Teenagers and Mental Health

There are pros and cons to only writing about your own experience with mental health. On one hand, you can write more in-depth about the day-to-day of living with mental illness because well, you’re living it. On the other hand, I still have a limited worldview (given my age, gender, race, etc.) that isn’t as helpful to people different than me. I’m going to try to post more from a mental health advocacy perspective, and I’m very interested in hearing from you about what I should cover. Let me know in the comments or send me an email at mybrainsnotbroken@gmail.com!

I am not a Gen Z’er. For one thing, I don’t think anyone actually uses that term, and for another thing, I am not a teenager. Though I’m only in my 20s, I am practically ancient when it comes to the digital upbringing of people even 5-10 years younger than me. So there’s a lot I don’t understand about the generation below me, and a lot I won’t even try to understand. But one thing I will say is that the conversation surrounding mental health by teenagers today is far, far ahead of the conversation that was being had when I was a teenager.

In a recent Pew Research Poll, 70 percent of teens saw mental health as a ‘struggle for their peers.’ Is this concerning? Definitely. But that also means that mental health is part of a conversation for teens that didn’t exist a generation ago.

“It’s both worrying and positive at the same time,” says Claire Henderson, a clinical senior lecturer at the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience. “In terms of more people saying they know someone [with mental illness], it may be because the rates are going up, but it may also be because of a greater level of awareness.” (from the Atlantic)

And call me glass half-full, but I think that there’s a greater level of awareness surrounding mental health today than in past decades, which contributes directly to that ‘growing’ number.

One of the biggest differences is the Internet. While there are clearly issues when it comes to teenagers and the Internet/social media, there is also an upside. It gives teens an opportunity to not only share their own experiences but see that they aren’t alone in those experiences. Considering a significant symptom of depression is a feeling of isolation, knowing you’re not alone can go a long way toward dealing with your issues.

Though it’s only been a few years since I was a teen, my upbringing was significantly different than theirs. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 16, and I didn’t download Instagram until I was 21. There’s a big difference between the pressures I was feeling being 16 years old in 2010 and how a 16-year-old feels in 2019. But the good news is, it seems as though the conversation is easier to have. And that is a massive step in improving the mental health conversation in today’s America – a goal people of every age should aspire to.

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An Attitude of Gratitude

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that keeping a ‘gratitude journal,’ or writing down what you’re grateful/thankful for on a daily basis, is helpful for your mental health. It makes sense why. When you recount good things in your life, it reminds you of how blessed you are. You feel better because you remember all of the good things in your life, and those good things can push the negative thoughts out of your brain. I’ve tried to keep a gratitude journal before, or at least to write down lists of what I’m thankful for. But it’s never sustainable, and that’s because I think that in the past, I’ve done it for the wrong reasons.

What a gratitude journal is not – a cure.

See for some reason, I thought writing down what I’m grateful would remind me why my life was so good, and that reminder would cure me of feeling the effects of depression. If I know that I have a good life, I can’t possibly continue to feel depressed, right? Wrong.

If you haven’t already heard, life is actually going pretty well for me right now – personally, professionally and mentally. I have tons of new opportunities this year and I’m happy when I think about all the good things that are going to happen in 2019. But…I still have depression. And I still have anxiety. And no matter how good my life is, I don’t forget that I have depression and anxiety. Because it doesn’t go away.

I imagined my lists of gratitude bringing me joy and helping me welcome each new day with a wonderful rise and shine attitude. That was not the case. Instead, those lists would bring me guilt. I have so many things to be grateful for, I’d think. Why am I not happier about all this? Then it hit me…I’d approached this all wrong. This exercise was not supposed to solve all my problems but rather, put those problems in perspective.

