Has Mental Health Become Just Another Buzzword?

Everyone’s talking about mental health. Often, it’s in the context of commodifying self-care – face-masks, bath bombs, and adult-coloring books galore. Conversation around mental health has created an entirely new market, capitalizing off the notion that “everyone has mental health.” Which brings me to the question of the day – does everyone have mental health?

In short, of course everyone has mental health – we all have brains and emotions and experience stress and feelings of anxiety. But not everyone suffers from a mental illness, and we make very little distinction between clinically diagnosed mental illnesses and every day mental health. In reality, there is a huge difference between the terms “mental health” and “mental illness.” Mental health is likened to emotional wellness, described as

a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

To juxtapose this, mental illness is much more medical and much less universal. Mental illness is

a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities. Mental disorders result from biological, developmental and/or psychosocial factors and can be managed using approaches comparable to those applied to physical disease (i.e., prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).

Naturally, markets have capitalized around the growing prevalence of mental health in our vocabulary. Notably, these markets appear to be targeting women, with huge emphasis on relaxation products, self-help books, and over-priced essential oils. Does self-care work? Of course! It works for some people, many, in fact. For example: face masks make me feel better when I’m stressed or come home from a long day. But self-care frankly doesn’t get at the root of my mental illness – a bath bomb doesn’t change the fact that I have multiple, clinically diagnosed mental health disorders. Instead, my options for treatment stretch outside the realm of self-care and into the world of professional treatment and medication (which, unfortunately, are incredibly inaccessible and not viable options for many).

We sweep up mental illness and emotional wellness into the same category, all falling under the buzzword “mental health.” Though often not intending to, universalizing mental health by saying things like “everyone has mental health” and “everyone needs a mental health day” further delegitimizes mental illnesses by implying that they are something that everyone experiences. Not everyone experiences mental illness, and most people never will. Mental illness is not the same as every day, situational stress that everyone feels. We need to stop feeding ourselves this narrative that self-care is the solution to all mental health related problems, because for many folks, self-care is not an option due to the debilitating nature of mental illness.

To quote Vice,

we’ve reached a brick wall with mental health. For starters…the overuse and misuse of words like “anxiety” can lead to them losing all meaning. “Raising awareness” and “breaking taboos” are nice phrases for brands and publications, but at this point, are they really changing anything?

Instead of marketing mental health and convincing ourselves that mental health complications are universal experiences, it’s time we start acknowledging the pain folks who suffer severe mental illnesses experience and work to change our oppressive behaviors, policies, and structures. Mental health services continue to be cut, further oppressing people with mental illness, people who do not feel “cured” from a bit of self-care, but desperately need these services to live healthy lives.

It’s not an easy, surmountable task, but it can be done. From realistic representation of mentally ill characters in television and books, to fruitful conversations about ableism with family and community members, to lobbying against budget cuts to mental health services, we can all find a part to play in the movement to create a just and equitable society for people with mental illness. The buzzword of “Mental Health” has began to break the stigma – and now it’s time to create tangible, equitable change for people with mental illnesses.

SHORT STORY: Depression’s Apology

I was there when Cynthia’s mom died. She was only seven. She didn’t know who I was, or what I was, but she saw me. She felt me there, I think. She didn’t want to see me, though, so she closed her eyes and I hid. I stayed hidden for a while after that. Always there, but hidden.

I watched when the kids on the playground would tiptoe around her. They could all see me there, standing, hovering…watching. The visible, painful sadness, always in the room. But Cynthia? She ignored me for as long as she could.

I was there the day that the teacher with the long nose and messy hair called her out for being late. Cynthia hung her head and tried to ignore me. When the long-nosed teacher passed back her math test and Cynthia saw that she got a D-, she stuffed the test into her backpack and glanced up at me. She knew just where to look, which makes me think that maybe she knew I was there the whole time. When she got home, she let me hold her, and she cried so hard she threw up. I don’t think she was crying about the math test. Not really.

I was there when she got cut from the soccer team. The coach said she was too distracted, she wasn’t there, she didn’t get along well with the other girls. She didn’t connect. She let me hold her that day, too. I think it was my fault she got cut. I was always in her way. But she blamed herself.

