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

 

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

Some words of encouragement

I want you to know that you’re worth something.

I want you to realize that, whatever problems you may be dealing with, you are never alone.

I want you to understand that people, even those you may not realize or talk to every day, are here for you.

I want you to know that whatever may have happened yesterday, last month, last year, last decade, doesn’t affect how wonderful you can make the future.

I want you to realize that you can overcome anything that comes your way, no matter who or what tells you otherwise, including your own mind.

need you to understand that there are good people in this world, around every corner, who won’t judge you, or abuse you, or put you in a place you have no desire to be in.

need you to understand that you are stronger than any self-deprecating thought that crosses your mind.

I want you to know that I know being strong isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

I want you to know that no outside opinion of you matters, only the light you view yourself in.

need you to know that people care. I need you to know that I care. He cares. She cares. They care.

I want you to know that there are people out there who, when they look at you, see the sun.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Take care of yourself – first.

Growing up, a majority of us are taught to always put others before ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing – this mindset has the tendency to not only teach us compassion, but see it received firsthand. We’re told to treat others the way we want to be treated, and that our experiences with others will go towards shaping ourselves as individuals. In my opinion this is most certainly true – human beings are infinitely shaped by contact with other human beings (among many other things). The intent of putting others first is a great one, as it promotes compassion, acceptance, and patience. But is there a point where this becomes too much?

As crude as it may be to compare human beings to machines, hear me out for a moment: our bodies and minds are much like them. A machine for, let’s say, manufacturing, exists to manufacture goods. As such, it puts all of its energy into pumping out these products, as long as it receives some sort of energy from another source. Electricity, water, wind, etc. These pieces of metal, which are designed specifically to pour their energy into these tasks, still need that energy from somewhere. So, everything else aside, let’s say humans are “compassion machines.” Put aside your personal beliefs for a moment and pretend that humans are specifically meant to pour out compassion unto others. These “compassion machines” put every ounce of their energy into being kind to others, being selfless, being patient, and every other way of “being good” to others. However, if they don’t receive energy from elsewhere, as an actual machine does, it crashes and burns. It overheats, it smokes, it starts sleeping all day, it might start throwing back a few beers each night to help it forget…not only are humans much more complicated than machines, humans deal with their problems in many different ways than machines.

Being good to others is good. It’s great, it’s fantastic, it’s what we should all strive for each and every day we’re on this earth. But in order to do this effectively, we need to step back and realize that we aren’t some sort of “infinite-power” machine. We need rest and recuperation, we need to hit the power button at the end of the night. Plug in and recharge, however you feel it best to do that (it goes without saying that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of recharging, but that’s a different subject entirely).

Here’s the part that will make me sound selfish: make sure you’re happy before you start making sure others are happy. Again, I can’t stress enough how important I believe it is to be selfless and compassionate – but only where it’s reasonable. As admirable as it is to throw all of your energy into being good to others, if you don’t have any energy left to make sure you’re happy, it’s a lose-lose situation: you’re burnt out because you spend all your time on others’ wants and desires, and the people you’re trying so desperately to make happy often notice your weariness, and this could have the exact opposite effect of what you intended.

I’m not telling you to cut in line, eat the last cookie, or lie to your parents to get out of trouble. I’m not telling you to be selfish. I’m just telling you that you don’t always have to be selfless. We are all equals in this world – no one person deserves to feel more or less happy than another – and that includes you.

Being selfish is rude, hurtful, and discouraging, but always being selfless is simply unhealthy.

Stay strong

– Ryan

A Perverse Jealousy

Jealousy is such a powerful emotion. Whether talking about it in the sense of the Christian faith or not, it isn’t hard to see why it’s considered a sin. Personally, in times where I find myself jealous, it overtakes me in a way very few other emotions do. It clouds my judgement – I find my decision-making revolving around what I can do to achieve that goal that I’m envious of. There’s a fine line between jealousy and determination, and for me that gap is bridged when I find myself having negative feelings towards others who have achieved that goal. If I ever find myself thinking lesser of a person because they have something I do not, that’s my cue to take a step back and look at the situation from a level head.

Not that that’s always easy. In fact, it rarely is – it takes such dedication to this way of thinking that a whole form of therapy has risen up around it (mindfulness). It’s made especially hard on the occasions where the person you’re jealous of brings up their achievement or property like it’s nothing. “You bring this up so nonchalantly, but do you realize what I would do to have what you have? Achieve what you’ve achieved? Do you even realize how much of a standard I hold myself to based on what you have?”

Like so many other facets of life, for some reasons our brains often tell us that it’s easier to get bitter over these things, than it is to simply be grateful for another’s accomplishments. Scowl over smile, bitterness over contentment. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is, but there are a thousand different answers from a thousand different cultures, religions, and psychologists. Perhaps it stems from the competitive mindset of first-world countries, or maybe when Adam and Eve bit into the apple of knowledge, human sin came pre-packaged with jealousy.

