Racism’s Emotional Toll on Student Minds

Our screens and feeds are filled with news and images of black Americans dying or being brutalized. A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon MartinTamir RiceWalter ScottEric GarnerRenisha McBride. The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Tex., had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable. A few days ago, a friend sent a text message that read, “I’m honestly terrified this will happen to us or someone we know.” Twitter and Facebook are teeming with anguish, and within my own social network (which admittedly consists largely of writers, academics and activists), I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events. A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America.

It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the research of Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. Several years ago, Williams treated a “high-functioning patient, with two master’s degrees and a job at a company that anyone would recognize.” The woman, who was African-American, had been devastated by racial harassment by a director within her company. Williams recalls being stunned by how drastically her patient’s condition deteriorated as a result of the treatment. “She completely withdrew and was suffering from extreme emotional anxiety,” she told me. “And that’s what made me say, ‘Wow, we have to focus on this.’ ”

In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that “much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color.” Williams now studies the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is known as race-based traumatic stress injury, or the emotional distress a person may feel after encountering racial harassment or hostility. Although much of Williams’s work focuses on individuals who have been directly targeted by racial discrimination or aggression, she says race-based stress reactions can be triggered by events that are experienced vicariously, or externally, through a third party — like social media or national news events. She argues that racism should be included as a cause of PTSD in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).

Williams is in the process of opening a clinical program that will exclusively treat race-based stress and trauma, in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville. Shortly after the Charleston shooting, I called Williams to discuss her work; what follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

What is race-based stress and trauma?

It’s a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis. I would argue that it is pathological, which means it is a disorder that we can assess and treat. To me, that means these are symptoms that are a diagnosable disorder that require a clinical intervention. It goes largely unrecognized in most people, and that’s based on my experience as a clinician.

What are the symptoms?

Depression, intrusion (the inability to get the thoughts about what happened out of one’s mind), vigilance (an inability to sleep, out of fear of danger), anger, loss of appetite, apathy and avoidance symptoms and emotional numbing. My training and study has been on post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time, and the two look very much alike.

Over the weekend, I received several distressing emails and texts from friends who were suffering from feelings of anxiety and depression. Do you think we should all be in treatment?

I think everyone could benefit from psychotherapy, but I think just talking to someone and processing the feelings can be very effective. It doesn’t have to be with a therapist; it could be with a pastor, family, friends and people who understand it and aren’t going to make it worse by telling you to stop complaining.

What do you think about the #selfcare hashtags on social media and the role of “Black Twitter” as resources for people who may not have the resources they need to help process this? Are online interactions like that more meaningful than they initially might seem?

Online communities such as VitalStudentMinds.com — can be a great source of support, of course — with the caveat that even just one hater can be stressful for everyone, and that’s the danger of it. But if you don’t have a friend or a family member, just find someone who is sensitive and understanding and can deal with racial issues.

In our initial email about the ripple effects of the murders in Charleston, you used the phrase “vicarious trauma.” What does that mean?

Because the African-American community has such a long history of pervasive discrimination, something that impacts someone many miles away can sometimes impact all of us. That’s what I mean by vicarious traumatization.

Is racial trauma widely recognized as a legitimate disorder?

The trauma of events like this is not formally recognized in the D.S.M. It talks about different types of trauma and stress-related ailments, but it doesn’t say that race trauma can be a factor or a trigger for these problems. Psychiatrists, unless they’ve had some training or personal experience with this, are not going to know to look for it and aren’t going to understand it when they see it. In order for it to be recognized, we have to get a good body of scientific research, a lot of publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Right now, there’s only been a few. And we need to produce more.

On your blog, you chronicled the experience of a woman who encounters a therapist who dismisses her fears about racism. Is one barrier to treatment getting the medical community to acknowledge that racism exists?

Yes. A lot of people in the medical community live very privileged lives, so racism isn’t a reality to them. When someone comes in and talks to them, it might sound like a fairy tale, rather than a real daily struggle that people are dealing with. Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates. It could be that clinicians don’t know how to address their problems, or they may even be saying things that are subtly racist that may drive their clients away. If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.

Is there a recommended model for treatment?

We have great treatments that are empirically supported for trauma, but the racial piece hasn’t really been studied very well. That’s no easy task, because when we write these articles, they go to journals, where an editor looks at it and decides if it’s worthy and applicable to go in the journal. And then it goes to reviewers who decide if it’s a worthy and applicable topic.

Why has it taken so long to get momentum?

If you think about it, they weren’t even letting black people get Ph.D.s 30 years ago in a lot of places. Ethnic minority researchers are the ones who are carrying the torch, by and large. We’re only to the place now where we have enough researchers to do the work. And there’s so much work that needs to be done.

Checkout our handout for more information on coping with trauma. 

Poetry Addressing Racism and Black American Identity

Here’s some poetry that could also be healing for students addressing racism and Black American Identity:

 

1. A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde

So it is better to speakrememberingwe were never meant to survive

Amazon

 

 

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive

2. The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” by Gwendolyn Brooks

after the murder,

after the burial

Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;

the tint of pulled taffy.

3. Cordon Negro” by Essex Hemphill

I’m dying twice as fast

as any other American

between eighteen and thirty-five

This disturbs me,

but I try not to show it in public.

4. Where Do You Enter” by Nikki Giovanni

We begin a poemwith longingand end withresponsibilityAnd laugh all through the stormsthat are boundto come

Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

 

We begin a poem

with longing

and end with

responsibility

And laugh

all through the storms

that are bound

to come

5. Lineage” by Margaret Walker

My grandmothers are full of memories

Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay

With veins rolling roughly over quick hands

They have many clean words to say.

My grandmothers were strong.

Why am I not as they?

6. The Night Rains Hot Tar” by Lance Jeffers

The night rains hot tar into my throat,

the taste is good to my heart’s tongue,

into my heart the night pours down its moon

like a yellow molten residue of dung:

the night pours down the sea into my throat

my heart drains off its blood in love and pain:

the night pours a Negro song into my throat,

bloodred is the color of this rain:

7. Bullet Points” by Jericho Brown

I will not shoot myselfIn the head, and I will not shoot myselfIn the back, and I will not hang myselfWith a trashbag, and if I do,I promise you, I will not do it In a police car while handcuffed

Amazon / Via amazon.com

 

 

I will not shoot myself

In the head, and I will not shoot myself

In the back, and I will not hang myself

With a trashbag, and if I do,

I promise you, I will not do it

In a police car while handcuffed

8. ” A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow,

9. Black Lady Lazarus” by Diamond Sharp

Dying is an art and we Black girls do it so well.

Sandra &

Aiyana &

Rekia &

10. If It Is The Summer Of 2009” by Hanif Abdurraqib

…we revel in long enough to forget

that we are black in our 20’s which is to say that we are too old

for this shit

and by this shit I of course mean living

I of course mean that we have carried the lifeless bodies of enough younger brothers to never forget that we should be dead by now

we should have the decency to unburden America

by our dying on the side of a cracked road

11. praise song” by Nate Marshall

praise the Hennessy, the brown shine, the dull burn. praise the dare, the take it, the no face you’re supposed to make.praise the house, its many rooms,hardwood and butter leather couches;its richness. praise the rich, their friendship.praise the friends: the child of the well off,the child of the well off, the child of  well,the child of welfare, the child of welfare.

Amazon / Via amazon.com

 

praise the Hennessy, the brown

shine, the dull burn. praise

the dare, the take it, the no face

you’re supposed to make.

praise the house, its many rooms,

hardwood and butter leather couches;

its richness. praise the rich, their friendship.

praise the friends: the child of the well off,

the child of the well off, the child of  well,

the child of welfare, the child of welfare.

12. What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” by Warsan Shire

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

13. Self-Portrait In Case of Disappearance” by Safia Elhillo

girls with fathers gone or gone missing

sistered to dark boys marked to die & our own

bodies scarved & arranged in rows on prayer mats

we go missing too & who mourns us who

falls into the gap we leave in the world

14. Elegy” by Aracelis Girmay

What to do with this knowledge
that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch

of something beautiful. & it grows & grows

despite your birthdays & the death certificate,

& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful

or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out

of your house, then, believing in this.

