By Teresa Turco, NAMI-UW Treasurer
Whenever I ask my friends how they’re doing, I notice a pattern in their responses: they are always “stressed,” “busy,” “tired.” Their responses don’t change based on the lack of sunlight in the week or the overwhelming onslaught of midterms or a poorly planned weekend bender. Collectively, we’ve come to evaluate our mood based on our to-do list and because of this, we’ve zeroed in on the negative. By learning to fixate on our stressors, we condition ourselves to constantly worry. We feel busy during syllabus week and stressed during spring break.
College life is challenging—we’re confronted with student loans, paper deadlines, exams, and the pressure of knowing this is supposed to be the time of our lives. It is normal to feel stress and to experience negative emotions. But it is not adaptive or healthy to chronically feel stressed, and it’s particularly maladaptive to create a social narrative on commiserating constant stress.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of health problems: prolonged tension in the muscles, pain in the neck and upper back, increased risk for hypertension and stroke, high levels of stress hormones, etc. Beyond the health risks, our rumination on the stressors in our lives sets up counterproductive styles of thinking which can perpetuate our feelings of anxiety.
College life is stressful, but there will always have another exam to take or group project to struggle through. And after college, there will be stress from work deadlines and inept managers and relationship problems. Stressors are a constant part of life, but stress doesn’t have to be.
For me, NAMI has emphasized the importance of mental health. Even those with subclinical levels of anxiety could benefit from taking care of themselves. Everyone experiences mental health problems, the same way we all occasionally get colds. Individuals with anxiety are taught to focus on breathing, to doodle, picture their worries falling like leaves from a tree. They are taught to cope with their anxiety, to care for themselves, and to say no when things are too much. In the same way, everyone should feel comfortable to take steps in managing their own stress.
I’ve come to understand and validate mental health concerns in everyday interactions, to notice how the response to “how’s it going?” can reveal a pattern in stress levels. Listening to my stressed, busy, tired classmates recount the horror of their schedules day after day, I vowed to myself to always answer “how are you?” with a new answer, to come up with something to say about my day other than how hard it was, to stop training myself to focus on the stressors in my life. No matter how busy and stressful it gets, life is good.
By Steve Stark, Live Free Student Wellness and Recovery
My story of substance abuse starts like many others. In high school, I drank and smoked weed with my friends. It was fun and exciting, just the latest adventure of our young lives. It seemed harmless, too: we were safe and responsible (as responsible as teenagers can be), and there were no serious consequences beyond a hangover or the munchies. One thing I realized right away was how much I enjoyed the feeling of being intoxicated. Everything seemed perfect and I was finally at peace with the world. It would be years before I realized substances affected me differently than others—that this would be the beginning of my addiction.
Moving away from home and into my freshman dorm at UW gave me many new freedoms: the freedom to make my own schedule, the freedom to go out whenever I pleased and stay out as late as I wanted—and the freedom to ingest substances whenever I wanted. Of course, I took full advantage of this. The first time I recall anyone questioning my substance use was the second semester of freshman year—my roommate, frustrated with my habits, asked me why I needed to drink and smoke so much. I wish I could say that was when I turned things around, but I just brushed him off.
I can’t pin down the exact moment things started to change, but as time went on, my substance use went from being something I did for fun to something I couldn’t have fun without. I dreaded going back home to spend time with family because I couldn’t use the way I wanted to. The consequences started to pile up. I got arrested. My grades plummeted. I got arrested again. I began to have mental health issues. I started becoming involved with more dangerous substances, spending my time with more dangerous friends.
I’ll spare you the details, but my life had to fall apart almost completely before I was willing to admit I had a problem. I burned bridges with people I was close to, spent a lot of money, was hospitalized for weeks for a serious injury I received while intoxicated, and even got asked to leave UW. It got to a point where I was barely functional as a person. Eventually, I had had enough of the consequences and decided to ask for help.
One of the important lessons I’ve learned from recovery is that I can’t do it alone. I wasn’t able to stay sober at first, and only through building new relationships with a community of like-minded people was I able to feel at home and finally put down the drugs and alcohol for good (I also had to cut ties with some of my more negative influences, but that’s a story for another time). I got back into UW and the community of individuals in Live Free—the only student recovery group on campus-- has been a big part of my journey. I’m a member of a 12-step group, which has also played a crucial role in my recovery.