What a gratitude journal can be – a tool to improve mental health

I would like to start a gratitude journal again, but use my lists in a different way. What I’m grateful shouldn’t make me feel like I have to be happy all the time, or that my life is easy – rather, it should be a gentle reminder that there are positive aspects of my life (very positive aspects, in my opinion) that help me to combat the negative aspects. My blessings help me fight against my struggles – good battles evil, in a way.

I can’t guarantee that things will go any better this second time around, but I hope by approaching my journaling with a new attitude that I will be to use more tools to fight against my mental illness. You can’t have too many tools in the toolbox, can you?

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Life Update – Taking Steps Toward My Dreams

So I know it’s been a long time since I updated you guys on what’s going on in my life, but I wanted to share some of what’s been going on with me recently.

Last year I mentioned my TEFL certification course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and I am happy to share that I am now a TEFL-certified teacher! I have had plans in the works to move to Europe in 2019, and I am making that dream a reality. I settled on returning to Prague, where I studied as an undergrad. In fact, I’ve already found a place to live in advance of my move, which I am extremely excited about! Next thing on the list: finding a job. While I’m a writer at heart, I’m really curious to see what effect a year of teaching English has on me and my personal development. As the son of two teachers, I can only hope some of those genes have rubbed off on me.

I’m still busy at work, learning the ins and outs of what it’s like to work on a Communications team. In May I will have worked at my organization for two years, and I am proud of myself for the fortitude and strength to stay at this position for so long while maintaining my mental health. That’s not to say every day is easy, but I’ve gained knowledge and put more tools in my chest to succeed at my job despite my mental illness.

I also have some big plans for the basketball website that I run (Ballers Abroad – shameless plug, I know) as well as this blog! The tagline for #MBNB is “living with mental illness and promoting mental wellness” and while I think I’ve done a good job of sharing my experience living with mental illness, I have not done as good a job as promoting mental wellness. Next month, I hope that you see more than one post a week from me as I delve into what it really means to live and be mentally well. I’m always open to ideas on what to write about, so please let me know what you want to read!

The next stage of my life is slowly beginning to take shape, and I am excited to share it with you. The positive response to this blog over the past year and a half has been so amazing, and I cannot wait to continue to share my experience and continue to be a true mental health advocate. Much love to you all!

Do The Things You Love

I absolutely love live music. I’m not the most musically proficient person (I played the saxophone in middle school and sang in a boy choir until puberty hit), but something I discovered when I reached adulthood was that I love going to live shows. Since a majority of the bands I like are smaller acts, that meant I was hitting small clubs and intimate venues in tons of cities listening to my favorite bands and songwriters.

I’ve had different concert buddies over the years, but there have always been people willing to go see shows with me. One constant concert pal is Kevin, who I’ve seen tons of shows with. We had a particularly crazy stretch where we saw three concerts at three different venues over the course of eleven days. And it ROCKED.

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It’s hard to describe what going to a live show does for me. I think the biggest thing is that, for a few hours, it seems like nothing else matters. It’s just me, the people around me, and the band putting on their show. Everything else takes a back seat. All my problems and worries are set to the side while I immerse myself in the music.

An annoying symptom of depression is that sometimes you don’t enjoy things the way you used to. Over the years, that loss of joy has happened with a lot of things. I have fought to enjoy things I once loved, and don’t enjoy certain activities quite like I used to. So when I do find something I love to do, I hold on to it as tightly as I can.

We all have things we love to do – activities, pastimes, whatever you want to call them. There are things out there that make us feel alive, at peace, content – happy. Oftentimes, after we do those things, we think to ourselves I should do this more.

And you’re right. You should. Not just because life is short and you should make the most of your time (though that is a good reason), but because you deserve it. You deserve to do the things you love because it’s another reminder that you’re a human who loves things – just like everyone else. We all deserve it. So what’s stopping you?

I love to travel, write, and see live music. What are the things YOU love to do? Let me know in the comments!

