It’s not unusual for family, friends and work colleagues to discuss all kinds of health matters. Everything from stomach ailments to root canals, headaches to grimace-inducing surgeries all seem fair game. So why is it that so many people choose to keep quiet when it comes to mental health concerns?
“There’s an enduring stigma surrounding mental health that makes people hesitant to seek help or to even talk about their struggles,” said Diego Benavidez, a cost engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.
Benavidez readily admits he lives with a mental illness and he’s not afraid to talk about the subject. “I’m definitely in the minority,” he said. “Most people don’t want to say anything about their mental health.”
The same was once true for Benavidez. Prior to working at the Sacramento District, he chose not to talk with his supervisors due to his fear of discrimination. However, when he started his position here, Benavidez decided to let his bosses know about the anxiety and depression he lives with as a result of having a learning disability.
“It’s helped me to let them know, especially when I’m struggling and need to call and ask for some time off,” he said.
Benavidez said he enjoys his work for the Corps and has a passion for mental health advocacy work. In fact, he decided to participate on a Sacramento District panel discussing learning disabilities. During this event he was inspired by hearing a fellow Corps employee publicly speak about her own struggles with mental illness, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Benavidez said he felt like he had a gift for speaking to people on the subject, and joined Toastmasters International to improve his ability to do so publicly. He also joined Stop Stigma Sacramento, which led to even more opportunities to educate. He has since spoken at high schools, colleges, community events and even teacher-trainings.
As he opened up about his own life story, he found that people started approaching him for advice and information. He wanted to make sure he was giving people correct guidance, so he became certified in Mental Health First Aid – a national program that teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.
“There are people right now in the Corps of Engineers who are self-medicating, or that have mental health issues, but they don’t know where to go, or they can’t get over the stigma associated with seeking help,” said Benavidez.
Vanessa Nino-Tapia, a civil engineer with the Corps, was eventually able to confide in her boss about her own struggles with mental health issues. She said she’s very glad it was brought into the open.
“There is a lot of stigma associated with ‘coming out’ about mental health. But if you don’t come forward to discuss your issue, you struggle alone, and you won’t know what reasonable accommodations are possible,” she said.
Nino-Tapia said that her boss noticed her really struggling one day and asked how he could help. Nino-Tapia confided in him, and the conversation helped lead to beneficial changes for her in the workplace.
“Having flexibility was a life-saver for me – being able to make my doctor’s appointments, adding flexibility to scheduling meetings – it’s made a huge difference in my work life,” she said.
Just as it did for Benavidez, being open about her personal issues has created opportunities for Nino-Tapia to help others. She said that speaking out has allowed others to speak out, knowing they’re not going to be punished.
“Being open about my issues allows others to talk about their own concerns and seek help as well, which is worth it!” she said. “It also helps me relieve my symptoms because I don’t have to hide anymore. I can say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling today.’”
Nino-Tapia also pointed out that while some colleagues may be concerned with finding out an associate has come forward with their mental health issues, they needn’t fear that person will cause them harm.
“That’s definitely one of the false stigmas associated with mental illness,” said Nino-Tapia. “The fact is that people living with mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence than to cause violence.”
It’s true. In fact, according to MentalHealth.gov, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
Both Benavidez and Nino-Tapia reiterated that one of the primary reasons they came forward is because they hope their stories will encourage and help others.
“Talking about this helps me, but my hope is that it helps other people – even just one,” said Benavidez. “Getting help is the first step. Something can be done.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Reach out to one of their national crisis centers at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Signs and symptoms of mental illness
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.
Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Examples of signs and symptoms include:
• Feeling sad or down
• Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
• Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
• Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
• Withdrawal from friends and activities
• Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
• Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
• Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
• Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Major changes in eating habits
• Sex drive changes
• Excessive anger, hostility or violence
• Suicidal thinking