I was there each time she felt a rush of emotions, waves of pain and sadness and anxiety that would suffocate her. I saw the looks her friends gave her – some furrowed their eyebrows and twiddled their hands nervously, worriedly, others rolled their eyes and snickered. “Is she crying?” the boy with the square-shaped head whispered to the freckled girl sitting on his lap. The girl shrugged and rolled her eyes. I held Cynthia’s hand when she cried alone in the bathroom stall.

Eventually, she looked at me. She looked at me for longer than a glance, she stared at me, she let me enter in through her eyes and travel down to her heart. I latched on, I made her heavier, and I held her tight. She let me wrap my arms around her each night and she let me tag along behind her at school. She let me whisper in her ear. “Worthless,” I told her, “There’s no point.” I didn’t really think that. I’d become quite fond of her, actually. But it was my job.

She let me consume her. I loved her and I think she loved me too, in a messed up sort of way. I couldn’t help it. I needed her to feed, to drain her, to fill her heart with my darkness. And she needed me to hold her at night. I think I made it all worse, but she didn’t have anybody else to hold her, not even herself. So I did my job.

The kids on the playground used to see me following her. They would look me in the eyes. They would point to me and they would hug Cynthia, thinking if they held onto her, I would go away. I never did. Eventually, they all stopped seeing me there. Stopped noticing. The more and more Cynthia gave herself to me, the more invisible I became. Cynthia didn’t see me then, when she was a wide-eyed, pig-tailed girl on the playground. But she sees me now, and nobody else seems to. Funny how that works out.

This is my apology, I guess. I know that I’m just doing my job. But I can still apologize.

I’m sorry,

Depression.

I’m Not Doing Okay: Mental Disability and Oppression

I’m not doing okay. Those words scare you, don’t they? They scare me too.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability. I’ve mastered being vulnerable about my past – I’ve learned how to wrap up my hardships up in a little box and tie a ribbon on top. I’ve learned how to turn my stories of struggle into stories of hope, into stories of “I’m-doing-a-whole-lot-better-now” and “look-what-I’ve-overcome.” I’ve seen how powerful other people’s stories of vulnerability can be in encouraging others to share there own stories and reach out. But how come vulnerability is only acceptable when it’s contained to the past? How come I feel so much more comfortable sharing my past struggles, but not my present ones, the ones that need to be shared?

When I talk about mental health, I tend to talk about it in the past. Like it’s something I faced when I was younger. Something that I’ve overcome. And in a sense, I  have grown since then – I’ve learned how to care for myself and I’ve established a better social support system. But no matter how great of a job I do at self care, no matter how many times I go to counseling and no matter how great I am at remembering to take my anxiety medication, I still have bad days. Really bad days. And I don’t know how to talk about them, nor do I feel I have the space to talk about them (which is why I’m writing a post about it…forcing myself to be extra vulnerable).

I’ve learned that no matter how much self-care I do, I will still face hardship from my mental illnesses on two levels: 1) The biological, chemical level, and 2) The oppression I face for my disability.

On the biological level, I can’t help it. I’m sick. Sometimes I feel like a ticking time bomb – like one day, the depression will get so bad that I’ll explode. And that scares me, no matter how good I’m feeling, I’m terrified of that happening to me one day.

On the societal level, I am damn tired of constantly feeling pressured to normalize and minimize the oppression that I face. I took a social justice class last year. The professor was the best I’ve ever had, but I first started to notice something about the oppression I face as a person with a disability in this class – disability is always the first to leave the table. When we fell behind in class, the disability unit was the first to be cut. I attended a leadership conference a few weeks back. We did an activity about identities, where various identities were all put up around the room. Disability was not up there. I raised my hand and asked why, and was told that not all models are perfect. While that is true, I’m tired of disability being discounted from discussions about oppression. It’s incredibility important, especially when talking about intersectionality and the cross-over between other identities (i.e. race, gender, sexuality) and disability.

When it comes to invisible disabilities like mine, I feel like I’m constantly having to prove my disability to others. I’m very high-functioning. Like, in my three years of college, I’ve only missed a course because of a panic attack once. I volunteer a lot. I’m active on campus. Because of all these things, people doubt the validity of my mental illness. People assume that because I’m not having panic attacks at school like I used to in high school, it means I’m all better now.

