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

“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. -_-

My anxiety makes me depressed; my depression makes me anxious

Depression and anxiety are quite often a package deal. Those unlucky enough to have one are arguably more prone to experience the other. As I go through the days, I find that I slip into a routine, one which is the bare bones of many aspects of my daily life. For example, I’ll get out of bed at the latest possible time to ensure I make it to work on time. Sure, I’m where I need to be when I need to be there, but not the best scenario to repeat over and over. Recently I’ve started beating myself up for this, not only because I fear how others will view this, but how I view myself. Individuals who have depression are often viewed by those who don’t understand the illness as being lazy. As one of those individuals with depression, I can assure you that 99 times out of 100 this isn’t the case. Depression can eat away at your mind, causing you to attribute negativity to nearly everything life throws at you. Staying in bed for half of the day is not a sign of laziness, it’s a coping mechanism.

With that in mind, I started thinking about why I fell into this “bare-bones” routine so often, and I’ve found that it’s a vicious cycle. I’ll get up at the last possible minute, and be rushing to make it to work on time, causing my anxiety to peak. If something small isn’t how it’s supposed to be, such as my car not starting or a road detour, my routine doesn’t leave much (or really any) wiggle room. So, I’ll get to work, mind already roiling from the anxiety just leading up to it. Work is generally fine; I enjoy what I do, but it is still a job, which comes with anxieties of its own. I’ll get home later that night (I generally work into the evenings) and that is where my anxiety tends to lessen. I don’t have any more responsibilities for that day – this is my chance to take a load off and relax.

So, I’ll occupy myself for an hour. And another hour. As time passes, my mind will turn to tomorrow, and with it, all the stresses and responsibilities it brings. In response, I’ll ask myself what I can do to combat these anxious thoughts. Predictably, my answer is to occupy my mind enough that I block these thoughts out, so, in short, anything but going to bed. If I were to try lying down, my mind would be so frantic I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep anyway. So, I occupy myself even more, and by the time I do make it to bed, it’s ridiculously late. I’ve figured out that, however illogical it may seem, my answer to the anxieties of tomorrow is to make it so that tomorrow doesn’t come until the last minute. Obviously, I don’t have the power to slow down time, but the longer I stay awake in this situation where I have no responsibilities, the less time I’ll have to worry about the time where I do have responsibilities. Going to bed so late causes me to sleep in later than I probably should, and the cycle begins anew. As days pass with this same routine, I fall prey to my depression, with it telling me that this is happening because I am lazy. I am incompetent. I can look at this from a logical perspective and tell myself this isn’t true, but whenever depression takes control, negativity reigns supreme.

In short, what I’m trying to get across is that depression and anxiety work in tandem with one another. Thoughts of one nature often carve a path for the other. As these habits often fall into a cycle, combatting them seems especially hard. As I’ve just related, I’m currently struggling with these things myself, so I can’t give any surefire methods for dealing with this. I can only give my best suggestion, one that I’m going to start trying, and that’s practicing mindfulness.

For those unaware of the concept, mindfulness is looking at thoughts as just that, thoughts. There are no happy thoughts, sad thoughts, anxious thoughts, etc. There are only thoughts that we should view through an unbiased lens. This is not to say we ignore these thoughts, that would create more problems than it solves. We merely observe them without any emotion attached to them. Mindfulness certainly doesn’t say that emotion is not there (or important, for that matter), but as many with depression know, viewing everything that crosses your mind through an emotional lens only leads to attributing negativity to it all. Observing our thoughts and the actions of others through an unbiased lens allows us to apply logic more readily than if we were worried, or guilty, or whatever emotion we attribute to the thought. By looking at events with more logic than emotion, we take away our tendency to worry about events, past, present, and future.

Mindfulness, much like deep breathing techniques and yoga, is something that improves only with practice. Emotion is such an integral part of our thought processes, so when we have a technique that initially takes that away, it certainly takes some getting used to. Again, this method doesn’t ask you to throw emotion away, it simply requests you put it to the side, only pulling it back if it’s immediately needed to deal with the situation (which many times it isn’t). There are many resources for practicing mindfulness, and it is a growing study among many psychological health professionals.

