It appears that every day is “National (fill in the blank) Day” and every month has its own cause. Some of the national days (Taco Day, Puppy Day, Smile at a Stranger Day) are funny for the Gram events. These days mean absolutely nothing except to give you excuses to buy more unnecessary crap. The monthly causes, however, are important and raise awareness about the lives of others: Black History, Breast Cancer, Women’s History.
I’m not here to discuss the effectiveness or the weakness of these named months. Currently for better or to do better, this is the best that we have at this time. Instead, I am here to put a face on this month’s cause. The cause is mental health and the face is mine.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it is a cause that I care about deeply. I care not because of my own circumstance but because so many other people live with mental illness or will at some point in their lives.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 adults live with some type of mental illness in the United States. These conditions range from anxiety, depression and bipolar to different types of PTSD (which can be triggered by violence, work or any other number of events). With the global pandemic changing everyone’s way of life, especially the first responders and health care workers on the front lines, there is a real concern that mental illness may become the second pandemic to hit. Simply type in “mental illness covid” or a similarly worded phrase in a search bar. Over two million articles come up from medical journals, newspapers and medical sites.
Still, many people are not talking about mental illness in productive and helpful ways. I know this since I live with mental illness myself.
Specifically, I live with depression that, at its worst, leads to extreme suicidal ideation. There I said it. This is not the first time, as I finally allowed myself to get help and be officially diagnosed about 10 years ago. But to say I have been living with mental illness for 10 years is untrue, as I have actually been surviving it for most of my life.
The origin story is too long and complicated to get into here, so let’s just summarize it. My depression, negative self-talk and suicidal thinking started as a seedling in elementary and middle school at the hands of cruel classmates, unqualified teachers and uninformed parents. This is not the blame game, this is the late ’80s and early ’90s. HIV/AIDS and the Gulf War were the front life worries, and mental illness was about “crazy people who thought they were glasses of orange juice at Shepard Pratt.” (That is an actual quote I heard from multiple teachers and classmates growing up when mentally ill people were ever mentioned.) I didn’t even know I was depressed. It just wasn’t a thing that was ever brought up in terms that “normal people” talked about.
Mentally ill people were those people who didn’t have good parents, used drugs, went crazy. They weren’t sad people or worried people, they were wrong people. This was just the speak of the general population in those days.
By the time I got to college in the early 2000s and was starting what would become my up-and-down cycles of severe depression, I assumed this was the way everyone lived. My only normal was self-talk of being worthless, a waste of oxygen, talentless and ugly. I thought everyone always wrote out goodbye notes to family explaining that my death wasn’t their fault and that I was doing the world a favor.
A daily normal where these thoughts were never in existence wasn’t even a world I considered. In fact, when my therapist told me the non-negative brand of daily thinking was a healthy way people lived their lives, I was honestly and completely shocked. It was as if I had woken up inside the Matrix, swallowed the red pill. It was a reality I couldn’t even comprehend.
I see it all more clearly now that depressive inner talk isn’t my normal. If you had told school-aged me there would be a time when I wouldn’t think about how much better off the world would be if I was dead, I would answer, “Well, yes, that will occur when I die.” I just couldn’t believe there was any other way to live.
And this wasn’t because of my parents, who are very loving, supportive and giving. I truly am one of the lucky children on this planet who has a stable family. Hell, I’m one of the rare breed of kids whose parents are STILL MARRIED! How many people do you know who are a year away from 40 who can say that? I’ll tell you from anecdotal dating life: not many.
So it wasn’t “bad parenting.” And it wasn’t drug use, because I am a lame person who never had an interest in any kind of drug use. I also don’t drink alcohol on the regular.
Nope, all those outside forces didn’t cause me to be a mentally ill person who was “in a padded room trying to eat my fingers.” (Another phrase from ill-informed times.) Growing up, that was the only kind of mentally ill person there was allowed to be. I have not been admitted into an institution, although there were two periods in my life where, looking back, maybe I should have been. I share this because it is not a point of shame. It would have been another form of help.
I’m also not ashamed to say I use medication and therapy to help me live a better, healthier life. For so long I believed the opposite, and it prevented me from getting the help I needed.
That’s why I’m raising awareness. That’s why I’m writing this. That’s why I’m trying to just be more. Because so many people wait to get the help they need because of the stigma behind the disease. I wish I had gotten help so much earlier, so I would stop hating myself and start truly living. I gave up almost three decades of my life to living one where I hated myself and wanted to die every day. That’s almost 30 years of wanting to not exist in a life that is 39 years long.
That is something NO ONE should have to live through.
That is something that could be a reality for someone now, or become one for someone tomorrow.
Mental illness is not a shameful thing to live with. It is not something to hide from, and it is not something to ignore – whether you are living with it or you know someone who is.
I’m asking you to do something for yourself or someone you love: This May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, EDUCATE yourself on the issue.
Pick a mental health condition to learn about in depth. Learn what the signs are of clinical depression. Figure out how to talk to someone with a mental illness in a helpful and nonjudgmental way. Some excellent places to start are National Alliance on Mental Illness and Make It Ok. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you’re more of an auditory learner, I have two podcast episodes to recommend to you. The first is Depression’s Eleven Big Lies Exposed! by The Hilarious World of Depression. This is a great episode that helps you understand how someone with clinical depression thinks. Listening to it, I nodded in agreement at the first 10 lies, knowing each mantra well. For those who are lucky enough to not live with mental illness, it can help shed light, while those who do will find they really are not alone. If you like this episode, give some of the others a listen. It is usually a podcast where people like Will Wheaton, Jameele Jamil and Rhett Miller discuss their experiences.
The other episode, from Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller and titled How to Get Through the Worst, Together, gives you tools to both listen and talk to someone going through not just mental illness but any grave life difficulty. While the episode is focused on grief (another emotion many of us are dealing with), the tips on how to reach out and give support are the same ones when speaking about mental illness. It is well worth the time.
As they say, you never know who this information may help. It may just be yourself.
What could just B more aware?
The article We Could All Stand to Be a Little More Aware was written by Elizabeth Schap and first appeared on just B more.
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