Mental Health Awareness Day: 7 Things I Wish I Had Known 7 Years Ago About Mental Health

October 10 is Mental Health Awareness Day, a cause that is close to my heart. Mental Health is so, so often written off, and though mental health is slowly coming to be recognized as a serious thing, those suffering from invisible diseases are still being told to “snap out of it”. With the hectic pace and isolation of modern life, it seems that diseases of the mind are becoming more and more common. My mental helath drastically worsened 7 years ago, around the time I was fourteen, and I want to share 7 things my own struggles have taught me.

  1. When you are a young person experiencing health problems of any kind, particularly invisible ones, you must fight to be taken seriously. People over forty seem to, for the most part, have an incredibly romanticized view of what the teenage years and early twenties are like. 2017 tied with 2012 for the most difficult year of my life, and I was reminded yet again of the fact that the struggles of young people are all too often covered by a gossamer netting. I was dog sitting for an 75 year old acquaintance of mine, and before she was going to leave, we met up and talked for a bit. It was typical small talk, how’s school, to you have any plans for the summer, etc. The semester had just ended and my twentieth birthday was in about a week, I told her. “Oh, these are the best years of your life!” she exclaimed. My father had just been diagnosed with cancer, all of my friends had moved away for college, my social anxiety was worsening by the day, and sometimes I felt like my loneliness was going to suffocate me. Unbeknownst to me, my circumstances were only going to get worse that year. I almost literally had to bite my tongue to keep, “If these are the best years of my life, someone please shoot me now,” from spilling out.  Depression in teenagers is so, soooo often just written off as typical moodiness, and this is incredibly dangerous. It pains me to think of how many teens are suffering because authority figures refuse to take them seriously. For me, it took revealing that I was cutting myself to even be able to get access to therapy. For the love of everything good in this world, if you see a sad, moody teenager, do not ignore them, and do not simply tell them, “Oh, it won’t always be this way.” We all know adulthood just makes things harder. Sit down with the suffering young people in your life parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and truly listen to them and find them effective coping mechanisms.
  2. Depression isn’t Just Sadness  Perhaps the most profound form of depression is the inability to feel anything at all, and though numbness is preferable to crippling sadness, walking through life like a zombie is no way to live. Numbness is sometimes due to a build of emotions, and if you can’t find the motivation to journal, simply talking to a camera about what’s going on in your life currently – or about thing’s that have happened in the past that you’d rather not think about – can break the dam keeping you emotionally constipated. If you can’t find the root of your numbness or your mind simply refuses to form coherent thoughts, so for a walk, surround yourself with nature, go to a new restaurant, do something that reminds you of the beauty in the world. Yet another symptom of depression often written off in young people which can make the aforementioned tricks for numbness impossible is lack of motivation, and having no energy can make the black hold of depression seem that much deeper, which leads to point three that I wish I had known seven years ago.
  3. Going to Therapy Does Not Make You Certifiably Insane! It Only Makes You Crazy Smart and Crazy Brave! It is an incredibly good idea to talk to someone about your feelings or lack thereof, but family isn’t always the best choice. They may be supportive to a point, but there are simply certain things that are best dealt with by professionals. Family, parents in particular, are going to take your depression personally. Am I doing something to make them feel this way? I am a great provider to my child, a great friend. They’re just being ungrateful. Comments like these are born of fear and self-centeredness, and are clear signs that you need to talk to an outsider. This is not weakness, but strength. You are going to a stranger and essentially saying that you are stranded in a dark forest full of wolves are being eaten alive, yet all you are asking for is a stick to ward them off with. This will to fight is the definition of bravery, and once someone else is there fighting off the wolves with you, you have double the chance of making it out alive. And for heaven’s sake, make the most of therapy by not hiding problems from your therapist. Never leave a session early. Negative emotions are incredibly healthy, they are alerting you to something that is wrong; do not push them down, talk about them when they are annoying flies, not when they are hawks trying to maim you.
  4. There is a big difference between mere shyness and social anxiety. Shyness is apprehension, social anxiety is people induced terror that you can’t just “shake off” or “power through”, and it can’t be cured by making yourself socialize more. If you isolate yourself from the outside world completely, of course it will worsen, and you can’t let it keep you from doing things you truly enjoy, but it is unrealistic to expect that exposure will make it disappear, which connects to number 5.
  5. It is okay to take medication. Some people’s brains are wired differently, and in order to life the best possible life,  a little assistance is needed. Like going to therapy, this does not make you weak. It is you asking for another stick when your brain is assisting the wolves in devouring you alive. Getting help at a biological level is wise, but do your research as to what medications are incredibly addictive, take the lowest effective dosage, and don’t expect your life to magically be perfect.
  6. Take Care of Your Body. We hear it so often we automatically tune out, “Exercise and eat your vegetables!” Seriously, though. A body in motion helps a burdened mind, and sacrificing fast food can only be beneficial. It is so, so easy convince yourself that you’re too busy, but even ten minutes of yoga, five minutes of mediation, can do a world of good. Give yourself permission to make your well being a priority; self care is more than bubble baths and Netflix. Astonishingly, you’ll be able to be twice as productive if you are in a good state of mind. I am going to shameless rip of Nike: Just do it! Value and take care of yourself, dammit!
  7. Talk to your peers. My fourteen year old self – and fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year old self – was incredibly afraid of judgement from my peers because of my mental health problems, and so for the most part, my high school friends had no idea I was suffering until years after the worst of it ended. A close friend of mine was experiencing problems incredibly similar to mine, and we were both lost in our lonely miseries because we were too afraid of judgement. I still haven’t told my best friend that I engaged in self harm because a paranoid part of me is terrified she’ll be judgmental, which is not at all conducive to her personality.  We have been friends for fourteen years, and I am still terrified to tell her. The worst thing about the stigma surrounding mental health is that it makes people suffer in silence, and so we remain unaware of how connected our pain makes us. Talk to your friends, you have no idea how much they may be able to relate, how you may be helping them by sharing your pain.

Thank you so much for reading, I hope a couple of these things I wish I had known long, long ago were helpful, or at the very least thought provoking/ entertaining.

Until next time!

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