It’s been over two years since I’ve last had a drug or a drink of alcohol and my life is better in every measurable way. The people I’m close to say I’m a completely different person. Some of the benefits were immediate and obvious—I started to look and feel better right away. Some of them were subtler: I had more time and energy to succeed in school and work, and even to explore my passions and hobbies on the side. I got into the best shape of my life. I developed new relations with wonderful people. Recovery has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, but there’s nothing in the world I would trade it for.
For more information on Live Free and what they do for students, their website is linked here.
By Maddie Schebil, NAMI-UW Ambassador
During my freshman year here at UW-Madison, I went through one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It was something I didn't see coming, but should have. No, it was homesickness. No, it wasn't the challenge of college level course. No, it wasn't making new friends. It was anxiety.
Growing up, I was always a Type A kind of kid. I was never late for school, I always did my homework on time, and I organized my things to a T. Looking back I would say I was an anxious child. If my mom was 20 minutes late picking me up for school, I would cry. Knowing this about myself now, I should have expected anxiety to rear its ugly face when I went to school, but I didn't.
After the first couple months of college, I began to feel very different. I would wake up every single morning feeling like I was about to take an exam or give a speech. There was a pit in my stomach that wouldn't go away no matter what I did. Naturally, I would call my mom. She would know how to help. See my entire family has anxiety. My mom, both my sisters, my brother and my dad (who doesn't like to admit it). I knew this was something that could affect me too. Anxiety can be situational, but it can also be genetic. After a couple weeks of feeling this way my mom thought I needed to do something about it. This wasn't just being homesick, normal college kid stuff. This was a much bigger issue.
So I made an appointment with UHS and let me tell you it was the best decision I ever made. After a session or two it was obvious my anxiety stemmed from a chemical imbalance in my brain. My psychiatrist thought I should go on medication and see if it helped.
Sure enough after about a week and a half, I started to feel like myself again. I didn't wake up feeling as anxious, and I was sleeping normally again. Of course this didn't mean my anxiety was gone completely. I still deal with panic attacks and anxious moments, but I have control over it. And with the help of medical professionals, I learned skills to help me cope with it.
I am so happy that my mother was so understanding of how crippling living with anxiety can be. She directed me to the right people to get the help I needed, and I am forever grateful. Most people don't talk about mental health when they talk about going away to college, but it is something that affects more people than you would think. If you ever feel like you need help or support, do not be afraid to go out there and get it. You are not weak because of it, you are actually stronger than you can imagine for being able to recognize that there are things you can do to be your best self.
By Hannah Entner, NAMI-UW Ambassador
A great quote from one of my favorite movies, Legally Blonde is “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” I’ve always thought this line was funny and maybe true, but never really thought about it until recently. Can you think of a time when you left the gym, a yoga class, or finished a run in a bad mood? Probably not. In fact, every time I leave the gym I feel like I could conquer the world. This mood boost happens because exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, the hormones that make you feel good inside. This is the reason you are constantly hearing that exercise is good for mental health. Endorphins help to decrease anxiety and depression. Chemically, this makes sense. It is proven to me every time I feel an anxious episode coming on and decide to head to the gym. Or when I’m having a particularly bad day at school and I stop at the gym on my way home. Nothing special happens between the time I walk through those doors and walk out, but I always feel significantly better afterwards, like I had never had those negative feelings in the first place. However, I don’t think endorphins are the only reason that exercise is good for our mental health. When you work out, you are doing something for yourself. It may be to destress, lose weight, or improve heart health, but all of these are ways to improve yourself and no one else. This is something to feel good about because it can be really hard to motivate yourself to exercise. But once you get there, it makes sense to feel happy because you achieved something. Good for you! You deserve those endorphins! So pick a type of exercise you love, because who doesn’t feel good when they do something they love, and the next time you’re feeling down, try to work out instead. You truly will feel the benefits inside and out.
By Natalie Hammer, NAMI-UW Ambassador
Anxiety ≠ Crazy. From early on in my diagnosis, I had to realize this statement true, but it was something I struggled with. I constantly thought having Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) made me crazy because I would worry and fixate on the little things, which my peers around me didn’t do. I’ve anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I want to share with you all my experiences with mental illness. IT’S OKAY TO TAKE MEDICATION. From my diagnosis, I’ve tried several medications to help with my anxious and sometimes depressive symptoms. There was one time in my life that I became particularity stubborn about taking medication. Again I felt crazy that I had to rely on medication every morning to make my day be smooth. During this time in my life, I hit rock bottom. I didn’t go to class, I didn’t hang out with my friends. I would lay in my bed sleeping or watching TV and would have mental breakdowns on the daily.