Nothing else matters.

15. Gravity” by Angel Nafis

After Carrie Mae Weems’s ‘The Kitchen Table Series’

I. THE STRAW

Can you throw this away Maybe you should hire more Black staff
Where are you really from You’re not busy are you You look ethnic today
Where’s the African American section Can you turn the music down
Fasterfasterfaster Let me see those eyes Beautiful If you were mine
I’d never let you leave the house It’s like you went straight to Africa
to get this one Is that your hair I mean your real hair Blackass
Your gums are black You Black You stink You need a perm
I don’t mean to be
racist

16. Let Me Handle My Business, Damn” by Morgan Parker

Took me awhile to learn the good words

make the rain on my window grown

and sexy now I’m in the tub holding down

that on-sale Bordeaux pretending

to be well adjusted I am on that real

jazz shit sometimes I run the streets

sometimes they run me I’m the body

of the queen of my hood filled up

with bad wine bad drugs mu shu pork

sick beats what more can I say to you

17. Summer, Somewhere” by Danez Smith

no need for geographynow that we’re safe everywhere.point to whatever you please& call it church, home, or sweet love.paradise is a world where everythingis a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

Courtesy of danezsmithpoet.com / Via danezsmithpoet.com

 

no need for geography

now that we’re safe everywhere.

point to whatever you please

& call it church, home, or sweet love.

paradise is a world where everything

is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

How to Avoid Developing Social Anxiety When You Work From Home

You might have been enjoying the perks of working from home too much that you’re forgetting the life ‘out there’.

You’re too focused on your projects that you have a strong tendency to dismiss taking breaks and having face-to-face interactions with other people. You’re too digitally connected with your remote team but you’re falling short in nurturing actual connections with your family and friends.

Working from home every single day makes you more inclined to becoming a loner; a hard-working individual who gradually drifts away from social circles. There’s nothing really wrong with indulging in your alone time. Besides, it’s in the nature of freelancing–to do things on your own.

The only downside is that too much of this isolation can leave you lonely. Worse, it makes you more prone to developing social anxiety–the fear of interaction with other people.

People with social anxiety feel uncomfortable when stuck in a crowd. They’re afraid of being judged when they attempt to open a conversation. They struggle when trapped in a situation that requires them to socialize.

social anxiety freelancers

If working from home is slowly affecting your social skills, the only way to stop this from worsening is to go out more often and reconnect with people.

How can you avoid developing social anxiety?

Go on meet ups.

Freelancing solitude is real. So before it brings you any serious problem, find other freelancers who can help you deal with what you’re going through. It helps to know that, in this case, you were never really alone all this time.

Meet ups provide you a great chance to network, too. There could be some attendees who need help in your area of expertise. Take every chance of collaboration. It will boost not just your social skills but also your career (think: collab projects).

Start a new hobby.

Since you’re in full control of your time, you can set an hour a day to do something far different from the work that you do. It could be an activity you’ve tried before or anything you have zero knowledge of. Because the whole point of this is for you to socialize more often, find workshops in your community so you can learn with a group.

Schedule an errand.

Do you need to go to the market or take your cat to the vet? Schedule it on a weekday even if you have work to do so you have a reason to get away from your desk and take a break.

Eat out.

Go out for lunch once a week. Just because you work from home it doesn’t mean you can’t have a lunch out. Invite a friend or a family member because eating alone outside will defeat your socialization goal.

Rent a co-working space.

If you’re missing the social interaction in your old workplace, set a day out of your home office and rent a desk at a communal workspace. This shared environment gathers like-minded people, mostly creatives and soloprenuers. Be ready as you might get the chance to find a potential business partner or client in the future.

What it’s like to mess up with anxiety

July 20, 2017

My insomnia has kept me up all night, waking me every time I manage to get just two or three hours of sleep. Sleep-deprived and unable to function, I end up crashing back into bed after lunch. My cup of coffee this morning was simply not enough to keep me awake the entire day.

It’s now 1:13 p.m., and I have just woken up. I check my phone and receive the shock of my life. I have slept through the alarm that was supposed to ring at 4 p.m. I am now late for my therapy session that was supposed to start 13 minutes ago. There is a text from my therapist, wondering whether I am going to turn up. I have never missed a therapy session, and usually, I’m not even late. I silently berate myself for making such a blunder. I quickly reply her text to apologize and ask if we can reschedule. Being the wonderful person that she is, she offers to arrange another appointment. There’s just one problem. She is going to be away for a few weeks, and I’ll only get to see her in three weeks’ time. I panic. She is my only source of support. The one person who knows how much I struggle just to get through the week. I really needed to speak to her about how bad things are getting. Now, I had messed everything up.

It didn’t take long before the vicious cycle of self-loathing began.

What is wrong with me? Who even falls asleep in the afternoon? Why did I not wake up when my alarm rang? It’s all my fault. I just wasted my therapist’s time. How irresponsible of me… She must think I don’t care about our sessions because I don’t even bother to show up. All I had to do was wake up when my alarm rang and get to my session on time. I can’t even do something as simple as managing my life and my schedule. This goes on and on and finally ends with a single and all-consuming thought: I hate myself.

This is what it’s like for me living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. All it takes is a single slip-up for the catastrophizing cycle of self-deprecation to begin. Every time it happens, it feels like everything I have worked so hard to achieve is crumbling right before my eyes. All my accomplishments simply turn to dust and fade into nothingness. I feel like I have nothing to be proud of. There is nothing good about myself, and I feel completely worthless.

My mental illness lies to me all the time, and it’s a constant struggle to silence its lies in my head. It blurs the lines between the past and the present, making me feel as if I’m right back there in the terrifying moments of my traumatic experiences. Some days it wins, but not today. Today, I’m choosing to show some compassion for myself. I made a mistake. Just one mistake. And it’s OK.

Intern reporter 

Record Gifts for NonProfits last year

I don’t usually wait with bated breath for annual giving trends and studies. But this year was different. Many fundraisers (including me) were eager to understand how the emergence of the Trump Presidency last year may be affecting the giving landscape, particularly at the individual giving level.

Like many people, I was intrigued and delighted at the news of big giving surges that occurred in the wake of Trump’s victory. Planned Parenthood reported receiving over 80,000 donations within days of the election. The American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million in online donations in the weekend that followed the news of Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban.

The nonprofit Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to families in need across the country, took in more than $100,000 in donations after Trump proposed federal budget cuts. Were these giving surges one-time events or a presage of an enduring phenomenon with lasting impact?

The Giving USA Report: Documenting Increases in Gifts to Nonprofits

The annual Giving USA report is the longest-running report of charitable giving in the United States. The latest report, covering the year 2016, sheds some interesting light on philanthropy trends that may continue to affect nonprofits during the Trump era.

The Giving USA study reports that for 2016, all giving rose to $390.1 billion, which is a 1.4 percent growth over 2015 (adjusted for inflation). Individual donors really helped drive giving in 2016, and continue to represent the biggest piece of the charitable giving pie (72 percent). Individual giving alone had a 3.9 percent increase over the previous year!

Meanwhile, charitable giving from foundations and corporations also increased in 2016. However, gifts by estates decreased sharply (-10 percent).

In the individual donor category, it appears that all categories of recipient organizations saw an increase in giving in 2016, meaning that giving wasn’t isolated to so-called “resistance-oriented” groups. The greatest year-over-year increases were seen in environment and animals (7.2 percent); arts, culture, and humanities (6.4 percent); and international affairs (5.8 percent). Even religious groups saw a 3 percent increase.

Towards the Democratization of Philanthropy

Numerous commentators in the nonprofit philanthropy community seized upon this growth in the individual donor category as an important bellwether of changing giving trends in the Trump era.

