From left, moderator Christal McNair; Ann Keller, licensed professional counselor at East-West Psychotherapy Associates; and Gwen Skinner, vice president of operations at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, discuss mental health issues before the Cobb Executive Women’s group.

MARIETTA — Mental health experts say you have a one in five chance of experiencing mental illness at some point in your life.

Mental illness affects people of all races and stations, even when expert help runs in the family, said Ann Keller, a licensed professional counselor at East-West Psychotherapy Associates off Dallas Highway near Barrett Parkway.

“You would think that as a therapist, your family’s perfect, but we have had a family member that has been homeless due to mental illness, and it took about a decade to get them back just operating normally and doing things with normal behavior,” Keller said. “When it comes to mental illness, it affects all of us. It even affects those of us who have worked with the population.”

Keller teamed up with Gwen Skinner, vice president of operations at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, which is off Stanley Road near Stilesboro Road in Kennesaw to speak about mental illness at a luncheon hosted by the Cobb Executive Women on Tuesday.

Skinner said 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75 percent start by age 24.

She said warning signs of mental illnesses in young people, such as severe mood swings, lethargy, intense worrying or avoiding social interaction can often be mistaken for typical teenage behavior. But she said parents should be on the lookout not for individual instances of acting out, but patterns of changing behavior.

“I think what middle class America tells each other is ‘Well, my child is just going through adolescence, and that is a very tumultuous time in their life,’” Skinner said. “And then they go to college, and they think, well, you know, when they go to college, that again is significant change in their life, and so they cope with it, and then it gets further down the road and parents often think back and say ‘I missed that, I missed that and I missed that.’ But it wasn’t that they missed it. It’s the way we view our families.”

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., Keller said, with 42 million adults suffering from it.

She said patients with anxiety disorders are among her favorites because they often show noticeable improvement quickly, but she said it is important for those patients to seek help because a less severe anxiety disorder can get worse over time without treatment.

“When it starts getting more severe, like panic disorder, you really want to get help, because if they’re experiencing panic disorder, the next thing would be agoraphobia where they’re not coming out of the house, and that’s more difficult to treat,” she said.

Another 16 million Americans suffer from major depression. For them, even performing simple tasks like getting out of bed or cleaning up can feel like huge undertakings. But Keller said depression can be cured with a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

The disease comes from an imbalance of the brain chemical serotonin.

“There are some people, the way they process serotonin is just different, and their bodies don’t hold onto serotonin like the rest of us,” Keller said. “I tell clients all the time if you really have a problem taking your medication, put it in your pill box with your vitamins and just call it your vitamin because it’s basically helping you with serotonin.”

Keller said eating healthy, getting exercise and sleeping on a regular schedule can cause your brain to produce more serotonin. That’s a solution for some depression sufferers, but for others, especially those with severe depression, medication may be needed, either for a short period or permanently.

Skinner said the best thing to do if you are suffering from mental health issues is to ask your doctor or nurse to set you up an appointment with a specialist. There may be a long wait for your first meeting, so speak up if you need help right away. If you have your first meeting and it’s not a good fit, don’t hesitate to keep looking until you find someone who is right for you.

Meanwhile, surround yourself with family and friends, talk about your feelings with people you can trust and continue to do the things that bring you happiness.

For people in Cobb County, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Cobb County branch offers confidential support groups for people with mental illnesses and for families and caregivers of sufferers. For more information, email NAMI Cobb’s helpline is 404-695-5333 and the national NAMI helpline is 800-950-6264. Those experiencing a mental health crisis can also text NAMI to 741741 for support.


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