One day, my mom came to Madison and picked me up because I got so bad and she was so worried about me. She decided to make an appointment with my doctor for a med check (which I haven’t had in years). Long story short, my mom took me to the doctor and about 45 minutes later, I left the doctor with tears streaming down my face and a new prescription. I did not want to be dependent on medication. I thought I could improve without it. But then my mom told me something—she said that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain and medication was necessary in my treatment to balance my brain again. With her words and the doctor’s recommendation, I hesitantly took my new medication. At first, it made me feel foggy and gave me headaches (which is normal when starting a new medication). Although I felt crappy physically, I kept taking the pills and within 6 weeks, I could feel the medicine start to work. I began having a more positive mindset. I stopped sleeping as much. I hung out with my friends again. I went to class more. And most importantly, I started feeling like myself again. SO if you’re like me and get stubborn about taking meds for your mental health, it’s okay. We’ve all been there. But realize in some cases for your healing process that it is necessary in order to balance the chemicals in your brain, and taking medication does not make you crazy or weird or different from anyone else.
By Hannah Glasrud, NAMI-UW Vice President
You have to be smarter. You have to be faster. You have to be kinder. You have to be wittier. You have to be perfect. These are the thoughts that constantly plagued my mind the moment the dim morning light clawed at my eyelids. I would sit on the edge of my bed with my head drooped in my cold hands, staring into nothingness, trying to find a tiny glimpse of motivation to get up and face the monster of a day. I was tired. No, not tired, I was exhausted. I could feel my slow heartbeat, thumping desperately against my paper-thin chest. I felt that soon, life would slip from its delicate grip, and it may stop beating completely. I couldn’t be frightened because my mind was consumed only with thoughts of my disappointments and my failures to reach the unattainable. I am real, living proof that striving for perfection is the equivalent to flirting with death.
Early in life, we are taught to never settle for anything less than our best. The voices of our parents, teachers, coaches, and other important figures vibrate in our ears, telling us we will be successful, go far in life, or make a difference if only we just give it our all. As a young woman preparing to start my high school career, I kept these words near and dear to my heart, carrying them with me wherever I went. I wanted to start my sophomore year off on a fantastic note, being the most studious, organized scholar that I could be. I wanted the teachers to notice and praise me, and my classmates to befriend me. I naively believed that if I tried hard enough, I could make my first year at the high school flawless.
As the school year crept closer and closer, I began restricting my food intake. It began as a pledge to be as healthy as possibly, filling my body only with pure, wholesome food. My friends and relatives praised me when I turned down after-dinner desserts and applauded me when I chose a salad over pizza. I felt so accomplished, like nothing could stop me. I was on the highway to perfection. Or so I thought. But in a matter of months, I was living on watered-down soup and an occasional handful of grapes to quiet my empty stomach, gnawing at my flesh. I was cold. So cold. Not even a mug full of hot water, layers upon layers of blankets, or the crackling fireplace could warm me. I was wasting away into nothingness. Scared, lonely, and weak.
Pretty soon, I dreaded going to school, where I was forced to see people. I just wanted to hide in my room and sleep in complete isolation. I was too fatigued to do anything else. Getting up to sharpen my pencil during class was exhausting, and by the time I reached the top of a staircase, I nearly collapsed. I had been, not so long ago, completely impassioned with the tennis, anxiously waiting to leap across the court, hitting ball after ball. Now, I had to force myself to continue playing until I had no remaining energy to make it through a match. I was relieved when the season finally came to an end.
It wasn’t long before people began to notice I was no longer my bubbly, outgoing self. My parents would question why I wasn’t eating dinner with them, or why I seemed so quiet and withdrawn. My friends would ask why I could never hang out on the weekends anymore, and when I didn’t respond, they stopped inviting me anywhere altogether, figuring that I couldn’t come anyhow. It was because I was consumed with counting calories and weighing myself morning, noon, and night, making sure my weight was “perfect.” But it was never perfect. I was never satisfied. Strangely enough, I still thought I was unstoppable, convincing myself that I had truly mastered the skill of self-control and will-power. In reality, I was the fading away, both physically and emotionally. My once lively, energetic spirit was now a flickering candle, ready to burn out completely. And if it wasn’t for my father’s unconditional love and concern, I would have been lost forever.
