SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, to bring attention to mental health and educate people on mental illness. In South Dakota, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and the 2nd leading cause of death for people age 15 to 34, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.

Across the country, 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with some form of mental illness in their lifetime the Centers for Disease Control says. But identifying mental illness and asking for help can be hard.

Recognizing signs & symptoms

Kristiana Benson is a therapist with Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls. She says the key signs of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, are not just emotional, but physical as well.

“Some people think it’s all in your head, like, ‘It’s just in my mind.’… No! It is felt all throughout our system,” Benson said.

Anxiety can manifest in several ways, Benson says. A person may feel tense, jumpy, overwhelmed or more irritable. They may also have trouble sleeping, staying asleep or waking up in the early morning hours. The inability to focus on tasks and generally feeling scatter-brained can be another symptom of anxiety.

“It starts in the brain because we are always on alert for perceived threats, emotional or physical threats, but it doesn’t stay there,” Benson said. “I mean it has an alarm system; it’s basically like a smoke detector that’s in our brain looking for perceived threats whether they’re real or not real. It’ll alert your entire system.”

For O’Gorman choir teacher Rachel Hickman, anxiety has been a lifelong issue.

“I’ve had anxiety since I was really little,” Hickman said. “When I was little I used to get really bad stomach aches — this is probably 5th, 4th, 3rd grade — to the point where I would miss school or my mom would take me out of school to go see the doctor.”

Hickman described dealing with constant stomach aches, increased heart rate, digestive issues and feeling overwhelmed to the point of tears. All of which are symptoms common with general anxiety disorders. It wasn’t until Hickman was in college, years later, that she was diagnosed with anxiety.

“I was like, ‘Really?’ Like, ‘That’s what anxiety feels like?’ I didn’t know because no one’s ever taught us what that feels like. You know what a headache feels like because you can be like, ‘My head hurts.’ and someone’s like, ‘That’s a headache,’” Hickman said.

When it comes to other mental illnesses such as depression, the symptoms can be similar to anxiety in that a person may be easily overwhelmed, have difficulties sleeping and be more irritable. But Benson says the main difference between anxiety and depression are feelings of fatigue and a lack of interest in hobbies and passions one had before.

“Is there a change from before? All of a sudden is there a decreased energy for interest or activities?” Benson said. 

In South Dakota, the majority of suicides from 2010 to 2019 were in the 20-29 age group. While mental illness can be diagnosed at any age, Benson says the 20s can be hard on mental health for many reasons.

“You’re leaving home, and finding a job, going to school. And all the sudden that core, that primary support group is… You’re on your own,” Benson said. 

The new experiences of paying bills, living alone or with people outside of your family and working can all contribute to increased stress among young adults. Added pressure of feeling that you need to have your whole life figured out can be overwhelming, Benson says.

For Hickman, college reignited her struggles with mental health.

“When you go to college, and you’re kind of on your own for the first time again…” Hickman said. “I decided I wanted to do one career, and then I decided I hated it and then I felt lost and then I was like, ‘Oh the anxiety is back; the stomach aches are back.’”

It was then that she reached out for help.

Asking for help

When Hickman realized she needed to talk to someone about her mental health, she sought out the free counseling services at her university. 

Often, universities and colleges offer some form of free counseling, both for individual and group therapy. But making that first step can be difficult.

Benson says feelings of anxiety and depression can often lead to isolation and feelings of worthlessness. Overcoming that and talking to friends and family can be a good first step.

“It’s always helpful to start things with, ‘I’ve noticed,’ as opposed to, ‘You’ve been this way.’ It helps lower defense,” Benson said. 

But seeking out the advice of a neutral, third-party is also important. 

Kristiana Benson talks about Employee Assistance Program and sliding scale for therapy.

In South Dakota, some employers offer their employees multiple counseling sessions for free, Benson says. The Employee Assistance Program in South Dakota offers telehealth and sometimes in-person sessions for both employees and their spouses and families.

Benson says taking care of your mental health should be just as important as taking care of your physical health.

“There’s no question of taking care of your physical health. There’s no shame and there needs to be no question of taking care of your emotional health.”

Additional resources for mental health: