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Mental Health: Dialogue on Suffering

It seems as if it’s difficult for many to have a seat at the mental health table, or for many to even step foot in the room that holds the table. There is a wide spectrum of mental health disorders, some mild and some severe. Touching on a specific disorder, there seemingly is a lot of disrespect and ignorance depressive disorders which affect millions and which is the leading condition individuals suffer from in this country. Instead of effective dialogue and depth in education it also seems as if there is a collective comfort in keeping stigmas alive and thriving rather than breaking them and getting to the root of why people suffer and how as a unit and individually we can lend hands aid healing and coping.

My therapist shared with me a statistic: depression is the number one reason people call off work in this country. We discussed this as we chatted about how depression can unfortunately leak its way into all areas of one’s life impacting different levels of things. We spoke with metaphors. Imagine being cognizant of the fact that you have a full tank of ability to complete a task or take action and you frequently can only access 50% of that tank of gas, even less, or none at all because of the weight depression holds. Laziness is a very obvious effect, but it also is on the flip side a surface view of the condition. Those that suffer from depression experience anhedonia which can be summarized as finding things that one usually enjoys indulging in or should enjoy doing and they find no enjoyment, or disinterested, or unmotivated to do things. In short, anhedonia decreases feeling, interest, and pleasure. With this in mind, It’s also important to note that each person’s depression (and anhedonia experience) can be unique to the individual. With these experiences comes feelings of despair and hopelessness it leaves many in a almost indescribable state of limbo. While in this limbo realm it seems is if the portal back to the plane of reality and reasoning is far from reach, this is a feeling I know well. It can be a struggle to move away from state of being down and unmotivated because it becomes a familiar place for many and the difficulties of leaving comfort zones isn’t a foreign concept. The comfort can then be incredibly conflicting when the familiar is the thing causing you pain. It’s important to note that  it is not impossible to climb out. There are options. There are choices. We have choices. If steps towards disengaging aren’t being made, suffering will prolong.

I am a passionate, high energy, smiling, individual with many blessings and blessings surely that have yet to come. Even with these things in mind, it does not mean I am immune to having a mental illness. That’s part of where many stigmas come from - sometimes people with seemingly “good” lives and opportunities or people who seem happy are expected to actually be happy, upbeat, and appreciative around the clock because others might “have it worse.” The fact at hand is you can be appreciative and aware, but unfortunately still be sick. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you have a mansion over your head or a cardboard box to sit on. It isn't anyone's fault and no one is wrong for experiencing their conditions. Blame only comes into play if you choose to remain in a state of stagnancy.

I see the many beauties that life has to offer of course, but I’ve still battled with depression off and on since my early adolescence. It was the most manageable during my teen years because I was an athlete. I was a dancer and a runner. The constant, natural release of endorphins everyday uplifted my mood and spirit. Exercising was my therapy, my guide, central tool, and resource to keeping me aligned. I didn’t feel as if I had to put much focus into navigating what was being managed. The issue presented was I was managing my illness, but I also simultaneously refused to acknowledge it. My demons always lingered and held their place when my time wasn’t routinely occupied.

As I journeyed into college and adulthood there was less and less room for exercise in my life and I grew increasingly aware of a presence that was for the most part put behind a glass wall for a long while. I wasn’t sure how to cope and navigate through something I knew little about. Also I wasn’t sure how to navigate through my experience when I was ashamed to even admit it, even to myself at times, in fear of being labeled weak. Additionally, I feared judgement and shame. I wasn’t sure where to turn. It became something I ignored until I couldn’t any longer.

My behavior as a child and teen was depression and trauma fueled, but early on I ultimately was written off by professionals and my parents as just a hyperactive, ill behaved child. Truly, my toxic behavior patterns and self harming was a desperate cry for help. I learned from a mental health professional that children and teens who are often viewed as “bad” or having behavioral problems are often really children or teens who are expression emotion the most and getting little to no positive reinforcement for doing so. Instead they receive punishment and pushback for expressing how they feel transparently thus enforcing that suppression of emotion or pulling back from emotion is the better route to go only to cause further issues down the road and into adulthood. So, if the notion that the less one expresses is good is set early on or while the brain is still developing children and teens (this can still occur in adulthood) may believe that their expression makes them a “bad egg” and can want to keep what’s harming them internalized if that’s what brings the most positivity to their surroundings. This is something I experienced. What did I know about my depression in high school and grade school? Not much really. What did I learn in college? Much more, but I may have not been as informed and as assisted as I could’ve been. I do know that depression isn’t just sadness or simply sadness or laziness. It can be sadness, laziness, confusion, self loathing, anger and irritability (which does not necessarily equate to violent), debilitating, an all encompassing vacuum that aims to muddy up your vision to leave you feeling cloudy in this gorgeous world we call home. It distances you from healthily connecting with the gold in life and optimism seems continents away.

“Violent” is another misconception or label slapped on those who are suffering. Not all mentally ill individuals are violent, and not all who are violent are mentally ill. For example, let’s draw to current climate in this country where there are a multitude of murders and occurrences such as school shootings and these people committing the crime are often written off as just a mentally ill person. It’s interesting to me that the time when people are frequent mental health conversations is commonly only when a heinous act occurs. Where's this concern with mental illness otherwise? Though this is likely and can be true in many cases, this further insinuates that all or most mentally ill people are violent which can further keep those who are suffering silent in fear of being labeled. I know that I’ve heard while growing up that anyone everyone violent had a mental health problem. I kept this in mind while I was suppressed pain and avoided the titled of violent , dangerous, sad black girl.

