Understanding and Support: The Missing Ingredients
It’s 1am and I’m reflecting
on my high school experiences. Believe me, it’s a part of my life I’d like to bury and never think of again, but unfortunately that doesn’t work well. Knowing these kind of things need processing, I am doing my work . . . at 1am in the morning.
My mental health became its worst when I was in high school. It was a time in my life where my close friends found new friends who weren’t so nice. It was a period of my life where I over involved myself in several activities, trying to prove my sense of worthiness. It didn’t work out very well as my symptoms just got worse and ultimately I needed to reset myself.
At the time there was enough information out there to give me an idea that I had social anxiety and major depression. I knew I likely had these conditions, but at the same time it was 2003 and I felt that if I were to see a therapist or tell someone my suspicions, that I would have been deemed ‘crazy,’ even though the research at the time identified that 40% of people would at one time or another struggle with social phobia. Eventually it did get bad enough where I was put on an anti-depressant and I saw a therapist for a short period of time.
Fast forward twenty years later and I can say that I am medication-free and haven’t had as bad of depression as I experienced in high school. My social anxiety took years to settle down and while it still comes up occasionally, confidence did wonders for boosting my mental health. I now have just typical anxiety where my brain never shuts off, but it doesn’t weigh on me like the other diagnoses did.
As I reflect on this difficult time of my life now, I am shocked at the responses that I had from teachers, friends, members of my church I attended, and family. Having a mental health condition is not easy and it is not easy for loved ones who may not understand 1) irritability, 2) panic, 3) apathy, 4) lack of motivation (their interpretation may be laziness), 5) perfectionism, 6) anxiety, 7) isolation, 8) self-doubt/negative self-esteem, 9) awkwardness, 10) lack of joy. As I reflect on the responses I received, some were supportive, but there were just as many, probably more, where I ended up feeling worse about myself. Being expected to automatically trust others when that is one of the most frightening things a victim of trauma can be expected to do. And when an individual has exacerbated mental health symptoms, expecting them to snap out of their funk is just simply unrealistic. At the time, I as well wish I could have gotten out of my head, but I didn’t have skills or tools at the time and I honestly had no idea what was wrong with me either.
One of the interesting things I notice with many individuals I see is how often they label themselves as ‘crazy,’ or how often they as well experience insensitive responses regarding
their mental health. It can be traumatizing to have these responses, especially from people you love! There are so many individuals who I do see whose symptoms are probably worse because they feel judged for having them, especially with panic disorders, depression, tics, ADHD, PTSD, and substance use disorders.
Up until tonight I hadn’t put much thought into these experiences because honestly it is just so common for people to be misunderstanding, that I just see it as expected. But reflecting on my own experiences, I was reminded of how much those, “Can’t you just snap out of it,” statements just simply hurt and how these experiences really do need attention. It's betrayal from your support when you are not supported at a time where you are feeling at your worst!
Having a mental health condition is hard and having it as a child or adolescent was even harder. If I could go back and talk to the people who were frustrated with me at the time for my behaviors, I think I would ask them to just have patience and that I wanted to open up but at the time I didn’t have the experience of doing so. I would tell these individuals that I wasn’t doing so well and while I might not have been able to express it at the time, my body language probably portrayed as much. I would also tell them I forgive them because it was like twenty years ago and honestly I think the awareness about mental health at the time was improving, but still relatively poor.
Eventually I did start to feel better within a few years. I saw my friends work through their mental health symptoms and that inspired me and made me feel less alone. I read books that gave me inspiration to get through the tough time I was going through. And I also found yoga which gave me a new sense of confidence. I got older and that also gave me more confidence because I had more independence. I still struggled with social anxiety at least into my mid to late twenties, but I did feel tremendously better regarding depression.
To those who have experienced mental health conditions and felt less than supported, I’d like to let you know:
There are people out there who get it. They might be in your circle or they might be people you still need to find. Just remember they’re out there.
Talking through the symptoms is easier than hiding with them and being embarrassed by them. It’s understandable if you feel the need to keep some privacy, but privacy is one thing, isolation is another.
Judging your symptoms makes them worse. Have patience for yourself and what you’re going through. Don't do what others have done to you. When you become your own best friend, it is easier to get through what you're experiencing.
To those who have a loved one experiencing a mental health condition”
Invite them to talk about their experiences, but also avoid pressuring.
Point out observations when you share your concerns. “I notice that you spend less time with us and you are more closed off. I want to know how you’ve been doing lately. Sometimes we just don’t feel like ourselves and might feel down. Does that seem to be something you’ve been experiencing?”
Avoid going into fixing mode. Believe me, it’s a challenge! But the fixing might be more about you feeling uncomfortable with your loved one’s experience. Give your loved one time and space along with encouragement and understanding. Everyone works at their own timing and pace.
I don’t know what it’s like to be an adolescent in this day and age and struggle with a mental health condition. I would like to assume it’s easier and better, but I really have no idea because I don’t wear those shoes any more. I would like to think that it is easier like having the Internet where there is so much knowledge and tools available and there is more education and awareness and hopefully less stigma regarding mental health, giving parents the information so that they might ask, “Is my child struggling with something right now,” rather than, “just being a typical teenager.” But at the same time, I worry that it might be harder or worse. Bullying is easier to spread through social media, pressure with grades and classwork, and more frequency in school shootings. I don’t necessarily think that the generation in school now experiences less stress but rather they experience a different kind of stress. What is wonderful about this generation though, is that we get to give them what we never had ourselves just a few decades ago, and that is what creates real and effective, lasting change.