It’s something that I’ve heard has worked for many people, and for a few months it was something I practiced as well. As happens all too often with me, however, I fell out of practice. With luck, it will help me deal with my bare-bones routine. Looking at the next day logically instead of emotionally in the evenings should allow me to go to sleep earlier, thus allowing me to get up earlier and face the day. Mindfulness was created with the concept of living in the moment, as opposed to worrying about past or future events which we cannot change. We can change our right now, however, and mindfulness tries to help ensure we have the mental and emotional capability to do that.

 

  • Ryan

Understanding people with depression and/or anxiety

Interacting with a person with depression and/or anxiety can be a large beast to tackle. A lack of understanding for what some people go through is common in our society. Hopefully this post can help a bit.

For people who have no history or experiences with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, understanding how to approach individuals with these ways of thinking can be difficult. For some who grew up in a family where depression and anxiety have been passed down for a few generations, it can be easier. Having people around you, whether they be family or friends, who know and can relate to how your mind works can be a great support. However, not everyone has this luxury.

What about people who have no idea how depression affects the mind? People who don’t understand why people suffering from anxiety worry about seemingly the most miniscule things? Although it may not seem like a big deal, interacting with sufferers of these mental illnesses in a way that doesn’t escalate their feelings of depression or anxiety can make the receiver’s life a whole lot easier.

So how can those of us who have mental health issues help those who don’t? The logical first step would be to simply say that our minds don’t work the same way yours do on a daily basis. With no desire on our part, our minds can turn the tiniest molehill into a mountain, without any “logical” explanation. Whether that be beating ourselves up mentally for something that happened three years ago or worrying about something that, frankly, probably doesn’t need to really be worried about, our minds will make it so we do. I cannot stress enough that this is from no choice of our own. 9/10ths of it is simply brain chemistry. If you’re interested, it’s incredibly easy to find articles and pictures online of the differences between a “normal” brain and a brain with mental illnesses affecting it. So, from the science-y side of things, the chemicals in our brains are all out of whack. Whoops.

On a more personal level, we know we’re this way. We know we shouldn’t worry about Thing A. or beat ourselves up for Thing B. But we do it anyway. I’m certain I speak for nearly all of us suffering from these mental illnesses when I say: if we could snap our fingers and make this affliction evaporate into thin air, we’d do it. But alas, is life ever that simple? (Spoiler alert: no). We’re aware that all logic tells us not to dwell on these inane things, but we do anyway.

I could give you a list of advice for dealing with sufferers of these illnesses, but I won’t do that. There are some fantastic bloggers on here that have created comprehensive, thought-out lists on that subject, and I’ve no wish to usurp them. I’d just like to add my two cents to the conversation.

The best, and I mean best thing anyone can do for someone like me is make an effort to understand where they’re coming from. I know you aren’t going to get all of the anatomy and psyiology behind it – nobody should expect you to. Just remember that sometimes, even when it’s the most inconvienient time, our minds will take everything out of proportion. Whether it’s worrying, panicking, crying, reclusiveness…it’s all fair game.

If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: understand that you’ll never be able to fully understand us. Hell, sometimes we don’t fully understand us. But we begin to recover when we understand that not everything can be whittled down to logic and brain chemistry, and we only ask that you do the same. If we somehow get on your last nerve with our actions or words, I apologize for all of us. Trying to attribute everything a depression/anxiety-riddled mind does to logic is a lost cause. We’re imperfect, we know that. But so is everyone. Accept us for our odd tendencies, and we’ll accept you for yours.

– Ryan

Everything is terrible and I’m a failure

Except not really.

And now, please rise for an announcement from the King of Overreacting:

Hoo, what a week. From working constantly to my anxiety levels rising to almost being kicked out of my house, it’s been a rollercoaster, to be sure. Everybody has their initial reactions to things, both good and bad, and oftentimes those reactions can be rather…intense. I think of all of these adjectives that people can use to describe how they felt about something particularly extraordinary: OVERwhelming, OVERjoyed, UNdeserving, UNDERappreciated…and it got me thinking. What defines something as being overwhelming and not…well, whelming? What about feeling joy versus feeling OVERjoyed? What line does an individual have to cross before their feelings on a particular event are considered stronger than the societal norm?

For me, it isn’t just about the intensity of our feelings, but how long we dwell on them. You can be excited about going to see a movie with somebody, and no matter how damn good that movie was, I doubt you’d still be reeling with excitement about it a week later. You can do better than anyone else in your class on a test or exam, but you won’t be in utter bliss for the next month. Many people’s minds consider the “alloted amount” of excitement for something good, and once that alloted time is up, you’re brought back down to earth. “You did great on a test, good for you. Yes, by all means, feel your excitement, your pride, your worth. But once you’ve done that, don’t forget you have more life to deal with!” your mind says.

