By Sarah Hughes
I just finished my fifth year of high school (barely) and I am beyond excited for the next chapter of my life as I am truly curious to see what the future holds. This, however, hasn’t always been the case. You see, I used to be afraid of the future. This fear was merciless, suffocating me from the inside out, and it dictated my entire life. Later, after many visits to doctors, therapists, and a psychiatrist, I learned that this kind of fear has a name.
“Sarah, meet Anxiety,” the world of medical personnel declared. At first I was intrigued, happy to be able to finally call this intruder by name. Maybe we could get to know each other better. Maybe we could learn to coincide instead of constantly indulging in disputes over whether or not people liked me or how I failed to meet my ridiculous expectations of perfection once again.
Anxiety, unfortunately, had other plans in mind. Continuously coming over uninvited and completely ignorant to social cues, Anxiety became infamous for overstaying its welcome. Neglecting all duties of an acceptable hostess, I tried to make it obvious I wanted this houseguest to leave. This made Anxiety lonely. Vengeful. It had to do something. It needed back up.
“Sarah, meet Depression.” I tried to tell the world of medicine that I didn’t need any more friends. I told them that I already had plenty. This, however, was obviously a lie as I had become a recluse, refusing to leave the familiar four walls of my bedroom. Many saw right through the twisted web of lies I had carelessly woven. I’m not going out anymore, because I’m sick. I’m not trying in school, because I don’t care. I’m honestly fine. I think I knew that these were not believable but one of my other acquaintances, Apathy, reminded me that it didn’t really matter if I lied. It didn’t really matter if anyone believed me. Nothing really mattered.
I never got along with Anxiety, but my relationship with Depression was a whole different story. We despised each other. It was a deep loathing I had never felt before. We had formed a brutal rivalry, the only casualties on my side. It was every man for himself. Depression was a lot worse to me than Anxiety ever was. I think it’s because Depression had me brainwashed, kind of like the older guy you date in high school who you’re madly in love with, but he has you believing the entirety of your self-worth is dependent upon what he says.
I was hopeless, worn out, and at times suicidal. This dynamic duo was relentless. I began to fail classes, lose friends, and become fixated on self-sabotage. I even went as far as taking an overdose that landed me a two-week hospital stay in the mental health unit at the local hospital, but that’s a story for another time.
My point is, I didn’t just finish five years of high school. I just finished five years of high school with an all-consuming mental illness. As mental illness affects everyone at some point, I’m sure many of you already know how big of an accomplishment this is. I am proud of myself, and to everyone who has also graduated or who is currently attending school with a mental illness, you should be proud of yourself as well.
Fortunately, I am currently in a safe and stable spot in my recovery and would like to share some wisdom. Mental illness needs to be talked about. If I was in the hospital for some kind of physical ailment, you would all know. So, I think it is only fair that you know about this as well. I hope by sharing these pieces of advice someone will feel a little less lonely and a little more hopeful.
1. You do not have to be at rock bottom or have something horrible happen to you to receive help. Mental illness affects many people for different reasons and how you feel doesn’t always have to have an accompanied explanation. In fact, you don’t even need to have a diagnosed mental illness to justify wanting to talk to someone or needing help. Remaining silent is how mental illnesses fester and turn into something unmanageable. Life is hard. Everyone needs help. Heck, even therapists have therapists.
2. Do not procrastinate getting help. Yes, it is possible to recover from a mental illness on your own, but it is extremely unlikely. It usually doesn’t get better without help. Please reach out before things continue to get worse.
3. If the first person you reach out to doesn’t give you the response you want or need, don’t give up. Friends and family can be a great support system, but you have to remember that they are not professionally trained. I would encourage you to speak with a professional as they will be able to provide you with the tools and resources needed to begin your recovery.
4. Educate yourself. You should talk to as many professionals as you can and do as much research as possible. The more you understand about your mental illness and how it affects you, the easier it will be for you to recover.
5. Mental health services can be extremely expensive, but please don’t let that discourage you. Many places will offer a sliding scale where you can talk to people who are still trained, but do not have the exact same credentials as a seasoned therapist. They will still be very helpful and be able to provide you with similar tools and resources.
6. Nobody will ever be able to understand exactly what you are going through. Mental illness is extremely individualized, so sometimes you have to take what people say with a grain of salt, because the same thing that may help them may not help you. It is also important to note, however, that even if someone doesn’t completely understand, they may be able to relate to some of your symptoms or experiences, which can make them a great form of support.
7. Do not feel bad for communicating your mental health needs. If you break your arm and are unable to physically write a test, you receive extensions or are given the opportunity to illustrate what you have learned in a different way. Therefore, if you need extensions on assignments, or need to write your test in a different room to help direct your concentration, just ask. Guidance Counselors are often great advocates when it comes to your mental health and its corresponding educational needs.
8. You often have to indulge in a game of trial and error, and that’s okay. If you opt to be on medication, it will often take a few tries to find the right kind and dosage that best suits you. This also applies to finding a counselor as sometimes you may have to see a couple before you find one that you are comfortable with. Always keep going until you are content with your treatment plan. You will find what works for you. It may just take time.
9. Although mental illness can be fueled by external factors, it often is more internal than you think. You often cannot completely cure a mental illness by moving to a different environment or changing who you hangout with. If these changes are positive, they definitely can help you along your recovery path, but they may not fix everything like you had hoped for, so don’t be discouraged.
10. Talk about your mental illness openly if you can. You’ll be surprised by how many people you are secretly helping to feel less alone. You may even be surprised at how much talking about it helps you.
11. There is still a massive stigma surrounding mental health. With this in mind, you have to recognize that many people will talk about mental health ignorantly and inappropriately and will not be empathetic or understanding to what you are going through. These people have not been provided with enough information (or the correct information). Don’t let this stop you from continuing to get help. You have to recover for yourself not for other people.
12. You are the only person that can save yourself. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many people that can help you along the way, but you have to want to get better and you have to be willing to put in the effort.
13. Try and find something to believe in that is greater than yourself. This doesn’t always have to be a religion. For example, I am not religious, but I believe that everything happens for a reason, and with this in mind, I find it easier to remain hopeful.
14. Create a crisis plan. It is easier than you think to reach rock bottom and when you are at rock bottom, rationality is not often present. With any mental illness, thinking is distorted and when you are at your lowest point this is magnified even further. It is helpful to have a plan you can refer back to when you are in this state so you can reach out to the right people and remain safe. There are many people you can talk to who can help you to create this, and you can even find outlines of these online.
15. It gets better. It really, really does. Four years ago, or even last month, when I heard people say this I thought it was ridiculous. I thought that my situation was different and that there was absolutely no way that it would get better for me. I always wondered how other people could say this not knowing my situation. How do you really know it will get better for me if you don’t even know me? How do you know I’m not the one person that it won’t get better for? You can always rework how you think, or find a solution to improve how you feel. Sometimes this takes a long time. It may even feel like it is taking forever. You must know though, that the mind is a very, very powerful thing, and it is capable of so much more than you even realize.