It’s October 10th, which means that once again it’s World Mental Health Day! Now I’ve written about World Mental Health Day before (twice, actually), so there is a lot that’s been said about not only recognizing the importance of mental health but seeking out ways to be as mentally healthy as possible. World Mental Health Day also takes place during Mental Illness Awareness Week, putting an added focus on being aware of how pervasive mental illness is in today’s world.
TW: This post discusses suicide.
Every year that I’ve done this blog, I’ve written about Suicide Prevention Month. Personally, it’s never easy to write, but the information is so necessary that I feel I’d be misleading you by not writing about it. Because it’s not enough to be aware that suicide is widespread in this country – we have to do more than that. But how?
If you think this issue is going away, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second-leading cause of death among individuals in the 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34 age groups. It is the fourth-leading cause of death among individuals in the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups. The AFSP reported that in 2017, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts, and 4.3% of all adults in the United States admitted to having suicidal thoughts at some point that year.
But this month is not just about bringing awareness to the prevalence of suicide but educating people on how to prevent it. There are tons of resources available from organizations and advocacy groups that discuss how we can work to prevent suicide and while they’re available year-round, Suicide Prevention Month provides some time to specifically discuss suicide prevention and the best ways to approach it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the CDC all have pages dedicated not only to suicide prevention but to this month especially.
Next week (September 8-14) is National Suicide Prevention Week and during the week is World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10). There’s plenty more to add to the discussion that will continue as the month goes on whether you’re going to #BeThe1To or talk about #SuicidePrevention or #StigmaFree, but I do want to leave you with this. When it comes to the topic of suicide, asking for help is not easy. Neither is trying to help those who are struggling. But we have to keep fighting – and there’s plenty to fight for.
I’m a little nervous this week. As I shared a month ago, I’m currently in the process of weaning myself off the medication I take for my anxiety and depression. Since I am at the lowest level of one of the medications, I have been slowly lowering the dosage on the other medication until I am off it entirely, and I have finally reached the time where I go off that medication entirely – a very big step to take.
In our various appointments, my psychiatrist has shared with me that this will likely be the most difficult part of the process. There’s a good chance that while my body goes through withdrawal and gets the medicine out of my system, symptoms of my depression and anxiety could return. While he wasn’t guaranteeing anything (and did mention that all people are different), it’s a very real possibility that he wanted me to be aware of. I would be silly not to be a little scared, right?
That being said, don’t be afraid if you don’t see a post from me at the times I usually post. I will do my best to keep the blog going and keep posting, but I’ll admit that it won’t be easy. One encouraging thing is that I am in a good place to try and do this – the decision was not made on a whim. I have been on my current meds for the past two and a half years, and by taking all the proper precautions I’m ensuring that I am doing this in the safest way possible. Wish me luck this week – I’ll need all the good vibes sent my way!
Have you ever weaned off a medication (any medication) you’ve taken for a long time? Was it weird? I want to hear about it!
For the past week, my anxiety has been something terrible. While it was triggered by something specific, it’s wedged its way into every facet of my life and crushed my thought process. Every day, I feel like I can’t help going into a downward spiral every second my mind isn’t concentrated on a specific task. And it sucks – to put it lightly.
I was going to write a post about how much this anxiety sucked, but something popped into my head as I started writing. I thought about how this recent bout of anxiety has diminished the progress I’ve made in recent months. It made me feel like all the progress I made recently was wasted. That it was pointless. That I would have to go back to square one when it came to my mental health.
This always makes me think of the term ‘relapse.’ While it’s more commonly associated with drugs and alcohol, I’ve also seen it used in regards to mental health disorders. And while I don’t like to use that term when it comes to my mental health, I couldn’t help but thinking that I was going through a relapse. I was afraid I was reverting to the old me – the one that got sent to the psych unit after a panic attack and suicidal ideation.
What stopped me from going down the rabbit hole of a relapse was reminding myself that my battle with mental health is not linear. I won’t just slowly improve until one day I’m rid of my demons. There are peaks and valleys to my mental health, just like anything else in life. Some days will be good and others will…not. I put so much pressure on having good days because I’m afraid that a bad day will negate all my progress. But is that true? No.
