Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Alexandra Lamas, creator of the Instagram page Faces Behind Illness to discuss the page and her hopes for it. Faces Behind Illness is about giving people a platform to speak about their experiences of living with mental illness, and help to de-stigmatize doing so. Lamas hopes people will submit their stories and answer questions that will help others understand what life is really like with these illnesses, and help build a greater understanding and community connection for those living with mental illness.

When I sat down to speak over the phone with Lamas, my first impression was that she was very intelligent and kind. In her voice, you can hear her enthusiasm for the work she’s doing, and her passion for helping people come out of the shadows and spread awareness about the struggles they have with mental illness. It’s also important to her that people who don’t live with these illnesses understand that while they may be difficult to live with, the people behind the illnesses are wonderful, deep, full human beings. Lamas is young, but very competent in her chosen line of work and prepared to put in the hard work to make a difference for the people around her, and hopefully the global community that can join in on her Faces Behind Illness page. 

Lamas is working on a pre-med science degree with the goal of pursuing a degree in psychiatry, specifically holistic, nutritional, and balanced medication therapy. Right now, Lamas is working at a job that screens people back into work and helps them adjust to re-entering their work spaces in the era of COVID-19. Lamas hopes that her page will provide hope and support for people who feel alone and unseen in their battles with mental health.

Griffith: What do you want to accomplish with Faces Behind Illness

Lamas: “When creating Faces Behind Illness, I had one thing in mind and that was this idea around stigma and mental illness. It’s always been such a phenomenon to me that our mental struggles are often ignored because of their invisibility while physical illness is payed attention to because it’s so apparent. I wanted to build a community where people suffering could find their voice and share it safely and comfortably, so that others would see that mental illness is not taboo, scary, or rare. Mental illness affects 1 in 4 of us, it’s completely real, common, and absolutely worthy of being recognized. Faces Behind Illness exists to accomplish the hard fight in eliminating stigma and supporting those that deserve to put a face behind their illness because there is a story behind each label and it deserves to be heard.”

What inspired you to pursue a career in mental health?

“Human behavior has always been such a curiosity growing up! I asked too many questions as a kid, my poor dad,” Lamas laughs. “I remember in High School I wanted to take an AP class and my only options were Computer Science and Psychology. I was terrified of both, but heard the Computer Science professor wasn’t as strict, so I went with it. I ended up dropping the class after the first day and then switched to Psychology. That was the best decision I could have ever made. I walked into a discussion about dreams and was blown away that people study dreams and that was it. I was sold! It was one of those light-bulb moments where you didn’t know something you loved even existed until it was right in front of you. As far as what keeps me inspired I would have to give credit to my grandma. She passed away in March from Breast Cancer, but she lived and breathed positivity until the end. We would always have hour long conversations about my love for psychology and when I lived in SD and attended UCSD I got to see her every day. My family has had some history of mental illness and my grandma and I spoke transparently about it. She always stayed hopeful of the change and transformation Psychiatry could make for the future of mental health. She reminded me everyday to stick with this goal of mine. I often remind myself that I wished there was someone that could’ve helped those in my family, and even myself as a young child, and I truly believe that’s what keeps me dedicated to this forever. I want to be that person.”

With COVID-19 affecting everyone, what kind of mental health issue are people dealing with that they might not normally?

“I would say anxiety, trauma, overall emotional distress is very apparent during this time, due to the feelings of fear, panic, and helplessness.

According to WedMD, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll stated that more than half of Americans — 56% –reported that worry or stress related to the outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect. Those include trouble with eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol more, frequent headaches or stomachaches, shorter tempers, and other health problems. Among front-line health care workers and their families, 64% reported worsened mental health, as did 65% of those who had lost income. A recent poll of more than 3,100 WebMD readers found that 26% said they felt a sense of trauma from COVID-19. Even if mental illness is on the rise it is important to strive to protect ones emotional well being. WebMD experts listed three tips to help and they are – eating and sleeping well, stay socially connected even if you can’t see others in person, and limit news and social media. These tips can help with tolerating distress.”

Alexandra Lamas

When people share their stories with Faces Behind Illness, what do you hope viewers take away from the experience?

“For one, I hope that viewers who are struggling with a mental illness find some hope and feel more understood about their situation. I also hope that they find their voice and help in the process of ending the stigma. This could apply to both those that realize they have a mental illness or those that have had no idea and are more willing to seek help and become more knowledgeable of mental health. Secondly, I hope that viewers who are not struggling become more educated on mental health topics and better understand that it is something worth learning and discussing about because they either know someone currently who is struggling or will at one point in time. With the right access to mental health information they may be able to recognize the signs or risk factors displayed in others and know how to help refer them to a mental health professional.”

If you could snap your fingers and make the world understand one thing about mental illness, what would that be?

“Physical Illness and Mental Illness are equal.”

On the Faces Behind Illness page, I read an info slide that said something along the lines of how trauma is one of the contributing factors to the development or expression of mental illness and that preventing risk factors can minimize a person’s likelihood of  suffering lifelong effects. What can parents do to minimize trauma during the COVID19 epidemic?

  • “Provide structure and routine
  • Promote a sense of control
  • Be present
  • Provide emotional check-ins
  • Strengthen self-regulation skills.”

What can adults do to cope with the trauma of the experience with the pandemic?

Alexandra Lamas

Danielle Render Turmaud, a Counseling Professional who specializes in working with survivors of trauma, provides some tips for taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and I will happily share them with you all:

  • Stay connected with people. Even if the times necessitate quarantine or social distancing, get creative in ways to stay connected to others. Technology can be a great resource when physical proximity is not an option.
  • When all else fails, remember the basics. Be sure to get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. Research demonstrates that these basic daily tasks support our brains in coping effectively, regulating stress, decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms, and processing information.
  • Just as you would create a medical toolkit, create a coping toolkit for yourself. Put together a list or kit of activities and objects that help you feel grounded, safe, bring you joy, and increase your quality of life as you ride out this crisis.
  • Although staying informed is important, as possible, minimize your exposure to media on the outbreak and/or the flooding of traumatic stories about the pandemic. Exposure to trauma-filled media has been linked with increases in vicarious traumatization and traumatic stress symptoms. (For more on this, see my article, Watching the News Can be Traumatizing.)
  • Even if you cannot get mental health services in person, there are many ways in which you can obtain distance mental health services. Multiple providers offer online counseling services or 24/7 crisis lines (SAMSHA National Helpline).
  • If all else fails, normalize your struggles. Remember that you are not alone in this and many others are dealing with the consequences of this distressing time. Be kind to yourself (and others). Kindness and compassion can go a long way.

With discussion about anxiety and depression becoming more mainstream due to the internet, what sort of role do you think peer support plays in supporting mental health during the pandemic?

“When facing a mental health challenge a person can feel alone or afraid to ask for help. That’s why having a good support network is incredibly important. Research shows that people with supportive friends and family are more likely to reach out, get the help they need and get better more quickly.

This is also true for young people. Teens are often afraid they’ll be judged or criticized for what they’re going through or how they’re feeling. That’s why they are more likely to go to their friends for support before reaching out to an adult. This makes it incredibly important that young people feel confident in supporting each other through the good and bad times.”

Faces Behind Illness works best with many people are involved in sharing their story and discussing their experiences with mental health. Hop on over to the Instagram page to get involved, and learn or share about life with mental illness.