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Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

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One important way to help prevent larger mental health issues is to work against existing stigmas of mental illness and treatment. People are more likely to seek out the help they need if they aren’t ashamed of it — and breaking the stigma will allow that to happen.

Watch Family Institute staff clinician Reginald Richardson, PhD, LCSW, say more about how on CLTV:

reggie stigma video


Substance Abuse: Symptoms & Prevention

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Shattered brown beer bottle: alcoholism conceptWe go to the doctor when we have severe pains, fevers or other physical symptoms. We take vitamins, have routine checkups, exercise and adapt our diets to prevent physical illnesses. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month at The Family Institute, we’re talking to our expert clinicians about the connections between physical and mental health, as well as what can be done to prevent more serious mental illnesses.

Today’s insights on substance abuse come from Amy Drucker, MSMFT, LMFT, an associate marriage and family therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.



Using substances to numb or dull our emotional experience (because guess what, they have that ability to change our physical experiences, and as we’ve discussed physical and mental/emotional health experiences go hand in hand) is not only common, it is arguably an unaddressed epidemic. Substances work very well to numb out the discomfort and unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing. People will turn to substances because they struggle to tolerate the emotional distress they may be feeling. Perhaps at first it was just a mood they were looking to temper, and did so with substances; but quickly, because substances “work well” in altering our experiences and tempering those unpleasant feelings, it can become a state of being that they are looking to temper and they turn to substances.

Substances have a direct effect on our nervous system, digestive system, adrenal system, you name it, the substance affects it! Substances used consistently can permanently alter our physical baseline functioning. Needless to say, substance abuse is an issue that deserves attention.

Some of the symptoms of substance abuse or overuse that should or could be indicators one should seek some type of mental health treatment are as follows:

  • Feeling the “need” to have the substance
  • The substance is the ONLY thing, or one of the only things, that makes you feel better
  • Using the substance more frequently
  • Using the substance earlier in the day
  • If the substance is there, you are unable to say no to it
  • Experiencing negative consequences from using the substance (physically feeling ill, financial losses, interpersonally relationships start receiving less attention, legal ramifications, lower moods–for example–alcohol is a depressant, long term use and one is apt to feel depressed)
  • The substance becomes more important than other realms of your life (work, relationships, health)
  • If you try to conceal the quantity or frequency of your consumption/use of the substance
  • If you start noticing physical side effects from over use of the substance
  • If NOT using the substance leads you to have physical side effects


There is an overwhelming stigma around addiction. If you think that you have a problem with substance abuse, there is no shame is reaching out for help. The shame develops when one does nothing to help themselves, and they begin to believe they deserve a life of addiction. Many people think that addiction is a choice, defined by a lack of will-power; it is my belief that addiction is far more complex than that and substances have a multifaceted impact on humans beings and at a certain point, the power to choose (if that power was ever there in the first place, many argue it is not) to use the substance or not no longer exists. Addiction and alcoholism is intensely isolating, and leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless. When one can recognize their use and/or abuse and be proactive about addressing it, there is hope and a possibility for a different life.


Substances offer temporary relief from whatever is contributing to a person’s unease and emotional distress. As the relief is temporary, the need to use more or use more frequently will undoubtedly become part of the vicious cycle. What one would benefit from doing is to seek more permanent and long term solutions for their emotional/mental health and stability. Some ides of more long-term solution behaviors are:

  • Seeking counseling for learning how to understand and tolerate our emotions more readily (thus the need for the substance to temper distressing emotions diminishes)
  • Seeking the support of loved ones and friends (social support is a huge buffer between individuals and substance abuse)
  • Engaging in activities that boost physical (and simultaneously emotional and mental) health
  • Getting involved in things/hobbies that interest you (a new project at work, an art class, a sports league)


For those who may know their substance abuse has gotten to a point where they need specific and intensive substance abuse help, there are outpatient treatment services, inpatient treatment services, detoxes (if one’s use has become so prevalent they need to be medically monitored as they get the substances out of their system), and spiritual programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART recovery, and others.