A bad day will get in the way of improvement. It might get in the way of doing some things that I would usually do. But it does not cancel out the months, the years of hard work that I have put in to get to this point. And the same goes for you.
If you work on something – your mental health, a special project, anything – for a long time and then have one bad day, do not discount all the progress you’ve made. You’re not perfect. You’re human. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, they are inevitable. So you can either let them get in the way, or you can grow from them.
But while this can apply to all walks of life, I tailor this mindset to mental health specifically because I know what negative thoughts can do to a person. My anxiety works me up into such a frenzy that I don’t think anything else matters besides the anxious thoughts in my head. But that’s not true. I have made progress recently – progress I am damn proud of. And I have grown strong enough to know that one day might set me back, but it won’t take me out of the game. That might not seem like much, but it makes a world of a difference when I try to get out of bed in the morning.
I know it’s easy to say, “don’t let your mental illness negate your progress.” It’s much easier said than done. I can’t even promise that I’ll always take my own advice. But I believe there is bravery in the attempt, and there is power to even have these thoughts in your head. So maybe all this post does is put the idea in your head. Maybe that’s all you need today. That’s okay. Because every day is a new battle, and we should use all the weapons we can get.
About a month ago, I decided that I would try to get off the medication I’ve been taking for the past two and a half years. I’m not going to get into what I currently take (I hope I can explore that in future posts), but instead, I want to talk about the process of getting off the medication. My psychiatrist suggested reducing my meds every month until I was completely off them, a process that will last into the summer. I am currently on my second reduction and will go back in a few weeks to reduce my meds a third time.
So far, a month and a half into the process, I don’t feel any different physically. I have been taking two medications for the past two and a half years; one in the morning and one at night. My dosage of the AM pill is half of what it used to be, and my PM pill has been unchanged since it’s at the lowest possible dosage. My schedule has not been any different in recent weeks which is helpful, but I think that I’ve also been taking the proper steps to take care of myself physically.
There are a few reasons I’m trying this now. One of the big reasons is that I don’t want to have to jump through hoops while I’m abroad about how to get my medication. It’s been enough of a hassle trying to get it here with good insurance – I can’t imagine what I’d have to do when I’m in Europe.
While that’s a logistical thing the other important reason is that I am in a good mental state and have the time and resources to give this a shot. I really want to know if I will need these meds going forward.
Why I am I sharing this? Because I want to communicate a few things with you guys. One is that I want to be transparent about what I am doing and why. I would not be as mentally healthy as I am today without the meds I have been taking, and I can admit that without guilt or shame. But now that I am in a good place, I want to know how much of my depression and anxiety was brought on my external/triggering factors and what was beyond my control.
But I also know that stopping a medication, any medication, should be approached with caution. I did not decide one day to just stop taking my meds. Instead, I took a calculated approach toward reducing my medication to see how it will affect me.
If all goes well, maybe I don’t need medication for the time being. I’m aware that it might not go well and I’ll have to get back on it, but I feel like I owe it to myself to give it a try. Send any prayers, thoughts or good vibes my way – I’ll need it!
Have you ever tried getting off a medication? What was it like for you? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
When I was a teenager, I would feel…off. You know how it feels when something is off. It’s like having a pebble stuck in your shoe, or that last bit of corn in your teeth. Of course, those situations have solutions. Take the pebble out of your shoe. Get a toothpick. Now imagine feeling that way but being unable to change it. That was my reality before knowing what was wrong.
Fear of the Unknown
So when I first saw a therapist, when depression and anxiety were first mentioned, I assumed I would be relieved. But I wasn’t. Instead, my anxiety grew, and I was more nervous about my situation than before, when I didn’t know what was wrong.
There’s a lot to be said for fear of the unknown. It makes sense. I’m not saying you should or should not fear the unknown (maybe I’ll tackle that subject another time), but I am saying I had that fear, and I understand why. But what I didn’t understand was the fear that followed. Even though I knew what was wrong, I was still afraid. In many ways, it was worse than not knowing.
