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Mental health worker gives others the tools that have helped her

Pamela Szalay has thought of almost every contingency should something happen to her while she’s in her SUV.

She carries road salt, food, extra blankets and an overnight kit. A flashlight and a radio you crank if the gas runs out. A special hammer to break a car window and a device to cut her seat belt if she ends up in the water after a crash.

“We always joke that if you’re going to get lost camping in the woods, you’d better have Pam with you because she’ll probably have everything in her backpack that you could need,” she said. “I would even have a paperclip if you needed one.”

Szalay (pronounced Se-Lay) can laugh about the extent of her preparedness today. But it helps hide the quiet struggle she has waged with anxiety.

She counts herself among the one in five people who will struggle with a mental illness during their lifetime, conditions that can range from mild to severe. Almost all can be effectively treated, many by learning better coping skills through counseling.

Szalay feels blessed with her job – director of community education for the Mental Health Association in Niagara County – which helped her better understand the way she thinks and behaves. And she has learned to overcome the very real fears that come with talking to large groups about mental health.

Szalay, 46, who lives in Williamsville with her 15-year-old son, has been a piano teacher for two decades. She’s worked for five years with the mental health association.

Q. When you do your introduction at a mental health talk, what are some of the key things you look to share?

Mental health issues are treatable and we should take steps to address them when we suspect they’re there. The reason we don’t is we’re afraid to admit it. We’re afraid of stigma. We’re afraid it will hold us back, that people will think ill of us. The Live Your Life Well program I share ties right in. Listen, it’s all around you. First let’s get over that, and let’s not be afraid of it, because it’s treatable. With that out of the way, let’s also realize that it can affect you, and if you deal with stress you’re really in many ways dealing with mental health. You might have symptoms of stress that could be quite debilitating and there’s many things you can do. I give them the 10 tools from the Mental Health America website (mentalhealthamerica.net). They’re so basic: Connect with others, stay positive, get physically active, help others, get enough sleep, create joy and satisfaction, eat well, take care of your spirit, deal better with hard times, and get professional help if you need it.

Q. How did you figure out you had issues with anxiety?

I guess it started in middle school and I did not know it for 20 years, just like the statistics say. I got my degree, I was studying, I was a conscientious worker, but I avoided things. Maybe I would avoid social occasions, but once I felt accepted I could be quite jovial, so people were shocked that I had any sense of anxiety. Over time, you realize that you’re missing out on things in life, that you’re not jumping into things. There are things you want to do that you’re not doing, and you’re really not sure why. Maybe you don’t take advantage of a job opportunity because you’re not sure you want to deal with the stress. Because it’s too ambiguous, you can’t picture it. The strategy is that I ask myself, “What’s stopping me now?” That’s the new me. I’ve learned to manage negative thoughts very well. I’ve actually learned to tell them to shut up. ... I’ve learned that those butterflies in my stomach aren’t going to kill me. I’ve found myself being a little more gutsy.

Q. Why do people need to get comfortable talking about mental health?

If it’s not you that might have a diagnosis of anxiety or depression, it’s very likely to be someone in your family with an illness – diagnosed or undiagnosed. By not talking about it, we sometimes hope it will get better by itself, when the fact is, normally it doesn’t. Why would you wait? We wouldn’t take this approach with cancer or diabetes – maybe we’ll ignore it and it’ll go away – so why do people do that when it comes to mental health?

I end up basically telling them that mental health is for everybody. You have to take care of yourself. You could be thriving if you do. Don’t be afraid to get help, and try to be more compassionate to those that do have symptoms.

Q. So, a mental health condition doesn’t have to own you?

Absolutely. There are some very successful people, including some well-known celebrities who’ve been more open about it and who’ve come out and said, “This is something I struggle with.” It doesn’t have to be stigmatizing. We tend to be afraid of the term, “mental health diagnosis,” whereas we can find a diagnosis as something, strangely, that can be empowering. Until I labeled what I had as anxiety, I would say I wasn’t as serious about wrestling it to the ground.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Reach the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Help Line at 433-5432 and the Mental Health Association of Erie County 886-1242.