An overview & critique: Depression in fiction books

For reasons that I will inevitably wind up discussing more in-depth later, this is a topic that I am very interested in.  After all, there is no doubt about it: So much of our world is informed by our media, including fiction books.  Major pop culture phenomenons – books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, for instance – wind up having a major impact on a whole slew of societal attitudes, everything from the names of our children to the hobbies we play.

Of course this extends to serious issues, like mental health.  As I sat, thinking about this entry, I came to the realization that I cannot think of too many books I’ve read that explicitly feature stories about characters who feature mental illness – even when the book is potentially about something other than mental illness.  This is important from a stigma perspective: I think it is vital that readers hear stories about people with mental illness living a successful life, despite their challenges.

Now, please don’t misunderstand: Just because I haven’t read them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A very quick Google search reveals no shortage of books that discuss exactly this topic.  And, indeed, many of these books touch of mental illness in a more tangential way.

Two young adult books that I’ve read immediately come to mind.  One is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which discusses a young woman moving to college and dealing with a slew of pressures, then finding therapy in her writing.  Another, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet by Joanne Proulx, features a character who clearly is struggling with depression and anxiety, even though it goes unspoken throughout the novel.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of Young Adult novels, which I must confess, I still enjoy (a quick look at my Goodreads page will confirm this!).  But, from the perspective of mental illness, there is an important reason for discussing this genre in particular: 50% of all mental illness starts at age 14, and 75% by age 24.  If this issue can be addressed early enough – particularly during it’s onset – it can make a big difference.

I suppose my point is this: As best I can tell – and, again, admittedly, I could be wrong, please correct me if I am – it seems like mental illness in fiction is addressed in one of two ways:

  1. It is completely undiagnosed, leaving readers guessing or playing armchair psychiatrists, and that’s never a good idea.
  2. It is the centerpiece of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, neither of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  I’m just having this conversation from a stigma perspective.  The first option listed above can be problematic and fail to fully address a characters illness, which can lead to misguided perceptions about the way that mental illness works.  The second option can be good, but it, too, can make people think that mental illness is somehow more debilitating than it truly is.

Also, please understand, I’m not criticizing any author or book.  Many of the ones that deal with mental illness – directly or indirectly – are powerful, and it’s not possible or fair to be critical of an author simply because they don’t address a particular issue in a way I want to see it done.

That being said, from a stigma perspective, that’s what I’d love to see more of.

Any thoughts to add, or books I am missing?  I’d really love to know – if only to read them!  Please let us know in the comments.

Depression is more than feeling sad

One of the things I have certainly struggled with in my personal life – and I think one of the things that many people don’t realize – is what depression truly is.  I saw this image ages ago in my Facebook feed, and I think it sums it up personally:

depression is more than sad

This is so, so accurate (except for the Mario Kart part – I got nothing there) and I say this based on more than just a viral image.  According to the DSM (Diagnosis & Statistical Manual, the official way in which mental illnesses are diagnosed), the following five symptoms are indicative of a Major Depressive Disorder:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feeling sad, blue, “down in the dumps,” or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful or about to cry). (In children and adolescents, this may present as an irritable or cranky, rather than sad, mood.)
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities every day, such as no interest in hobbies, sports, or other things the person used to enjoy doing.
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5 percent of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  • Insomnia (inability to get to sleep or difficulty staying asleep) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much) nearly every day
  • Psychomotor agitation (e.g., restlessness, inability to sit still, pacing, pulling at clothes or clothes) or retardation (e.g., slowed speech, movements, quiet talking) nearly every day
  • Fatigue, tiredness, or loss of energy nearly every day (e.g., even the smallest tasks, like dressing or washing, seem difficult to do and take longer than usual).
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day (e.g., ruminating over minor past failings).
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (e.g. appears easily distracted, complains of memory difficulties).
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideas without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide

The first item is specifically about depression and feeling sad.  The rest are most definitely not.  And it’s important to note that everyone experiences depression differently, and at different times.  For some, sadness is the overwhelming emotion.  For others, it’s complete anhedonia.  These emotions are felt in different ways, at different times.

