Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“What I came up with over time was that the people who deny their experience… those are the people who are most enslaved by what they have. Shutting out the depression strengthens it. While you hide from it, it grows. And the people who do better are the ones who are able to tolerate the fact that they have this condition. Those who can tolerate their depression are the ones who achieve resilience.”
The phrase “mental health” tends to carry a lot of weight and darkness when it comes up in conversation, translating into a nervous, painful, and dangerous silence around the subject. I want to talk about why—and why I have come to be grateful for the phrase and why I use it now more than ever. Not only does it supply one term for a messy, complex experience that one in five of Americans face, but it also provides the counter-mission for many a mental health activist: breaking the silence.
Let’s explore the nervous silence first.
The foremost reason for this silence is our culture’s taboo about mental health in general—complete bogus in my opinion. I won’t rehash the rant we have all heard about the stigma against mental health, but the bottom line is that it sucks. And, like with sex, the less we educate and talk about it, the more problems unfold.
One such consequence is that people don’t fully understand what mental health entails. Even if they do understand the nuances of mental health, it is still very difficult to know what to do or how to help someone who is struggling. Because of this confusion, the average person will tend to be even more nervous and silent when mental health comes up.
In reality, mental health doesn’t have to be that scary or confounding. According to MentalHealth.gov,
“mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”
Anyone can—and should—talk about their mental health, similar to how they would mention their physical health. It is always better to ask how someone would like to be supported rather than tiptoeing around them. What if talking about a cold or a broken leg were as taboo as mentioning anxiety? What if you walked around limping all day and no one said a thing?
All of this being said, it isn’t easy to break the silence, whether you identify with mental health issues or not. Like myself, many people who are dealing with depression or anxiety spend a long time hiding and denying it. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, 43% of those polled would not share symptoms of depression with their doctor during a typical visit. For many, especially for those with trauma backgrounds, staying silent about our experiences and pain is an important coping mechanism to survive. What I have slowly come to learn is that talking about my pain and my symptoms is a key part of self-care. Having a phrase such as “mental health” that encapsulates everything that I am dealing with is extremely helpful and useful.
Not only does “mental health” provide a singular term to encapsulate a large and complex part of my life, but it also has been a source of solidarity and community. Each time I hear of a friend or a well-known figure who is struggling with their mental health, it feels like a distress call emitted on a radio frequency only the broken-hearted can hear: “I am fighting this storm too. You are not alone.”
One of these distress calls came in the form of a Harry Potter book. When I learned that J.K. Rowling based dementors directly off of her own experience with depression—and then watched The Prisoner of Azkaban with this in mind—I felt validated and uplifted. Someone had translated my feelings into an accessible and poignant allegory, thus taking the time and risking the vulnerability so that people like me could feel acknowledged and less alone.
Another distress call was lost in the night when Robin Williams took his own life. When I found out, I was devastated. How could someone who brought so much joy, laughter and inspiration through such characters as Aladdin, Mr. Keating, and Mrs. Doubtfire have reached a point beyond hopelessness and desperation?
Despite his death, Robin Williams’ life reminds those of us in the trenches that we still have so much potential, even though our brain chemicals tell us we are worthless. And, because of his death, I felt hope as dozens of friends, news outlets, and organizations wrote of their sorrow, their struggles, and offered love and help to those in pain. Though Williams’ call was too late to save his own life, it reached a broad audience, slowly chiseling away at the very silence that intensified his pain in the first place.
You see, the fact that I struggle with mental health has evolved into a sort of identity for me, no longer just a meaningless struggle but also a way to connect to others in pain. The more the silence is broken, the more connections that can be formed. With these connections, we all become stronger and more resilient through the storm.
Featured image courtesy of Hillary Eggers.
Edit 10/21/14: The article originally misattributed Andrew Solomon’s quote.