Should You Try Counseling?

17758672_1308908289147095_8733002003987221265_oApril is Counseling Awareness Month, so many people use this time to check in on their mental health and make an appointment with a counselor. If you’ve been to a mental health counselor before, you know what to expect, although there is always something to learn by trying again. If you haven’t ever visited a mental health counselor, this is a great time to try.

There are lots of misconceptions about what happens in a mental health counselor’s office, but the reality is that it is really just a conversation between two people, one of whom is educated in helping people when they are going through difficult times or want to figure something out.

A counselor will not solve your problems, tell you what to do, or impose his or her personal beliefs on your situation. A counselor will help you identify what you would like to address or change in your life.

People who visit a counselor simply want to improve their lives. It is not a weakness, nor is it a crutch. Visiting a counselor shows strength! It shows that you are ready and willing to tackle issues in your life that you want to change. You may even want to check your own mental health before visiting a counselor by taking a brief self-assessment at http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com.

The Key to Calm is in Your Mind (fulness)

IMG_8269You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness. We hear about it doing everything from helping people manage pain, alleviate anxiety and depression, and even helping with weight loss. How, and what exactly does mindfulness mean? Aren’t we always being mindful of what we are doing? Not exactly. Think about how often you are doing one thing but thinking about another.

Mindfulness is a practice in which you focus on the physical feelings of what you are doing and maintain a moment-by-moment awareness. If you are someone who enjoys sensory activities, try a mindfulness exercise with play-doh or hand cream. Focus on how it feels on your hands. Try to think about nothing other than the feeling, scent, and look of what is in your hands.

It’s important to focus on all this without judging the experience as good or bad. Some people find mindfulness easier than other forms of meditation because it does not require that you “clear” the mind. Instead, you have something to focus on and that focus can take you out of feelings of anxiety and put you in a calmer state. Of course, simply practicing mindfulness will not address everyone’s anxiety. Another step in addressing any mental health symptoms is taking a free and anonymous screening, which Beck Psychotherapy offers at http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com.

Coping with the Aftermath of Suicide: Project Semicolon’s Founder, Amy Bleuel, Loses Battle with Depression

Amy

The mental health community has been reeling the last few days as we learned of the passing of one of our fiercest, and most recognizable warriors, Project Semicolon Founder Amy Bleuel. Amy took her life late last week at the age of 31 after battling with severe depression most of her life. After surviving her father’s suicide, and years of her own suicide attempts, Amy started Project Semicolon in 2013. Amy chose this particular punctuation as the trademark to her movement, noting that the semicolon is a point in a sentence where you can either place a period and end the sentence, or use a semicolon and continue. She used this as a metaphor for life, that the sentence is your life, and “you’re story isn’t over yet”.

Over the last few years, semicolon tattoos have been popping up by the thousands. For many, the semicolon tattoo is a concrete symbol to not give up hope, not give up life. For others, it is a show of support for those who are struggling. I fall in the latter category, and got mine the summer of 2015, 9 months before I met Amy. As a therapist, I wanted to a visible way to let anyone know who saw my tattoo that I understand, that I care, and that their life is worth saving. I also wanted to have an opportunity to spread awareness and reduce stigma, by having people who hadn’t heard of the movement to ask me about my tattoo.

Me & Amy SC Tats

I met Amy on May 6, 2016 when we invited her and Joseph Penola of the You Rock Foundation to be guest speakers at several events for our First Friday kick-off of Mental Health Awareness Month in downtown State College, PA. As my business was one of the sponsors and coordinators of the event, I had the opportunity to chaperone Amy and Joseph from one event to the next, share lunch and dinner with them, and during some downtime, take them to our downtown office to create their own masks for our mental health awareness month mask painting project. The theme was “the many faces of mental health”. We hosted several events throughout the month of April where people from both the Penn State community and the State College community created the most extraordinary masks, which were unveiled at local businesses downtown that day. Amy let us keep the one she painted, in retrospect both beautiful and haunting.

