Awareness Advocation: Mental Health

Disclaimer: all opinions, thoughts, and ideas are mine, unless otherwise stated. I am comfortable and happy with others having, and sharing different opinions. Not a single word in this post was/is meant to hurt or offend any. The following words are from my perspective, an outside perspective in the sense that I am lacking personal experiences, but an inside perspective due to how close and personal I have been with many of my closest friends and most treasured family members. This is not meant to discount or discourage in any way, shape, or form, and I hope that all of my readers will feel my love and passion for changing the way that mental health is seen.

Thank you.

The thing that bothers me the most about mental health is the way that so few are willing to talk about it. Having depression or anxiety is such a taboo, unspeakable topic in our world today, always hushed away or avoided in conversation. But why are anxiety or depression any different than cancer or diabetes? Each of these things hinders one’s normal, every day life, causes a deterioration of health, and should be discussed until a cure or at least help can be found for it. -What if everything you know about depression is wrong?

Please watch.

I have, as I am sure many of you have too, quite a few prominent relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems. Both family and friends of mine alike, some of whom I never would have expected, carry such heavy weights on their shoulders every single day. Whether their silence was due to them being unaware of what they were suffering with or whether it was because they were too embarrassed or nervous to share it with me, this past year, I have learned of so many loved ones’ sufferings. I was so happy to have them feel comfortable enough to share with me, and I made the biggest effort to show them love, support, and caring. I asked them what I could to do help, and whether that be talk in depth, or just know, I have tried so hard to be a strength during these hard times. It breaks my heart to know that so many people whom I love and care for more than I can describe are suffering every single day, and all that I want is to be able to help them in any way that I can, and help them find the help that they need.

I was speaking recently with a coworker and he was sharing with me his struggles with both anxiety and depression, how they had effected his life, and ways that he was working through them. I mentioned to him the way that avoiding the topic of mental health really bothered me, and he said something that really struck accord with me: “The only reason that I don’t talk about it much is because nobody ever asks me.” He went on to tell me that he has never been embarrassed or ashamed of his mental health issues, but rather desired openness and truthfulness. I loved to hear this from him, just as he was excited to find someone who had the same mindset as him, despite the fact that I have never suffered from mental health issues very seriously myself. I mentioned to him the depth of my desire to write about mental health and hopefully one day change the general stigma, and bring awareness and openness to discussion of anxiety and depression. He suggested that I use this platform which I have created to share my thoughts and opinions. I hope with my whole heart that each one of you reading this will feel my love and passion for helping others, and aiding them in finding help as well. I hope you will feel my love for all, and the fight that I want to put up against stigmas and secrets, by replacing them with openness and honesty.

Although it may seem obvious to be generally kind to people, we, so often, find ourselves willing to expect the worst, or choose to either say or think negative things about people. Cliche, though it may be, it is true– be kind because you never know what others are dealing with within. So many genuinely happy seeming people struggle constantly with chronic sadness. But, even if they’re not struggling with mental illnesses it is still so much better to just be kind anyways. Be kind to happy people, and be kind to sad people. Be kind to anxious people and be kind to relaxed people.

It is incredibly important that, when dealing with anxiety and depression, comparison does not come into play. Comparison could turn into competition, therefore creating belittlement. There is no need to discount or discredit another’s struggles or sufferings just because you think yours or worse, and vice versa. To look at others and see them suffering what you think is “more” or “worse” and deciding that you just need to suck it up, is wrong. Each person’s feelings are valid and important. Each person’s struggles are valid and important. Just as someone with a broken arm is going to the same level of help from the doctor as someone with a cut on their arm, everyone struggling with mental health deserves and is entitled to help and support.

The dramatization and glamorization of mental health over the last few years has absolutely broke my heart. Because I have dealt so closely with so many of my loved ones who do suffer with mental illnesses, watching as social media, TV, movies, etc. start to show these illnesses as something beautiful and to be lusted after truly sickens me. Being incredibly raw and open about mental illnesses should be encouraged, but dramatizing and monetizing fake representations of it is dark and twisted. The Netflix TV show, 13 Reasons Why was the first show that genuinely shocked me and upset me; although many may disagree with me, I do not think that anything of that dark nature should be shared on TV when so many have access to it. The idea of making people pay for the wrongs that they have done to you is corrupt and distorted. This TV show glamorized the idea of blame, at the highest degree. I have heard stories and read articles about young, vulnerable teenagers, being infatuated by this idea of others feeling guilt and heaviness and hopelessness themselves, because they had suffered previously. Not a single person on this planet deserves to be hurt or put down by others; being nasty and mean is not the answer to others being nasty and mean to you. Violence is not the cure for violence, rudeness is not the cure for rudeness. Choose instead to find help, move on, find alternate outlets, and rise above. Why, when you have experienced the depths of despair, would you want to force others to experience it too?

