One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. – World Health Organization
I’d like to share a story in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Late last year, I became one in four. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I began my struggle with anxiety and depression. It has been a tremendous challenge for me, and one that continues to whoop my ass and provide me with many lessons, simultaneously.
I am sharing this because, considering that a quarter of the population will face a mental health disorder that is uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst, I don’t believe this issue is getting the attention it deserves. I am sharing because the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness is stifling to people who could otherwise speak up and ask for help. I am sharing because I want you to know there are resources and support available if you are suffering and you absolutely should use them to find relief.
Thank god I had the good sense to ask for help when I needed it. This wasn’t particularly easy for me, both because I felt ashamed in needing psychological help, and because the path to finding this help is complicated and shitty to navigate. I first talked to my loved ones, then to an unhelpful doctor, and then found my way to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me, and eventually found an MD / therapist who I met with regularly. That took me almost a month.
First, I want to tackle the feeling of shame or embarrassment when it comes to getting mental health treatment. I can’t imagine that someone with a broken limb would feel any type of way about going to a doctor for help with their crippling condition. Depression and anxiety, as well as the numerous other mental disorders, can be incredibly disabling if untreated. Why in the world should anyone feel badly about wanting to be healthy and happy?
Second, it shouldn’t be so hard to 1. get diagnosed and 2. receive proper treatment. But, as of now, and for as long as we don’t make mental health a public health priority, getting the help you need may be a lengthy, cumbersome process as it was for me. Please, don’t let that discourage you from doing your research, making those many phone calls and finding a psychiatrist / psychologist / therapist / someone that will support you. Online resources from credible mental health related organizations can be very helpful as well (links below).
Mental health treatment varies for everyone, and unfortunately, it takes some time and experimentation before figuring out what works. There are options and a lot of individual choice involved in treatment. Doctors may make recommendations but patients make the final decisions about what their treatment looks like, whether they will pursue therapy (the focus, the frequency, the length) and/or medication (type, dose, length).
I chose short-term therapy and, reluctantly, took a low-dose antidepressant for a few months. By the time my therapy had ended and I had stopped medication, I found myself going through an awfully stressful situation (lesson: life doesn’t stop just because you’re anxious and depressed). I was alone and stuck in the mud again, and I really needed help.
This time, it was easier to get the help because I had already navigated the whole system the first time. But, unlike the first time, I was much less ashamed and reluctant. I am now seeing another therapist without a targeted end date, and I am back on an antidepressant. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I have been feeling better since then. It’s important to me to write this as a work in progress. I am not out of the woods, I am not a success story, and I still go through rough patches. There is a light at the end of the tunnel though – I believe in it and I can almost see it.
In addition to external help, there is a lot of self-help you can do that has been shown to have positive effects on depression, anxiety and/or wellbeing. These include cardiovascular exercise, meditation, reframing negative/catastrophic thoughts (CBT), practicing mindfulness, cultivating gratitude and showing self-compassion. Call me an overachiever or just desperate – I incorporate all of these into my life. These are great practices that bolster mental health, regardless of whether you have an illness, so I highly encourage them.
If you are one in four: I hope the transparency about my experience will encourage you to reach out for support if you haven’t already. It’s not unique and it’s not your fault if you’re going through something like this. You’re a human being shaped by your biology, experiences, knowledge and choices. Your mental condition does not define you or your worth, and it matters more what you do to face this challenge. Be strong, patient and kind to yourself.
We are all affected by mental illness whether or not we have one. Let’s invite an open dialogue about mental health and encourage people to get the help they need. Let’s break the stigma.