Ruth McCambridge writes in The Nonprofit Quarterly: “Amid great political uncertainty, and probably even because of it, people without enormous wealth gave in larger numbers than they have in the recent past. The highest increases among recipient groups were […] front and center in public and political discourse toward the end of 2016 as areas that might be targeted for policy changes and defunding by the new administration.”

McCambridge continues: “All of this should come as little surprise to nonprofits, since we already knew that volunteering and giving are relatively closely linked behaviors. Thus, the massive number of people who volunteered to show up for protests on climate policy, immigration, science, and women’s rights over the past six or seven months should have been something of a predictor of what we could expect in giving trends. That makes this an exciting moment for fundraisers and organizers […] and you get a sense of the potential of this moment.”

Quoted in that same article is Patrick M. Rooney, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researched the Giving USA report.

He suggests that “we saw something of a democratization of philanthropy. The strong growth in individual giving may be less attributable to the largest of the large gifts, which were not as robust as we have seen in some prior years, suggesting that more of that growth in 2016 may have come from giving by donors among the general population compared to recent years.”

Making the Most of This New Era of Civic Engagement

Let’s return for a moment to our initial mention of Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and Meals on Wheels, who saw a literal deluge of donations from existing and new donors. Can these — and many other organizations who aren’t mentioned here — take full advantage of this opportunity to cultivate and deepen relationships with donors, volunteers, and subscribers, eager for action?

If current trends and news reports are to be believed, we are well on our way to a new era of civic engagement. Says McCambridge: “It may be time to concentrate on making the most of this period of multi-faceted activism and our very rich landscape of mobilizable human and cash capital.”

Jay Love, writing in the Bloomerang blog, concurs. He believes that “if a strong base of individual supporters can be built via top-notch relationship building, which takes time, they can be retained at well above average retention levels.” He calls for a resurgence in individual donor cultivation.

As Steve MacLaughlin notes in Huffington Post: “Nonprofits are taking more risks, engaging supporters in new ways, and using more science to aid the art of fundraising. The future of fundraising will require risk, innovation, and a drive to move beyond the status quo.”

I, for one, will be watching nonprofit innovation blossom in the Trump era as a sign that we are embracing new strategies and tactics to engage and cultivate supporters. Will you join us in support of changing the support services for college students needing mental and psychological symptoms.

“The Stigma and Discrimination of Mental Illness”

“You don’t look like you have leukemia. I think you’re making it up to get attention.” “Well, call me when you decide to stop having arthritis.” “The cure for your epilepsy is to try harder not to have seizures. Just pull yourself together.” We wouldn’t say these things to someone with a physical illness, but people with mental illness hear such statements all the time. According to the CDC, in any given year, 1 in 4 adults in this country has a mental disorder. With numbers like these, it’s majorly important that we as a society change the way we view mental illness and treat those who live with it. The facts are clear: the stigma of mental illness is undeniable. Let’s first discuss what mental illness stigma is, then some reasons why it is harmful, and lastly what you can do to fight it.

So what exactly is stigma? Stigma shows up in different forms. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health defines stigma as “a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” So, stigma begins in our minds. It happens when we believe myths and popular media portrayals of mental illness, such as, “All people with mental illness are violent,” and we start to put those with mental illness in a box. We assign labels and see them as different from us. And the moment we start to see someone or something as “different”, it sets the stage for wrongful treatment to occur. Think of racism or sexism. Stigma is no different, although we don’t consider it a blatant social taboo in that sense. And like those forms of prejudice, stigma manifests itself outwardly—in both subtle and overt discrimination. Let’s talk about the harm this causes—both for the person with mental illness and for society at large.

First, stigma harms the individual with mental illness. The CDC reports that only 20% of adults with a mental disorder saw a mental health provider in the past year, and the shame and embarrassment associated with getting help is a major barrier. We have created a society where people don’t want others to find out about their “issues”, and for this reason alone, many avoid seeking treatment. Instead, they may turn to dangerous coping methods such as smoking, binge eating or drinking, which raises their risk for chronic disease and early death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than the general public—largely due to treatable conditions. On a broader level, stigma harms society. Discrimination against people with mental illness leads to unequal access to housing, health care, employment, education, and community support, and this leads to unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Serious mental illness costs America over $190 billion in lost earnings per year. At the highest level, stigma influences policymaking. For example, stigma shaped the creation of the Medicaid law, limiting the funds used for treating mental illness but not physical illness. Such things make it difficult to access services for those who do seek help. The June 25, 2014 issue of USA Today tells the story of Laura Pogliano, whose 22-year-old son has schizophrenia. She lost her home after she chose to pay her son’s $250,000 hospital bills instead of her mortgage because his care was not covered by insurance. With all these barriers, is it any wonder that on average, people with mental illness wait nearly a decade after their symptoms first appear to receive treatment?

So, what can you do about this problem? A lot. You see, stigma is something we create, which means it is also something we can reverse. First, you can educate yourself about mental illness. It’s as simple as doing a Google search. Learn the truth about these diseases so you can recognize myths and misconceptions when you hear them and point out, “Hey, that’s not true.” Education also gives you the awareness necessary to change the way you speak. Don’t toss around terms like “crazy”, “lunatic”, or “the mentally ill”. Also, don’t say things like, “He’s bipolar,” or “She’s an anorexic.” A person is not their illness. Instead, say, “She has anorexia,” or “a person with bipolar disorder”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, calls this “people-first language”. I encourage you to take it a step further, and actually talk about mental illness. According to Patrick Corrigan, psychology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, “Research shows that the most promising way to dispel stereotypes is to meet someone with mental illness face-to-face.” That’s why I tell my story.

My name is Mei. I’m twenty years old. I love reading, writing, art, psychology, and watching The Big Bang Theory. I dream of being a social worker, falling in love, and traveling the world. And— I live with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an eating disorder. I found that I’d internalized the stigma of mental illness so much that I’d ask people, “Do you still want to be my friend?” I realized I was almost expecting people to judge me as being “mental” or “unstable” and consequently not want to have a relationship with me. And I thought, “What is so wrong with our society that I feel I have to ask this question? If I had, say, asthma, or chronic migraines, would I still feel I’d have to ask, “Now that you know I have this condition, do you still want to be my friend?”? That leads to my third point, which is simply, be a friend. SAMHSA emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and social connections for mental illness recovery. The handout I’ve given you today lists some things you can do to help someone with a mental illness. Because mental illness is so widespread, I guarantee you that right now, you have someone in your life who needs this.

Today we talked about three aspects of mental illness stigma—what it is, why it hurts everyone, and what we can do about it. Friends, do you realize that you have the ability to create a world where someone like me, who lives with mental illness, can expect the same level of support and care as someone who has a physical illness? Maybe you can’t change the attitudes of everyone in the country, but you can choose how YOU act. You can be that caring and nonjudgmental friend someone needs. You can speak up and say, “We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about this.” I’m doing it. Will you do the same?

The handout I created and passed out to each audience member as my visual aid.

I got an A on that speech, but what meant much more to me were the handwritten comments I received in the anonymous peer assessments we filled out after each speech.

  • Thank you, Meiyi. I [will] continue to do my part…Yes! as long as you want me, I’ll be your friend.
  • She made me think about considering their point of view because the way she put herself in the speech…
  • …thanks for making a stand…
  • I liked how you closed up with a personal story and encouraged everyone to help. It was a good combination of hooking everyones heart and helping them to want to help.
  • …I do have to say it makes me want to take a second look at her topic.
  • …It really hit close to heart because I’ve dealt with this issue…
  • I will change the way I refer to people with mental illness. (He is bipolar)

“Wow, that gave me the feels, brah!” Jay, one of the straight-out-of-high-school, backwards-cap-sporting, Arizona-iced-tea-guzzling students remarked, clapping me on the shoulder as I passed by. I smiled and thanked him, heart still pounding as I flirted with this unfamiliar, exhilirating spotlight. My classmates congratulated me on a job well done, and I began to feel the way I had when I’d finished my first semester of college—capable, brimming, rock-the-world empowered, like I could do anything. The cliche made the writer in me groan, but I was blossoming.

