Voices: On Mental Health
Welcome back to Voices, a monthly series/discussion of topics, ranging from periods to professional advice, featuring my best girlfriends. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, I asked my girlfriends to share their thoughts on and experiences around mental health. Here's what they had to say.
Do/have you and/or does/has anyone close to you experience/d issues with mental health?
B: I have many friends who have faced mental health issues over the years, and I myself have struggled with anxiety. I think the majority of individuals has experienced some form of mental health issue, whether they can recognize it or not. These issues aren’t always dramatic, they can include even mild depression or anxiety, which are common in the high-stress environments that we see today. Being in graduate school was probably the most eye-opening when it comes to how common mental health issues really are. Put a young adult in a constant high-stress life with long work hours, poverty-line pay, and sub-par working conditions, and you’re sure to see unhealthy mental states. The problem is that, particularly in graduate school, this state of mind is considered normal. Many of my peers never sought help or care for their mental health; many didn’t even realize it was an issue of mental health.
L: I have family members and a few close friends who suffer from anxiety and depression, and it wasn't until the last several years that I realized how debilitating it can be to live with mental health issues. To this day, it's hard for me to understand what it's like to live with anxiety or depression because I wasn't raised in an environment that valued taking care of your mental health. Growing up in an Asian household, my parents never talked about their feelings, and they wouldn't know how to respond when I opened up about my emotions.
G: I have had chronic depression for the majority of my life.
How do/did you/anyone close to you manage mental health? Is/was it effective?
B: I have several ways that I manage my anxiety. Some are as simple as being more active, playing sports or going for a run to counteract some of the stress that aggravates my anxiety. When I am regularly active, I definitely see a difference in my overall stress levels. I also go to a therapist, which is not as taboo as it sounds. For me, it is helpful to be able to reflect on situations I’ve experienced or emotions that at first seem overwhelming; being able to discuss them with an unbiased third party (AKA my therapist) makes them more manageable. I would compare it to telling someone about a crazy nightmare you had, which immediately sounds less scary when you discuss it out loud. When I talk about the things that cause my anxiety, they already seem less overwhelming and less powerful over me.
L: 3 out of the 5 people I know who battle anxiety or depression manage their mental health with medication, either regularly or occasionally depending on how they are feeling. They all say it is very effective and that they don't know what they would do without it. The remaining 2 choose not to take medication for their own personal reasons, but they make sure to take time for themselves as often as they need in order to take care of themselves.
G: I didn't seek professional help until after college and it was the best decision I ever made. These things tend to be very complex and take time to manage. Since starting regular therapy, my life has made a 180. I regret not seeking help sooner, but I'm so glad that I eventually did. I would not have been able to grow into my identity and do the things I've accomplished in life in the few short years since without professional help. There are many different types of mental health issues and each has its own way of being managed. In addition to regular therapy, I've tried to adopt a minimalist life style, made meditation a regular part of my life, not done the things I hate, and surrounded myself as much as possible with things that make me happy.
How are mental health and the ways to manage mental health (e.g., therapy/counseling, medication) viewed in the culture(s) you grew up in?
B: Mental health has been, and still is, a very taboo subject. The society that I grew up in and still live in views mental health very differently from physical health. People seem to think everyone has more control over their mental state, even though we really don’t. If you're sick, for example have a cold, people encourage you to go to the doctor and/or get medicine to treat you while you recover. They even tell you to take off work sometimes so that you have time to recuperate. That is NOT the case with mental health. You cannot call out sick because you are having anxiety or feeling depressed. People also rarely encourage you to get help from a professional. There were so many times when I told a peer that I was so stressed and felt like I was on the verge of a breakdown and they'd tell me to suck it up, go get a drink—after all, we are adults, we have to just keep going. That’s just not how mental health works. We cannot ignore it and hope it goes away, we need to address it and help ourselves overcome these issues.
L: My family never spoke about their emotions, so the ideas of therapy, counseling, and medication used to treat mental health issues were frowned upon. They didn't think mental health issues were "real" problems worth spending time understanding or learning about. Fast forward 25 years, and this lack of understanding has caused some tension now that we know one third of my generation in my family suffers from anxiety and/or depression.
G: Family: Mental health "does not exist" in Indian families. It's not talked about, and if it is, it's talked down upon. I've only recently told my mom about my issues, and only after a very serious mental health situation had taken place with my brother. This was to counsel her that everything was going to be okay, that I had experience dealing with these things, and that we would get through this. Even then, I was apprehensive about it. She was supportive, but I know that she would not have been as understanding if it hadn't been for the severity of my brother's situation, which was a reality call for her.