Amy Mask

Amy was to appear at the downtown tattoo shops, which had agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds for semicolon tattoos to a local mental health nonprofit, the JanaMarie Foundation, named after the founder’s sister, who lost her battle with depression in 2011. Amy decided she wanted a new tattoo to add to her collection, and was looking for a partner in crime. I had been contemplating getting a new tattoo, and who better to get it with than the very person who had inspired my last tattoo, a person I was getting to know well over the course of a day and evening, and found myself connecting to. We decided on the infinity symbol, mine on the back of my neck, hers on her forearm, and dubbed ourselves “infinity sisters for life”.

Me & Amy Infinity TatsPhoto credit: Laura Desantis-Olsson

Our friendship continued to blossom over the next few months, over long distance. I was beyond honored when she asked me to be the Secretary of Project Semicolon’s Board of Directors. Due to my other commitments, I agreed to come on as an interim secretary to see the board through some transition, and left the board at the beginning of this year. We remained friends, and I was so thrilled to hear about her plans of moving the Project forward and upward.

And then came Wednesday, March 29th. Joseph sent me a panicked message asking if it was true about Amy. I had no idea what he was talking about. Within minutes we learned the truth, that she had taken her life several days ago. We were stunned, shocked, and deeply saddened. We were sad we lost a friend. We were sad her family lost a wife, a daughter, a sister. We were saddened for all of the many, many friends Amy had. She was the kind of person you could instantly connect with. She was non-judgmental and kind. She had a warmth that drew you in. And then we thought about the thousands and thousands of people she had inspired through her message. The people for whose semicolon tattoo was their touchstone to the land of the living, a place of hope. How could the person who started an anti-suicide movement take their own life? She had family, she had friends, she had resources at her disposal, she knew better. She knew from losing her father how painful a suicide is to those left behind. We feared that the people she touched would think, if Amy, with all of her knowledge and resources took her life, what chance do I have?

Death is something none of us want to think about, and when it touches us, we want someone, something to blame for our pain. If we lose a loved one in a car accident, we can blame the other driver; to cancer, we blame the disease. The blame can be easily placed anywhere else but the person who died. Suicide is different. The person who takes their life seemingly had a choice, and chose not to live. They chose to leave us. We can blame them; we can call them selfish (for another perspective, see Mesa Fama’s article, Please Stop Saying Suicide is Selfish).

As a therapist, I am not inclined to invalidate anyone’s feelings. I understand that when loved ones call people selfish for purposefully dying, they are saying this out of pain and grief, and looking for somewhere to place those feelings. I also understand that for people who are suicidal, calling them selfish is unwarranted and not particularly helpful. They are not ending their life to hurt others; they are in intolerable amounts of pain and looking for a relief that has thus far been out of reach. Writer David Foster Wallace, who lost his battle with depression, and took his life in 2008 at age 46, gives us an inside glimpse into the mind of someone walking the tightrope of depression and suicidality: “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

I have worked with suicidal people, and understand that terror is just as real for them as a room engulfed in flames. I also know that the terror is fleeting, and what feels like a situation with only one possible solution – death, has many alternatives, and sometimes what they need is a caring person willing to walk through the fire to bring them to safety. For those struggling today who lost their beacon of hope in Amy, who feel hopeless and helpless in the wake of her death, remember her message and what that has meant to you. Remember she was human, and flawed, but try not to blame her for leaving us way too soon. I know how much she cared about each and every person she encountered and whose lives she touched. Reach out to your family, your friends, your therapist, a hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or their online chat. We are out here and willing to walk through that fire for you. Because you are worth it. Because you matter. Because we love you. Because we are not afraid of your flames; our greatest fear is losing you.

Amy’s life work was helping others, that was her calling, that is where she felt most alive. Her death is a sober reminder to those of us who spend our time helping others, whether in a professional capacity and/or in our personal life, to ask for help when we need it. We don’t always have to be the pillars of strength – it is okay to be on the receiving end of love and support. I frequently say to my patients who shudder at the thought of asking others for help, fearing they will be perceived as weak: asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. It means you are willing and ready to fight, and just realize you need some more people on your side. Look around, we are here and we have your back. You’re story isn’t over yet.

Stay Positive

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It can be challenging to maintain a positive attitude, especially when things aren’t going your way. Positive thinking means looking on the bright side even when there doesn’t seem to be one. It is also hard work! However, while it might be easier to indulge in negative thoughts than to find the silver lining, this thinking pattern is damaging to your self-esteem and mental health.