To this day, whenever I talk about mental illness I have to forcibly push through an automatic psychological resistance, a direct result of the stigma that thrives around these issues. But I’m just as determined to combat it. I have been called “disarmingly honest” by people who are surprised by how open I am about a topic others tend to hush up around. I propose a different take. Mental illness is not my fault; therefore, there’s no reason for it to be a source of shame or reflection on me as a person—so why shouldn’t I talk about it? Who am I helping by keeping my story and collective knowledge of these issues to myself like some guilty secret? No one benefits when we avoid talking about topics commonly considered “disgraceful”, “private matters”, or “taboo”, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness. In fact, not talking about these things guarantees that they’ll have even more devastating effects on our lives. I want people to understand that. In the meantime, I have to pave the way.

So, I talk.

Is it hard for me to do this? It does get easier the more I do it, but it still takes me a considerable amount of willpower and strength. Do I feel the societal judgment and shaming with each word I speak? You bet. Do I still do it? Yes, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. I talk about the medication I’m on, chronic and acute symptoms I battle, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, and triggers. I talk about paralyzing depression, about my “adventures” in therapy, about past crises and coping skills. Often, once they get past their initial discomfort/surprise, people open up to me about their struggles with their own mental health, or offer their opinions on what I’ve shared. When this happens, I try to be a nonjudgmental and supportive listener. I like to think I’m getting better at this all the time.

As I wrap up today’s blog, I reiterate the last point of my speech, in which I attempted to enlist my classmates in my efforts to end the stigma that has accompanied mental illness for centuries. Now, I extend that same challenge to you. Will you speak up about mental illness, and other historically “forbidden” topics, in your professional and personal life? Will you take a stand against the miseducation and stereotypes, despite what other people may think or you perceive they’ll think?

Will you join me?

Tell me:

  • What common myth/stereotype irks/infuriates you? (For me, the popular “default” image of someone with mental illness as a filthy, disheveled man or woman with violent tendencies, rambling incoherently as they wander the streets. Yes, some people with mental illness do fit this stereotype, but most of us appear “normal”, people at whom you wouldn’t glance twice.)
  • What aspect of mental health would you like to see addressed more publicly? (For me, I’d like to see more people talking about PTSD as a result of traumas other than combat. For instance, did you know that children in foster care suffer higher rates of PTSD than veterans?)

“The Stigma of Mental Illness”

“You don’t look like you have leukemia. I think you’re making it up to get attention.” “Well, call me when you decide to stop having arthritis.” “The cure for your epilepsy is to try harder not to have seizures. Just pull yourself together.” We wouldn’t say these things to someone with a physical illness, but people with mental illness hear such statements all the time. According to the CDC, in any given year, 1 in 4 adults in this country has a mental disorder. With numbers like these, it’s majorly important that we as a society change the way we view mental illness and treat those who live with it. The facts are clear: the stigma of mental illness is undeniable. Let’s first discuss what mental illness stigma is, then some reasons why it is harmful, and lastly what you can do to fight it.

So what exactly is stigma? Stigma shows up in different forms. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health defines stigma as “a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” So, stigma begins in our minds. It happens when we believe myths and popular media portrayals of mental illness, such as, “All people with mental illness are violent,” and we start to put those with mental illness in a box. We assign labels and see them as different from us. And the moment we start to see someone or something as “different”, it sets the stage for wrongful treatment to occur. Think of racism or sexism. Stigma is no different, although we don’t consider it a blatant social taboo in that sense. And like those forms of prejudice, stigma manifests itself outwardly—in both subtle and overt discrimination. Let’s talk about the harm this causes—both for the person with mental illness and for society at large.

First, stigma harms the individual with mental illness. The CDC reports that only 20% of adults with a mental disorder saw a mental health provider in the past year, and the shame and embarrassment associated with getting help is a major barrier. We have created a society where people don’t want others to find out about their “issues”, and for this reason alone, many avoid seeking treatment. Instead, they may turn to dangerous coping methods such as smoking, binge eating or drinking, which raises their risk for chronic disease and early death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than the general public—largely due to treatable conditions. On a broader level, stigma harms society. Discrimination against people with mental illness leads to unequal access to housing, health care, employment, education, and community support, and this leads to unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Serious mental illness costs America over $190 billion in lost earnings per year. At the highest level, stigma influences policymaking. For example, stigma shaped the creation of the Medicaid law, limiting the funds used for treating mental illness but not physical illness. Such things make it difficult to access services for those who do seek help. The June 25, 2014 issue of USA Today tells the story of Laura Pogliano, whose 22-year-old son has schizophrenia. She lost her home after she chose to pay her son’s $250,000 hospital bills instead of her mortgage because his care was not covered by insurance. With all these barriers, is it any wonder that on average, people with mental illness wait nearly a decade after their symptoms first appear to receive treatment?

So, what can you do about this problem? A lot. You see, stigma is something we create, which means it is also something we can reverse. First, you can educate yourself about mental illness. It’s as simple as doing a Google search. Learn the truth about these diseases so you can recognize myths and misconceptions when you hear them and point out, “Hey, that’s not true.” Education also gives you the awareness necessary to change the way you speak. Don’t toss around terms like “crazy”, “lunatic”, or “the mentally ill”. Also, don’t say things like, “He’s bipolar,” or “She’s an anorexic.” A person is not their illness. Instead, say, “She has anorexia,” or “a person with bipolar disorder”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, calls this “people-first language”. I encourage you to take it a step further, and actually talk about mental illness. According to Patrick Corrigan, psychology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, “Research shows that the most promising way to dispel stereotypes is to meet someone with mental illness face-to-face.” That’s why I tell my story.

My name is Mei. I’m twenty years old. I love reading, writing, art, psychology, and watching The Big Bang Theory. I dream of being a social worker, falling in love, and traveling the world. And— I live with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an eating disorder. I found that I’d internalized the stigma of mental illness so much that I’d ask people, “Do you still want to be my friend?” I realized I was almost expecting people to judge me as being “mental” or “unstable” and consequently not want to have a relationship with me. And I thought, “What is so wrong with our society that I feel I have to ask this question? If I had, say, asthma, or chronic migraines, would I still feel I’d have to ask, “Now that you know I have this condition, do you still want to be my friend?”? That leads to my third point, which is simply, be a friend. SAMHSA emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and social connections for mental illness recovery. The handout I’ve given you today lists some things you can do to help someone with a mental illness. Because mental illness is so widespread, I guarantee you that right now, you have someone in your life who needs this.

Today we talked about three aspects of mental illness stigma—what it is, why it hurts everyone, and what we can do about it. Friends, do you realize that you have the ability to create a world where someone like me, who lives with mental illness, can expect the same level of support and care as someone who has a physical illness? Maybe you can’t change the attitudes of everyone in the country, but you can choose how YOU act. You can be that caring and nonjudgmental friend someone needs. You can speak up and say, “We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about this.” I’m doing it. Will you do the same?

The handout I created and passed out to each audience member as my visual aid.

I got an A on that speech, but what meant much more to me were the handwritten comments I received in the anonymous peer assessments we filled out after each speech.

  • Thank you, Meiyi. I [will] continue to do my part…Yes! as long as you want me, I’ll be your friend.
  • She made me think about considering their point of view because the way she put herself in the speech…
  • …thanks for making a stand…
  • I liked how you closed up with a personal story and encouraged everyone to help. It was a good combination of hooking everyones heart and helping them to want to help.
  • …I do have to say it makes me want to take a second look at her topic.
  • …It really hit close to heart because I’ve dealt with this issue…
  • I will change the way I refer to people with mental illness. (He is bipolar)

“Wow, that gave me the feels, brah!” Jay, one of the straight-out-of-high-school, backwards-cap-sporting, Arizona-iced-tea-guzzling students remarked, clapping me on the shoulder as I passed by. I smiled and thanked him, heart still pounding as I flirted with this unfamiliar, exhilirating spotlight. My classmates congratulated me on a job well done, and I began to feel the way I had when I’d finished my first semester of college—capable, brimming, rock-the-world empowered, like I could do anything. The cliche made the writer in me groan, but I was blossoming.