#BellLetsTalk: An Important Movement

If you were on Twitter yesterday, you might have seen the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. It appears once a year, and it’s a beautiful thing. When you tweet #BellLetsTalk, for every retweet you get, 5 cents were donated toward mental health initiatives in Canada. That might not sound like much, but when the results include 145 million impressions, more than 7 MILLION dollars ended up being donated!

I’ve seen #BellLetsTalk pop up more since I’ve started this blog, and it’s encouraging to see. One of the most important ways to combat mental health is by reducing the stigma surrounding it. Bringing in as many people into the conversation as possible is an important step that can go a long way toward having more involved conversations about mental health. I’d encourage you to check out the hashtag and I hope you see why it’s important to have this conversation regardless of whether or not you personally have a mental illness.

Mental health is important for everyone because it touches all of our lives in one way or another – whether we know it or not. Mental illness might affect every 1 out of 5 people in the United States, but mental health affects 5 out of 5 people. We all have to deal with keeping ourselves happy and healthy regardless of whether or not we have a mental illness. Pushing mental health away because we don’t think it applies to us is an unsafe choice that could have serious ramifications on our long-term health.

For my Canadian readers, I’d encourage you to check out Bell Let’s Talk and see what they’re all about. If you’re in the States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is still one of my favorite places for information and resources, but there are tons of other sites and organizations that offer mental health information and services. I love to see when mental health conversations become a national topic, but it’s also important to know that these conversations are continuing every day online, in-person and on social media. And if you don’t know where to start, I’m happy to help.

#BellLetsTalk #LetsKeepTalking

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New Year, New Me? Nah.

“New Year New Me” is a phrase often used around the start of any new year, and it makes sense. Though some people just see it as one day becoming another, for others it’s a chance to start fresh and work on good habits and self-improvement. The start of a new year can be cathartic for some who may want to leave the previous year behind and begin anew. Whatever your reason, the passing of one year to another can be a momentous time. But for me, for the longest time, it was torturous.

Since I was first diagnosed with mental illness, New Years became a holiday where I vowed to vanquish my illnesses. Not this year, I’d say. Depression won’t beat me this year. And when I inevitably failed, I would feel terrible. Whether it was canceling plans with friends, having a crying spell or practicing negative self-talk, I would catch myself in the midst of a symptom of my depression and anxiety and be overcome with disappointment. This year? Not so much.

For the first time, I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution. When the clock struck midnight, the year was new but I felt the same. My mental illness didn’t go anywhere. My depression didn’t turn into a unicorn, and my anxiety didn’t reappear as a rainbow. I took my mental illness with me into 2019, and I’ll take it into 2020. But something’s different.

Don’t get me wrong, resolutions and mental health can definitely work  – when they’re within reason. But my all-or-nothing resolutions to no longer have depression were not good and got me nowhere.

So instead I came with up with goals. Short-term and long-term, I came up with a list of achievable goals that will help improve my mental health and my life in general. And guess what? My goals are a lot less daunting than a generic resolution to get in shape, read more or try to eat out less often. And I feel more confident about them. And I think I can make them work.

I’m not telling you whether or not to to make a New Year’s resolution – I’m just telling you what works for me. Don’t put any more pressure on yourself to change your life because it’s 2019. Your life could change tomorrow – you just never know. What’s important is that you’re happy, and proud of what you’re doing. I’m on the first step to doing that – a goal achieved in and of itself.

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The Holiday Check-In

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It’s that time of year! The holidays are here, and with it come hopes of fun times spent with family and friends. But that’s not always the case.

The holidays aren’t great for everyone. There are plenty of reasons for why this happens, but what’s important to understand is that it’s normal and that it happens to more people than you think. Whether it’s at work, at home or somewhere else, the holidays can sometimes bring out the worst in us instead of the best. Even if it’s out of our control, if we can recognize this, we’re taking the first step to getting better.