Throughout my experiences with mental health, I have watched closely as coping mechanisms, comforts, and constructive choices have been made. It truly makes me overjoyed to hear that anyone suffering, has found the help or the “cure” that they need. Watching support systems being built and watching improvements in general attitudes taking place is honestly one of the best things that I have ever witnessed. When I, myself, experienced a low, rough patch in my life this year, I began by ignoring my emotions and distracting myself with empty, emotionless white noise. When I eventually found what worked for me, I was ecstatic. I choose to asses my mood and feelings, and take the necessary measures (good music and beautiful sunsets) to work through them and find happiness and contentment once again. Although it was not easy or quick to find a positive coping mechanism, it was so worth it. As I was able to do so, I began to notice my friendships and relationships improve greatly. Friends of mine have come to me, often times slightly bashful, explaining to me activities, processes, or exercises that they have found help them to cope. Whether these be simple, or complicated, long, or short, by themselves, or with help from others, they are proud and excited to have discovered comforts and constructive brain or body exercises. When a coping mechanism is such that it is safe, productive, and healthy, power to you! Yoga, comedy, walking, meditating, chatting with family, and so on and so on are all excellent choices.

On the other hand, I have, unfortunately, witnessed many unhealthy, deteriorating “coping mechanisms”, which truly break my heart. The common practice of bottling up feeling and emotions, ignoring, and discounting them, will not work. If little, seemingly simple problems find a way to break out of their enclosures and burst back to the forefront of one’s mind, why would major problems be any better? Whether it be talking through emotions and experiences with someone, thinking through things on your own, doing something relaxing and quiet, or doing something exciting and big, there are natural healthy ways to help. Numbing agents are another supposed coping mechanism that should never be turned to. Messing with brain and body functions, and using substances to temporarily remove the pain is never the answer. Addictions and dependencies occur when one becomes reliant on a substance for their happiness. Temporarily numbing the pain, sadness, or anxiety is only going to hurt, and not help, in the long run. Whenever the effects of the substance wear off, it will be waiting for you, once again. To genuinely find happiness and find ways to deal with and get through one’s sufferings, one must find ways to become comfortable and happy with one’s self in the most natural and raw form.

It saddens me deeply to see the way that a small few have created a stigma of “faking” and “dramatization” for all who suffer from mental health. It is hard to watch people with genuine issues being written off because others have only ever had experiences with people using it as a crutch and exaggerating their struggles. When people decide to use whatever feelings of sadness or anxiety that they have to excuse their negative behaviour and validate their cruelty to others, they may get what they want, but others, suffering with serious mental health illnesses have to deal with the negative repercussions. It is so unfortunate to see their poor choices leading to manipulation and usage of others, and lack of support for those truly suffering. I hope that one day we will all be able to be honest and open with each other, being genuine and truthful about our struggles, and pushing to work through them rather than use them as a way to manipulate others.

I have asked a few friends and loved ones who suffer from mental illnesses if they have any input for this blog post. I prefaced my request with very little explanation of the blog post that I was writing. These comments are raw and real and directly from the source. Here is what I got in response:

“I think the biggest thing for me with mental health is that listening and being empathetic is the most important thing. Like I know first hand that sometimes communicating with someone about exactly how you’re feeling sounds so stupid and cliche but it’s literally just how you’re feeling. Despite any amount of “faking” that can be done about mental health, most of the time if you think it’s being over played or whatever, the person most likely just doesn’t know how to handle it yet. Anxiety is just fear of unreasonable things and the feeling of incapability to convince yourself you’re okay even if you know you’re okay. And then like silent subconscious inhibition of regular things you would do or say just because you’re worried about what they’re thinking. And then depression is just like overwhelming hopelessness and a feeling of inability to find anything to be happy about even when you know your life has good in it. But the BIGGEST thing is that people with mental diseases have some ability to cope and control their thoughts and their happiness. It takes time to learn methods to take your brain back from it but it does work and can happen if you try hard and have the right support. I really strongly believe that and it actually annoys me when they won’t take any responsibility for their actions.”

