Column: Make mental health a part of the conversation earlier
Someone once told me I shouldn’t write about mental illness. He said no one wanted to read about people who couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, adding that anyone who has panic attacks needs to “man up and get over it.”
Of course, as he said this he was unaware of the fact that I had medication for depression and two anxiety disorders in my purse. My cheeks heated up, but I bit back a defensive response as he belittled the experiences of myself, family members and closest friends, mostly because I found myself wondering if he was right.
So, consider this column a big middle finger to his opinion.
I was diagnosed with severe cases of generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder and a mild episode of major depressive disorder at the beginning of my sophomore year at MSU, though the counselor said she believed I’d been dealing with these issues since I was a child.
She probably wasn’t wrong. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, or ADAA, the median age for symptoms of social anxiety disorder to appear is 13 years old. Generalized anxiety disorder tends to be onset between childhood and middle age.
What everyone had brushed off as shyness during my youth was actually a sometimes overwhelming, and admittedly irrational, fear of being around other people. That fear morphed into a need to be drunk at parties in order to be comfortable and morphed further into panic attacks, once so severe my neighbors could hear me hyperventilating through the walls.
After I was officially diagnosed, my mental illnesses became conversation starters — ”Did you know your uncle has anxiety so severe that he can’t even drive on the freeway?” and “You know, depression actually runs on our side of the family,” were suddenly approachable topics whenever family members and friends saw the little green bottle of pills from Olin Health Center. I never knew how to respond to them, because I knew their hearts were in the right place, but I couldn’t help but wonder where these conversations were when I was young and afraid because I had no idea what was wrong with me.
But conversations centered around mental illness were a rarity while I was growing up, and any of those few conversations only strengthened the negative stigma. In high school, self-harm was construed as a cry for attention and being too anxious to present in front of the class was dismissed as an excuse to get out of the assignment. Mental health wasn’t taken seriously — I didn’t want people to whisper that I was crazy or making excuses, so I kept what I felt to myself.
Bottling those feelings backfired horribly by the time I made it to MSU, and without the friends I’d made who recognized my symptoms and pushed me to go to Olin, I probably would have continued to sweep my symptoms under the rug.
According to a 2007 survey from the ADAA, 36 percent of people who have social anxiety disorder wait approximately 10 years or more before actively seeking treatment, so about the time those 13 year olds are in college or preparing to leave it. If the importance of mental health was addressed at a younger age — if mental health was treated to be as much of a priority as physical health usually is — maybe it wouldn’t take so long for people to feel safe talking about it.
When I broke my arm in elementary school I was excused from weeks of writing assignments. After a panic attack kept me up until past 2 a.m. and I missed one of my morning classes, I was refused the opportunity to make up a quiz.
Anxiety to me means picking at the skin of my fingertips until they bleed to distract myself. It means sitting in the middle of Wells Hall while my hands start to shake and my throat starts to constrict with the beginning of a panic attack. It means the constant, lingering fear that everyone, even the people closest to me, wishes I wasn’t around.
Every reaction seems like an overreaction to the outside eye. To someone with an anxiety disorder, these overreactions are a response to genuinely believing everything is falling to pieces around them.
A recent Humans of New York post featured a man who defined anxiety as “the indescribable fear of nothing,” and I’ve never heard the disorder summed up so accurately before. It flares up sometimes without any warning or cause — some of my worst panic attacks happen after a day of feeling completely fine. But it only takes seconds for the symptoms to set in, starting with a pressure in my chest and ending with helplessly gasping for breath to the point that my arms start to go numb.
But for every person out there who tells you your problems are nothing, there are still others who will remind you that they see you fighting every day. To everyone who has witnessed my symptoms at their worst and stayed, helped me through panic attacks and pushed me to seek help — thank you.
To everyone who hasn’t found people like that yet, your fight is real. It’s important, and you’re not alone.