Friends: Oh boy. Telling my friends about my depression was something else. While a majority of my friends were supportive of the therapy, most did not approve of me taking medication. Where in a different situation, I would have been met with empathy, I was met with a lot of questions. I understand that this comes from the lack of overall education and that people want to educate themselves. But in a time when I needed emotional support, the questions felt like they were coming from a place of skepticism and judgement, not providing me with any comfort. It made me feel very very alone. This was complicated because I could use my personal experiences to educate my friends, but I was not mentally in a place to do so. I still am not. This is something a lot of people with depression will have experienced. That will change over time as mental illness becomes more acceptable in society.
Do you speak with others about mental health (professionals or otherwise)? If so, whom? If not, why not?
B: I do speak to my friends about mental health, particularly to my peers in graduate school. Many of them are more open about mental health issues because they have struggled, at least with stress, themselves. I have also encouraged a coworker/friend to get professional help. I could see her struggling with work, school, and a recent break-up leading to her losing her apartment. I opened up to her about how I saw a therapist and gave her some advice on how to find one. Luckily, she did take my advice and has overcome these hardships with the help of her therapist. I also speak with a close friend in England about mental health. She also suffers from anxiety, but since her move from the US to England, she has experienced such a difference in mental health culture. We compare the differences between our two societies. She’s explained to me that at least the town she is in is much more open about mental health issues. Doctors will tell you to see a therapist, people even call out of work for mental health days without any repercussions.
L: I speak to my girlfriends about their overall mental health whenever we catch up or see each other. I have spoken to a therapist a handful of times for personal problems I was dealing with at the time, which was very helpful in putting things into perspective.
G: I talk about it at a high level with friends, but 95% of the time, I talk about it only with a professional.
What factors or situations in your life most negatively impact your mental health? How do you manage these?
B: There are a lot of specific situations that have had a toll on my mental health. Most of these involve a relationship with a loved one: when those relationships are troubled or destroyed, it negatively affects my mental health. Loss is another big one, whether it is the death of someone close, a lost relationship, a lost job, or loss in financial means, it can be a dramatic change that is difficult to cope with. Work is another big one since I am currently in graduate school and constantly in a struggle of not feeling adequate—smart enough, having enough publications, successful research, good grades, etc. The best way to manage these is taking it one day at a time. I schedule “me time” for my mental health, whether it’s working out, socializing, or going to my therapist. This allows me to take time to do what I need to in order to be healthy, which in turn makes me more efficient and successful at work and in my relationships.
L: I can't exactly pinpoint what it is that negatively impacts my mental health, but I think that almost 99.9% of the time, it's events that make me feel "unworthy" or "not good enough." When I am in a scenario where there is too much uncertainty, I get stressed out and begin to think I am doing something wrong. What I like to do to help manage and navigate through scenarios that could negatively impact my mental health is talk things through with my closest friends and family. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my head, it's good to get someone to snap me out of it.
G: I grew up in a toxic, broken home, which is the reason for my depression. Being around my father, or even his stuff, especially makes me start to shut down. I avoid him and anything that reminds me of him as much as I can. Since my mom is still married to him, I have learned to manage my stress by not being in the same room he is in, speaking with him, or hearing the sound of his voice.
What factors or situations in your life most positively impact your mental health? Do you make time for these? If so, how? If not, what do you prioritize instead?
B: Having close and meaningful connections in my life has the most positive impact. I try to keep in touch with and visit my family as often as I can, even though they are all busy and far away. It reminds me that I have unconditional love in my life and people who always have my back. I also make time to socialize with friends. It may sound simple, and silly even, but it does help! Having strong friendships makes me feel better about myself and more confident since I have a network and team that I can rely on.
L: I think having a sense of accomplishment is what allows me to be mentally healthy. I tend to schedule a lot into my day because the feeling of checking things off my to-do list is satisfying and keeps me at ease.
G: Minimizing clutter and being in the sun. These two have made as much of a difference as taking my medication has. A few years ago, I threw away 95% of everything I owned. My best friend from Boston had come over and we stayed up all night trash-bagging everything. I felt so unbelievably free after that day. Something about being in the sun makes me feel so whole. I used to have an apartment where the view out of my bedroom window was the water, and I would wake up to the sunrise every day. It was the universe giving me a hug every morning and telling me everything would be good.