I could go into the whole “this isn’t the right way to think,” and “comparison with others only leads to bad things” tangent, but I already have in some of my past posts. Make no mistake, I still very much believe in what I’ve said on that topic: comparison does only lead to destructive habits. To be the best us we can be, we needn’t hold ourselves to the standards of others. But I can talk and talk about why this isn’t the healthiest way of thinking, spouting factoids and studies supporting this hypothesis, but the fact of the matter is this: factoids and studies very rarely help us actually deal with these things. Comparison. Jealousy. Bitterness. Whilst it’s certainly important to understand why these feelings come about, in my opinion (and it’s just that), the world would be a better place if we actually focused on how to deal with these problems as opposed to just explaining their origins.

I’ve found myself getting overly jealous and bitter the past couple of weeks. I find myself around this entirely pleasant, enjoyable person, who has nothing but kind things to say to me. nine times out of 10, I find myself being pleasant back, but recently my depression has begun to take over and, instead of exchanging pleasantries both ways, the kindness seems to become one-sided. This individual will be kind to me, and I’m indifferent towards them. I’m passive-aggressively resentful, bitter, and simply angry. All of those negative emotions, simply because my mind tells me it’s somehow easier to resent this perfectly nice person for what they have, rather than be happy for them and realize everybody has different things at different times, as is life.

As I mentioned before, this jealousy overtakes me. I find my mind so occupied with this incredibly useless emotion that it’s difficult for me to think about much else. I’ve heard of some individuals using jealousy as a type of drive – motivation to get to a better place in their lives where they’re more content. As I feel jealousy coursing its way through me, however, I find it incredibly hard to think that some people could use this to motivate them, because for me it causes nothing but destructive thinking habits. Where one person may say, “I want what that person has, so I’m going to use this jealousy of them to push myself harder,” I generally say, “I want what that person has, but I’m not skilled or charming or innovative enough, otherwise I would have it by now.” You don’t need to tell me there are about 17 logical inconsistencies with this way of thinking – believe me, I know. But depression often overrides logic.

So, for those like me, where jealousy doesn’t motivate you, but instead breaks you, what do you do? What is the best way to deal with this poisonous mindset? Simply put, I don’t know. I practice mindfulness, and that helps to an extent, but I’m by no means a master at the craft – it takes months upon months of practice and dedication (it makes sense, though, you’re literally training your brain to subscribe to an entirely new way of thinking). For what good it does, there is one thing in particular I’ve been trying to tell myself in moments of jealousy:

Each and every person is unique. No two people accomplish the same things at the same time in the same way under the same circumstances. We all have different walks through life, regardless of how similar our circumstances may seem at first glance. In fact, I’m willing to bet someone in your own life is looking at you and saying “I wish I had that,” just as you may be with others. Do not take pride in this, but instead use it as a reminder that nobody is ever perfectly content with life – we all fall prey to wishing we have more than we already do. You aren’t alone in this.

How do you deal with jealousy? Do you have certain coping methods that help pull you through? I’d love to hear what you have to say, so comment or shoot me an email and I’d love to converse with you! All the best to you in whatever struggles you may face.

Stay strong.

  • Ryan

“Why are you so sad?”

Spoiler alert: I’m depressed, and probably for no reason.

One seemingly surefire way of determining whether or not someone suffers from depression is to figure out the root of the depressive thoughts. While depression can most certainly be amplified in times of distress, very rarely does it come about solely from outside factors, like events or people. So, if you’re a psychiatrist who has someone walk up to you and say, “My wife of 17 years left me,” or “I didn’t get the position I interviewed for that I really wanted,” they’re probably down in the dumps (understandably). However, if they follow that up with, “I think I have depression,” that’s where the scrutiny comes in.

Again, when bad things happen, we oftentimes feel bad. It’s simply human nature to react accordingly to things that happen to or around us. But clinical depression doesn’t rely on outside events to rear its ugly head – it’s going to make itself known at even good points in your life.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was having a decent week, and that wasn’t a lie. It still isn’t – nothing traumatic or ridiculously bad has happened to me lately. But this past week, my depression has been overwhelming me to no end. I’m mopey, I’m pushy, I’m antisocial and bitter and honestly, straight up pissed sometimes. What am I pissed at? Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s just some seething rage permeating a hundred of my thoughts, but for no reason.

I was raised to never say “I hate [this],” unless I truly meant it. To this day, I still scarcely use the phrase, but I can say with full certainty that I hate this. I hate feeling this way, I hate that other people also feel this way, I hate that depressive thinking is brought on by absolutely nothing at all, with next to no warning signs as to when it’s going to strike.

I understand what it’s like when other people suffer from this, so I try to encourage people in their own battles against depression where and when I can. But even so, there are times when I break, and discouragement clouds my every thought.