Mental health is not simply an individual issue. Like I said earlier, I know how to practice self care. I go to therapy. I take my medicine. I work out and eat well and I do everything I can for my mental health, but it’s still not enough, and it won’t ever be enough if people continue to let the stigma that surrounds mental illness be so pervasive in society. Oppression for those with both physical and mental disabilities is real. I face it from  my own thought patterns that have been socialized into my behavior, from my peers, and from laws/policies/political rhetoric.

I’m tired of always being the voice to advocate for myself. Where are all of my friends who had my back for so long, who have seen first hand the things I experience in my mind – where are my allies? It’s exhausting enough to live with a mental health condition. It’s even more so to constantly have to speak up for myself when nobody else does.

When I say I’m not doing well, I generally get one of the following responses: Either people freak out and assume I’m at risk, or people think I just mean that I had a bad day. I hope that one day, I’ll live in a world where I can tell others I’m not doing well and they’ll understand what I mean – that I need support. Isn’t that what all of us need?

di9radxat

Why I’m Afraid of Netflix’s New Hit Show: Imitative Suicide and 13 Reasons Why

After watching 13 Reasons Why, suicide has been all I can think about, in an unhealthy way. I’ve been watching the show despite it being incredibly triggering, because I keep being told to give it a chance. I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast about suicide (highly recommend Freakonomics if you’re into podcasts like me), and it was enlightening in that it talked about the issue that 13 Reasons Why has been making me fear the most – imitative suicide.

One of the most intriguing cases of imitative suicide with the most telling results happening in Austria in in the second half of 1987. Because of high profile coverage of suicides on the Viennese subway, there was a huge jump in imitative suicides. To address this problem, the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention developed media guidelines about to address suicide, what images to show, and how to better prevent further instances. By changing the way that the Austrian media talks about suicide, there was a dramatic decrease in suicides in Austria. However, is censoring media coverage of suicide only furthering the problems with the stigma that surrounds suicide? Does starting the conversation about suicide and preventing suicide always have to be head-to-head?

For a short answer to that big question, I would say no. I’ve had successful experiences in small groups facilitating discussions about suicide prevention and I’ve seen it done on the media, in social settings, in the classroom, etc. 13 Reasons Why does provide an important conversation about bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, and my problems with the show aside, the cast is incredibly talented and diverse. Yet the show, in my opinion, is dangerous. My opposition to the show does not mean that I think suicide should remain silent and taboo – in fact, I’ve spoken out against the suicide taboo many times – but is a critique on the way that suicide is addressed in this show.

Graphic depictions of suicide lead to increases in suicide (again, listen to that Freakonomics podcast!). It’s not a controversial opinion; there is data that backs up these findings. When I first read the book, I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, and was just beginning to be influenced by mental illness and anxiety. I was hoping that a book about suicide, a topic that had been creeping into my mind, would help me better understand what I was going through. It only made me feel worse, and I can’t imagine what seeing a visual representation of the story would do to a person watching the show who is experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts. Granted, there are content warnings before more brutal or heavy episodes. But I know that I wouldn’t have paid much attention to them when I was younger, because I didn’t fully understand what I was going through.

Suicide cannot be riddled down to thirteen reasons or thirteen people. It’s complicated and complex. If you’re interested in the complexities, reach out to me, I’ve got access to a lot of resources and scholarship.

I am glad that the show decided to take on such an important topic, but am unhappy about the ways in which the topic was portrayed. I believe there could have  been more of an effort to talk about mental health and prevention. I know that the story is about a girl who was bullied, not mentally ill, and that thousands of suicides occur because of bullying. But I’m thinking about the impact here –  it is so difficult to access information about mental illness as a young person, especially if they are just beginning to experience mental illness, and this show is triggering to a point far beyond what I was expecting.

I know that I can’t speak for everyone. But my experiences are certainly relevant. I was bullied throughout my life – I was a bossy little kid who liked to read and would brag about my spelling test scores. Of course kids were mean to me. “Ditching” me on the playground was a game at recess – I wouldn’t go to the bathroom during the day because everytime I did, I would come out and my friends would be gone. In  middle and high school, friends talked about me behind my back frequently. Granted, we all talked about one another behind each other’s backs – but words affected me in a way that they didn’t affect everyone else. I had friends turn on me and break my heart. So yeah, I was bullied.