I write about this based on my own experiences.  I’ve found that, when I am going through a rough patch, it isn’t often led off by sadness – usually, I start with insomnia and a loss of appetite – I always lose weight when I am depressed.  Things usually go downhill from there.  Not for nothing, but those two symptoms are often the canaries in the coal mine.  I work out a lot so I’m almost always hungry, and if I don’t want to eat, I almost always wonder if something is wrong.  It’s amazing, the way depression sneaks up on you like that…it comes out of nowhere and starts to nibble at your mind, before you are even aware of it….

My point is this: It would be foolish to assume that depression is just depression.  It can be experienced as an entire series of symptoms, many of which have nothing to do with feeling sad, and all of which can easily be confused with something else.  I draw some comfort from this – there is nothing “wrong” with me – well, besides the obvious, haha.

I’m really curious to hear from others.  Have you experienced depression in some other way, including those not listed here?  Let us know in the comments!

You are not alone: A quick – and personal – review of depression statistics

On my drive home today, I was listening to a podcast called Everybody’s Fucked Up, a podcast by two video game developers who have both struggled with mental illness.  One of them, Tessa Vanderhart, discussed how one of the best things she discovered in therapy was that it helped teach her that no one who suffers from mental illness is truly alone.

That reminded me of a story from when I first got to college, and when my own depression really exploded.  It was the 2nd or 3rd day of school, and I am completely freaking out.  I still remember everything about it: It was a gorgeous, late August day.  I was sitting on the steps just outside of my dorm, on my oversized cell phone, talking with my Dad.  A group of girls walked by, and they were laughing and smiling.  I knew one of them from high school, and she waved at me.  I sheepishly waved back – my face was obviously tear-stained.  I had been balling, homesick, can’t adjust, I am convinced I had no friends, it’s never gonna get any easier, I want to go home, all that good stuff.  Anyway, I’m on the phone with my Dad, telling him how I was sure I was the only one who felt this miserable, because, after all, I didn’t see anyone else who was as upset as me. Exasperated, he responded, “Of course you don’t!  That’s because they are all in their rooms, crying like you!”

He was right, of course. I later found out that .5% of the kids in my class actually dropped out the first weekend because they just couldn’t handle being away from home, and that says nothing of the kids who were just struggling like me.  But, that story actually illuminated a bias that I’ve found still remains when it comes to mental illness: Far too many people think that they are truly the only ones suffering, because they don’t see anyone else.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

I want to give you two statistics on mental illness and try to personalize them as much as possible.  A quick look at the literature shows:

  • 43.8 million American adults – about 18.5% – experience mental illness at some point in a year.  So, dear reader, let’s assume for a moment that you are one of the unlucky 18.5% of Americans who suffer from mental illness, and you think you are the only one.  Okay.  Let’s say you are sitting in class, and say there are 25 people in that class.  Odds are pretty good that you and four others have mental illness.
  • 18.1% of Americans will experience some sort of anxiety-related disorder over their lifetimes.  You work in an office of 50 people, and you are in the bathroom,  heart accelerating, stomach churning and bawling your eyes out, but trying to do so quietly so no one wonders what is wrong.  You think you are the only one?  Odds are that nine other people are in a different bathroom, panicking for no reason or reliving some highly traumatic event.

One of the bad things that researchers and politicians have a tendency to do is to talk in the abstract, to talk in big, global numbers, and not give those numbers any context.  Sure, 43.8 million Americans sounds like a lot, right?  What makes even more of an impact is a personal one – a friend, a colleague, a classmate, a coworker.  This is even more important for people who suffer from mental illness – we are more than just a number, and it’s important that we be seen as such.

