Why Mental Health is so Important

Just for a moment, I want you to imagine being trapped inside your own mind.

Imagine that, despite any evidence to the contrary, your mind constantly takes situations and turns them into disasters. Imagine being so incredibly paralyzed by fear, anguish, guilt, jealousy, and every other terrible emotion under the sun, that it’s almost all you can bear just to pull yourself out of bed in the morning. Imagine believing, with barely a sliver of doubt, that the most worthless, undeserving person you know…is yourself.

Imagine yourself dealing with nearly every situation with the knife of anxiety at your throat, giving you the choice of either suffering from panic attacks, or coping with those situations in unsavory ways. Imagine feeling inferior to everyone else, because you can’t deal with simple, everyday situations. Imagine feeling like no one else could possibly get why you think the way you do.

Imagine being so wrought in despair, self-loathing, and guilt, you seriously consider taking your own life.

Society puts so much time, money, and effort into researching a great number of physical diseases and illnesses…cancer, HIV/AIDS, cerebral palsy, leukemia, and countless others. All of this attention directed at these physical afflictions is completely, 100% needed and deserved. In my opinion, the researchers who have made it their life goal to find a cure for, as of now, incurable diseases, are the best types of people. It goes without saying, but a wife shouldn’t have to lose her husband of many years to cancer. A child shouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair simply because she was fated to. Attention to physical illnesses and diseases is absolutely warranted.

Then, there’s mental illness. Individuals who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, PTSD, and dementia (and that’s a small list of the illnesses we know about) often suffer from symptoms just as bad (and sometimes worse) as those who suffer from physical debilitation. There are some who argue that we put so much effort into researching physical diseases because there are many that are terminal – being “overly anxious” never hurt anyone, right?

Wrong. Statistics show that more than 1,000,000 people commit suicide per year. One million people, gone from the Earth, no more life to live, simply because they decided life wasn’t worth it. Granted, not all suicide stems from mental illnesses, but a great deal of it does. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 worldwide. That is tragically incredible. For such a young age range, for so many people to be convinced that life isn’t worth living, even with so much life laid out in front of them…it’s heartbreaking.

just cancer

Oftentimes we can see the effects of physical diseases: a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy may lose his hair, or a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease may have shaking hands. For mental diseases, it’s so much harder for the unwary eye to see. A man can put on a smile, make it through a work day, and laugh with his friends, but the next morning his depression threatens to have him stay in bed all day. A small girl may be seen as simply shy and quiet, but in secret she wants to communicate so many things, it’s simply her autism preventing her from doing so.

For those unaware of how many ways mental illnesses can affect people, symptoms are often misunderstood. Depression is seen as being “down in the dumps.” Anorexia is seen as someone having a skinny celebrity as a role model and wanting to look like them. Anxiety is seen as being a “worrywart” or “cowardly.” There is stigma attached to mental illness because so many people are unequipped to deal with it, and, quite simply, because many people don’t realize it’s a serious, attention-worthy problem in many people’s lives.

You see, that’s just it. People don’t realize. They’re unequippedUnaware. How are we supposed to help mental illness sufferers deal with their problems if they don’t speak about them?

To start with, many individuals suffering from mental illnesses aren’t speaking about their problems not because they don’t want help, but because they don’t think they’re worth it, or fear of being judged or, all too often, not even the one suffering from the mental illness realizes it’s an actual, medical problem. We live in an era where more and more light is being brought to mental illnesses every day, and as a result, more of society is becoming aware of the debilitating effect these “invisible” diseases have on people’s lives. But, as a worldwide community, we aren’t quite where we need to be yet.

To be turned against by your own body is a terrible thing. To be turned against by your own mind is just as bad. This is why I write on these topics. These dark, depressing, and oftentimes uncomfortable topics are real things that real people deal with, on a daily basis. The uncomfortable conversations are the ones we need to be having, if we’re to get anywhere in making those affected by mental illnesses have lives not plagued by uncertainty.