That night, the frigid November air cut deep into my bones as my family and I were driving home from a play. Suddenly, my dad’s eyes widened and his mouth released a tiny yelp, barely noticeable. Frightened, I glanced over to where he was staring. The passenger airbag was off. I was no longer heavy enough to activate it. We drove home in silence. After witnessing my dad’s reaction, I, myself, was petrified. Then he broke the chilly silence. “Hannah, I think you have anorexia.” My mind raced with a million different thoughts. I wanted to scream, cry, and run far away. But something deep down told me he was right.
Now, as I look back on that moment five years ago, I feel blessed. No, I would never wish the pain and agony of enduring an eating disorder on anyone, not even my biggest enemy. But I feel grateful to have suffered tremendously through the ups and downs of recovery because it has taught me a very valuable lesson. There is no such thing as perfection. It is an absurd delusion, entirely unachievable. We are imperfect. We make terrible mistakes. We have incredible successes. We are complete and whole just the way we are. Yes, I will still have bad days where I want to shut out the world and return to old patterns of behavior. But I have realized that those behaviors are destructive, inflicting damage on my mind, body, and soul. Instead, I will accept that I am human, I will make mistakes, and it is okay. I choose to live, soaking up every struggle and victory I face, embracing the rollercoaster that is life.
By Morgan Gald, NAMI-UW Marketing Director
They’re crazy. Are you insane? They’re schizophrenic. Stop being so bipolar! You seem depressed, you should get help. They committed suicide.
I’m sure we’ve all heard (or even said) these things at one point in time. Though it may seem like it’s no big deal, the language we use in talking about mental health and mental illness really matters! We all slip up sometimes, and maybe you’ve never been corrected on language and that’s okay! Hopefully, this post will help educate and spread the message to change the language we use when talking about mental illness.
Language about Mental Illness
Though it’s common in popular culture and media to refer to people as “crazy”, “insane”, or “psycho” these words carry a very negative connotation and perpetuate the stigma around mental illness. Instead, try to explain that a person suffers from a mental health condition rather than using an outdated, stigmatized term.
As with many other conditions, disorders, or disabilities, it is important to remember that a person is more than their diagnosis. For example, instead of referring to someone as a Schizophrenic, we can say they are a person living with Schizophrenia. By using this language, we acknowledge that there is so much more to a person than just a label of a disease or disorder.
Mental illnesses are not adjectives, they are conditions! Just because someone has a change in mood, they are not bipolar. If someone likes to organize their notes after class, they are not OCD. If someone lost their favorite pair of sunglasses, it isn’t depressing. When we use mental illnesses to describe common feelings or actions, we are devaluing the experience of those who actually have these conditions. It can be harmful for those living with these conditions to hear people use their diagnosis as an adjective.
In the example above, it says “you seem depressed, you should get help.” How would you feel if someone approached you saying this? If you want to have a conversation about mental health (or anything) with someone, it is important to use “I” language. Otherwise, you come off as accusing and the other person will likely become defensive and you won’t be able to have a productive conversation. Instead, you can state things you have noticed and your feelings. For example, if you’re friend or roommate is showing symptoms of depression, you could say “I’ve noticed you’ve spent a lot of time alone lately and have been missing a lot of classes. I’m wondering if you’re okay, I’m worried about you.” This way, you open up the lines of conversation and back up your concerns with observations!
Language dealing with Suicide
When talking about suicide, people often use the term “committed” or “successful” suicide attempts. The word committed makes this sound like a criminal offence. Additionally, the words successful or unsuccessful make it seem as though there is a goal to be reached. Instead, we can say “died by suicide,” “took their life,” or “fatal or non-fatal attempt.”
Another myth when talking about suicide is that mentioning the word will put the idea in someone’s head, this is not true. Because of this myth, however, people often avoid asking the difficult question of “are you thinking of killing yourself” and instead use a word like hurting. This can mean a lot of different things to people so in the case of suicide, it is better to be direct.
All of this may seem like a lot and we all make mistakes! Try to keep these things in mind to help end stigma and create a more welcoming environment for those with mental illness.
Want more information? Here is a link to an article related to this topic from the Huffington Post.