“In most scenarios those with legitimate mental health issues rarely to never complain or make it sound like they have it worse than everyone else. They remain quiet, trying to conceal how they feel inside. It’s also exhausting when people say and ask “are you okay?” or “calm down” “chill out!”. My response seems irrational, and childish when I say “stop it leave me alone” and of course the response to this is “oooohhhh” “blaaaahhh” “get over yourself” “woww grow up” “you’re so dumb” and so on so forth. And of course all I wish to do back to them is point out their flaws, but because I know they’re ignorant and crude, I sit back, whilst my brain goes wild, thoughts like a whirlwind, a hurricane at such high speeds that I feel nothing but everything all at once. Anger. Pain. Sadness. Fear. Uncomfortable. Exhaustion. Anxiety attacks are pure confusion. Nothing makes sense, it’s all a mud puddle, mixtures of toxic chemicals (negative thoughts), an abundance of water (tears & sweat), and grimey, mushy dirt (uncomfortable feelings), but instead of being a substance on earth, it’s within my head. Piecing things together after an anxiety attack feels like lifting the heaviest boulders off your shoulders, clearing a path towards safety. However that path, is a long recovery process, that often takes more than 5 minutes during class. Although my reactions to possibly simple task such as hole punching a paper, or as drastic as travelling away from home without close family, attempting to fill out important travel documents, come off as childish and irrational, physically I have control, however I cannot contain the overwhelming emotions that follow my frustrations. Sometimes during the most exciting of all days, hours and moments, one teeny pathetic action causing frustration grasps me, and I fall into a hole of anxiety. There is no rhyme or reason for mental health concerns and issues. You either have one or you don’t. Playing the attention games is something I disregard due to its popularity in today’s social media stricken world. However I do find less respect for those who do use “I have anxiety” as an excuse for not taking tests, refusing to hang out with friends to receive texts stating “omg are u ok, why didn’t u wanna hang tonight?” All for attention, the wrong attention. I do not point this out to those who perform this disrespectful act, and perhaps some of them do have mental addictions to social media, attention and the need to be wanted. But it’s not okay to abuse a term because you feel left out. Roughly 6 months ago, I recently discovered I have a minor anxiety disorder. I was not surprised, and rather relieved there was an explanation to my strange overreactions to simple problems. Learning to cope with this newly found disorder is not easy. I struggle every day, and I’m not asking for any shape or form of attention, I’m simply accepting what I have, and by saying it’s not easy, many others with this disorder hate to admit it as well, but mental health issues are awful, and you cannot sugar coat them with pictures of lovely eyes crying, a girl with perfect hair puking, a pretty body curled up in a corner in fear. Nothing about mental health is “beautiful” or “can be fixed”. It can be worked on, and sorted out, but not fixed. You cannot rebuild an entire person who has already been broken. However, by bringing awareness, you can help them rise up and face obstacles and leap over rubble. But there will always be debris laying in my path, and I’m willing to face it, with the backbone of my family, close friends, my horse, and of course, my dog.”

“I used to be terribly naive about this. I would try to seem understanding and accepting if someone was talking about their struggles with depression… but I really couldn’t relate at all, and didn’t see how it could be out of someone’s hands- how they felt. It boggled my mind when it came up, but that wasn’t often.

Then it came into my life.

A friend (who also happened to be a doctor) saw depression developing in me, but I casually dismissed her concerns. Maybe that happened to some people, but not to me!

The morning I found myself at home, crying almost hysterically for no apparent/ immediate reason was the day it hit home.

Suddenly I could comprehend what had been inexplicable to me for so long.

I was blessed to find help and support; plenty of it. Thank Heaven.”

“Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s recent deaths by suicide are heart-wrenching.  They also show us where we’re still stuck as a society.  I recently had someone (who has an undergraduate psychology degree but who thankfully doesn’t work in the field) say to me: ‘But they were rich – it doesn’t make any sense….I mean, they could have gone and lived on a beach for the rest of their lives.’  I replied that we don’t react with the same confusion when celebrities are diagnosed or die from cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.  To which, this person implied that I am more sensitive (i.e. not thinking logically) about suicide since I have lost someone I love this way.  Actually, two people I love have died by suicide.  Of course I am and always will be affected by losing them; however, I am confident that my assertion that mental illness cannot be erased by being rich or famous is quite accurate.  Sadly, the view that mental health is somehow less ‘real’ than other bodily illnesses is still one that is shared by enough people to make it feel risky for some to share their experience.  People with mental health concerns are already struggling more than most people realize – belonging to a society and a culture that still questions the validity of their suffering, still suggests they ‘shake off’ their depression by simply deciding to be happy only further alienates these individuals.  I strongly believe one of the factors that further exacerbates mental health struggle is shame, secrecy, keeping quiet about it, pretending to have it all together on the outside, etc.  Of course, we can say, speak up!  Share your story!  But when someone is struggling and feeling vulnerable and alone, it’s can be terrifying to be transparent in a society where speaking up can be a risk – what will my family, social network, colleagues and clients think if they find out?  Will people think of me differently – suddenly see me as weak or unstable?  It is sad that some resist getting the help they deserve for fear of being ‘labeled’ and the stereotypes and connotations that are associated with a mental health diagnosis ‘label’.  I would like to remind everyone that these ‘labels’ are social constructions that were created by humans and can (and must!) be changed by humans.  Thankfully, the culture is shifting and I think it’s such an amazing time to be alive – to get to see it changing for the better.  There are still people who don’t understand (or even try to understand) mental health, but there are increasing numbers of people who care, who want to be there for those in their community – these people are SO important for those suffering from mental health concerns.  These people are their advocates, their believers, their support system, their safety net – they are the army of individuals who are saying: we’re all in this together, we care, you matter.  Make no mistake about it, that is no small thing and I believe it will change our social landscape around mental health.     