To this day, whenever I talk about mental illness I have to forcibly push through an automatic psychological resistance, a direct result of the stigma that thrives around these issues. But I’m just as determined to combat it. I have been called “disarmingly honest” by people who are surprised by how open I am about a topic others tend to hush up around. I propose a different take. Mental illness is not my fault; therefore, there’s no reason for it to be a source of shame or reflection on me as a person—so why shouldn’t I talk about it? Who am I helping by keeping my story and collective knowledge of these issues to myself like some guilty secret? No one benefits when we avoid talking about topics commonly considered “disgraceful”, “private matters”, or “taboo”, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness. In fact, not talking about these things guarantees that they’ll have even more devastating effects on our lives. I want people to understand that. In the meantime, I have to pave the way.

So, I talk.

Is it hard for me to do this? It does get easier the more I do it, but it still takes me a considerable amount of willpower and strength. Do I feel the societal judgment and shaming with each word I speak? You bet. Do I still do it? Yes, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. I talk about the medication I’m on, chronic and acute symptoms I battle, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, and triggers. I talk about paralyzing depression, about my “adventures” in therapy, about past crises and coping skills. Often, once they get past their initial discomfort/surprise, people open up to me about their struggles with their own mental health, or offer their opinions on what I’ve shared. When this happens, I try to be a nonjudgmental and supportive listener. I like to think I’m getting better at this all the time.

As I wrap up today’s blog, I reiterate the last point of my speech, in which I attempted to enlist my classmates in my efforts to end the stigma that has accompanied mental illness for centuries. Now, I extend that same challenge to you. Will you speak up about mental illness, and other historically “forbidden” topics, in your professional and personal life? Will you take a stand against the miseducation and stereotypes, despite what other people may think or you perceive they’ll think?

Will you join Griffin Ambitions? Give now

Tell me:

  • What common myth/stereotype irks/infuriates you? (For me, the popular “default” image of someone with mental illness as a filthy, disheveled man or woman with violent tendencies, rambling incoherently as they wander the streets. Yes, some people with mental illness do fit this stereotype, but most of us appear “normal”, people at whom you wouldn’t glance twice.)
  • What aspect of mental health would you like to see addressed more publicly? (For me, I’d like to see more people talking about PTSD as a result of traumas other than combat. For instance, did you know that children in foster care suffer higher rates of PTSD than veterans?)

-JMG

10 Things your OCD will lead you to believe

Staff report—

While working on my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in therapy for a little over a year now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that OCD loves to lie. Through these sneaky lies, OCD pretends to be a helpful friend who wants to keep us safe. But really, it only manipulates us into doing more and more rituals. When stressed and struggling with an obsession, I’ve found it’s helpful to identify when OCD is trying to tell a lie. Then, I’m more likely to resist doing a ritual or to fight through the discomfort of an exposure.

—> Here are 10 common lies OCD tries to tell…and why you shouldn’t believe them!

1. I have to do rituals to feel safe or keep others safe.

While most people with OCD know their fears are irrational, sometimes in a stressful moment those fears can feel true. At times like this, I try to remember the relief and feelings of safety you feel after doing a compulsion will only be temporary. Doing rituals never makes me feel safe in the long run. Delaying a ritual and sitting with the anxiety is actually what gives me feelings of safety and control.

2. I have to do rituals if I want to feel less anxious.

Because of its cyclical nature, one of the main pitfalls of OCD is that it can grow quickly. Doing a ritual decreases anxiety, which feels really good in the moment, but the relief is only temporary. When the obsession pops up again, we have to do the ritual more and more for our anxiety to go away. With every ritual we do, we continue to learn that ritual equals less anxiety, even though it doesn’t work very well. Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) reteaches our brain that if we don’t do a ritual, eventually our anxiety will come down on its own. With every exposure we do, our anxiety comes down faster.

3. This anxiety will last forever.

This lie can feel especially true during an exposure or panic attack, but it’s not only false — it’s impossible. All anxiety will come down eventually. It might soon go back up again, then down, then up, etc., but it will come down. I pinky promise.

4. Just do the ritual one more time. It’s better than trying to resist.

This is one of the lies OCD tells me most often: “One more time!” It’s the same lie music directors and dance teachers always told us in practice, and it’s never true. Giving into the ritual only makes the obsession grow more, which means you’ll have to do the ritual even more times.

5. My thoughts make me dangerous.
Something my therapist told me this week is, “We can’t choose what thoughts we have, but we can choose what we do.” What many people don’t realize is everyone has weird, intrusive thoughts. While most people shrug them off and go about their day, the difference is people with OCD tend to overreact to these thoughts. We feel responsible for our weird thoughts and feel like dangerous people. Because of this, we obsess about the thoughts and engage in rituals to reduce our anxiety, which accidentally makes the thoughts come more often. This lie is simply not true; thoughts are just thoughts.

6. I shouldn’t tell people about my thoughts.

When my OCD tells me my thoughts are dangerous, it also tells me to keep them a secret. We don’t want people to know all the weird thoughts we have. This only makes the thoughts stronger; we fall deeper into the obsession. It also makes it harder to get help. It’s like saying “Voldemort” — you can take some of the power away just by saying it out loud.

7. I should be able to control my thoughts.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could try really hard and just stop having intrusive thoughts? Yes, that would be nice, but I’m sorry to say that’s not the reality. Go ahead and try, I’ll wait. Tired yet? As nice as it would be to have control over our thoughts, I repeat, “We cannot choose what thoughts we have, but we can choose how we react to them.” The more we react to the thought and try to stop thinking about it, the more we think about it. The less we react to a thought and treat it as just a thought, the sooner it passes.

A common way to demonstrate this phenomenon is the pink elephant experiment. Try it yourself here!

8. There is a high probability that something bad will happen.

This is a common lie all anxiety disorders try to tell, but one I’ve tried especially hard to fight back against and test out many times. What I’ve found is usually, it’s not as bad as I expect it to be, or the bad thing doesn’t even happen at all. Quite often when I do an exposure, the anticipatory anxiety is worse than the anxiety I feel when I’m actually doing the exposure. Our brains really like to keep us safe, which means our brains really like to tell us something bad will happen, even when most of the time it doesn’t happen.

9. If something bad does happen, then I won’t be able to cope.

What about when you take the risk or do an exposure, and the bad thing does happen? I also underestimate my ability to cope with something bad. We are far more capable of coping than we usually believe.

10. I need certainty.

OCD related fears come in all shapes and sizes, but one aspect that ties them all together is an intolerance of uncertainty. Whether you check a lock multiple times or reread a page over and over, the goal is to feel certain that the feared outcome won’t happen. The only way to feel free then is to embrace uncertainty. Instead of responding to a “What if?” by ritualizing and desperately trying to achieve certainty, it’s better to respond with “Maybe…” and work on accepting the uncertainty.

~Morgan

“Smiley” Depression

Staff Reports—

 

When many people think of depression, they often think of sadness — and not much else. This generalization can be harmful to people who experience depression, but may not “look” depressed. For some, depression may look like sadness or exhaustion. For others, depression might look like a smiling face, or a person who “has it all together” — something we think of as “smiling depression.”

It’s important to remember every person’s experience of depression needs to be taken seriously, no matter what it looks like on the outside.2 We wanted to know things only people with “smiling depression” understand, so we asked members of our mental health community to weigh in.

