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?

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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.

             

Living with Panic Disorder

There is not cookie-cutter, clear-cut way to describe a day living with panic disorder. Sometimes, it’s just like what any other college student would call a normal day. I wake up, I work out, I go to class, I work, I hang out with friends. That’s what my day looks like most of the time. I think it’s the things that everyone can’t see that make my days so drastically different.

I try to stick to routine for stability. My brain doesn’t always follow suit. When I wake up in the morning, I have no idea how the day will go. Regardless, I’m always aware of how badly it could go. I’m always afraid of the drop of the pin moment when I can’t keep it together anymore.

A day filled with panic is a day that I can’t see coming. It’s when I’m five and my mom parks in a different spot than usual to pick me up, and the anxiety shoots up my spine as I cannot stop crying because I think that she has left me. It’s when I’m ten and my friends tell me I’m not very good at jump rope, and I feel the tears and the panic pulse throughout my body, all while I’m trying to argue with the feelings – I don’t even like jump rope. Why is this happening?

It’s when I’m twelve and I’m sitting in my best friend’s room and suddenly the world is moving too fast and everything is wrong. And they keep asking me what’s wrong and what happened, and the truth is I just don’t know, but I make up something because it’s not normal to be upset over nothing.

It’s when I’m sitting at lunch in high school surrounded by friends but suddenly get hit in the chest with feelings of being alone, unwanted, and invisible. It’s at my graduation after party, when I’m supposed to be happy, but the crowds make me hyperventilate and I spend most of the night crying in the bathroom. It’s when I’m running late for an event, and I get hit with feelings of worthlessness and panic.

The same thing could happen twice and it could give me a panic attack the first time, but not the second. The same thing could happen a hundred times, and only give me a panic attack once. The worst part is not knowing when it’s coming, and not knowing what will trigger it. The worst part is the ironic panic I constantly feel about the possibility of having a panic attack.

A panic attack feels different for each person, or so I’ve been told. For me, it’s like a train of feelings of sadness, insecurity, anxiety, and depression hit me at once. It’s when the world suddenly feels too loud, too bright, and too quiet, and all I want to do is close my eyes and plug my ears. It feels like I’m drowning in a tank that everyone walks by, staring in.

To all the people that have tried to help me but haven’t known how, I want you to understand that this is an illness. I am not having a panic attack because of something you did, I did, or anyone else did. I am having a panic attack because of the chemical imbalance in my brain. Please do not try to fix me, or tell me that you don’t understand me. There is nothing to be fixed or understood. Just a person who is drowning who wishes to be listened to. Thank you to everyone who has listened to me and sat with me – that is the best possible thing that you can do.

Teach Your Kids to Talk About Mental Health

My mental illness is a disability I’m very, very aware of. I’m made aware of it every day. I’m made aware of it when I sit in class and cannot sit still without a million of thoughts racing through my mind. I’m aware of it when throughout the day, my entire body urges me to crawl back into bed. I’m aware of it when people treat me like a bomb ready to explode, when all I want is to be treated like a person. I’m aware of it when sending a simple text makes me sweat until my palms are soaked and my hands shake. I’m aware of it when I have to leave the classroom to cry. I’m aware of it when everyone in my life tries to fix my problems, or calculuate my thoughts and my feelings down to one experience or event, when in reality it’s a daily routine. I’m aware of it when it’s hard to get about of bed. I’m aware of it when I look down and see that I’ve scratched so much at my hands that I’m bleeding. I’m aware of it when I’m alone, I’m aware of it when I’m with people. I’m aware of it on the days I’m feeling good, because I’m afraid that the next day, I won’t be feeling good. I’m aware of it on the days I’m feeling bad, because I can feel all eyes on me, staring at me, watching me fall apart. Little do they know that the days when I cry, when I shake, when I waver, are the days that I am fighting the hardest. The days when I smile and when I laugh I am still fighting, the war is just not raging as loudly on those days. And most of all, I’m aware of it when people don’t know how to help or talk to me.

Over the past few years of my life, I’ve been diagnosed with Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Seasonal Depression. Want to know what a panic attack feels like? It feels like a train hits you full of every feeling of insecurity, anxiety, and depression I’ve ever felt. It feels like the world gets too bright, too loud, and too crowded all at once, and all I want to do is plug my ears and close my eyes. It feels like drowning in a tank that everyone just walks past, not noticing. The worst part, though, is the lack of understanding and compassion from others, who try to equate my experience to “over-reacting,” while in reality it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that sends pangs of anxiety throughout my body in very unexpected and unpredictable circumstances.

I was lucky enough to receive training on how to talk to others experiencing these feelings and thoughts through a volunteer program. That, in addition to the fact that I live it every day. Of the plethora of problems with our education system in the United States, I think that a large problem is the things that we teach our kids. We know how to measure the angles in a triangle, but we don’t know the difference between OCD and Panic Disorder. We know how to properly cite with MLA citation, yet we don’t know how to spot the signs of depression in a friend, or what to do if we do spot those signs. We can draw a parallelogram, but we don’t know how to talk about the faded red lines on the arms of our best friend. It’s like the system is built to make us alone; to make us afraid and unable to help others.

We should teach our kids the warning signs, teach them to listen to the whispers that echo from the eyes of those suffering. The halls of my high school are filled with my demons  because not even I was trained to fight them. We need to arm our kids with weapons of self love and compassion to fight off their own demons and the demons of their peers. I’m tired of the neglect of mental health in this country, and I’m tired of my disability being overlooked, devalued, and invalidated. I’m tired of seeing articles that question my experience, and I’m tired of explaining myself. If our education system is so progressive, then mental health should be included, valued, and understood on the same level that physical health is. My experience is valid, and so is that of everyone else. I hope that you can all see that too. One in four people suffer from mental illness in the U.S. It’s not invisible, it’s present everywhere, and America needs to wake up to that.

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