The New York Times wrote a piece this June which detailed how all of these unjust police killings on the headlines are leaking into and coursing through the brains of Black folk and affecting their mental health. This isn’t necessarily any new news but seeing their race suffer and/or die is a traumatic experience. Systemic racism and discrimination breeds depression. There certainly is more pressure and reluctance to admit mental pains or seek help within Black families and communities.

Where there is already so much discrimination, mistreatment, and push back in America for the Black individual, those suffering might be afraid vocalize struggle to avoid possibly intensifying resistance to their already challenging lives. In addition, there’s this terrible line thrown around in Black communities that mental health issues are a “white people thing,” which is extremely alienating and depressing in itself. Leaving Black folks with the belief that they have to “toughen up,” suppress their issues, or figure it out on their own. I partially refused help for this reason. I viewed help as a knock to my independent nature. Of course, I was the first to say I didn’t want to “share my problems with a stranger” and I could “figure it out on my own” though it proved to be not that simple whatsoever. It took me quite some time to accept the fact that asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. I wouldn’t even say the word depression aloud until a romantic partner years ago asked me when it was that I first realized I had depression. I blinked and stared back with deer-in-the-headlight eyes as if my darkest secret had been discovered. I wanted to run for the highest hills, but it served as a turning point for me and my honesty to myself and to others.

Upon an initial session with my first, short-lived therapist, she looked up from my background information I had just filled out in the waiting room minutes before and she was very visibly shocked. She mentioned she couldn’t believe that I had gone essentially my whole life without therapy or being open with a lot of what I had written down on the sheets. I laughed nervously and ran my fingers through my curls. I wasn’t aware previously that I had that much digging to do. I also wasn’t aware that if I wasn’t given a shovel, so to speak, that I had the ability to manifest a shovel of my own. The ability to allow others to assist and care for you and with you opens up a place within you that allows you to begin to manifest a greater power within. Once I found trustful resources, my life began to drastically change. Admittedly, much of what I knew about mental health besides actually living with it was due to my own past research and tools found online. It unfortunately wasn’t a hot topic in high school where there was a huge focus on primarily physical health. It certainly wasn’t in college unless it was a field you were studying in. As a coordinator for a K-8 after school program I had some of my high school workers ask if they could do presentations on mental health for my middle school students so they could be prepared for the battle that high school brings because no one had done so for them. I was floored completely and had so much pride and love for these young women. I had forgotten to mention to them that no one had done so for myself and my peers 10 years prior either.

I did a lot of digging on my own and began to  web mental health into my art and writing to encourage others to share their stories, and let others know that there is a way out and up. There’s always the option of further educating yourself and becoming an advocate (to your own degree) for you, your condition, your health in your own right. I know there are many people who can’t even verbalize what they feel, but if you feel it, understand it will ultimately be safest and highly transformative to address it. All suppressed things will eventually find their way to the surface. Open mind equates to open bars. We must honor our choices in life. I’ve more recently found solace in both motion and stillness to lessen my battle. Exercise and meditation. Along with paying attention to my body’s other needs and wants. I strive to find the mind, body, soul balance. The peace I have found in meditation and attentiveness to breath to bring my mind to a center is astonishing. I’ve also found connecting with nature, connecting with people, and throwing myself into my passions uplifts me. Surrounding myself with other life forms and being around vibrations other than your own can be incredibly healing. Take advantage of the warmer months, connect with the air in your hair and the ground beneath your feet. We’ve got to water our souls. A goal is to not simply distract but to indulge in meaningful distractions, things that add to your life. Human beings have an innate desire to connect, and if that desire is being met, on whichever level is fit, suffering can be navigated.

I find that, no matter how difficult, with open and free expression comes a less murky headspace. It’s not about a coming clean moment because disorders are nothing to be ashamed of. There needs to be some rearranging. The more people are willing to be open about their own individual illnesses and experience the better the chances for individual and collective healing and conscious shift. However, this poses as very difficult in a world where ignorance, judgment, and misunderstandings are at large. I believe it’s our duty to understand in and outside our families and communities, repetitive shaming will heighten an individual’s predicament and put individuals in even tougher predicaments because with rejection a cycle of not getting help can perpetuate or in depression’s case specifically a cycle of becoming more depressed. Sometimes, but certainly not always, calling an individual out is not as effective as calling an individual in for clarity and a better understanding. The language and point of action needs to be stirred and served differently. Ideally, the shift should occur collectively. Obviously we do not necessarily live in what would be considered an ideal world. Imagine if we shifted the lens that media constantly has focused on a topic like pop culture and celebrity tabloids to something with more substance and that can help others.

A close friend of mine who does work with psychology and behavior health said to me “Strip away your anxieties, depression, fears, and what’s left? You.” The rawness of that statement resonates with me daily. We are not are disorders. We are not simply what we suffer from. It’s imperative to be aware of the fact the the conditions we live with do not define us even though the condition is a part of our lives. Keeping that in mind has been endlessly affirming as I still have weight I need to shed each day. Of course we have to first start with wanting to help ourselves break free from our own conditions if we have them, but the ways in which we are going to collectively break stigmas specifically is to educate and express explicitness as well as honesty in the best way we can. Everyday dialogue, changing the way we view one another,  looking beyond the covers, and shaving the thick layers of preconceived notions. The seat at the mental health table has as many chairs are there are people willing to listen. Depression is still very much so a fight and lifelong battle for many, but it is not unconquerable. I hope to continue to find ways to silence, conquer, and abolish my own depression and for others find their strength and assemble their tools to conquer. We must be open to the change within ourselves. Each day presents a new energy to work with.



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Image by Jessica Felicio