The fight to destigmatize mental health is a battle well fought; everywhere, you see buttons, t-shirts, and billboards advocating for mental health awareness and displaying available resources for those who are struggling. This is an incredible step in the right direction without a doubt. But a recent trend that I believe is vital to the mental health conversation is the movement towards ensuring mental health education in schools and communities. It’s hard to truly advocate for a cause that you don’t fully understand. By improving mental health education, we can further decrease the stigma surrounding mental health while educating society about the symptoms and signs they should look for in themselves and others regarding mental illness. I’m writing this piece to, in a way, add my contribution to this cause.
If you search depression on the internet, you see sad, dark images of distraught and crying people. If you search anxiety, more pictures of sad, visibly distressed teens and adults fill your screen. It is estimated that in a given year, 16.2 million Americans will have had at least one Major Depressive Episode and 40 million Americans will have been affected by an anxiety disorder. How do so many people struggle with these illnesses without us noticing?
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in my junior year of high school. To my friends and family, this was a total surprise. I was a good student, I kept up in my after-school activities, and I was still going to every dance practice I could. I even laughed and smiled, how could I be depressed?! They had no idea that every day was another bloody civil war within my conscience.
Depression has many faces. For some, it’s what we see on the internet; the hunched back, eyes swollen from crying, and a lasting dejected expression. Yet for many others, depression creeps into their daily routine with a subtlety that is barely perceivable. For me, when I looked in the mirror I seemed a little more tired and the brightness in my eyes had dimmed. To others, I just looked tired. Little did they know that every day was a battle to keep my sanity.
Behind my eyes was a mental warzone. I felt like my head was constantly buzzing and aching as I swatted away thoughts of insufficiency and hopelessness. I would irritate easily when people would ask questions or start up a conversation, not because I was “angsty,” but because any sounds from the real world just amplified the noise in my head. I became lost in my thoughts, barely there when in class or out with friends. I laughed when others laughed and smiled when people looked at me because I didn’t want to be annoying. My thoughts were such a burden on myself that I couldn’t even consider bothering anyone else with what was going on. For a while, I honestly thought everyone else felt the same and just knew how to deal with it. I thought depression was just being sad. It wasn’t until I began going to therapy and learned more about mental illnesses that I realized how invisible mental illness can really be.
Depression hits everyone differently, but there is one video I watched in lecture that I felt exemplified depression very well. In this video, depression is depicted as a big black dog, following a man and taking over his life. As the black dog becomes bigger and bigger, the man finds it harder and harder to maintain his daily lifestyle, until the black dog completely takes over. Yet the aspect of the video that I felt was most important was at the end. After the man begins therapy and receives treatment for depression, the black dog begins to shrink. But here’s the catch: the black dog never fully went away.
Depression isn’t just cured; it comes back, it ebbs and flows. There are days, weeks, months where I feel great. But there are also months where just getting out of bed is a struggle, and the feeling of emptiness inside my soul consumes me. Despite this, I soldier on, putting on the smile and laughing when I need to.
When I tell people I’m severely depressed, they often don’t believe me. They think that I want attention and emotional support. While I would never wish the throes of depression on anyone, I wish I could explain how empty I feel even when I smile. I wish I could explain that I’m not a “selective listener” and that I really do care about what people have to say, it’s just that sometimes my thoughts are so loud that I need to zone out to sort through them. That feeling of emptiness is a whole other level of sadness; it’s the sadness of not being able to feel anything. No joy, no compassion, no pleasure. Even sadness isn’t really sadness, it’s just feeling numb. Everything is just grey.
As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I place mental and physical health at the same level of importance without even thinking. It took some time for me to realize that this isn’t true for everyone. Mental illness is much harder for someone to understand when they’ve never experienced it. Because of this, I believe that it is so important to try our best to educate those around us about mental illness and how it affects us. I know that I can scare people off when I am so open and honest about my depression and anxiety. I hope that one day, people will see me talking about my mental illness as something as normal as me talking about a broken foot. Until then, I’ll continue to share my story with anyone who will listen, in hopes that I can be part of a greater change.