The Family Institute at Northwestern University offers affordable counseling for couples, individuals and families at our four Chicagoland locations. Please visit our website to learn more about what we do.

Happy Memorial Day from The Family Institute!

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The Family Institute wishes you and yours a safe, healthy and happy memorial day weekend!Amereican Flag display commemorating national holiday

How are Mental and Physical Health Connected?

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Diverse Hands Holding The Words Mental HealthTo commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked a number of our clinicians the question:

How are Mental and Physical Health Connected?

From Brooke Hartman, LCSW:

There are no ways in which physical and mental health are not related! I believe the  whole person is both mind and body, the health of each affecting the health of the other.  People with poor mental/emotional health are more at risk for chronic physical problems, and people with chronic physical conditions are more at risk for poor mental/emotional health- at any age.

WHO also states in its constitution, “There is no health without mental health.” Mental health is a component of physical health.


From Amy Sprague Champeau, MSMFT, LMFT:

In my opinion, it is frequently difficult to separate physical and mental health since what happens in the body affects our minds and hearts and vice versa.  Many psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety,  also involve difficulties with sleep, touch, digestion, appetite and arousal.  Physical illness and pain often contribute to emotional distress.  And emotional distress can lead to a variety of physical symptoms.  This is particularly true in the area of trauma.  Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist known for his  research on post-traumatic stress, famously stated that “the body keeps the score”.  This means that our bodies are the repository of what we experience in our lives. For example,  trauma (any experience — physical or emotional — that overwhelms our system), produces actual physiological changes including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity and changes in the ways our bodies and minds filter information.  After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. In the aftermath of trauma, our attempts to maintain control of physical and emotional reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including digestive distress, autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, etc.




The Family Institute offers affordable family, couples and individual counseling at our Evanston, downtown Chicago, La Grange Park and Northbrook locations. Visit our website to learn more.


Veterans & Relationships: How can we help?

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military_coupleVeterans have their own unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to mental health. A current study at The Family Institute looks at what couples face when they’re reunited after deployment.

From researcher Lynne Knobloch-Fedders, PhD:

“There is an urgent need for research to inform prevention and intervention services for couples during the transition from deployment to reintegration,” Dr. Knobloch-Fedders said. “Experts believe incorporating a service member back into domestic life can be more demanding for military families than deployment itself.”

Read more about this important study in a previous TFI Talks post.

Anxiety Disorders: Symptoms & prevention

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panic attack word cloud

We go to the doctor when we have severe pains, fevers or other physical symptoms. We take vitamins, have routine checkups, exercise and adapt our diets to prevent physical illnesses. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month at The Family Institute, we’re talking to our expert clinicians about the connections between physical and mental health, as well as what can be done to prevent more serious mental illnesses.

Today’s insights come from Jenny Welbel, LPC, a staff clinician with the Institute’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program.



A Natural State of Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural state that everybody experiences and that is designed to protect and prepare individuals. Therefore, a healthy amount of anxiety can enhance performance in school or at work (driving us to study harder or prepare longer for a presentation) and it serves to protect us from danger.

However, transient anxiety becomes problematic and may be symptomatic of an anxiety disorder when it is persistent, highly distressing, and impairs everyday functioning – making it difficult or even impossible to carry out the things we need to do at work, school or with our loved ones. For example, it is expected that a high school senior may be anxious about where he or she is going to college. But, if this same college senior, is spending hours worrying about where they are going to school, loses sleep because he or she is filling out dozens and dozens of college applications, and gets so nervous before college interviews that he or she gets sick, the individual’s anxiety is no longer considered productive or helpful. Similarly, many individuals may get nervous before meeting new people. But, if an individual is so nervous about meeting new people that he or she avoids social functions all together, or experiences frequent panic attacks before any social gathering, he or she may be struggling with an anxiety disorder.