When you think of mental illness, or when you think of your own mental illness, one of the hardest things to remember, sometimes, is that you aren’t alone. As you sit in your bed crying, or at your desk, wondering how you are going to get through the day, or scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed in a desperate effort to take away your pain, you have to try to remember that you aren’t the one suffering.  There are millions upon millions of you – of us – that share your pain at any given moment.

Try to remember that, and try to let that thought give you some comfort – you aren’t the only one.

Things you CAN do to fight depression and anxiety

I think that one of the worst things that I’ve found in dealing with depression is the hopelessness that comes with it.  One minute you’re fine, and the next, you’re…not.  Medication and therapy help, but depression is a chronic condition.  It comes back.  And while you can limit it, manage it…it still comes back, and sometimes worse than others.

I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: Professional guidance, and a controlled regimen of therapy and medication, can make all the difference in the world.  When it comes to chronic mental illness, the evidence is clear: Treatment works.

But, treatment doesn’t just mean that you rely on medication and/or therapy to get better.  To some extent, and I’ve certainly found this in my own life, you have to take control of your own illness.  Yes, you may be a victim of a bad roll of the dice, but no one need be depression’s victim.  There are things you can do, on your own, to help keep depression away (again, please note, NOT advocating any of the below in place of therapy, medication or any other professional advice that a licensed medical professional gives you…can’t emphasize that enough).  Here are a few tips that worked for me, and can hopefully work for you.

Exercise

Here’s a good one with a ton of benefits: Exercise can make a huge, positive difference when it comes to depression.  According to the Mayo Clinic, it does so by releasing “feel-good” chemicals, reducing immune system chemicals that can make depression worse and by increasing your body temperature.  Better yet, any physical activity can be helpful, so fear not!  You don’t have to launch yourself into a massive weight lifting program.

On a personal level, I’ve found the gym to be a savior.  Not only does it help you get in shape, feel better and look better, but it makes you feel like you are accomplishing something.  All too often, when you are depressed, you want to just lie around and Netflix & Sad.  You become depression’s bitch, and that is exactly the time to get up and force yourself to move around.  It takes a lot of hard work to overcome this natural inclination to slug-out on the couch, but it is well, well worth it.

Meditation

The evidence is clear: Meditation can help to ease the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.  It doesn’t have to be long – the article I link to says 2.5 hours a week – but, a bit of meditation goes a long way.  What I found somewhat interesting here was that most articles relating to depression and meditation don’t just discuss meditation, but a specific type of meditation – mindfullness meditation.  This specific type of meditation is defined as “a technique of meditation in which distracting thoughts and feelings are not ignored but are rather acknowledged and observed nonjudgmentally as they arise to create a detachment from them and gain insight and awareness.”

What is remarkable is that at least one study found that meditation “helped prevent depression recurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.”

Okay, I’ve resisted this all my life.  Not “resisted,” really…just, haven’t allowed myself to do it. I’ve come up with excuses, I’ve done it for a few days, I’ve stopped and started and just haven’t been able to sit down and meditate.  This blog entry has convinced me…again…of how important meditation can be for depression!  Must.  Do.  It.

Also, try the app Headspace.  I’ve used it a couple of times and it seems interesting.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene?  It’s exactly what it sounds like – using healthy practices to help you get some real rest.  Sleep and depression have a complex relationship – a lack of sleep can lead to depression, and depression can lead to a lack of sleep, which makes getting a good night’s sleep all the more important.  Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • Limiting naps.
  • Not drinking caffeine too close to bed.
  • Limiting screen time too close to bed.
  • Having enough exposure to natural light (huh, didn’t know that).
  • Having a set sleep and wake-up routine.

During some of the particularly rough periods of my depression, I had a REAL hard time sleeping.  It was the canary in the coal mine of my symptoms – I couldn’t sleep, and suddenly, there I was again.  Sleep hygiene – particularly the routine and screen time part (which I still really need to work on!) – is vitally important, at least to me.

Video Games

I discussed this the other day, but felt it was worth repeating: Video games can help with depression.  First, the basics: There are studies which show that MMORPG and other social games can help reduce social anxiety, while puzzlers can reduce stress and anxiety levels.  Other apps and video games have also been found to reduce levels of depression.

