November 7, 2017
I love the fall for a plethora of reasons. My grandma sweaters are finally weather appropriate. The leaves on the ground have a gloriously satisfying crunch when I go well out of my way to jump on them. Everything that can be pumpkin flavored, WILL BE PUMPKIN FLAVORED. But most importantly, I love the fall because this past month honored Mental Health Awareness.
As the weather, the trees, and the beautifully basic lattes go through a transformation, it feels rather poetic to put a spotlight on the mind’s revolution. Throughout my decade long struggle with mental health, I have noticed a tangible shift in society’s attitude toward the subject. Though we are far from where we need to be in relation to social acceptance and public policy, I have watched the world fight to transform into a braver, safer place for those struggling with mental illness. It is initiatives like October’s Mental Illness Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Month, that are inspiring people to share their personal stories, feel less ashamed in getting treatment, and ultimately realize that they are not alone in this battle. We’re a goddamn army.
I was so honored to be the first guest on The JED Foundation’s mental health podcast, JED Voices. Stupid funny comedian, and my future baby mama, Liz Miele hosts the show and has a personal connection to mental illness. I was so touched by her story, her strength, and her ability to find humor in the darkest of struggles. She has done exactly what I have been preaching for this past year- she turned perceived flaws into her greatest strengths; “Weaknesses” into weapons. It can be really therapeutic to trade these stories and compare battle wounds, and realize that no matter how strange we may feel, there are others out there fighting the same fight. It’s so important to speak out and find each other, to give each other strength.
I also got to work with NAMI Chicago and Chicago Magazine on a great video tackling the misconceptions surrounding mental illness. I was one of a large group of Chicago citizens who discussed making their own place in the world, not in spite of our mental illness, but because of it. One of my favorite questions in the interview was “What should loved ones NOT say when someone is struggling with their mental health?” It’s a tough one to answer. But it’s really helpful for anyone who loves someone with a mental illness to understand that their support and decisions can make a tangible difference. When they’re feeling anxious or depressed, find out what actions or words provide relief and comfort, and what actions or words might trigger a negative reaction. Saying “calm down” or “there’s nothing to worry about” is well meaning, but can actually aggravate an anxious person. I mean, in general it’s just a good idea to avoid ever telling a woman to calm down, but it’s especially detrimental when aimed at someone having a panic or anxiety attack. And though your heart may be in the right place when you say “I’ve been there” or “I’m feeling sad too”, a depressed person feels like their experience is being minimized, as if you are saying it is commonplace. Each depressive experience is unique and almost unfathomable to those who are unfamiliar, so it’s important to keep that in mind. What can you say that would help? “That must be difficult”, “Do you want to talk about it”, “How can I help”, and “I’m here for you” are some responses that promote a safe space for someone struggling.
It’s fortuitous that Mental Health Awareness month was in October, because the fall signifies an especially hard time for those with mental illness. Colder weather and less hours of sunlight can have a huge affect on those struggling with a chemical imbalance or Seasonal Affective Disorder, resulting in depression as the days seem harsher and darker. Not only does the weather affect anyone already having a hard time, the upcoming holiday season can magnify loneliness and depression for those who feel alone and unsupported. Personally, my bipolar disorder was always at its worst the many years I’ve spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. Even now the holidays evoke an inexplicable sadness in me, a feeling so many people with alienating symptoms can relate to. If you’re feeling lonely around the holidays, please consider me your drunk uncle who ruins dinner and falls asleep on the couch with his hand down his pants, I mean if it helps.
The purpose of Mental Health Awareness month is ultimately to start a conversation. In sharing our stories we can help shatter the stigma and shame surrounding mental health issues. They are less rare than you might think. 6 million Americans live with bipolar disorder. 16 million live with depression. 42 million live with anxiety. That means 1 in 5 Americans is struggling with their mental health. If it’s not you, it is someone you know. It could be someone you love. So what can you do in honor of mental health awareness? First, you can educate yourself. I’ve added mental health resources to my website for anyone who has questions or is looking for help, courtesy of NAMI.org and JEDFoundation.org. Their sites have an amazing amount of resources I strongly recommend as well. Second, you can speak up for those who are fighting, let them know they are not fighting alone. Third, you can support and encourage treatment. My therapist is on speed dial. Trust me, it is the best thing in the world and there is no shame in that game. And finally, simply sharing our mental health stories can transform society’s perception of mental illness. Start the conversation. Shatter the stigma.