I feel like breaking. And I feel like breaking only because my depression says I should, regardless of who’s out there looking out for me.

Try and stay strong.

  • Ryan

P.S. I know this post was a massive downer, and I’m sorry for that, it’s just that….bleeerrrggh. -_-

Depression and Friendship

“It’s hard to be a friend to someone who is depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry

There’s something to be said about being an introverted, depressed, overly-anxious individual, but still having those friends who can relate so intensely with your struggles. When you have a brain that works every day to convince itself it’s so messed up, so incredibly beyond repair, having friends who can still talk you back from the brink seems like a miracle of nature.

I bring this up for a reason. It’s easy for me to say “I’ve had a bad past few days,” and then go into details about why woe is me. But the truth is, my past few days really haven’t been terrible at all – it’s just my mind that’s trying to tell me that. Objectively, I haven’t experienced any terrible days at work, nobody has been particularly cruel or indifferent towards me…this week has been alright. But again, objectively.

Depression, which has the unfortunate ability to turn spilled milk into a flood, will over-analyze every little part of the few “bad” parts of my day, and stretch them out to last for far longer than they should. Something happened during the morning that has put me in a bad way? You can bet I’ll be dwelling on it most of the day, regardless of whether that thing is over and done with or not. As such, despite having an okay week by most peoples’ standards, my mind is telling me to be depressed.

So, my mind is in tumble-dry mode, flipping things over again and again, making sure every speck of every slightly upsetting situation has been thoroughly analyzed (and then some). There seem to be very few things that can get my mind out of this cycle, but as I’ve been reminded the past few days, good friends are one of them.

For the longest time, I was so convinced that “talking it out” was a cheesy, unhelpful way of getting through tough times. I can spill my problems to you, sure, but you don’t understand the way my mind works. I can’t just “explain” to you the way my mind goes from Point A to Point B, because there isn’t any logic behind it. It just happens. If you can’t understand where I’m coming from with these internal struggles, how can you possibly help me overcome them?

Over time, I’ve realized that there were two big flaws with this way of thinking. First, there are people who feel the way I do. No matter how I may feel on crappy days, there are millions, I repeat, millions of others out there who suffer from this depressive thinking each day, just like I do. Unfortunately, depression isn’t a rare diagnosis: over 350 million people suffer from it worldwide, I’m just one in 7 zeroes. These numbers don’t make my (or your) struggles any less real or undeserving of acknowledgement, it just shows that there are others who have minds that work incredibly similar to mine (and yours).

Second, understanding isn’t necessary for compassion towards others. The person I consider my best friend doesn’t suffer from depression. She isn’t overly anxious or prone to self-deprecation, she is, in a mental way, unhindered. But she gets me. She can calm me down and talk me out of my harmful mindsets better than almost anybody else I know. She understands that she will never be able to fully understand me, and that’s a helpful observation for the both of us. She knows that she won’t understand why my mind tells me the things it does, and I know that, despite my inability to be oftentimes understood, there are people out there who make an attempt to be good to me anyway. Simply put, it’s a blessing.

At the risk of getting all Disney-esque here, friendships were something I often took for granted in the past. I told myself that everyone has friends, it’s just a common thing. Even when I finish high school and college, I’ll still have friends, so there’s no need to particularly cherish them right now. But as my depression manifested and left me mentally secluded, I had friends who tried to help me, to break down the walls of my depression-addled mind and understand me to the best of their ability. By the time I realized this fact, I was too late. Many of the friends who tried to be friends to me simply gave up, because I wasn’t reciprocating. I was going through the motions of a bare-minimum friendship, but I wasn’t particularly working to keep it enjoyable. I lost so many friends as a result.

But I’m older now, hopefully wiser (or as wise as a 23-year old can be), and I understand more about my mental illnesses, and I’m grateful to live in an era where light is being shed on mental illnesses more so than the past. Despite my depression, friendship is still a two-way street. If I have friends who are willing to look past my mental health and accept and even cherish me for who I am, then the very least I can do is be there for them as they are for me. Mental illnesses or not, we all have problems. The world is a better place when we are there for each other, even when understanding evades us.

So, on this particular subject, I’m a convert. I like talking with friends. It does wonders for me – it gives me a chance to temporarily drown out the hurtful voices in my own head, and even later on, those voices are a little less convincing. Whether it’s having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a co-worker about something serious, or sharing some laughs over breakfast with wonderful people as I did this morning, compassion in the face of adversity is a force to be reckoned with.

Humans are, by nature, social creatures. We need food, water and shelter to survive, but we need interaction with others to live. We aren’t meant to carry our burdens alone. There’s a reason solitary confinement is for the nastiest of prison inmates – seclusion cripples us. Depression or no, we need others, and others need us.

Stay strong.

  • Ryan