Of course, video games can have serious negative drawbacks.  There is, unfortunately, ample evidence that some are not working and are instead playing video games, and there are real fears that mental health plays a role in this.  Video games provide an immersive escape, where there is no judgement, no consequences, and no real failure that cannot be eradicated by reloading the last save file.  This, of course, is dangerous when it comes to entering and remaining in the real world.

As I said earlier in the week, I’m a believer that video games can be great – if used in moderation.  They provide a nice retreat when necessary and can recharge your batteries – getting you ready to relaunch into the real world.

Anything you want to add?  What works best for you?  Let us know in the comments!

Video games and depression

One way I cope with depression is video games, which some studies have noted can help improve social anxiety, depression and stress levels.  I wanted to elaborate on this one a bit.

First: I love video games.  And I mean I loooooove video games.  I can tie most major periods of my life to some sort of video game.  I still remember playing Halo 3 on Xbox live before I went out on my first date with my wife (the guys I was playing with wished me luck when I said why I was leaving for the night).  I remember Final Fantasy X before college graduation.  Skyrim when my son was first born, too little to move and would curl up on my chest while I slayed dragons.  My kids are named Auron and Ayla…bonus points if you can figure out what games those names came from.

I still remember being almost five, coming home from Heather Cohen’s birthday party, and my Dad leading me into our basement, where he gave me the most magical birthday present every: A Nintendo Entertainment System.

Video games have a special place in my heart.  As I grew older and began my journey with depression and anxiety, they offered a safe place and a retreat from reality.  I can see myself playing Grand Theft Auto 3 when I was going through a rough patch with my girlfriend at the time.  During the worst of my anxiety in college, again, it was Final Fantasy X. I still remember being a lonely, awkward middle schooler and just being obsessed with Tie Fighter, because it made me feel good at something.  In the Star Wars universe, no one cared that your hair wasn’t stylish, or that your forehead resembled a pepperoni pizza more than any normal persons should.  You just shot at the bad guys.  End of story.

That being said – that concept of escaping into a video game – is it a good thing?

Personally, I’ve had some experience with MMORPGs, but not a ton.  As much as I love video games, I don’t have enough time to truly enjoy them.  I’ve played my share of them – Warcraft in particular – but, as a newcomer, always found them to be too intimidating to really get into.  However, there’s no question about it – some people get into video games at the expense of real life.

On one hand, there is research with shows that video games can be helpful in reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.  They provide a creative outlet and a safe place to retreat to when the real world can get overwhelming.  Of course, that retreat can be toxic, which leads to the concept of video game addiction.

Now, to be clear, though there is no shortage of media reports about video game addiction, it is not yet an officially recognized disorder by any major medical governing body.  On an anecdotal level, I suspect that many of us know people who are way, way too into fantasy worlds, but that doesn’t mean they are “addicted,” per se.

I also think it’s worth noting that video games have never been an area free of controversy, and the conversation about whether or not games are addictive have been going on since Space Invaders.  So, clearly, this is a conversation that has gone on for quite sometime.

Are video games good or bad for mental health?
Like the answers to most perplexing questions, this one is evolving.  Video games have positive benefits on depression and anxiety, as far as I am concerned.  I’ve found them to be a safe retreat and a chance to temporarily escape the pressures of the real world.  In my opinion…again, just my opinion, not any medical advice…they can be great, but no different than any other hobby.  You use them briefly to recharge and recalibrate before launching yourself back into the real world.  The challenge, of course, is acknowledging when enough is enough.  For some people, that can be more difficult than others.

Depression and resilience

This is a topic that is near and dear to me: The concept on resilience and mental health.

One of the things that I try to talk with people about when it comes to mental health is the concept that you cannot just “power your way through” it.  I mean, when you’re depressed, you can’t just “man up” or “pray it away,” right?  If you are depressed, and you cross that magical clinical threshold, you need professional help.  This is part of the mantra of countless professionals and experts in this arena – go get help if you need it, and don’t be stupid and think that you can defeat depression on your own.

