Let's Talk About Stigma
In my experience, the stigma surrounding mental health issues is more silent than loud. It appears during subtle moments like disregarding one’s own pain, making jokes about certain disorders, and denying people validation for their feelings. I feel the root of the problem is that there is a legitimate lack of knowledge or awareness regarding the suffering associated with mental illness. That explanation feels almost like a cop-out, but it would be unfair to assume every individual that contributes to stigma has a vindictive motivation behind it; sometimes the reaction to people’s behavior is beyond what they imagined and intended. It’s more important, then, to continue widespread campaigns of normalizing mental health to eradicate that excuse. To contribute to that mission in my own way, I’d like to share how I view mental health. I think of mental health as resilience-- the quality of recovering successfully and quickly, and returning to a well-adjusted state after sustaining stress. Being well-adjusted, to me, means contentment in the face of everyday stressors. One of my favorite ways to conceptualize mental health is as an analogue to physical health; mental health means withstanding the invasion of infections (stressors) before they manifest as illness. People are born with different vulnerabilities to certain mental ailments just as they are for physical ones. As well, there are illnesses in both domains one would not want to let “run its course”-- like cancer, a broken bone, major depressive disorder, personality disorders, etc. So, this necessitates a more in-depth focus on mental health since it, arguably, presents the same risks to health as physical health. This can't happen if people's fear of being judged outweighs their desire to get healthier. Overall, I think the battle to eliminate stigma is a battle fought by individuals on a day to day basis. Catch people making mistakes and correct them, nicely. Be mindful of yourself and how you treat yourself. Believe and validate friends when they share difficult feelings with you. Ask for help. Promote asking for help. Share your own conceptualization of mental health with as many people as you can. Just don’t let the conversation die down. I know I won’t.
This year has been the start of my journey with mental health issues. During high school, people would talk about how they had stress and test anxiety, and I would feel the need to agree with them. Stress and anxiety was part of the high school experience so it almost felt like I was out of the loop if I didn't agree. Looking back on it now, I don't think I really felt stress back then, or at least not like I do now. The end of senior year marked an important moment for me. The first time I physically felt my fear of failure in my body or at least that's what I thought it was. My chest felt like I had just had my heart broken and I couldn't stop crying. I came to the realization that it wasn't the test scores or GPAs that upset me, rather the possibility that others might question my intelligence. As an insecure child, my intelligence was the one area where I felt confident and my strength. It makes sense that this would also be an area of vulnerability. This situation that I will describe will sound simple and almost like it doesn't matter, but it is the primary reason for my mental health issue so I suggest keeping an open mind before you continue reading. If I managed to get an A in just one of my classes (the rest I knew for sure), then I would successfully get above a 4.0 GPA and receive a gold stole. If I got an A-, I would be at a 3.999 and I would receive a silver stole. That night that grades were finalized I found out, after calculating GPAs, that I would be receiving silver. This was because I made a simple mistake and missed one online assignment that was not worth very much. That was the night. I was so afraid that the physical display of a silver stole would show my lack of intelligence and reveal something to my peers; "she's not as smart as she seem..." This situation was resolved only because my teacher accepted the late assignment two weeks later, so I did not have to think about that again for awhile. The night before my freshman chemistry exam, I remembered that moment during senior year and the horrible weight in my chest accompanied by the impending feeling of doom. I did not sleep until 4am. The next morning I was upset at my roommates for disturbing my sleep. I came back after my 8am class to try to sleep before the exam at 12. I still could not sleep. I took the exam, failed and ultimately did not care. The mature student in me recognized that I would be able to improve, and that I did. After the exam, I was much more emotionally upset about my lack of sleep than I was about my failure. The week after that I got progressively more upset at my roommates and the little noises they were making at night or day. I blamed them for my lack of sleep and failed to recognize the obvious connection to my mental health. It was not until my roommate pointed out my constant nitpicking that I recognized this. At this point in my life, I can say that I am not a stranger to mental health issues. I've done extensive advocacy work on removing the stigma against mental health issues, especially in communities of color. Somehow, I was blind to my own issues. Somehow, in the midst of all of this knowledge on these issues, I could not see the simple truth before me. What's even more interesting is that I was always internally overconfident while I was doing advocacy work. "This would never happen to me, because I'd be able to recognize my own issues right away". "I wouldn't put off seeing a doctor or talking to someone". These thoughts all had one consistent theme: I am above this. I am here to inform you that NO ONE is above mental health issues. Our natural human inability to pay attention to all aspects of our life and our health prevents us from being able to see ourselves from an unbiased perspective. The only way to immediately recognize these issues is to reflect on ourselves. However it takes a certain extensive long term and short term reflection to even begin to recognize these issues. Even if a person has the time and the awareness to do all of this work to "stay ahead of the game", their natural socialized reaction to the possibility that they even have an issue may be denial. This was exactly what happened to me. I think some deep part of me understood and knew what was going on but it was almost too scary to bring to conscious thought. I can assure anyone reading this that the moment you consciously recognize what's happening, you can begin to clear your mind and look for help. Not knowing or not being aware feels like limbo. That moment when I realized and accepted that something deeper was going on, I felt liberated. I would recommend sitting down, just once a month and reflecting on any emotional imbalances that have occurred. Question yourself about the cause. Try to figure out exactly where it started. Then examine all of the different ways it has impacted your life. I think that doing this exercise too often may cause you to lose the understanding of long term effects, but not doing it often enough would cause you to fail to remember the important events. Find the time that works best for you. Good luck, be safe, and remember that NAMI is always here if you need anything.
Make Decisions for You
My experiences with anxiety and depression began around the age of fifteen. There were multiple factors that I feel contributed to my mental illnesses, but I will be talking about one major one. My overall advice for anyone reading, or those who also struggle with similar issues, is to do what is best for you, not what you feel others think is best for you. Ever since the age of three, dance had been a huge part of my life. My sophomore year of high school I made our school's varsity dance team. This is where dance changed from something that lifted me up and boosted my spirits to something that caused great insecurity and self doubt. I was a weak link on my team and personally targeted by my dance coach. She criticized me, not just as a dancer but as a person. I dreading going to practice every single day, wishing the school day wouldn't end. I would walk into the gym shaking, often with tears in my eyes. I saw myself as a complete failure because I wasn't able to perform the way that was expected of me. It was about half way through the six month season when I decided I would finish out that year, but not return to the team afterwards. Many people encouraged me to stay on the team, saying I had improved and the next year would be better. But, keeping my best interest in mind, I felt the team had become an extremely toxic place for me that hurt my mental state severely. I made a point to do what was going to be best for myself, and not others. This was hard as I felt I was letting those around me down, being that I always want to please others. Looking back this was a great decision as I removed an extremely negative aspect from my life. From this I was able to make more time for the things that lifted me, such as friends, family, music, and church. I dealt with a great amount of shame for leaving the team but I couldn't continue dealing with the toxicity. I don't say this to put down sports teams or to encourage those to give up on things that are tough. But, if there is an aspect of your life that is bringing you down, not lifting you up, do what you feel is best for yourself. Take away others' opinions, judgements and thoughts, and focus on your own.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.