Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's Talk.

When I went to check Twitter today, I was greeted with the trending hashtag #BellLetsTalk.

I was confused, so I did some research and found out that Bell is a charitable program based out of Canada. Their goal is to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, and today's effort involves them donating a nickel to their mental health initiatives every time someone uses the hashtag. So get tweeting!

Mental illness is an issue that's close to my heart. Since my sophomore year of college I've dealt with the effects of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder characterized by frequent panic attacks. And not like, "I'm so stressed out over these assignments that I'm freaking out" panic. Actual, diagnosable panic attacks can come from nowhere. Most often there's no clear reason, and you end up feeling like you're having a heart attack, and like you physically can't breathe. For over a year, I was averaging about one of those a day- it was miserable.

Up until college I had always been incredibly happy and healthy mentally, so it really scared and confused me when I started having panic attacks all the time, and I felt ashamed that I couldn't just snap out of it. I lost a lot of friends because I never wanted to go out for fear I'd panic in public and embarrass myself, which led to feeling really depressed. I wasn't sure what was going on with me, and I was nervous to talk to anyone about it. Looking back, it would have been amazing if mental illness was something more openly talked about- I wouldn't have felt so alone. 

My family had no experience with mental illness, and my parents were both brought up in a time where depression was written off as just being sad, and anxiety meant you just worried too much. They didn't have the tools to deal with my issues, and since I was away at college, I could hide just how bad things were from them. I waited much longer than I should have to admit I needed professional help.

Sometimes I look back on that year of my life and I'm sad about how much time I wasted being afraid. Not just panic-afraid, but afraid of speaking up and admitting to the people close to me just how much I was struggling. Even now, it's a little weird to write this knowing people might read it and see me differently because of the stigma that goes along with mental illness. But if more people talk about it, less people will treat it as taboo, and if that leads to one more person getting the help they need then I'll be a happy human. 

Things are mostly better now- I have really supportive people in my life, and my experience allowed me to educate my family. I still panic from time to time, but I've figured out tools to deal with it, and I haven't had a full-blown panic attack in months. It's not something that will ever entirely go away, but I'm no longer hiding myself away over it. 

When you talk about having a physical illness, no one treats you with kid gloves or tells you to just get over it. So why shouldn't it be the same with mental illness? I have Crohn's disease, and people react to that news with a lot less unease than they do to the fact that I have panic disorder. When I tell people about my anxiety, I sometimes feel like I'm burdening them, or that they think I'm telling them something way too personal. But to me, my physical and mental illnesses are the same thing, and they're just things I've learned to deal with. But to some people, it's a lot easier to swallow that some has diabetes than that someone has depression.

So if you're struggling with mental illness, let's talk. Talk to me, talk to your mom, talk to your roommate, talk to your best friend. The only way to end the stigma is if we stop acting like "depression" or "anxiety" are things that need to be whispered in the confines of a therapist's office. And if you don't suffer from mental illness, let's talk anyway. Be the person that your friends who are struggling can come to, because they know you won't judge them. Because the numbers of college students, twentysomethings, and people in general who suffer from some sort of mental illness are staggering. Odds are, you know someone who's affected by it, even if they haven't opened up to you about it. So let's talk!

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