And yet….

Most estimates say that 1 in 5 Americans experienced a “mental health condition” over the past year.  That number is very high – I’d argue higher than most Americans realize.  But, as high as it is – it still means that 4 in 5 Americans don’t have a mental health condition.  That, obviously, begs this question: Why?

That’s a broader topic than a layman like me can tackle in a 750 word blog entry.  There are, of course, countless reasons, including genetics, living situations, access to health care and more.  But, for now, there’s one topic I want to explore: The concept of resilience and mental health.

Resilience, as it pertains to mental health, is defined by the American Psychological Association as, “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” The APA website I link to contains a variety of information on the concept on resilience, including how to build it.

Why do I mention it now?  Well, being resilient, as it pertains to mental health, seems an awful lot like “powering through” a difficulty.  If someone is resilient, doesn’t that mean that they have the ability to get through a mental health challenge?  Is it then possible to “tough it out” and avoid professional help?  And, conversely, is someone who just isn’t resilient enough just lacking a fundamental trait?

I think the above paragraph is pretty thought provoking, mainly because it sort of flies in the face of everything that those of us who are on anti-stigma campaigns preach.  We tell people to not allow the depression to win – if you are suffering, seek professional help.  And yet, if you can just be “resilient” enough, is it possible to get through your mental illness without needing help?

Interestingly, the APA website provides a perfect answer for that question.

The rest of the page has some subheaders, such as “Staying flexible,” “Learning from your past,” and “10 ways to build resilience.”  In other words…how to learn it.

Resilience, or the process of basically facing down’s life challenges, is vital to keeping yourself from being overwhelmed and slipping into depression, anxiety or addiction.  There’s also this amazing metaphor:

To help summarize several of the main points in this brochure, think of resilience as similar to taking a raft trip down a river.

On a river, you may encounter rapids, turns, slow water and shallows. As in life, the changes you experience affect you differently along the way.

In traveling the river, it helps to have knowledge about it and past experience in dealing with it. Your journey should be guided by a plan, a strategy that you consider likely to work well for you.

The river is life, and resilience is the boat.  Sometimes, the river can be so strong that it can overwhelm the strongest craft.  Other times, the boat can be leaky or fail to float for any number of reasons.

Here’s the crux of my entry: Resilience is unquestionably important when it comes to mental health.  But, it can’t be viewed as some magical skill that just exists or doesn’t, and that’s it.  It should be viewed as a critical component to any coping strategy, and a skill that can be both taught and learned.  With resilience, someone can get through life.  And someone can be taught the resilience to get through life and a mental health challenge…with therapy.

Does this make any sense?  I sure hope so.  As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – please comment below and tlel me if you think I am dead on or have lost my mind – more than usual!

 

Depression is like Facebook on your iPhone

When it comes to mental illness, one of the things I have struggles to come to terms with is that it is always there, always lurking, even when it isn’t “active”…sort of like an app on your iPhone.

Alright, some background.  In my last blog entry, I discussed how mental illness/depression/anxiety can make it very difficult to relax.  I maintain this is at least in part why, on a personal level, I have to be constantly doing something – it is almost impossible for me to “shut off” and not work.

Now, for something completely unrelated: My stupid iPhone.  I, like many of you, am completely addicted to the thing – my wife (appropriately) tells me to put it down, my kids will sometimes grab it out of my hands, etc.  I’m actually grateful for all of that, but that’s a completely different story.  So, my iPhone battery is in a constant state of HALP I AM NOT WORKING, and I find myself constantly shifting it to low-power mode.  The other day, while doing so, I saw this:

IMG_4462

 

Of course Facebook & Twitter and destroying my battery.  I’m addicted to them.

But…that got me thinking.