The next time someone entrusts in you that they suffer from any sort of mental illness, don’t think about how they may not be in any significant physical pain. Instead, remember that they’re in mental pain, whether it be self-loathing, anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss…they deal with this on a daily basis. But do not let this change your opinion of them for the worse. Instead, respect them for having the strength and fortitude to deal with whatever their mind heaps upon them. Understand that you will never fully understand the way their mind works, but have compassion for them regardless. And, most importantly, love them for who they are, not for whoever their illness is so desperately trying to make them be. Do this simple thing, and the world is one step closer to combating mental illness.

not okay

Stay strong.

– Ryan

 

I think I’m a mean person, and it’s incredibly discouraging

Hoo, boy, this one’s gonna be a doozy…

I’ve said many times over that I believe in the inherent good of all people, myself included. Regardless of our individual approaches, we’re all working towards some sort of happiness. It’s a whole ‘nother conversation about what methods are “acceptable” and whatnot, but I digress…

Inherently, I’m good, like I believe everyone on this earth is. As I’ve gone through these past few weeks, though, I’ve gotten to wondering: “is my inherent good making me outwardly good?” I’ve had proof the last few weeks to argue against that point. And I hate it. I’m sorry, but I do. There’s no getting around that fact.

I have clinical depression and anxiety, which means my mind and the conclusions it comes to are a bit different from those people who don’t have either illness. Long ago I accepted the fact that these mental illnesses will not only change the way I view myself, but also change the way I view others and their actions and words towards me. I dwell on things, I take things personally, I analyze every little detail of every little action, and, nine times out of 10, I come to bad conclusions. Whether they’re simply flawed in logic or straight-up insane conclusions to jump to, my mind tells me to, regardless.

So, in response to these terrible things my mind is telling me might happen, or in response to things I take personally and then WAY out of proportion, my wonky mind, despite being the reason I reached these conclusions in the first place, tries to pat me on the back and say “Don’t worry, Ryan, I’ll help you deal with this!”

“No!” my logical mind says. “Absolutely not, your ridiculous overthinking and fear-mongering is what got me to this mental state in the first place! I’ll deal with this logically, calmly, and with a level-head.”

Then my emotionally-overridden mind takes over. It pins me to a wall with nails. “I don’t think so, logic. We’re dealing with this MY way. Over-emotionally, overthinking, fearfully dealing with it.” And so it begins.

I’m mean to people.

I snap at them, I ignore them out of spite, I assume every little action is something in spite against me, I try to make my problems their problems, I scowl at them behind their backs, cut and dry, I’m a straight-up jerk to them, all to cope with my own messed-up way of thinking. So, I suppose that makes me selfish, as well. Great.

I won’t hide behind my depression and anxiety for all of this here – maybe this is just part of my personality, as well. I’d like to think not, because before either one of these illnesses manifested itself in me, I was actually a very pleasant person to be around. Regardless, even if I can attribute all of my “meanness” to my depression and anxiety, that isn’t an excuse.

I’m being 100% honest when I say it feels like these illnesses are pinning me against a wall with nails, telling my to deal with personal problems in unsavory ways. There are things I could do to deal with that, but even if there weren’t, what does it matter? I can certainly talk the talk –  I can tell you to be good to others, love yourself, understand you’re only human. But if I can’t walk the walk, what really matters, what good is it? I’ll say you should to be nice to an individual, and maybe the next day I go and snap at someone else for something that isn’t even their fault. I’ll say you should always be accepting of someone regardless of personal differences, but then later on put down someone’s viewpoint simply because it doesn’t line up with my own.

My point is this – I don’t think I’m a nice person. I can spout nice things left and right, and I can passionately believe them in my head and heart, but if I can’t apply what I “passionately believe” to my actions and attitude towards others, what good is it? It isn’t any good, I’ve found.