I recently started seeing a psychologist.  One of the first questions she asked me, during our first session, was: tell me about your support network.  I told her about my husband, my sisters, my parents, about my couple trusted friends who I confide in.  We are social animals and having a support system makes an enormous difference.  I am seeing a psychologist because I started noticing the signs of burn-out, depression, and increased anxiety: I started feeling a loss of vitality.  Things that would normally take little to no energy were draining me.  I often felt like I had no choice but to force myself to get through parts of my day, or even whole days.  I suddenly found that things I wouldn’t have given a second thought about before were now completely overwhelming me.  I felt like burying my head in the sand and waiting for this to go away.  However, I knew from previous experience and from my love of learning about psychology that I needed to take action.  I made an appointment with a psychologist.  I told the people closest to me what was going on.  

I have dealt with this before once or twice before in my life.  When I was 16 I was diagnosed with depression.  I also dealt with something similar in my early twenties.  I tried medication for a short period in my early twenties and since that time, I have managed to keep myself healthy with primarily lifestyle factors.  Self-care has been a huge priority for me in my life.  Self-care looks different for everyone and is basically what brings you life energy.  For me that looks like: yoga, walking/ running, being in nature, baths, walking my dog, reading, writing.  For some people self-care may be lifting weights or watching stand-up comedy.  I think self-care is extremely important to building and maintaining mental health.  Just as we work out and eat healthy to build and maintain our physical health (these things can also can be very beneficial to mental health), self-care practices encourage us to connect with ourselves – which build our strength and resilience for life’s inevitable adversities.  I find, that when I am regularly practicing self-care, I am better able to keep things in perspective and  I experience a stronger sense of well-being.  

I think part of the reason I am struggling with my mental health currently is because I started a new job with a lot of travel and a different schedule, and the first things to go were my self-care practices – clearly not ‘fluff.’  However, part of it too, I think, is that I, like many in my family, are genetically predisposed to mental health challenges.  I have witnessed members of my family mimic my own patterns – we experience a mental health challenge and work through it.  Then, some of us seem to be okay for long-ish periods of time – many years in some cases.  Then, we start experiencing the familiar symptoms again.  Nah – denial, my familiar friend will say.  This isn’t depression and anxiety.  Bury your head in the sand.  But then it gets to such a point where I can’t ignore it.  Where it is affecting my life to such a point when I am forced to look it in the face and say, OK, let’s work through this again.  And for me (and I am guessing most people), working through it is hard work.  It is exhausting in it’s own right.  But so far I have always come out the other side having more compassion and love for myself than I did before.  Having more gratitude for my support network – truly, what would I do without them?

As mentioned earlier, I have lost people I deeply cared for to suicide.  One of those people was my friend Becky.  Becky was warm and caring.  She was a deep thinker who wanted to better understand herself, those around her, and the world.  Becky was really fun!  She made friends easily and was very people-oriented.  She loved to read.  She loved ballet and was toying with the idea of going to school to be a teacher or an electrician.  She was my childhood friend and I hold-tight to and cherish the memories that we share.  I remember the room in her basement of her childhood home.  Her laugh.  We remained friends in adulthood as well.  Becky shared her mental illness struggles with me.  Her despair was palpable sometimes.  When she died, so many people were in utter shock and disbelief that she took her own life.  How could this be?  Becky?!  But she was so happy!  Always laughing and smiling – always making people feel valued and heard.  How could we not have known?!  I can imagine that for Becky, wearing her mask of ‘everything’s great’, as I think she did out of necessity, must of been exhausting for her.  I know she didn’t want to ‘burden’ anyone.  I know she wanted to selflessly be there for others, to have a good time with the people she was with and not be a ‘downer’.  One of my hopes is that I get to see an enormous culture shift in my lifetime – one where people feel comfortable speaking up and reaching out, feeling safe enough to be authentic.  Where it is the norm to react with love, understanding, and support when we hear that someone in our lives is struggling.  Thank you, Emma, for writing about this very important topic.”

I hope that both those who suffer from mental illnesses and those who don’t, can, in the future, work hard to be open and genuine about mental health issues. I hope that help and support can be two things that are very easy to acquire for all, and that everyone will choose to be willing to help one another. I hope that at least some of this made sense or helped someone.

If there is anything, ever that I can do to help, please let me know. I don’t know much, and I’m definitely no trained professional, but I want to help and love and support in every way that I can, nonetheless.