If you live with some sort of mental health condition, you probably know exactly what I am talking about, and if not, hopefully this blog entry can be illuminating.  Depression, anxiety, addiction, etc., are exhausting, even if you are not actively suffering from them at the time.  I’m lucky…therapy, medication and life experience has helped keep my depression and anxiety at bay for the past few months.  That being said, as I have stated earlier, you are never fully in the clear.  I can’t imagine living a life where that is even possible.

Mental illness is always there.  It is always running in the background, draining your battery.  Sometimes, it almost feels like there is a ceiling on your joy, on your happiness, one that forces you to lower your standards for what you can and will achieve in terms of personal happiness and relaxation.

Again, please don’t think I am writing this to be whiny or mopey…I’m trying to make a point to those who suffer from mental illness, and to those who don’t: Mental illness is always there, always running in the background…even if it doesn’t seem like it.

This has been one of my personal struggles.  I wish I could share some tips or advice on how to deal with being depressed even when you aren’t actively depressed, but I don’t really have any wisdom to share.  Do you?  Any tips or advice is appreciated – please let us know in the comments!

Anxiety, relaxation and HAHAHAHA

(The “HAHAHAHA” is totally sarcastic)

So, as I write this entry, my in-laws are playing with my kids and having a great time.  My wife and I have been pleasantly chatting – I’m off this week, and we’ve got some nice plans.  Everything should be relatively calm and relaxed.

And yet, I can’t relax.

To be fair, I can never relax.

Everyone around me has always noted me to be so high-strung it’s almost comedic.  And, to be fair, it is.  I’m that guy.  The guy who spends Friday night worrying about what kind of work he’s going to have to get done on Monday.  The guy who wakes up early – all the time – to get stuff done.  The guy whose favorite website is his online to do list.

So, why?  In part, I’ve always chalked up my complete and total inability to let go to my anxiety issues, which is a generalized anxiety disorder.

All of this being said, being unable to relax isn’t exclusively related to anxiety.  And being anxious doesn’t mean you can’t relax.  I do have fun. I have hobbies.  I love video games.  I write, and I have constantly found salvation in creativity.  My job is a huge source of anxiety for me, but it is also an unending source of pride.  When it goes well, it goes really well.

All of that being said, there’s no doubt in my mind that anxiety and an inability to calm down – even at moments when I am not “anxious” – are related.  That’s because anxiety and depression never really go away.  I’d categorize myself right now as in a pretty good spot – I don’t find myself actively suffering from depression, and I haven’t had a full-blown, hardcore anxiety attack in over a year.  But, that doesn’t meant that it’s ever not there, lurking somewhere in the background.  One of the hardest things for me to recognize is that anxiety and depression never truly leave you.  I’ve recently come to the conclusion that both are somewhat similar to being addicted to something.  You never truly “recover” – you are just in recovery.  And there is a big, big difference.  Being in recovery means that you are on a constant journey, a spectrum.  Recovery isn’t an end state.

Which brings me back to the crux of my entry.  And, keep in mind, this isn’t just me being whiny – check out this article from Psychology Today in 2013:

…research has shown that stress, anxiety and depression, which come on the heels of this kind of non-stop pressure to achieve, physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms.

No kidding.

So, the general conclusion of this entry is this: If you are an anxious, high-stress person to begin with, you don’t just get anxious during anxiety-inducing situations.  You can anxious – and stay anxious – all of the time.

If you are one of these people, odds are good that you know exactly what I am talking about.  If you are not, I hope this is insightful, in that it shows how difficult living with a mental health condition can be.  I frequently compare mental health with physical health.  This is another example.  Mental illness is a chronic condition.  Just like constant pain, it never really goes away.

All of this being said, anyone out there know what I am talking about and want to chime in?  Your opinions, as always, are welcome and appreciated.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Mental Health & College

As I wrote yesterday, depression and mental health is a hugely personal issue for me.  I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety in some form or fashion since I was in 8th grade, but didn’t actively seek treatment for it until college, when the adjustment to a brand new environment, combined with my already existing issues, pushed me into therapy.

