October 16, 2015

Skydive Helps Rout Stigma of Battling Depression

Oct. 16, 2015 | Allyson Lewis was sinking deeper and deeper into a darkness.

“It’s like a funnel is surrounding you and you feel you’re in a sludgy, black vortex with no way out,” Lewis said about her chronic, clinical depression.

Today, the best-selling author and mother of two is able to freely express what those dark days in her life were like. But that has not always been the case. With the stigma that is attached to mental illness, Lewis says it took courage for her to admit she needed specialized treatment. She checked herself into the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute in 2012.

“Going into a psychiatric unit was the turning point for me,” Lewis said. “It was like a wake-up call that screamed, ‘I mean this. I’m not going to stay where I was. I’m going to get help.’”

Gohar Azhar, M.D., was instrumental in helping Allyson Lewis seek help for depression.

Gohar Azhar, M.D., was instrumental in helping Allyson Lewis seek help for depression.

Three years later, Lewis says it’s still a battle. But now she’s more equipped with the tools she needs to fight.

“I’m not sure if my depression will ever go away,” she said. “But when you choose you want life again, help is available.”

Since her treatment at UAMS, Lewis has made it her mission to help others who may also be struggling with stress, anxiety or depression. She says the general public tends to make mental illness a taboo topic. She’s working to change that.

“Mental Illness is everywhere. There should not be a stigma attached to it. It shouldn’t be hidden anymore. It is a problem that can be treated on many different levels.”

Lewis says her primary care physician was instrumental in letting her know she may have to seek further treatment. Gohar Azhar, M.D. is a geriatrician, an associate professor of geriatrics, and director of clinical research at the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging.

Lewis had a lot of physical complaints and complex medical issues that included fatigue and anxiety. Sometimes, Azhar said, people who are very physically ill can also have an element of depression.

“Usually when the physical illness gets better, the depression symptoms also abate,” Azhar said. “But that was not the case with Allyson.”

Lewis has a good relationship with her doctor and Azhar encouraged her to seek more help for the depression.

“Allyson, in her own wisdom, finally acknowledged that she needed treatment and agreed to be admitted for inpatient therapy at the Psychiatric Research Institute. That was the starting process in her healing and recovery from depression,” Azhar said.

As a part of her mission to spread awareness and squash the stigma associated with mental health, Lewis literally went to new heights. She recently went skydiving with a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The two joined hands in the air to metaphorically declare they were jumping out into the open with their struggle with mental illness.

Azhar said it is the responsibility of every primary care physician to pay attention to the psychological health of their patients and refer to psychiatry if needed. UAMS has started screening all patients for depression in primary care visits.

“When the nurse sees a patient, they ask a few screening questions about depression. If the answers trigger a positive response for depression, it alerts the physician who discusses the issues in greater detail with the patient. I believe it will prove to be very helpful and improve the quality of care we provide to our patients.”