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The new guidebook for understanding mental illness
The American Psychiatric Association released a new resource this month that will help families understand the ins and outs of mental illnesses. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
William Ambler was an anxious child. He needed medication to calm his nerves on plane trips and would fall apart during tennis matches when the pressure was high.

By high school, he was self-medicating with alcohol. In college, experimenting with marijuana sent him to the emergency room.

He and his family needed help, as well as answers.

American Psychiatric Association leaders believe they can offer more of both to families like Ambler's in the form of a new book, "Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5," released this month. The resource puts the DSM-5 or the manual of warning signs and treatment plans for illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorders that doctors use when making diagnoses, into everyday language in order to increase access to its potentially life-saving information.

"The point is not to make money, but rather to give valuable information to consumers so that they can seek the help they need," said Renee Binder, APA's president-elect and a professor or psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "Understanding Mental Disorders" is listed for just over $20 on Amazon.

Now 27, Ambler is a successful student on his way to becoming a pediatrician. He's also in recovery, learning to thrive in spite of diagnoses with depression, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

He said he's thankful for support from family members and medical professionals that helped him leave a self-destructive path. "I received help quickly," Ambler wrote in an email.

But many Americans with mental health disorders aren't as fortunate. APA leaders hope the new book will help close the gap between recognizing something's wrong and seeking treatment, as well as between receiving a diagnosis and finding hope for a happy life.

"This book is helpful because it describes what each mental disorder is, anything we know about the causes, what the treatment is and how to access treatment," Binder said. "It gives evidence-based information so that you don't get carried away by imagination or fantasy."

Raising awareness

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 43.8 million American adults experienced a diagnosable mental illness in 2013. Additionally, approximately 2.6 million teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced a "major depressive episode," although only 38.1 percent sought treatment.

It's a huge population, and it grows even larger when you include friends and family members who also feel the effects of mental illness, said Paul Summergrad, current president of APA and moderator of the press conference to announce the release of "Understanding Mental Disorders." And yet, in spite of the number of people impacted, many people feel uncomfortable asking for help.

SAMHSA's survey on mental illness in America included an investigation into why people who worry about their mental health go without medical care. Confusion, fears about stigma and cost concerns were widespread, with 48.3 percent of adults who said they perceived a mental health problem reporting that cost kept them from reaching out to a doctor. Additionally, 24.6 percent said they did not know where to turn for help, 10.3 percent worried about the reactions of community members and 8.3 percent were concerned about confidentiality.

Even those with financial resources and social connections can struggle, said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America. He described being overwhelmed when his son began to shown signs of schizophrenia. Although he had access to high-quality medical care and knew many people active in the mental health field, Gionfriddo was still frozen by fear.

"When my family faced this, we had no idea what to do and no idea where to turn," he said at the press conference. "It didn't matter how well-connected we were."

The goal of "Understanding Mental Disorders" is to lay out the steps to take when a family member or friend appears to be struggling with their mental health, Binder said. Clinicians and researchers, as well as advocacy organizations, spent months working to create a resource that was not just accurate, but also understandable.

Gionfriddo believes it will be especially valuable for parents because many disorders appear in childhood and adolescence.

"People don't know where to begin. Initially, you're living in fear. You're living without information. You're looking for basic information by talking to family members, peers and health professionals," he said. "We need to introduce hope into the equation. That's what tools and resources like this can do."

In a WebMD age, in which people Google their symptoms and sometimes jump to false or unhelpful conclusions, the book can also offer valuable balance to a chaotic situation, Summergrad said.

"Many of us turn to our physicians when looking for information, of course, but also to Internet-based sources, which have not undergone careful peer review," he said. "As a supplement to the doctor-patient relationship, 'Understanding Mental Disorders' can lead to helpful communication between the patient, family and their doctors. It can offer trustworthy and reliable facts and support."

Correcting misconceptions

Although Ambler said there's value in raising awareness around mental health issues, he is skeptical about where a book like "Understanding Mental Disorders" would fit into the recovery process.

"I sought help and received help quickly," he said. The book could have provided additional information, but it was doctors who helped him find a solution.

However, like APA leaders, he was excited about the book's potential to support a smarter dialogue about mental health issues.

"I do think (educating people about mental health issues) is a very important issue," he said. "Many patients will not seek help or report certain symptoms because they think it is all in their head or that it is normal, or they are embarrassed or they are scared."

Addressing guests at the press conference, Summergrad offered a similar assessment, noting that widespread misconceptions about how mental illness impacts productivity in the work place or personal relationships make an already difficult journey to recovery even more complex.

He described the new resource as a valuable way to overcome stereotypes, explaining that it can be consulted when a mental health issue leaves a family feeling isolated.

"I believe this book will go a long way to reducing stigma, the kind of stigma that makes patients feel they're alone or at fault for their condition," Summergrad said. In the book, information about mental disorders is paired with personal stories from people who have found strength through medical and social support.

Binder is hopeful that a resource like "Understanding Mental Disorders" will ease the difficult transition between sensing something is wrong and receiving a diagnosis. With increased awareness, mental health disorders could become more like a heart attack, an established medical event for which everyday people are trained to recognize warning signs, she said.

"If you're worried about it, you can go see a doctor and understand what the symptoms are, what the timeline is like and how it may affect you. You can be prepared," she said. "There are good, effective treatments for mental health disorders. Nobody should have to deal with one on their own."
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