And on top of that, I had traumatic experiences with grief and loss and mental illness going on. So suicide is a familiar topic for me, as I’ve been in the position of feeling suicidal and I’ve dedicated a lot of my research and extracurricular experiences to suicide prevention and awareness.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and talked to a lot of people who have expressed concern with 13 Reasons Why – who feel it doesn’t represent the whole of feeling suicidal and feel that it portrays a false and dangerous message: If you kill yourself, everyone will feel bad about it and regret ever being mean to you. Even as someone who is no longer high-risk, the thought of everyone who was ever mean to me or pushed me aside feeling bad about it is appealing. And that terrifies me. If it’s appealing to me, how appealing is it to young people who are high-risk? Or are starting to have inklings of suicidal thoughts?

Yes, the show is addicting. Yes, there is phenomenal acting and representation in the show, which I don’t want to overlook at all. Maybe the show just isn’t made for people like me, who have had close experiences with suicide. But I think it’s safe to say that, if this show is having such a profound and terrifying effect on me, it’s having a profound and terrifying effect on many people. And the mere fact that so many people who identify as mentally disabled, have experience with suicide, or have experience with bullying are expressing discontent with this show demonstrates that there’s a problem. Obviously, not everyone with these experiences is expressing that there is a problem. But enough of them are.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to like the show, regardless of your relationship to suicide. I’m happy that there are people who have expressed love and healing that have come from this story. I’m so happy that it has facilitated a discussion about suicide, rape, and bullying.

I’m trying to say that, just  because you like the show, doesn’t mean you should discount the voices of people who are expressing concern. Do not label them as sensitive or easily triggered – I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not afraid to talk about suicide. My voice, and the voices of everyone else expressing concern, mean something, and that deserves to be heard and validated.

netflix27s_13_reasons_why_title_screen

Because I think talking about suicide and hearing stories about suicide is so important, here are a list of some of the better books that I have read that I think approach the issue in a much more accurate and less triggering way:

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

 

 

 

Not Just “That Time of the Month”: Living with PMDD

10 days left until period. Once my lovely period tracker app reads those few words, I can already feel the panic. Every single time, spot on, I PMS for 10 days straight. But, it’s not just normal PMS (not that any PMS is particularly normal) – I suffer from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD, a disorder that I was recently diagnosed with, despite knowing for years that it was happening to me. PMDD often goes untreated or unnoticed – people, even doctors, tend to write it off as “just PMSing.” This all, as too many things do, connects back to the narrative we tell ourselves about women and PMS – women’s experiences aren’t valued the same way that the experiences of men are. When I would try to explain my severe emotional PMS symptoms to doctors, I was not validated, and I felt crazy.

I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder a while ago, on top of multiple anxiety disorders. Not until recently has a clinician reassessed this and validated my experiences with depression and PMS. And unfortunately, many women have this similar experience.

Yes, I get cramps and I get emotional and I crave a lot of chocolate and fatty foods. But it’s more than that, and it lasts for 10 straight days. I have severe mood swings. I get sad, really sad, and I question everything in my life in those ten days. I have panic attacks. I’m irritable. I can barely make a decision about anything – which is incredibly frustrating, as if lasts for such a long time. I get night sweats. I’m so tired, I feel depressed, and I feel hopeless. I know that it will end; I know that once my period starts I will feel so much better.  But knowing that it gets better doesn’t stop the symptoms from happening.

The cycle is exhausting. It’s incredibly predictable and I tell myself that I know how to handle it – but sometimes, when I think about how 10 days out of my 30 day cycle are spent feeling depressed and anxious because of my period, I get really hopeless. I’ve tried birth control and that only made it worse, anti-depressants have helped treat my anxiety disorders but haven’t helped much concerning my PMDD. And the worst part is that I find myself invalidating my own experiences and belittling myself – I hear that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I’m just a crazy woman who’s PMSing. It’s been socialized into my brain to invalidate women’s experiences with their periods, even though I am a woman. That’s the most frustrating part.

Read more about PMDD here and ways to treat it (thanks Web MD!) and don’t be afraid to seek help from a therapist if you feel like you have PMDD.

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What I Actually Mean When I Say That I Can’t Come Out

“Sorry, I’m going to have to sit this one in.”