Describe your conscious and unconscious habits around mental health. Do you believe these are healthy or unhealthy?
B: I do have to make an effort to see my therapist. That is one thing that I have to say, hey, this is for my mental wellbeing and I need to take time for this. It isn’t always easy or fun, but I know it’s the best thing I can do for myself. I also have to make a conscious effort to prepare for and reflect after each appointment. That helps me make the most out of therapy and see the most positive results. As I mentioned, I try to be active and socialize to stay mentally healthy. Sometimes I can do this unconsciously, but there are definitely times when I need to make an effort, especially when I’m stressed and need it the most. Ironically, those are the times when I need to push myself to do these things. But I know that once I show up, I will start feeling better.
L: Admittedly, I automatically think that someone who has mental health issues is weak. I am not happy to say this, but I think this is a reflection of how society's stigma towards mental health has imprinted on me, in conjunction with being raised in an Asian household. This is not healthy because this unconscious bias is not true at all. In fact, admitting and acknowledging that you have a mental health issue is a sign of strength and willpower.
G: I've conditioned myself to stop being mean to myself in my head. I read memes about this all the time. IT IS NOT EASY. It took me years and years to get to a point where I no longer mentally rip myself apart.
What is the best support someone can provide for you and your mental health? What is the best support you have provided to someone who was experiencing issues with mental health?
B: I think in general people can be more understanding. Sometimes people act shocked or even a little turned off when I mention going to a therapist. That is the very opposite of being supportive. I think that trying to understand someone’s issues, trying not to be judgmental, even asking genuine questions of interest can be helpful. It makes me know that they care and want to understand what I’m going through. As I mentioned earlier, I had a colleague who was suffering from mental health issues and didn’t seem to be getting help. She was falling behind in school and work and clearly struggling. I saw that she lost a severe amount of weight and stopped talking and socializing with people. So, I approached her to tell her about my past struggles with anxiety and how I’ve gotten help from a therapist. Once I opened up to her, she was able to feel more comfortable seeking help herself.
L: I think something as simple as lending an ear and letting someone talk to you about their feelings can go a long way.
G: The best thing someone can do is go online and educate themselves on how to be supportive of someone going through mental health issues, and then provide an attentive ear. That person needs someone to listen and understand what they are going through even just a little bit. Someone who educates themselves will also know how to better communicate with the friend in need and not say things that might make them feel worse. The best support I ever provided was for my brother. Our toxic childhood had really taken a toll on him, and so I moved in with him to make sure he never felt alone. I became his mom and caretaker for a few months.
What advice would you give to someone who experiences issues with mental health? What advice would you give to someone who is in a supporting role?
B: If you are experiencing mental health issues, no matter how small or large, I would definitely say the first step is finding a therapist who you are comfortable with. This does not mean you have to see them forever, but it really does help you sort out what’s going on with you. I also want to emphasize that the first therapist you go to isn’t always the one. Don’t give up! It took me several tries before I found a therapist I could talk to. Every therapist is different, has a different style, different personality. You need to find the right one for you and not be afraid to do that. Then, I’d say don’t be afraid to be a little bit selfish. I used to feel guilty taking time for myself, but I’ve come to realize that you can’t be a good friend, daughter, colleague, anything until you are in the right state of mind to do so. For someone who has a friend or loved one with mental health issues, all I can say is be patient please! Try to be patient with them and realize that they are struggling and may not be 100% themselves. Try to think of how you’d treat someone who was physically sick. Understand that they need to recover, they need comfort, they need to know that there’s nothing wrong with them and that you will have their back.
L: I would say for those in a supporting role, be patient with the person you are supporting who is battling a mental health issue. You may feel frustrated at times, but remember that mental health issues are way more than just "being moody" or "not being able to control your emotions."
G: It's about the small wins. When dealing with depression, every single small task feels like climbing Mount Everest. Give yourself a break. Start small. Make waking up and brushing your teeth in the morning a goal for the day. Do that for a while, and over time, your number of daily wins will increase. Get professional help. Talk to someone who knows how to deal with this. Your friends and family may not be able to provide the support that you need. And make peace with that. Educate yourself if you are in a supporting role. Your friend in need is going to seem illogical, unreasonable, and difficult. The supportive role is NOT EASY. But if you educate yourself, I promise, a lot of the behaviors of your friend in need will make sense, and it will put you in a better position to help.