Checking in with your people

I like to check in with my family around the holidays, regardless of whether or not I see them in person. Knowing what a touchy time this can be for my own mental health, I want to make sure everyone on my team is okay. Regardless of how well you think someone is doing, it doesn’t hurt to ask around and see how your loved ones are. Even if it seems like there’s nothing wrong, ask anyway. Often times, those who are hurting the most are also the most insistent that they’re fine (aka the mantra of someone who is not fine).

If someone is upset with you for asking, there are a few ways to handle this. First, you can let them know you’re checking in on everybody, not just a select few. This might put them more at ease and not feel like they’re being targeted. Second, you can tell them you’re just doing what you think everyone needs around the holidays, which is a chance for self-reflection and contemplation. You can tell them that your asking comes from a place of love and care, and only the best intentions.

What should you say if someone’s checking in with you?

Be honest. There’s no need to try to fake your way through the holidays because everyone seems so happy. The holidays aren’t easy for everyone, and if someone such an honest question, they shouldn’t be surprised by an honest answer.

I typically have pretty great holidays with my family, but they don’t go by without at least a few loved ones asking how I’m doing. And I tell them, honestly, how I’m doing. I know they love me either way and they are there to support me. But I get how awkward it can feel to tell someone that you feel like garbage when you’re supposed to be celebrating a holiday. But after a short time that awkwardness goes away, and eventually, it just becomes like any other question you get asked.

If no one checks in with you, check in with yourself

If no one asks you how you’re doing mentally, make sure you ask yourself! It’s important not to forget about your own mental health this time of year while you’re thinking about everything else. You have just as much a right to be mentally healthy as anyone else does, and taking the time to check in with yourself is important and very underrated around the holidays. This should be a time of gratitude, happiness and thankfulness – I hope that it is that for you this holiday season.

 

Why I’m Back in Therapy

As I mentioned last week, I’m back in therapy. This decision didn’t come easy – it’s been almost two years since I’ve routinely gone to therapy. But I’m a different person than I was two years ago, with different goals. This time, I’m prioritizing self-improvement over self-love. Let me explain.

A common symptom of depression is not liking yourself very much. It sucks, but it’s true. On top of everything else depression threw at me, this was the thing I had the hardest time dealing with early on. I couldn’t stand the fact that I hated myself. I read book after book on loving yourself, learning to like who you are and accepting yourself as a human being. And it didn’t do squat for me.

When I used to go to therapy, I would obsess over this fact: how do I learn to love myself? This ever-present worry surrounded me and got in the way of any self-improvement. I was so fixated that the concept of ‘loving myself’ became foreign to me; I wasn’t sure what ‘loving me’ even meant.

This isn’t to say that those therapy sessions were fruitless. They helped me explore my mental health in a way I had never done before. But my own self-improvement, as a topic, was never on the table. I thought that I had to rid myself of my mental illness instead of living with it. But why does it have to be that way?

It’s taken me a very long time to realize, but I finally want to focus on improving myself in other areas. For instance, I have a tendency to be late for things and I have problems waking up in the morning. I used to chalk up some of these flaws as part of my mental illness, but I’m tired of that. I’m wary of when I use my anxiety and depression as a reason for not getting something done. I won’t lie, it bothers me sometimes. By attacking other aspects of myself, I am able to become a more complete version of myself – mental illness and all.

This has also changed my perception of who therapy can benefit. Like many people, I believed that only those who were mentally ill, who truly ‘needed’ help, needed to go. That’s why I went, right? Not anymore. Therapy is anything that helps you become a better version of yourself. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Exercising, yoga, meditation, writing in a journal..the list goes on and on. And yes, actually talking with a therapist is also a form of therapy.

I’ve been searching for ways to become the best version of myself, to learn how to live mentally well. I think talking with a therapist will help in that goal, so that’s what I’m going to do. But I also know that’s not the only path to self-improvement – there are many other things we can do. But it starts with us. And this time around in therapy, that’s finally something that I understand.

What is your favorite form of therapy? Let me know in the comments!