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that given that although a certain amount of anxiety is normal, and often productive, there are some things that could take normal anxiety and make it abnormal. Specifically:

  1. Sleep: Maintain as regular of a sleep-wake time as possible. If your schedule gets disrupted because you had to pull an all-nighter, start the next day by getting up at your regular time.
  2. Alcohol: Some people try to cope with stress and anxiety by using alcohol. However, alcohol can make it less likely that you will use healthy coping strategies in the moment, may increase the number of stressors in one’s life, and can make anxiety even worse the next day.
  3. Avoidance: We all tend to stay away from things that we don’t like, but if we do so because the thing in question causes us fear or anxiety, we may actually be perpetuating the fear.  For example, if an individual avoids giving presentations because he is afraid that he will embarrass himself, he is preventing himself from learning that, most likely, his fear does not come true. And, if it was to come true, he could handle it better than anticipated.


Know Your Own Cues

Mental health  is a state of emotional and psychological well-being and balance.

Maintaining that mental well-being and balance is different for everyone — some people use yoga, exercise, religion or other activities to try and keep themselves balanced and feeling well.

In addition to those personal activities, another important way individuals can work to maintain their own mental health is by knowing their own cues that something is off. We often know when we’re off balance and things just don’t feel right. Cultivating that self-awareness so that we can identify moments of struggle is a way we can help prevent larger issues. It’s important to ask yourself: When you feel anxious, how long does it normally last? How are you able to cope with it and/or manage those feelings? If you know those details about yourself, you’ll be able to more easily identify moments when anxiety is lasting a bit too long or interfering too much with your everyday life — and then get the help you might need.


Reducing Stigma Leads to Prevention.

While knowing our own cues that our mental well-being is off-balance is an important way to help prevent larger mental health issues, it can only go so far. Many people do recognize that something is off-balance — but then don’t seek out help because of the stigma surrounding mental health treatment. By reducing that stigma, we could help those individuals feel safer and more secure in getting the help they need, possibly preventing more severe issues that result from a lack of treatment.

By creating environments — families, workplaces and schools — that are more open to discussions of mental illness and less judgmental of what they actually mean, we will create safe spaces for people to talk about their struggles and ask for the help they need. For example, while many workplaces and schools offer accommodations for people struggling with anxiety disorders, some individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed to actually seek out those accommodations. By reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and creating a more accepting environment, workplaces and schools can encourage those individuals to get the help they need.

As a society we need more policies in place to help reduce this stigma, and more awareness. If parent, teachers, caregivers and other individuals know what to look for and how to handle it, we can get to the issues earlier and prevent further problems and complications.


The Family Institute offers affordable counseling throughout the Chicagoland area. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.

How do you define mental health?

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To commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked a number of our clinicians the question:

How do you define mental health?

From Brooke Hartman, LCSW:

A state of psychological and social well-being; the ability to adaptively cope with stressors in life, to be productive, to meet potential, and to thrive. I like World Health Organization’s definition of health (including Mental Health) as written in its constitution:  “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

From David Hauser, PhD:

Interpersonal neurobiologist, Dr. Dan Siegel, likes to say “health is adaptation.”  For me this definition works quite well for mental health as well.  Mental health is the ability for a person to get their needs met, while adapting to and navigating through the environmental constraints that stand in the way of their needs being attended to.  Pursuing one’s own needs, while remaining empathic toward others’ needs is a true sign of mental health.


But by this definition, it is imperative first for individuals to identify what their needs are. Setting a course to meet goals that are not in sync with a person’s underlying wants and drives can be the catalyst for many mental health disorders.  I think too often, people think “knowing your own needs” is self-evident or obvious.  I think it is much harder to discover and then articulate one’s own needs than people realize.  Much “white noise,” such as media messages, social norms, and familial pressure can distract people from what they really want, and only by detecting what lay beneath this noise can one find what drives them and what will lead them to happiness and greater mental health.


The Family Institute offers affordable family, couples and individual counseling at our Evanston, downtown Chicago, La Grange Park and Northbrook locations. Visit our website to learn more.

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