Maybe I’m inherently good. But I’m not good. I’m not sure I can convince myself otherwise.

– Ryan

 

Clinical Depression, broken down

Depression is known for its unfortunate ability to “override” any good thought that decides to come our way. Even if there is evidence in our lives supporting the fact that we shouldn’t be having depressive thoughts, our minds still find a way to push that logic to the side. With major depression affecting so many aspects of our lives from sleeping all day, to being reclusive, to suicidal thoughts, it’s almost hard to believe that all of these symptoms stem from a simple glitch in brain chemistry.

Unlike some mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s Disease, clinical depression affects multiple areas of the brain as opposed to just one. In a nutshell, depression stems from abnormalities in the interactions between hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, such as the ones controlling serotonin and dopamine regulation. In order to understand why brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are important in the diagnosis of clinical depression, it’s important to understand what they actually do.

Serotonin is thought to regulate sleep, pain sensitivity, sexual function, and appetite. Looking at some of the symptoms of depression, including sleeping for long periods of time (or not at all), overeating, or loss of ability to perform sexually, it’s no surprise that serotonin plays a big role in regulating depression. However, depression symptoms are not caused by a serotonin deficiency, but rather by the neurotransmitters in the brain being hypo responsive (under-responsive) to the serotonin provided to them.

Dopamine is known as being the “happy” chemical. It’s responsible for regulating motor function, reward and motivation centers, memory, and attention. Even more symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, loss of interest in things that once excited you, and a feeling of sluggishness. On the flipside of serotonin receptors, the neurotransmitters responsible for receiving dopamine are hyper responsive, basically overreacting to stress and fear stimuli.

neurotransmitters depressionThese hypo and hyper reactive receptors can be caused by a multitude of reasons, from excess stress to overeating. While genetics can certainly play a role in the risk of developing depression, it’s only about half that of the risk stemming from individual lifestyle factors. Of course, depression can stem from a combination of the two as well.

anatomy of depressionThis is another fact that makes clinical depression unique among many illnesses. While many diseases are purely genetic (you have to be born with the right makeup of genes, chemicals, etc.), depression affects us physiologically even if we aren’t born with it. Regardless of the cause, chemicals in the brain are put all out of whack.

So…why does any of this even matter? If you’re sad, you’re sad, who cares about the brain chemistry, right? It matters, because understanding the brain chemistry has played a big part in recent years in our understanding and treatment of depression. If you were to go back in time 50 years and tell someone that you’re depressed, chances are you’d get a response somewhere along the lines of “you’ll get over it soon.” 50 years ago, most people weren’t worried about the causes of depression, simply because most people weren’t worried about depression. Depression has been “diagnosed” in many individuals since the time of Mesopotamia (its original name is melancholia), but understanding it as an actual medical problem didn’t come until much later. If an individual was feeling depressed, it was considered nothing more than “being in a funk.” Everyone feels sad sometimes, why should we pay any more attention to people who feel sad a bit more often? Now, knowing what we know about brain chemistry and physiology, we’ve finally come to the realization that depression is an actual, medical problem, and it is worthy of our time and attention. Through our new understanding, we are more equipped than ever to deal with it.

depression wheel
A small correction to this graph: under Situations, as aforementioned, a bullet point should say “genetics.”

For me, nothing says it better: “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” Flaw is such a key word here, as depression has the ability to make anybody dealing with it feel like a flaw of life. I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m sad, I’m flawed. No, you are not flawed. You are as much of a person as anyone else, worthy of feeling happiness, joy, and love; a slight mix-up of brain chemicals doesn’t change that simple (yet irrefutable) fact.

We live in a time where we’re lucky enough to have, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of clinical depression and its causes. By understanding the root of depression, we’re that much closer to finding a way to cut the stem before it sprouts. If we do nothing with the information we’ve learned, combating depression (and mental health in general) will be at a standstill for far too long. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I feel a responsibility to use what power I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Stay strong.

– Ryan