I was lucky.  I graduated from Muhlenberg College, and Rick at the counseling center saved my life Freshman year.  And yes, I do mean that literally.  He got me through the transition into college, the breakup with my girlfriend from home, and a slew of other challenges.  When it became apparent that talking wasn’t enough, he helped me locate a psychiatrist at home who first prescribed me medication.

The reason I have been thinking about this is because of my real job.  As part of it, I’ve been reading a fascinating, in-depth study on suicide in college students, complete with specific recommendations for how to reduce them.  This, naturally, brought me back to college, and had me thinking about how lucky I was.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky?

Look, college is insanely stressful.  It’s a time period in which many mental health challenge first manifest themselves (75% of all mental illnesses onset by age 24), and that’s why it is so important that college students (well, everyone, obviously) have knowledge about what sort of mental health resources are available to them – and access to them in the first place.

I did a little bit more research into the specific issue of colleges and mental health.  The results are difficult to swallow.  According to this USA Today article, the issue is rapidly becoming an increasing problem on campus.  A survey of college administrators said that mental health is their top concern on campus.  The same article also found:

“…institutional enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%.”

There’s actually good news in this article:

This new demand for mental health services reflects a number of positive trends — breaking down of stigmas, more diverse student bodies, greater access to college. But it also puts colleges in a difficult position.

Many colleges – like Muhlenberg – have their own counseling centers on campus.  Students can confidentially make appointments and talk about their problems with a trained professional.  And, as these studies illuminate, this is exactly why it is so important that all colleges have some sort of mental health support system.  Three things in particular strike me:

  1. Colleges must have easily accessible mental health resources, be it on-campus counseling centers or the ability to refer a student to a trained professional off campus.
  2. Colleges must be aggressive in letting their students know what resources are available to them.  The greatest counseling center in the world isn’t going to do a lick of good if students don’t know what’s there for them.  This is why legislation like Madison’s Law is so important.  This proposal, recently enacted in New Jersey and named after Madison Holleran (a University of Pennsylvania Freshman who killed herself), requires that:

    An institution of higher education shall have individuals with training and experience in mental health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely by telephone or other means for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The individuals shall also work with faculty and staff on ways to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with student suicide.

    No later than 15 days following the beginning of each semester, an institution of higher education shall transmit to each student via electronic mail the contact information of the individuals required pursuant to subsection a. of this section.

    In Pennsylvania, this legislation has been introduced by my colleague, Rep. Tim Briggs.

  3. We must continue to endeavor to destimagtize mental illness.  The stigma that surrounds mental health continues to keep people away from available treatment.  That’s why anti-stigma campaigns – and putting a personal face to mental illness – is so important.

I’ll certainly have more to say later, but this is obviously an important issue when it comes to mental health.  And one more thing: The more I dive into this area, the more I find just how important it is to not approach mental health as a monolithic block.  We have to approach each subgroup differently (college students, first responders, LGBT, etc) while pushing towards the overall goal of reducing stigma and helping all people find peace.

As long as you breathe, there is hope

Hiya!

My name is Mike Schlossberg.  I’m 34 and living in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  I’m a very lucky man: I’m married to a wonderful woman, Brenna, who teaches in the Allentown School District.  We have two young kids, Auron & Ayla, and they are our pride and joy.  My full time job is to serve the people of the 132nd Legislative District as a State Representative.  I’m also a writer and have written a book called Tweets and Consequences: 60 Social Media Disasters in Politics and How You Can Avoid a Career-Ending Mistake.  You can expect to hear more from me about my writing projects in the future.

But, my blog would be pretty boring if it was all about how lucky I was, right?

For more than twenty years of my life, I’ve suffered from pretty severe depression and anxiety attacks.  Like any other illness, it has ebbed and flowed, but it hit a crisis point when I was in college, the only time in my life I’ve been so depressed that I seriously contemplated suicide.

