SPINKS: Not all in your head

Mental illness should be taken seriously

I have been pleased and impressed with The Cavalier Daily this semester as writers have made significant efforts to address the topic of mental illness. My fellow columnist George Knaysi wrote a four-part series addressing various aspects of mental health, and the managing board encouraged students struggling with depression and anxiety to seek help despite the stigma surrounding mental illness with its editorial “Don’t suffer in silence”.

The University’s administration is also working to be more sensitive to the reality that many students are stressed and suffer from mental-health problems. Recently, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent an email full of advice and resources that could help students cope with anxiety, and he closed the e-mail by reminding us that “Your value as a person lies in much more than a grade on a test or a paper.”

I have noticed and appreciated all of these efforts, but I feel like the mental health discussion has been missing a critical component: a human face. I think the conversation about how to address mental health issues is relevant, especially to college students. And destigmatizing mental illness is essential. But sometimes a third party who is completely removed from the problem telling you that “It gets better” just does not seem like enough.

I vacillated about whether or not to write this column for weeks because I was afraid of the way it would be received. Would it look like I was desperate for attention, trying to shock people, searching for pity? Although none of these are my intention, maybe the column will come off that way. But I decided it was important that I say something, because if I didn’t, there was a chance no one would. So I’m here to tell whoever is reading this article that the issue of mental health is deeply important to me because I have dealt with depression and anxiety myself, and still do. I’m here to say that I know depression is more than “being sad” and anxiety is more than “feeling nervous,” and sometimes, however well-intentioned it may be, advice to “talk to someone” or “just get help” is largely insufficient. I decided to be honest about my struggle because I want everyone to see that it’s okay to admit your problems. The only way to destigmatize mental illness is one person at a time.

Some people suffer from situational mental health issues. They will be particularly stressed around midterms or finals, depressed because of a saddening event that happened in their lives or anxious because of a test or bad grade. But I know that sometimes depression is attached to absolutely nothing. I know that sometimes, when people suggest that you “just call CAPS or HELP-line,” it borders on feeling condescending or patronizing, because making a phone call is not a simple task.

Depression is suffocating. It is frustrating to harbor so much sadness with no tangible cause. It is impossible to explain to people, and that can make you feel crazy. Often it literally hurts to be depressed. I know how depression can make it a struggle to get out of bed in the morning; it makes your body ache. Beating depression becomes about very small victories — sometimes going to class, writing one more page of a paper or doing your laundry is the bravest accomplishment you’ll have in a day. Anxiety brings much of the same — physical symptoms like a racing heart, nausea, shakiness and an inability to concentrate without any reason. Sometimes you wake up to an anxiety attack before class. Sometimes you get one in the middle of an important meeting. You know you have to get through it — but that doesn’t mean you can just get over it.

It is intimidating to get help. Although we all know that the employees at CAPS and Student Health are there to be supportive, there is a lingering fear that our reaching out will be futile. Society has stigmatized mental health to the point that not everyone views psychological problems as serious health concerns. Or at least it can feel this way to people who struggle with mental illness. People who claim to be “depressed” are often written off as being weak or dramatic. You are terrified of hearing any of those accusations after you’ve fought such a difficult battle — you don’t want it to be belittled or dismissed.

Please know that I understand and empathize with all of these feelings. I still believe the best course of action is to get help if you can, to speak out and ask for people to listen and to build a support network for yourself. But if you can’t do those things, I will leave you with some strategies that have worked for me in the past.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by any struggle, try deep breathing. Focus entirely on the in-and-out pattern — fill your lungs completely. Distract yourself from whatever is stressing you out, or from the manifest symptoms of that stress, with breathing. Slowly drinking a glass of water sometimes works, too. If you’re feeling particularly down or having a panic attack, let yourself take the time to recover from it. Trying to work through the attack is not only going to be unproductive, it is likely to exacerbate the problem. Watch a TV show and immerse yourself in the plotline. Read a book for pleasure. Fix a snack. Another great remedy for anxiety is cuddling. If you’re shaking, squeeze yourself tightly. Wrap yourself up in blankets. Try to calm your body down. If you feel panicked or powerless, make yourself a to-do list. Write down important things. Know that you can and will get it all finished.

And always: Remind yourself that this will end. You are not crazy and you are not alone. Some days are going to be really hard and that’s okay. You do not need to feel guilty for struggling. You will get through this.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Mondays.

Published December 2, 2013 in FP test, Opinion

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