was hard for me to get myself into the doctor, so, unfortunately, I waited until I was in crisis,” she recalled. 

Rosales-Elkins started taking medication and feeling better. 

“Then I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t need this, I’m a strong woman, I can just work through this,’  so I’d stop and I’d get sick again,” she said. “And I find that when I work with clients in the clinic, I recognize that journey. I know what that feels like what it’s like to walk that walk.”

She describes her ability to share her story with clients on a daily basis as a “gift.” 

“I will never forget a client who burst into tears and said, ‘You mean, I can have a happy marriage like you, raise five successful kids, that’s possible?’ Absolutely,” she said. 

“I just want women to understand they don’t have to wait until they have a crisis, they are worth everything it takes to be well and in order to be there for their children and their family,” Rosales-Elkins said.

“And the caretaking that they do, they have to put themselves first, and that’s something we often forget to do, but it is the foundation of being able to be there for your family.”

Resources for those seeking help

Wendy Salazar says both the presence of negative self-talk and withdrawing from social engagements in an unusual way can be big indicators for women that they may need to seek help with their mental health. 

“It’s incredibly important for women to be paying close attention to their own self-narrative,” she said. “What we say to ourselves, what we say to ourselves during our day-to-day about our successes, about our challenges.”

Salazar also pointed out Integral Care has a 24/7 Crisis Helpline which people can call for information on health care, connecting with resources, or even if you’ve just had a bad day and just need someone to process with.

The Helpline for Integral Care is 512-472-4357 (HELP). 

You can also find resources from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Central Texas here. 

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