Fear of the Known
I was shocked. I was unprepared. I didn’t think I’d be that much more afraid of knowing something than not knowing something, but I was.
I’m not sure why I thought that fear would go away. Maybe I thought I would be a braver person now that I knew what I was dealing with. In many ways, I was. But as those close to me could attest, in many ways I was not. I let fear of my mental illness dictate what I did and did not do. I let fear in, and it won. For a long time, it won.
These days, fear wins less. Every day I get stronger and learn new ways to attack my mental health. But one of the biggest changes was recognizing the role fear played in my life and trying to minimize that as much as possible.
Whether you’re afraid of something you know or something you don’t, fear is fear. When you battle it, you won’t always win. It would be naive of me to tell you that I’m no longer afraid of my mental illness. But for every bit of strength I gain, that fear, every so slightly, shrinks.
Like many things in life, mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. Each day is an opportunity to be better. And since we’re honest here, it’s also a chance to get worse. And sometimes, it will be worse. There’s no way around that. But letting the fear of mental illness dictate what you can and can’t do? You can fight that. You can fight back. And you might not always win, but you will get stronger. And the stronger you get, the better you can fight. And my hope for you is that the fear you have, of the known and the unknown, slowly fades into nothingness.
Depression isn’t always easy to spot. It can sometimes be disguised as grief, fear, exhaustion. Sometimes there seems to be an obvious reason; other times it is incredibly subtle. No matter the reason, depression is something that is extremely prevalent in today’s world – major depressive disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for adults ages 18-44 according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And rather than push the evidence to the side, it’s time to pay closer attention to those around us to look for some of the signs of depression (these symptoms, and many more, are listed on the Mayo Clinic’s website).
Tiredness or lack of energy
Lack of energy is a big one for me personally because when depression hits it saps me of my energy. Working out the right medication has helped physically, but it still takes a mental toll to get things done when my mind is full of negative self-talk and resentfulness. Now some people are just tired – life is like that – but when this symptom is combined with other symptoms of depression, it can be a sign of poor mental health.
When you read this I know you’re thinking about your insomniac friend. I know, because I am that insomniac friend. But before you diagnose your friend remember – problems sleeping include both people who don’t get enough and people who get too much. So if your friend has trouble getting out of bed to do normal everyday activities, you might want to ask them if they’re okay.
Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
This is one of the prime symptoms of depression that set it apart from other mental health disorders. That last word – hopelessness – is common among people with depression. We feel empty. We feel hopeless. And we feel like things are never going to get better. As with other symptoms, this might be circumstantial, but when it’s not you should talk to someone about it. Sadness happens. Feeling empty happens. But it shouldn’t consume your life.
Trouble thinking, concentrating or remembering things
I have a terrible memory. I constantly forget things that happen – my camera roll is full of mundane photos that help me remember the things I do in life. Now, I won’t blame that all on depression. Like the other symptoms listed, take this with a grain of salt. But when you combine this symptom with feelings of hopelessness and a lack of energy, it’s possible that you might be having a depressive episode. Your mind can get cloudy when it’s full of self-hate and negative thoughts, and that can easily get in the way of concentrating on things.
Loss of interest in normal activities
I love the game of basketball. I played competitively at a high level until I was 18 years old. It got to the point that I was doing something basketball-related almost every single day. But as my depression got worse in college, I lost interest in playing. I didn’t get burned out. I didn’t fall out of love with the game. I just didn’t get any pleasure out of it. When that happens to the things you love – schoolwork, hobbies, teams or clubs – you need to evaluate why you lost interest. If there’s a concrete reason, it’s okay. That’s life. But when a loss of interest or pleasure happens suddenly or for no reason at all, you might want to ask yourself why that is.
While all of these are signs of depression, you should NOT diagnose yourself because you identify with one of these symptoms. Depression should not be a word to be thrown around lightly – it is a serious issue that affects millions of people. However, if you begin to combine these symptoms and notice a pattern of behavior in a friend or loved one, you should check in on them – not just to talk about to depression, but to make sure they’re doing okay.
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?
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!
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.