Since that time, I’ve seen therapists on an as needed basis, and taken medication to control the worst of the symptoms; for the past fifteen years, not a day in my life has gone by without me swallowing a life-saving drug, prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Living with depression and anxiety disorders is a challenge, to put it politely.  I’ve experienced no worse hell in my life than a full blown anxiety attack and the inescapable pain and terror that comes with it.  Depression is a different but related animal, and on a personal level, the last five years of my life have seen more challenges with that than the anxiety.  Depression, for those of you who have been lucky enough to always avoid it – well, there are many metaphors.  The best one I can think of: Imagine depression as a randomized Instagram filter that you can’t turn off.  Sometimes it’s super dark and affects each and every thing you see.  Other times it’s so slight you barely notice it.  But it’s always there, somewhere in the back of your mind, coloring everything that you experience.

While I’d never hidden my challenges from my family and friends, I never exactly stood at a street corner, screaming “I TAKE PILLS!”  That changed on August 11, 2014: The day that Robin Williams killed himself.  Williams’ suicide broke my heart, and like many who suffered from mental illness, I was floored: If it ended his life, why not me?  Why was I so lucky to still be alive, and relatively okay, when someone like him killed themselves?

Then, Facebook.

While scrolling through my newsfeed, I came across some schmuck who had written something to the effect of, “So sad Robin Williams killed himself.  Shame he didn’t have more faith in Jesus!”

Umm, no.  NONONONO that’s not how this works.  Oh, and Williams was Jewish, you idiot.

Anyways.  

That moronic Facebook status inspired me to go public, and one day later, my local paper published an op-ed I wrote, detailing my own struggles with depression and anxiety.  That dramatically changed my career.  Since then, I’ve spoken across the state and in Washington about my struggles and how to effective combat the stigma that surrounds mental illness.  I’ve worked on legislation to help mothers to be treated for postpartum depression and started the Pennsylvania Mental Health Caucus.  I also spoke publicly about my mental illness on the floor of the House:

That speech was…difficult.  And necessary.

Anyway, after months (if not years) of putting it off, I finally came to the conclusion that a blog might be a good way to get information out.  Mental illness is treatable.  It is survivable.  You can live a happy, wonderful, productive life despite mental illness …and yeah, I mean that.  I can’t imagine my life without the suffering I’ve endured, because it made me a better person and a better public official.  So, here I am, blogging away.

As for the reason I am blogging: Well, I’ve got two things on my mind, one I can discuss in detail, and one that will be discussed at a future date.

First, I want to discuss mental illness in general.  I come at this from a few perspectives.  First is the personal one.  In my journey as a public official living with mental illness, I’ve been floored at my own personal effectiveness in telling my story – and let me clarify that, lest you think my ego is enormous.  There is nothing more effective in supporting those with mental illnesses – and in beating stigma – than telling your own story.  I want to keep doing that, to keep reminding people that they are not alone by putting a real face to mental illness.  I want to make sure that people realize they are never.

I also want to discuss mental illness in a broader context.  Among the things I will hopefully discuss here is the interaction of public policy and mental health, coping strategies, public views on mental health, and more.

Second, in a few months I’ll have a new project to launch.  It is a personal one, and one that is deeply important to me.  I’ll have more on that later.

Before I go, two quick disclaimers.  First, as noted above, I’m a Pennsylvania State Representative, so it seems prudent for me to note this: This is a personal project.  There may be times that I discuss public policy, just like any other person.  That being said, all blog entries are being written on my own time, with my own computer and my own resources.  None of this is being done on governmental equipment or using other legislative resources, and nothing I discuss will bring any “confidential” information to bear.

Second, please understand: I’m not a doctor.  Any advice I give is based on my own personal experience and readings, NOT based on medical training.  If you are ill, please see a Doctor.  If you are in crisis, or worried about harming yourself, help is available.  You are never, ever alone.

So, that’s it for now!  I hope to have more to say later, but for now, have a wonderful day, and remember: As long as you breathe, there is hope.

~Mike