Here’s what they shared with us:

  1. “It’s easier to cheer people up but not myself. I can make them feel great when they’re going through the worst [times], but I cannot get myself happy, really happy. That happiness you see is just a way of not letting people [see] my problems.” — Sofia V.
  2. “I am so tired. So, so tired, all of the time. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting and pouting or smiling and engaging. [It doesn’t matter if I’m] dancing, running, swimming, eating, brushing my teeth, by myself or in a room full of people or sleeping. I. Am. Exhausted.” — Rinna M.
“Other people don’t get it. What it’s like to feel so trapped and in darkness, because I appear ‘happy’ and strong — even though [it feels like] I’m slowly dying.”
— Nicole G.
  1. “[I] fake it because [I believe] no one wants to hear about [my] depression. [I] fake it because [I am] tired of hearing all the ‘expert’ advice insinuating that [I’m] just [not] trying hard enough.” — Lisa C.
  2. “[I] don’t always wear the mask for other people. Sometimes [I] wear it because [I] don’t want to believe [I] feel as miserable as [I do]. [For me], it isn’t always about making other people with [me feel] OK. Sometimes it’s wearing the mask so [I] don’t lose [my] job or so [I] can just get takeout without being asked what’s wrong.” — Melinda A.
  3. “I can still laugh and give a big belly laugh about things, but on the inside, I feel empty. It’s a weird feeling being happy as much as you can, but your mind won’t follow suit. [I] just feel empty and the happiness isn’t genuine. It’s fake but [I] can’t change that no matter how hard [I] try for it to be a real feeling. Depression drains everything out of me. It takes an enormous amount of strength to appear ‘normal,’ it exhausts me… [My] smile doesn’t reach [my] eyes.” — Rebecca R.
  4. “The problem lies in the fact that no one truly and honestly knows me. I feel like I’m alone every day — even when I’m surrounded by people.” — Jen W.
  5. “[I] constantly doubt whether [my] struggles are real. When [I] finally get the courage and strength to open up about [my] depression, [I] always hear, ‘But you don’t act like you have depression.’ It took me years to come to terms and believe my own struggles.” — Adrianna R.
  6. “Most days, I feel like I’m just barely surviving. Once I’m alone at the end of the day, all I have the energy for is crying. Crying because I’m just so exhausted with life and I’ll convince myself I can’t handle tomorrow and I need to call in sick. But when the next day actually comes, I’m too afraid to not show up. Eventually, after debating with myself for far longer than I should, I drag myself out of bed. The cycle [feels] never-ending. It’s like, if I choose one day to just stay in bed instead of getting up, it would be the most horrible thing in the world, so I eventually always get up, no matter how exhausted I am. It’s inevitable.” — Keira H.
  7. “I try to keep up appearances to protect my family because my depression upsets them. I’m not very outwardly emotional, so everything gets to me more than I show it. I can’t open up to them, because I just get told, ‘Change your thoughts,’ ‘You seem fine, why do you want to go to a therapist?’ It makes those times when I can’t control my emotions even worse. I feel alone, tired and lost.” — Jessica C.
  8. “Sometimes I really, like really want to show people how I’m really feeling, but I just physically cannot take the mask off. It’s like the walls just grow stronger the more I try to tear them down.” — Kira H.
  9. “[I thought] if I faked being happy enough, then maybe I could get a glimpse of what it’s like to be ‘normal.’ I always feel like such a burden on the people [who] love me. [I feel] I have no choice but to pretend.” — Bree N
  10. “The time I’m most encouraging to myself is when I’m telling myself, I can make them laugh so they never suspect anything! I’m funny, right?” — Shelby S
  11. “The physical pain as well as the emotional pain. It hurts to walk, get up, move, force [myself] to smile, try to look ‘normal,’ happy.” — Keara M.
  12. “[ I believe] we are the best actors in the world. Because if I have to explain depression one more time… it’s just easier to fake it until I get home.” — Lisa K.

 

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

 

Schizophrenia Story

My name is Max. I have had schizophrenia for 9 years, and I want to tell you my story through psychological hell to recovery and hope. I’ll tell you at the beginning that beyond giving you an amusing story about my experience, I eventually want to convince you with my story that I discovered something called “Street Epistemology” that is growing in the atheist community, and that it has helped me get better, along with medication and support from the mental health community.
I was born in 1989 to a wonderful family. I have so many fond memories of growing up. I had a big family get together with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins all going over to my great grandmother’s house and having lunch and a good time together. All of the people in my family were very loving and had wonderful bonds. I was close with my siblings, and my brother and I shared a lot of friends. All of the friends and teachers I grew up with, I feel like were wonderful people, and I felt very bonded to many of them. We went on a lot of family trips growing up, and I traveled in a lot of different parts of the United States, and even to Mexico a few times.

I had no particular health problems, and there would have been no way to predict the hell I would go through when I turned into an adult. I never broke a bone, never had a cavity, never had any major diseases, and although i was prone to a lot of viruses, nothing serious was wrong with my health at all. I did have a teacher in about 4th or 5th grade tell my parents that I had ADHD, because I spent a lot of the time in class staring out of the window. I think she was mistaken that this was caused by a disorder, however. I think the truth is that I was a child full of wonder and energy for the world, and didn’t like to be closed up in the classrooms.

I was a smart kid and I loved to learn, and although I had a joke with one of my friends in middle school that we should “keep from working too hard on schoolwork, so that people didn’t start to get too high of expectations for us”, the truth is I was very successful with the schoolwork I was given. When I got to high school I got to be very shy, and only kept a few close friends. I had an awkward disposition and didn’t talk much, but I still do have a lot of good memories with friends that I kept in high school. I also had some friends that I had kept from elementary school who stayed close with me through high school, so I wasn’t particularly socially unhealthy at that time.

I think my problems really began when my friends and I began experimenting with marijuana. Note that I fully support the idea of legalizing marijuana and truly believe that it could help a lot of people, I just think my problems with it were contextual with the way the experimentation happened within my social life. Me and my friends started getting some problematic behavior, and although I refuse to incriminate myself in this writing, I have some bad memories of some of the things that happened during that time of my life, both alone and with my friends creating problems in our lives.

After getting into that kind of lifestyle smoking pot, and creating problems, I started to experiment with LSD and Mushrooms and any other kind of consciousness altering substances I could get my hands on. I was lucky not to get into anything like heroin or speed or cocaine, but I definitely had my fair share of experimentation with drugs. This is where the problems started to get complicated. I have so many feelings about my what my problems could have been, that it’s hard to tease out what the true cause of my long term problems were.

I have heard some scientific speculation, that some people are more predisposed to developing the problems I had with schizophrenia due to genetics, but I don’t know enough about it to make any judgement on that. All I know is that I have had these problems, and I also have hope that there is a way out of them, regardless of whether or not my genetics are predisposed or not. I did not even notice the problems myself. The only way I came to identify with my schizophrenia was that I knew everyone started worrying about me, and I just felt no way to challenge it, I gave into their worry, and came to identify with a new identity as a schizophrenic person.

I can still remember my symptoms, and I do think it started along with the experimentation with drugs and creating problems socially and personally. I remember some of my friends who did LSD and everything with me, a lot of times romanticized hallucinatory experiences. I had some of them try to guide me into certain hallucinatory experiences as well by certain social oddities. I think this is one of factors.

Beyond all of these problems, I began to have a major interest in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. When I graduated from high school, I traveled to San Francisco for 3 weeks and stayed in a couple of Zen monasteries. I meditated there with the experienced meditators and learned how to do intensive meditation by sitting with them all in the meditation hall twice daily, as well as doing work around the monastery mostly in silence. I had a great experience there, and loved what I learned, but I think that the baggage I brought there with my previous experiences created a problem when I began meditating. I think I thought of meditation as a kind of way that was identical to the way I thought of hallucinogenic drugs. So I basically started living in those experiences more permanently.

It seemed so reasonable to do this and felt very natural. I think that if that is something that you bring as an expectation to intensive meditation, can actually work. The problem, however, is that it led me away from a rational perspective of reality. I completely lost all sense of reason in my life, and my life became one giant acid trip that I thought was what meditation was supposed to induce for people. It could be argued that I had the wrong idea of buddhism, but the point is that that is what I believed, and part of that included these shared hallucinatory experiences I had in my head. I even used a drug called salvia on the weekends on my trip in San Francisco, another hallucinogen, leading me further and further into this rabbit hole.

