When did you start noticing that you were feeling anxious or depressed?
I can trace both my anxiety and depression back to when I was in middle school. I had a lot of social anxiety at first; thoughts related to what people would think of me, always feeling judged and that people were watching me, and being nervous to be in crowds. This really intensified in my teen years. I remember going into stores with my mom and not being able to be more than five feet away from her because I would go into full-blown panic attacks. Even in the supermarket. I remember one time my sister ran away from me in Walmart as a joke and I actually fell to the floor hyperventilating. It became really debilitating at times, to say the least. I would also get myself really worked up about going to school. I would be violently ill every night, begging my mom to let me stay home. After years of going to gastroenterologists and having procedures and tests, it all came to a stop when I was finally put on medication for my anxiety and depression.
As for my depression symptoms, I first started having suicidal ideation when I was in high school. I began cutting my wrists around that time, as well. I didn’t tell many people except my boyfriend at the time. He never took my depression seriously and when I showed him my cuts one night I distinctly remember him saying, “that’s it?”. This only caused me to cut more and deeper. My suicidal thoughts increased drastically into my early 20s. I reached out to friends for support many times but usually was told to stop begging for attention. It seemed like no one knew what to do, no matter how many cries for help I let out. One night, when the suicidal thoughts and intent were so strong, I got in my car with the plan to drive off the road. Instead, I ended up driving to the hospital and sat in my car outside crying for quite a while, trying to decide if I should check myself in. I didn’t tell anyone about this night because I didn’t want people to think that I was making it up for attention.
How did your family handle it?
I begged my mom for years to let me go to a therapist. But she always declined. She would say “you don’t want to end up like your sister, do you?” Who had her own struggle with depression and was inpatient for quite some time. Finally, I made an appointment for myself, and it was the best thing I ever did. My mom still asks me at times if I’m off my meds yet, which only leads me to believe that she doesn’t think I really need them. But I know for a fact that medication combined with weekly therapy is what got me through my suicidal episode.
What advice do you have for people going through similar issues?
The best advice I can say to someone suffering from anxiety or depression is that you are not alone. Many of the professionals that deal with mental illness on a daily basis are in that position because of what they have gone through in the past. As an adolescent therapist, I wish I could tell my kids what I have gone through to prove to them that there is another way out. But all I can say to them is to continue pushing themselves to put in the effort to pull themselves out of this funk. No one is going to do it for you. You have to have the drive to want to get better and seek out treatment. Many adolescents believe just going through the motions is enough to get better, but it takes so much more strength and motivation than that. And it really is all worth it, in the end, to be able to help people that are in the same spot that I was years ago.
What advice do you have for people supporting someone with mental illness
Advice for family members is that they should research. Mental illness is a topic that is very pushed under the rug and a lot of people don’t want to bring attention to it. But we really need to educate ourselves, especially when a loved one is suffering. You may not be able to know exactly what they are going through, but showing you care and are willing to try to understand them goes a long way. There’s going to be good days and there’s going to be bad days. Stay by their side and don’t ever let them forget how loved they are, even when they are acting hard to love.
Even as a therapist, I can still get triggered at times. I listen to adolescents talk about extremely serious suicide attempts, feelings of hopelessness, and issues with self-harm and self-esteem on a daily basis. Many of these kids remind me of myself and where I was. And I also know just how easy it is to let my mind wander back to those places at times. Even just the other day when I was driving home from work, I had the fleeting thought, “just drive off the road”. These things stay with you, no matter how old you get. The difference is I am now able to challenge these thoughts and remember that I am at a different place in my life.
What do people say that you wish they didn’t?
Looking back on my struggles, I wish people would have been more patient. There were so many times people would tell me to just cheer up or that being around me ruined their good time. These things only made me feel worse cause a great deal of the time, even getting out of the house was a struggle. The fact that I was at the mall or out to dinner was more than I could even fathom, but they still made me feel like it wasn’t good enough. It’s important to celebrate the successes, no matter how small. You never know what someone is going through.
Do you think the health care system is doing enough?
In terms of the health care system, I am on the fence. I have worked in the mental health world for many years in inpatient hospital settings, outpatient facilities, and residential group homes. I believe there are many people in the field who devote their entire life to wanting to save people. However, we are not paid nearly enough or given enough resources to be able to be successful. And many times, this shows in our treatment of patients. Insurance companies don’t cover treatment nearly as much as should be expected, which often leads to families being unable to provide adequate services. I have seen kids who have attempted suicide kicked out of the program because insurance deemed they no longer “meet criteria”. There is a lot that the healthcare system could and should be doing to not only improve the quality of care in terms of the patient but the therapists as well. We are worked to the bone for minimal pay, which only leads to burnout and a decrease in quality of care. For example, I work 50-60 hours per week and only get paid for 40 with no option of overtime. Yet I continue to do this every day to assure that people that are suffering know they have at least one person on their team that is willing to fight for them to get better.
Overall, mental illness is something that affects so many people in this world but is so secretly discussed. The stigma around having a diagnosis makes it difficult for people to seek treatment. I hope that, as a professional in the field, we can continue to educate communities and school systems as well as spread acceptance and love to those that are at their lowest points. No one deserves to go through this battle alone.
How do you stay motivated and positive?
I stay motivated knowing that there are people out there that need my help. Also, I practice a lot of self-care! And this is more than bubble baths and face masks (even though those are great). Self-care sometimes means going to bed at 8 pm. Self-care means sitting on the deck at night and looking at the stars. Self-care means reading a book, or taking a walk, or petting your dog or ANY of the things that bring you even an ounce of joy. Those little moments are hard to acknowledge when you are so down, but those are the moments that keep you going in the long run.