“I’m really tired tonight.”

“I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”

“I’m busy.” 

It’s hard being a college student with mental illness. It’s hard growing up in a culture that celebrates things my mental illness prevents me from always doing; a culture that celebrates going out, rewards you for how many drinks you can down in an hour, and high fives you if you pull an all-nighter.

            I wish I could do those things. Some of the best stories from my best friends come from sleepless, crazy nights. The truth is, that’s not something I can do very often, and it’s not because I’m boring or lame or a prude or whatever you want to call me.

            Mixing alcohol and anti-depressants is poison. Anti-depressants have a very similar affect on the brain that alcohol does; I like to joke around with my friends that it makes me always “a little drunk.” I’m the definition of a “light-weight.” I weigh 100 pounds, 5’1”, and I am a vegetarian – less carbs in my belly to soak up the alcohol, unless I stuff my face with bread beforehand (which I would gladly do, who doesn’t love bread). One drink and I can get tipsy, if I don’t have much in my stomach. And on the days when I have panic attacks, and have to take extra medication for that, I don’t dare to drink.

            Crowds give me anxiety and big groups of people do too, and I get worried that people will judge me for not having more than two drinks. I get worried about having to walk home alone, because my anxiety will get the best of me and I’ll have to leave before anyone wants to leave.

            I feel like nobody understands how much it affects my life. I became a vegetarian, in the first place, because my anxiety was affecting my eating habits and I would get attacks about becoming overweight every time I felt full. I thought becoming a vegetarian would help me lose weight. Now, I embrace it – I do it for the animal rights and for my own personal health, but when people ask why I became a vegetarian, it’s hard to explain that I became a vegetarian because I borderline had an eating disorder and was convinced that eating meat made me look a certain way.

            I work out four times a week because if I don’t, I start to get those feelings again. I start to feel like I’m getting lazy or not being productive, and I break. I do my homework ahead of time, not because I’m a goody-two-shoes or a prude, but because my brain literally screams at me until I do it.

            It’s more than just my introversion. It’s more than me being lame or square or whatever, because I chose to stay in. It’s because I don’t want to go down that hole. I know myself well enough to know my limits, and I hate that anxiety limits me in a way that stops me from doing all the things all my friends are doing. I hate that people don’t understand; that they just see it as me not liking to go out. I don’t know if I like it – there are times when I have. It’s not a question of liking it or not, it feels like life or death for me.

            Everything in my life has been shaped by my experience with generalized anxiety and panic disorder, and periods of depression that accompany it. My worries, my dreams, my career goals, my hobbies; literally everything. When I think about it, I get so mad. Because I want to be like other people; I want to have crazy stories about going out to bars while I’m abroad. I hate that I can’t, and I hate that people don’t understand, and I hate that it affects how others see me. I’m not judgmental. I’m not a prude. I want to hear about your crazy stories and how much fun you had; I want to hear it all. I’m just tired of being judged for a part of me that I didn’t choose. I’m working on loving, understanding, and caring for that part of me, and I hope that you can too.

             

Depression in the Summertime

Depression in the summertime is not cold, empty, and dark. In the winter, it is all of those things; loneliness, late nights, early mornings, but not in the summer.

In the summer, depression is light so blinding it hurts your eyes. Light you want to step into but don’t know how. It’s feeling alone in a sea of people, buzzing with excitement, trying to buzz with excitement too. IMG_0126.JPG

It’s confusing, because you’re not stressed about school, or about holidays, or about anything else that happens during the rest of the year. You have free time – you have fun. You get to see friends, you get to take a break, you get to relax (at least a little). But depression in the summertime, it still latches on and eats away, despite the smiling pictures and the beautiful summer memories.

It’s anger. It’s anger at the mistakes you made during the year, and anger at the people who made mistakes too. It’s frustration, because it’s summer, and you shouldn’t be depressed but you ARE. It’s the tears on your face after a long and great day in the sun when it’s 1:00 AM and you’re still feeling this way and you can’t figure out why. You can’t blame it on school, on lack of sleep, on the weather, because it’s summer. The lumps under your eyes disappear and there’s a hop in your step and people stop asking how you are because they assume you’re all good now.

The thing that scares me the most is the fact that it’s summer, and my depression is still here, and nobody knows but me.