During my time in San Francisco, through meditation, I started having a much more powerful and profound experience of my life. I really did try to learn how to do meditation the right way, and I think I was pretty successful overall. I remember a certain time when I started to believe that people there could read each other’s minds through meditation. This is an idea that has scriptural support from the Buddhist literature, although I didn’t know it at the time. I remember sometimes as I was sitting in the meditation hall a lot of what felt like a flashing in my mind of powerful lights going on and off, as my experience became more powerful. I felt very alive, in a way that I don’t think I had ever felt before, in a way that they would call in buddhist terminology, a waking up. But it was only in my experience, my cognitions of what my experience was could not keep up, and I didn’t know how to handle it.

When I got back to my hometown I immediately got back into my drugs, particularly ecstasy, or MDMA. I’m pretty sure the ecstasy was mixed with methamphetamines in what I took, and I decided after I took it, that I would go tell my parents that I had taken it, I guess expecting them to be giving me some sort of supportive experience on ecstasy. That did not happen. There was a major conflict my parents with yelling and screaming, and here I was stuck on this drug. It was such a profoundly negative experience in my life, it do not think it can be put into words. All I remember was a lot of yelling and screaming and accusations, and I was yelling I was convinced that I could read their minds and knew everything they were thinking, which was an idea I picked up through my experience meditating. I wanted them to be able to experience what I had learned through meditation, and I kept telling them to “Wake Up!” repeatedly, and for some reason I remember I wound up taking all of my clothes off in a state of madness. It was terribly traumatizing.

It was after this experience that they started taking me to psychiatrists, and I began getting diagnosed loosely with some kind of psychotic experience. I did not quit using drugs at that time, and my continued use just added to the trauma. I also continued meditating at home regularly, and all of the trauma and drug use and psychotic behavior was right in my experience with the meditation, and it all got interwoven together into my meditative experience, and I think this is when I think my problems started to permanently cement into what would become my schizophrenia. Meditation became my problem solving method, but I it was not sufficient to address the problems I was experiencing, although I was expecting it to. In fact I think it was more likely that it got me fixated on my problems, and unable to move on.

Soon after all of this, my Grandfather began declining into dementia and was dying. I volunteered myself to live at my Grandparents house to help him get along, partially because I was feeling virtuous from the meditation, and partially to get a break from my parents. While I was living there, although I do think I was a bit helpful to my Grandfather and we got to bond before he died, my mind went deep into all of my problems. I think the fact that I was living with him having dementia added a profound layer of sadness and existential anxiety to my experience. After about a month of living there, I had wound up calling the police to on my Grandparents, thinking they were using some sort of evil magic on me. A policeman came, and was very nice and talked to my grandmother, and told me she seemed very nice and that he didn’t think anything was wrong, and that he couldn’t help me. Another symptom at the time was that I was also talking to all sorts of “voices” in my head, mainly spiritual people I looked up to, but also other people in my head, I suppose in an attempt that I could get one of them to pray for me. I was so upset, that I was telling people that I was suicidal, and a few days later was my first trip to the psych ward.

I don’t remember much from my first trip to the psych ward, other than I got started on antipsychotic medication, and was in for about 2 weeks. I just remember laying there in bed thinking “I’m in the loony bin”, “I’m in the nuthouse”, and being extraordinarily overwhelmed and shocked that I of all people was diagnosed with schizophrenia. As I told you, most of my life growing up was wonderful, and I was smart, healthy, and loved. I just couldn’t imagine how I could have been the type of person who belonged there. Just the thought of getting diagnosed with schizophrenia weighed very heavy on me, and was very hard to accept. My mother has told me that she would go into see me in there the first time in visits, and she would try to talk to me, and I had a blank stare and wasn’t responding. I can imagine some of this was from the schizophrenia, some of it was from the medication, but most of it was probably my own shock and grief and indignation that I had landed myself in the psych ward of all places, getting diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When I got out, things didn’t change much, but I had medication now at least that was helping me. I didn’t mind the idea of medication that much, the effects weren’t that bad to me, but I was still in shock. I tried to stay with my grandparents and help some more for a while longer. I got in touch with a girl I knew in high school who I knew had used to have a crush on me in high school, and we began dating. I eventually moved back in with my parents and I think they hired some sort of nurse to help with my grandfather because it became a very hard job and I was too overwhelmed. He died pretty soon after this and it was overwhelmingly sad for me.

I got along with my girlfriend, but it was a strange experience, because she considered herself a Wiccan, so instead of talking me out of my superstitions, my experience with her wound up making my beliefs in magic and mind reading etc., even stronger. Her family also had a lot of it’s own problems with very strong conflict. I kept up with meditation though, because I thought that if my doctor says I’m “split from reality” that meditation would be the perfect antidote for that. We stayed together for about a year, and it was a nice distraction, but didn’t make me any better.

After splitting up with her, I decided to start going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to treat my problems with addiction. I had a fling with another girlfriend there, relapsed once with her, but got back into recovery quickly. I wound up becoming best friends with her brother. He had similar experiences to mine, and we got along like two peas in a pod. He was older, but he had gotten diagnosed with schizoaffective after a breakdown during an attempt to become a monk at a Catholic monastery, and I thought it was similar to my experience with a breakdown after going to a buddhist monastery, plus we could go to NA meetings together.

He and I were great friends, and we supported each other a lot, mainly by supporting each other’s religious commitments. He was very austere about his beliefs and while I was with him I spent most of my time studying and practicing buddhism, while he did his Catholicism. We became very isolated and didn’t seem to branch out with any other friends while we were friends. We did some, I had a few other friends I met in NA, but not much. Part of the reason was that he was gay and I think looking back this was mainly what led us to isolate together so much, was that he thought of me as a boyfriend. I was trying to ignore that part because I liked that we had so much in common and supported each other as friends so much. However, I think he and I had a habit of supporting each other’s delusions as well, so I didn’t really ever get much better during this time either, and continued going in and out of psych wards every once in awhile. I had fun and I learned a lot on my own though, particularly about buddhist philosophy, which also seemed to be support for my delusions a lot of the time as well.

I kept going to NA meetings, and learning and practicing more about buddhism, and hanging out with him, and that was my life for about 3 years. I loved to read all sorts of stuff beyond buddhism as well, science books at least, and spent a lot of time learning on my own through books, and eventually I discovered audiobooks, and got obsessed with those. One of the books I read was called “Rethinking Madness” by Paris Williams. It was about how he had helped people with schizophrenia recover from schizophrenia to the point that they were eventually able to manage their lives without medication. I didn’t read all of it, but the first part of the book was dedicated to demonstrating the dangerous side effects of antipsychotics, and the flaws in the theory of what schizophrenia is and how it should be treated. I didn’t even finish the rest of the book, before I was convinced that I needed to get off of all of my medications. I read some of the rest, where he talked about his alternative theories of recovery, but I was already convinced. Honestly, looking back, I think his alternative theories of schizophrenia and recovery are much less solid than the standard understanding. Some of his ideas that I was influenced by though, about flaws in the current understanding and treatment were actually probably accurate. I think looking back also, I need to know that just because a current theory is flawed, doesn’t give a license to make up alternative theories that are even less corroborated and pretend they are solid theories. I think it may also be true that some people with schizophrenia can manage without medications, but that is not related to his theories being true or false.

So I told everyone I was going to try going without medication, I was pretty hopeful, and fairly cautious, and I got people to accept that this is what I wanted to do, and I told my doctor I wasn’t going to take my medications anymore. He cautioned me, but I was convinced. Part of my convictions were centered in buddhist ideas as well, which Paris Williams was also endorsing in his book. I had become so knowledgeable and practiced in meditation, I was sure that would help me.

It felt really good for a while. I felt like I was doing the right thing and that I was making the right choice. I wound up getting into a conflict with my best friend of so long for reasons that I won’t get into. I wound up calling another friend I had who I had met from NA and became close with her, who had a lot of problems herself, and was involved with drugs, mainly just marijuana, but wound up getting me involved in smoking pot, drinking, and eventually going back to experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. I actually managed my symptoms effectively for a little over 6 months this way, but eventually got a DUI, was in jail for a night, and when I got out, had my license suspended, so I was stuck in the house with my parents with no way to get out of the house. Eventually, conflict with my parents started building up slowly again, I started going into a mania, and wound up calling the police because I was convinced that my Dad had killed someone and had buried them in our backyard. I just knew this based on intuition.

