May is Correct Your Posture Month. It's National Asparagus Month and National Egg Month and American Cheese Month, so you can honor them all by sitting up straight while enjoying a mouthful of quiche.
May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, which is good timing. The trauma of the past year might take decades to overcome. According to a February 2021 report, 40% of Americans had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders. The Commonwealth Fund reported last year that Black and Latino Americans were nearly one-third more likely than whites to be experiencing mental health problems, while low-income Americans were nearly twice as likely as the wealthy.
One hundred percent of those of us who love and care for someone with a mental illness are being affected by it as well.
Six years ago, I spent a summer couch-surfing, freaked out and exhausted from the stress of my wife's then-undiagnosed mood disorder. Almost overnight, after 30 years of marriage, the gentle, funny and warmhearted mother of our two grown children won the lead role in a manic nightmare.
We were lucky: After a three-week stay in a psychiatric ward and a diagnosis of late-onset bipolar disorder, my wife was well enough to begin the long and winding road to stability.
We were also lucky to have adequate health insurance, the support of family and friends, our faith and our unbroken love for each other. We were lucky to find excellent doctors. We might well have been lucky to be white: The Minneapolis cops who came to our door when things went haywire treated us courteously and impartially.
And I was lucky to figure out I needed help to meet my own needs. A 2016 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving found that 74% of mental health caregivers feel high emotional stress. Half of the 1,600 respondents pointed to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Half reported that their own health worsened from caregiving.
That first summer of my wife's illness my digestive tract turned into quicksand as I consumed the stress. Someone suggested I attend a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support group for family members of those with a mental health problem. One July night I was relieved to find people like me who "get it" — the guilt, anger, despair, loneliness and confusion caregivers all experience. No one judged or told others what to do. We listened and we cared.
And we gave each other hope.
Over time, my wife's mental health has stabilized. I have learned about resilience, to forgive myself for my shortcomings and to set boundaries without guilt. I learned to find humor amid the chaos of mania and the contagion of depression. I learned to thank my lucky stars for the love and compassion of my family and friends, and I learned I am married to the most courageous woman I know.
Perhaps most important, I learned that the way to fight the discrimination and overcome the stigma of mental illness is to talk candidly and respectfully with one another about our experiences as caregivers. Too many people believe that with trauma, depression and anxiety, you need only let a smile be your umbrella. Those who think they can handle the roller-coaster of a loved one's chronic illness by themselves are probably either too ashamed or too scared to admit they can't.
The day I "came out" to my neighbors was my turning point. Once you get talking, you find out pretty much everyone knows someone struggling with their mental health.
There is no Family Members Who Love Someone with a Mental Illness Month, and that's OK. We all need to get over the stigma. For your own physical and mental health, talk with a clergy member, friend or family member about your challenges. Find a support group. Know that you are not alone.
Jeffrey Zuckerman, of Minneapolis, is the author of "Unglued: A Bipolar Love Story."