So very rarely do we dwell on the good things in our life, our blessings and accomplishments. So mind, I entreat you to tell me, why must the things we dwell on be our failures? Our slip-ups, what we should or shouldn’t have said, why we feel like trash? Let us have our moment of glory for our accomplishments, but the minute we make a mistake, thrust every possible negative emotion our way like a tidal wave of despair, suffocating us for weeks, or even months, at a time? How is that fair?

The simple answer, as I’m sure many of you know, is that it isn’t fair. Flashback to our somewhat oblivious family member or mentor, reminding you that “life ain’t fair, deal with it and move on.” Well, that person isn’t wrong. I saw a movie a while back (it’s on Netflix if you’re interested, a little cheesy but still entertaining) called ‘Keith.’ This isn’t an exact quote, but one of the main characters said something along the lines of “shitty things happen to good people.” And yeah, that’s true. Shitty things happen to everyone. It’s just that those of us with depression are much more likely to beat ourselves up for those things than the average Jill or Joe.

So what happens when that tidal wave of despair drags us under its dark waves? It gets in our eyes, our mouth, our ears, and it washes through you, affecting your being as a whole until it washes out of our system. Funny thing is, for those suffering with depression, it works in tandem with that despair. It opens up areas of our brain that the despair might not have even touched if not for depression’s help. “So that person said one thing to you that could be taken as slightly offensive? Well, depression here to tell you that it probably means that that person hates you. Maybe what that person said isn’t even true, but even so, your opinion isn’t worth anything, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Yeah, they hate you, and probably for good reason. Hey, what are you even doing with your life? Maybe if you weren’t sitting on your ass all day moping you’d be somewhere actually worthwhile? Oh, who am I kidding. You aren’t important enough to be worth anything.”

Did it suck to read that? Yeah, it sucked to type it. The amount of times my own mind has told me something very similar to that is too many (and too depressing) to count. Whether the thing you’re worrying about is a mountain or a molehill, your depression will tell you that it’s Everest each time. “You won’t make it to the top, hell, you’ll probably die along the side, forgotten and a failure.”

Well, King of Overreacting here to tell you that your depression isn’t right. It’s sick, it’s twisted, it’s a plague, but you are more than that. You are a human life. You live in a world where miracles happen everyday. For as long as humanity has existed, there have been those who are overwhelmed just by the lies their mental illness tells them. But we’re still here. People are still here. We make it through, and you will make it through.

That tidal wave is mighty hard to stop, I know. Nearly impossible. But to echo one of the most overused inspirational quotes out there: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It may not feel like it at first, I know. You may emerge from that tidal wave, only to come up gasping for air, limbs shaken, mind rattled, coughing up water for hours. But you’ll know better how to shield yourself against it next time. It may take many, many tries, and you may not always know how to resist it, but that’s why other people are here trying to help. Psychiatrists, therapists, family members, friends, significant others…they can help you build a wall to block that wave as best you can. And, in the process, you may very well be helping someone else build their wall without even realizing it.

There are tools out there. In my last post, I mentioned “finding your comfort,” something that, no matter how influential your depression may seem on you, there is something out there that is moreso. To say that it’s possible to stop these waves of despair from coming in completely would be to give people false hope. Unless you find a way to shut off your emotions completely (and I wouldn’t wish that on the worst of my enemies), despair will exist. Sadness and anger and guilt will exist. But you can weather the storm. I swear to you, on everything I hold dear, you can weather the storm. Be a foundation, telling your depression that you won’t let it linger. Life moves on no matter what happens, good or bad. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and make it to the next hurdle. Even if you’re limping, people can support you. Pets are wonders at that as well. (In my opinion, there’s almost nothing better than having a terrible, no good, very bad day, only to come home to a dog who is ecstatic to see you no matter what your mind tries to throw down on you.)
I’m a stranger to many of you, but if I can help you build that foundation to weather the storm, to resist the tidal wave of despair, I entreat you, please, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m no therapist. I haven’t spent my life studying mental illness and how to treat it. But I live it. Like you, I struggle, every day, wrestling with my illness that tells me it has control over my life. It doesn’t, and if I can help show you that in any way, I’d do so without a moment’s hesitation. 

Stay strong, because whether you realize it or not, you are strong.

– Ryan