The police came, then a crisis came, and my family tried to get the crisis team to put me into the psych ward, but they said they couldn’t do anything because I was not at danger to myself or others. So my sister decided to get a court order telling the police that I was at danger to myself or others, which I think we all knew was not true, to get me involuntarily committed, in an attempt to help me get better. It did not work. I was furious that I was being held against my will when I was truly not a danger to myself or others, and I knew it. I was so furious that when I was in the hospital, I resisted treatment so adamantly, that I was stuck in the hospital for over a month. When I got out, I wasn’t any better, and was still furious about what happened, and still manic, etc.. My parents got to their wits end and told me that if I wouldn’t go to the hospital that they would take me to the homeless shelter. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I still felt like it was so wrong that I had been wronged like that, so they took me to the homeless shelter. I couldn’t sleep in the homeless shelter I was so upset, so I left and walked over to the jail and used their phone, and called my parents to come pick me up and go ahead and take me to the hospital.

I went into the hospital and was still so worked up, that I was in there for another three weeks freaking out about my situation. I got out and was finally exhausted with it all and fell into a sort of manic depression, and just slept. I just crashed. I was exhausted. I felt like I had been beaten to a pulp through it all. I was that way for a long time. I don’t remember how long. But I remember that during that time, I started studying atheism, because I was worn out with using my faith to fight all of my battles. Just thinking about meditation or my buddhist beliefs or anything religious caused so much negativity, that I needed something to relieve that. And I think that what I learned during this time studying the atheist and skeptic movements has been what I have needed for so long and never knew what I was missing.

Along with taking medication again and getting help from my mental health team, I learned something called “Street Epistemology” that is growing in the atheist movement. It is a method of conversation based on the socratic method, where you ask people about their deeply held beliefs, respectfully, find out why they believe it, how they concluded it was true, and finding out if the methods they are using to come to their conclusions can reliable lead to truth. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with studying knowledge, what it is, how it works, and particularly how we can know a belief is justified. Often times, with deeply held beliefs, the method used is faith. Many people have their own definition for faith, but you can let them give their own definition, and analyze it with them as a method of coming to truth, It is very simple, but you can use it on everything. It is not focused on what the belief is, or metaphysics, but how you know the belief is true, or epistemology.

Focusing on epistemology is exactly what I needed to learn. I needed to figure out whether or not the methods I am employing to come to my conclusions is actually reliable. I think that is why people have problems with schizophrenia. It has nothing to do with the actual conclusions they are coming to. There is nothing wrong with the particular conclusions in themselves. The problems come by employing faulty methods of reasoning, that creates problems in their daily lives. I am convinced that if we changed the way we think about delusions, by using epistemology, not metaphysics, that people could actually get better by learning critical thinking and reasoning. It has helped me so much, and I am still getting better, but I have hope that there is a way. All of these problems that contributed to my mental health problems are not insoluble, but pretending to know things I don’t know, and can’t know, isn’t a solution to the problem.

I am equally as convinced that when we give an exception from certain metaphysical conclusions as exceptions from being considered as delusions, simply because people consider them sacred beliefs, that it does a huge disservice to the way we are treating mental health problems. It’s what i’ve heard called “belief in belief” or believing holding certain metaphysical conclusions are moral virtues. When you analyze this it doesn’t seem rational that believing in certain metaphysical ideas can be moral virtues.

The idea that we should just let people believe whatever they want and protect certain ideas from scrutiny, leads to a failure in reasoning, that can have real life consequences on our society. We live in a democracy and the ability to engage with each other’s ideas freely and openly and without fear is crucial to our societies functioning properly and healthily. A failure to engage on these topics can have a real detrimental effect on our own and each other’s well being. If you don’t believe it, just turn on the news or open a newspaper. It is alarming. And once you become aware of the problem, you will see that to live and let live may not always be the best policy. We need to be able to engage with each other.

I’m going to go to school for philosophy, and stay involved with the skeptical community, and keep practicing Street Epistemology, but I’m not going to give up hope on people.

Disease Profile: Bipolar Disorder

What comes to mind when you think of bipolar disorder (also called manic depression or bipolar depression)? I polled some users on r/bipolar2 and asked them what they thought were the most common stereotypes about bipolar disorder. Here are some thing that they said: Bipolar people are expected to have erratic, uncontrollable mood changes. Bipolar individuals can’t have genuine or justified emotions. That bipolar disorder isn’t real or that you are simply going crazy. Somehow having bipolar disorder means you can’t form or have meaningful relationships and drive cars.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of extreme high mood (mania/hypomania) and periods of extreme low mood (depression). These periods of extremely high mood typically consist of very high energy and risky behavior. Depression is essentially the opposite, with very low energy and mood. This all seems very extreme, but sometimes bipolar disorder can be very subtle. Hypomania is a less severe form of mania, more like the depression just lifting. It may even feel good to some patients. Or some may experience periods of mixed emotions, both manic and depressive symptoms at once. Sometimes the person can function during these episodes very well and sometimes not so well.

There are two types of bipolar disorder, with some people falling a bit outside of these two categories. Bipolar 1 is the most thought of when it comes to bipolar disorder. These patients experience the manic highs, depressive lows, and occasionally psychosis (experiencing delusions or hallucinations). Bipolar 1s will cycle only a couple times in a year, maybe less. Manic episodes typically last three to six months, while depressive episodes are longer at six to twelve months. Bipolar 2 is the lesser known type, experiencing hypomania instead of mania. The criteria for bipolar 1 diagnosis is only the presence of a manic or mixed episode for one week that significantly impairs normal functioning. The bipolar 2 diagnosis requires both a hypomanic  and depressive episode. This suggests that depressive episodes are more common in bipolar 2s, though not exclusively found in bipolar 2s.

Treatments for bipolar disorder can be any combination of medication, psychotherapy, and possibly other treatments. Medications aim to stabilize mood and prevent psychosis. This can be through mood stabilizers such as lithium, antidepressants such as Prozac, or antipsychotics like perphenazine. Some people need a combination of these and others need just one. Psychotherapy can also be helpful for patients in coping, education, and support. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may provide relief for patients who have not found relief from other treatments or cannot take medication.

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. There is no cure. Treatments are very effective, but at the end of the day a bipolar patient will always have some issues with mood episodes. I took to the website Reddit and specifically the subreddit r/bipolar2 to ask actual patients what their experiences were. Here are some things they said:

  • They are scared of themselves while experiencing an episode. Mania makes them irresponsible and self-destructive. Their decisions while manic affect their mental and physical well-being when the mania ends. They have ruined relationships and their finances. They have to take time off work, especially when depressed. They talked about how horrible finding the right medication can be. How it takes so long and all the while you are still dealing with the disorder.
  • They feel like no one understands them. They haven’t found a good support system. They feel like whenever they are manic they are easier to deal with and they can make friends. When the depression comes, they get the riot act from others about how it is all about their attitude and how hard they are to deal with all the time.
  • Medication keeps them stable, but it makes them feel very numb. They enjoy being hypomanic. The depression makes doing anything hard for them. They mostly try not to be negative, but it’s really hard when the voice in their head is so critical of every choice.
  • When they’re hypomanic, they can do anything and everything. Everyone else is just dumb and slow. They are very productive and goal-oriented. When they are depressed, they get suicidal. They panic with any small thing and that triggers the suicidal thoughts.

These are real people struggling with something they desperately wish they could control. It’s all about finding the right medication and having a good support system. I hope this has increased your understanding of bipolar disorder and of the people dealing with it. I also hope that maybe you can be that support system, not just for those with bipolar disorder, but for anyone with a mental illness.

 

Sources:

NIMH Bipolar Disorder. (2014). Nimh.nih.gov. Retrieved 13 June 2017, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.