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I’m Thankful for My Mental Illness

A few weeks ago I was sitting in therapy (more on that next week!), and something occurred to me. My therapist said she’s amazed how I’m able to get so many things done despite my mental illness, which made me think of two things.

The first was that yes, I am high functioning despite my depression, but it took me six years to work up to that success. The second thing was that I’d rather be a motivated person who didn’t like himself than someone who had a ton of confidence but never got anything done.

And as we turn to a season of thankfulness and gratitude, I often think about how grateful I am for my mental illnesses. Sounds weird, right? Stay with me.

Living with depression and anxiety has taken a lot away from me. But it’s also given me so much. It’s given me strength. It’s taught me resiliency. It’s taken me from being plagued by my mental illness to becoming a force in the mental health community, and an advocate for everyone like me.

My mental illness has taught me that no matter what life throws at you, you have a chance. It might not be the best chance, or an opportune one, but it is a chance. And it’s what you do with those chances that counts.

I’d like to add that this viewpoint didn’t happen overnight. I’d knowingly lived with mental illness for more than six years before being where I am today. I’ve had highs and lows that I honestly can’t even believe. But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world.

It might be confusing to read that, and it’s kind of confusing to write, but it’s true. I’ve long held the belief that everything happens for a reason. Most of the time people have that belief when good things happen to them, but I think of it more when it comes to adversity.

So this Thanksgiving, as hard as it might be, try to be thankful for everything. Every good thing, every bad thing. Be thankful that everything that’s happened to you has made you the person you are today. I’m thankful for every bit of what life has thrown my way. It’s made me the person I am – a person I am damn proud to be. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Remember Your Physical Wellness

I know it’s not for everyone, but I enjoy working out. Now, before you get the wrong idea, I’m not in the best of shape. It’s not like I’m a CrossFit model come to life or anything like that. I use the gym at my office, which only consists of an elliptical machine and something that would resemble a Bowflex. It’s nothing special, and neither are my workouts. But hitting that gym four or five times a week does as much for my mental health as it does for my physical health – if not more so.
I’ve written before about the Seven Dimensions of Wellness, and it’s something I strongly believe in. This week, I want to focus on Physical Wellness. Why? Because it’s important in many more ways than you think, and not enough people talk about those other aspects.
Yes, it’s cool to be in shape, to have washboard abs or to feel physically good about yourself. But there’s another advantage of exercising that people don’t always immediately think of – it frees your mind. When you’re pushing out that last rep on the bench, or sprinting to the finish of your run, what are you thinking about? Not much, right? You can’t. It’s hard to have something on your mind when you’re physically exerting yourself, because you’re pushing your body to its limit. When that part of you is so committed to succeeding, other parts of you (namely, your mind) don’t have as much time to dwell on things.
For me, that’s dwelling on negative things. I’ll tell you, it’s hard to think negatively when I’m working out. I don’t have time. My music is pumping, or my pep talks are blaring in my ears, and I’m focused. For one of the only times that day, my mind is totally at ease. I’m in tune with my body, with improving an aspect of myself, and everything else can wait. Everything else does wait. It’s incredible.
Now I’m not telling you to go on a long run tomorrow and everything will be better. But I would ask you to take five minutes today and think about your Physical Wellness. Are you doing what you can to improve that aspect of your health? I’ve found that whenever my physical health starts to deteriorate, my mental health isn’t far behind. Plus, there are other ways to take care of yourself physically. Yoga’s fun. Sports are great! Any attempt to exert yourself physically clears your mind, and can bring some peace of mind when it’s desperately needed.
So no, I don’t have washboard abs. I don’t have the body of a Greek god. But my workouts are vital to me being the best person I can be, so I take them as seriously as any other person out there. If you need someone to keep you motivated, let me know! We can lift each other up. Our mental health is so much more than what’s in our heads, and the sooner we realize that, the healthier we can become.
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