Some inspiration to help you make the most of a bad situation…

  1. “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” You cannot change the past, but you can still create beauty and purpose from your mistakes.
  1. “What we think, we become.” If we harp on our negative thoughts, we may become a negative person who has trouble finding
    the joy in life. Conversely, if we try to see the good in the world we become part of the good in the world.
  1. “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass…it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” With a change of perspective, some seemingly-negative situations are an opportunity to be creative. Move in a direction that you may not have previously considered and you may be pleased with the results.

Still can’t shake those negative thoughts? The problem may run deeper than just your attitude. Test your mood: go online to http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com and take a free, anonymous mental health screening.

Bipolar Disorder: State Your Terms (Correctly) !

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder that is frequently misunderstood. This is in part due to the common use of its dictionary definition as an adjective: having or relating to two poles or extremities. While the definition of the adjective “bipolar” is applicable to bipolar disorder (the noun), the two are not one in the same.

 

Bipolar disorder, as the name suggests, is characterized by shifts between two opposing moods. These moods, however, are not just any two emotional  extremes: Bipolar disorder is specifically an alternation between mania and depression, both of which are disorders on their own. When people with bipolar disorder experience mania, their energy is high, their thoughts are racing and overly idealistic, and their demeanor appears “happy.” When they experience depression, their energy becomes low, they may seem hopeless, and their disposition seems sad.

 

Knowing your terminology will help you better understand the nuances of mental health disorders. Even more importantly, this knowledge can inspire you to encourage your friends and family to use other, less-stigmatizing language.

 

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms that might be consistent with bipolar disorder, head to http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com to take a free, brief online screening and discover treatment close to you.

Tis the Season(al Depression)

Winter blues getting you down? You’re not the only one. The winter months exacerbate mental health issues with limited hours of light and cold temperatures. Millions of Americans experience mood changes, heightened anxiety, and lack of energy during this time of year. January can be a hard time for many, as the holiday season ends and the monotonous gray weather drags on.

While the characteristics mentioned above are common, experiencing feelings of hopelessness at the same time each year might be a sign of seasonal depression. If the winter blues start inhibiting you from completing your normal activities, consider taking a mental health screening at http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com.

Seasonal depression is treatable. Although it is hard to drag yourself out of bed on a cold winter’s day, getting regular exercise and spending time outdoors are forms of prevention. Some at-home yoga or a short trip outside could also brighten your mood.

Five Simple Ways to Practice Self Care in the New Year

Rather than entering 2017 with the mentality, “new year, new me,” focus instead on taking care of the current you. Self-care can be a tricky thing to manage amidst a busy schedule and daily responsibilities, but it is the most important responsibility of all. You owe it to your friends, family, and above all yourself to be the best that you can be.

Here are five easy ways to practice good self-care this new year:

1. Set aside “me time” every day, even if this means a brisk ten-minute walk or taking a break to read ten pages of a book. Finding time to let your mind rest lowers anxiety and stress levels that build up during the day. With a refreshed mind, you will be more productive when you return to your regularly scheduled activity.

2. Invest in your passions. Think about what you love and start doing it. Learn woodworking on the weekends. Join a monthly poetry or reading group. Teach yourself a few magic tricks or maybe a foreign language. Having an identity outside of your daily priorities helps strengthen your sense of self. With work and family priorities, it can be challenging to find time to develop your own interests, but—unlike “me time”— passion building does not need to happen every day. Like you, it is a work-in-progress.

3. Cultivate your relationships. Studies show that people with strong social support systems are happier and live longer. Spending time with friends and family isn’t just enjoyable, it’s also good for you!

4. Make a realistic plan to take care of your body. Health-based New Year’s resolutions regularly fail because people set the bar too high. If you have gone to the gym once a month for the past year, it is unlikely that you will now go every single day. If you have been living on sandwiches during the week, perhaps it is not wise to suddenly cut bread out of your diet. Instead start out slowly, with a health routine that makes sense for you and fits into your schedule. Everybody is different and every body is too!

5. Check in on your mental health by taking a quick, anonymous mental health assessment at http://www.BeckPsychotherapy.com. Oftentimes, we become so focused on staying physically healthy that we forget to pay attention to our emotional health. However, mental health directly impacts how we feel physically and our level of energy. Remaining healthy in the new year involves supporting all aspects of ourselves.