“I thought you were stronger than this.”
“You just need to try harder.”
“Just get over it.”
For the many people who deal with a mental illness, statements like these may be all too familiar.
Though reported statistics vary, a high percentage of Americans (up to 50%, according to the American Psychological Association) will suffer from a mental illness over the course of their lifetime. Most people at some point will experience suicidal ideation. Many of these people suffer in silence, because they feel they have no choice. Society too often says to those struggling, “This is your fault, you are weak”.
The first panic attack I remember having was when I was eleven, and at the time, I had no idea what was happening. I was walking outside with a school group on an overnight trip, and suddenly, for seemingly no reason (as is often the case with panic attacks), I felt as if I couldn’t breathe and everything around me was spinning. My teacher stayed with me for a while to help me calm down, and that was the end of it. Or so I thought.
Once people had found out about my panic attack (and certainly not because I told them myself), people reacted by saying things such as, “What is wrong with you?” and “You can’t let this happen, you’re not a baby anymore”. Some of these remarks even came from people I was very close with. That day an attitude of secrecy and self-shame begun that has taken a long time for me to break.
For much of my life, I have struggled with my anxiety disorder. While the symptoms themselves, many of which are physical, can be very difficult to deal with, one of the most challenging aspects of having this disorder is the way others react to it. I’ve had people tell me that I need to get over it and “just be stronger”. Others have told me I’m pathetic.
I’ve even been told that, “people like you could do us all a favor by just getting rid of yourselves”.
It didn’t take long to internalize these reactions. My self esteem tanked. I felt convinced that I was a less worthy human being. I now know that these experiences are common among those with mental health issues, but at the time, I felt incredibly alone. I had trouble speaking up when I was struggling, and for a while, I wasn’t getting the help that I needed. It wasn’t until I constantly started feeling physically sick (including nausea, body aches, and a racing heart), that I got an adequate diagnosis and treatment. I was tested for a number of conditions, including thyroid problems and nutritional deficiencies, which can cause psychological symptoms as well as some of the physical symptoms I was experiencing. Those tests showed nothing. Desperate for an answer – one that didn’t involve me being “weak”- I was somewhat disappointed. My doctor then suggested that I see a mental health specialist, and I accepted, knowing deep down inside that I needed to.
Treatment helped manage my anxiety, both my physical and mental symptoms, so that I can live the life I want for myself. I still have a shameful, nagging voice in the back of my head, but with the help and support of others, I have been able to start rebuilding a more positive attitude about my self-worth. Even so, it’s an ongoing process. Anxiety plays a critical function, similar to the ability to feel pain. Both act as a warning system, and people who cannot feel pain (for example, those with the rare genetic condition CIPA) face a lot of added dangers. Like all aspects of the human body and brain, sometimes anxiety can go wrong, due to environmental, genetic, and other factors. I don’t mean to oversimplify mental illness, as so many factors play into it (many of which we don’t fully understand), but I want to think that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Dealing with anxiety has pushed me to learn techniques for how to cope, skills that will be important for me throughout my life. I am always in the process of learning how to make the most of my strengths. I am learning to work with my stress response instead of always seeing it as the enemy.
I can’t say much right now about how all of this has affected my experience at Vassar, as I’ve only been here for a semester. For the most part, however, people have been supportive of me (far more so than outside of the “Vassar bubble”), even if at times I’ve had to explain myself. That’s not to say that I always feel comfortable about my mental health here, though. I feel somewhat uncomfortable walking into Metcalf, and I know that I’m not the only one. Metcalf is a comfortable and relaxing space, but I do wish that counseling services were located somewhere a little more secluded. I know people who have had very uncomfortable and counterproductive encounters with the administration about mental health, which have felt punitive rather than supportive. I realise that some of this may be due to legal issues (which is a larger discussion to be had), but it’s causing people to unnecessarily suffer. Our young adult years, especially during college, are known for exacerbating mental health issues and bringing new ones to light. Yet, I am genuinely worried about how the college will react if I, or somebody I knew, were in a situation where extra help was critically necessary.
If you are struggling with a mental illness, know that you are not alone. It is far more common than it seems, and this is largely because mental health is under-discussed. Mental health is a large part of overall health and is closely connected with how the rest of the body functions. At Vassar, while much of the student body seems to be aware of issues surrounding mental health and emphasizes self care, there needs to be more discussion involving the administration as well. I think we could all benefit from more official forums and education about mental health, starting during freshman orientation. While there were a lot of well-advertised, and even mandatory programs about sexual abuse and drug usage (Which are critically important, and I’m glad that these programs were available), mental health and wellness felt largely neglected.
I remember an event introducing health services on campus, including those for mental health, but the only reason that I knew it was happening was because I happened to walk past it.
While I can’t pretend to have all the solutions, I know that more discussion and education about mental health would have helped me spend less time imprisoned in my own shame and get treatment sooner. I know that I may never be completely free from my anxiety (after all, nobody is exempt from some level of anxiety) or the self-consciousness that accompanies it, but I hope that both issues will continue to decrease and become more manageable, and that with less stigma surrounding mental health issues, the many others who struggle with them can find similar relief as well.