The Damn Stigma of Mental Illness

One of the most inspiring videos I watched this fall was not from the political campaign or from my revered 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN.  Instead, the video was of the First Lady, Michelle Obama, discussing the stigma of mental illness. She started the campaign about a year ago to change the conversation related to mental health.

In the clip, she asked us to imagine getting behind awareness of mental health the way we get behind the fight for cancer, diabetes, or asthma.  In other words, when people discuss getting diagnosed with breast cancer we rally behind the patient, as we should. However, a strong stigma prevents individuals with mental illness to admit that they are suffering. Her video made me wonder what keeps us silent when an estimated 1 in 5 deal with various mental health related illnesses over the course of our lives.  I even question that figure when so many remain quiet related to their struggles.

Personally, I knew the general signs of depression at a fairly early age, but it was not something that people talked about at family events or when out to dinner with friends.  Even though I knew what depression looked like, in high school I remember being asked by my mom if  I was depressed.  She was prompted by one of my friends who was worried about me.  I quickly responded that I was just a normal teenager dealing with ups and downs of life.  Looking back, it was probably more than just that, but because I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t identify as being depressed.

Looking back, I’ve probably had some sort of mild anxiety and depression for most of my life. At a surface level, that’s most likely the reason I found a love of food and baths when I was in 3rd grade or so and the reason I still resort to both when stressed, anxious, or sad.  However, the stigma related to suffering from depression or other mental illnesses prevented me from seeking help from a doctor or therapist until I was in my 30s.  Until then, I struggled more than I should have.

When I finally went to a doctor for help I told her I wanted something to help me have more good days. That was it. I was doing everything else recommended for happiness and I wanted more. We discussed various options and I started taking medicine that day and within weeks I started having more good days than bad.  I believe the medicine helped, but getting past the stigma of asking for help was even more helpful.

After that initial visit, I took an anti-depressant or “happy pills”  for over 7 years. The medicine helped me level out of moods and silence the negative self-talk.   I’ve discussed this openly with my family, friends, and former students at moments when it is clear that they have faced similar challenges.  I am grateful the pills gave me a way to get more joy out of my daily life.

About a year and a half ago I stopped taking my happy pills when I believed I figured out a way to live without the added chemicals. Even if I still took the medication, I hope I would still write this post.  In fact, if events change, and I need medicine again, I will not hesitate to take pills or to get the needed help.  Nonetheless, my current strategy for improved mental health has largely involved living closer to family, maintaining a consistent routine of exercise, a manageable work-life balance, and living with a roommate.  I actively work at being and staying happy every day.

I’ve shared my love of family, exercise,  and how I avoid hiding behind busy in earlier posts. But a key part of my happiness is that I live with an amazingly supportive friend. For 15+ years I lived alone and could hide my ups and downs. It sounds basic, but the fact that he routinely asks how my day went means I cannot hide.  It may be simple, but that daily check in has really helped. I cannot hide when I’m having an occasional sad day, instead we discuss the mood. Cohabitation also makes me monitor my moods more regularly. Realistically,  I’m not always a wonderful person to live with, but the bad days are occasional, and there is no doubt that he knows and sees the real me.

Ultimately, I know that my genetics have challenged my mental health, but the stigma related to mental illness does not prevent me from speaking about the struggle.  The depression and anxiety I’ve suffered have been, by all accounts, fairly mild but not meaningless. Statistically, many struggle with various versions of mental illness but I truly hope that one day, nobody has to struggle alone, in silence,  because of an isolating stigma.

I decided to write about my experiences because I am not hiding behind it.  If I really want to cultivate change and promote wellness I have to talk about the hard stuff along with the fun stuff like eating peanut M&M’s (see last week’s post).  One day I hope we can be as open about the conversation related to mental health as we are about the conversation related to our physical health. While my story isn’t unique, it is better shared than stigmatized.  Thank you for reading my story and feel free to share. Please know I am here if you ever need an ear. In other words,  I care how your day went!








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