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National Mental Illness Awareness Week

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. One of our own faculty, Ama Agyemang Larsen shares her own experience with anxiety and why regardless of what happens, you are enough.

It was my last day of school in eighth grade before I was to leave for boarding school in Ghana West Africa, my classmates’ had thrown me a surprise farewell party and I was so nervous and overwhelmed by the amount of attention I was receiving that I burst into tears. Confused and lost for words my classmates comforted me but were unsure why their thoughtful gesture would put me in such a distress. Years later, I would find out that I suffered from social anxiety. There is no cure for anxiety but management of negative thoughts and physical symptoms through medication and therapy has shown to be the most effective approach. Although I have not taken medication for my anxiety, I have gone through therapy. What I discovered was my lack of attachment to a primary caregiver as a child, caused me to be in a prolonged state of nervousness. At the age of 6, after living with a friend of the family, I left to live with my father and new family. Growing up, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. The crucial years of learning to trust others and myself had never fully formed and my lack of stability had caused me to live in perpetual fear.

Got anxiety? Yup-me too. Anxiety is about living in the future at the expense of enjoying and being mindful of the present. We all feel nervousness from time to time, especially if we are meeting new people or encounter a new situation. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it interferes with a job or social interactions. Do you ever feel like everyone is watching you, people can read your thoughts, or wish the floor or ground would open up and swallow you whole-saving you from the extreme discomfort you feel? Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, twitching or shaking, feeling light headed, and many more. The behavioral manifestation varies in individuals and can appear as agitation, avoidance of anxiety provoking situations, crying, restlessness and nervousness and others. Anxiety is also a result of feeling threatened and unsafe. It is our innate way of alerting us to danger by allowing us to be aware and conscious of our surroundings. However, individuals who suffer from anxiety are overly sensitive of their environment. This extreme sensitivity spun in a positive light can also cause us to have a deep sense of compassion and care for the security of others.

If you suffer from anxiety, you are not a alone. It is one of the most common mental illness in America. Find a licensed therapist or a safe person who you can talk to about your thoughts. If the situation that causes you anxiety is not an adverse threat, challenge yourself to practice staying in that situation. As you practice, your discomfort will decrease and the security you long for will increase. Practice relaxing by breathing in deeply and exhaling slowly. Be present. Unwrap the gift of time and the moment you find yourself in. Guard the thoughts that come into your mind and challenge the negative perceptions and fears you have about others and certain situations. Most of the time, those negative thoughts are false. People cannot read your mind. My good friend, you are enough, you are worth love and honor, and your life can be filled with peace and reflect your full God given capacities and aspirations.

About the Author:

Ama Agyemang Larsen was born in Ghana, West Africa but spent most of her life in Ghana, Nigeria, and the Gambia as well as the states of Ohio, upstate New York, and now Michigan.She received her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Michigan State University. Her professional highlights include working at the Kinship Care Resource Center and at the Children’s Trust Fund.

As a previous Program Manager for the Kinship Care Resource Center through the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, she had the opportunity to advocate for the statewide needs of relative caregivers for children, raised over $450,000 from state appropriations and small grants to cover some of the center’s operational costs and services, and lead the passage of Public Act 260 to provide foster care funds to relative caregivers who have guardianship of children in their care. She has conducted various trainings, presentations, and workshops for caregivers for children and professionals including social service and medical workers, managers, directors and legislators.

She has also worked for the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services as a Departmental Analyst with the Children’s Trust Fund and as a project lead for a shaken baby prevention project in Southeast Michigan. The Children’s Trust Fund provides statewide grants to the community to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Currently, she is pursuing her full clinical license as a therapist and counsel clients in a clinic on Okemos, Michigan. She is an Assistant Professor in the college of Human Services for the Social Work department at SAU. Her areas of interest include group dynamics, adverse life experiences, and the development and reduction of anxiety through the human lifespan.

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