Mental Health Awareness Month has been at the back of my mind for the past 28 days, as I contemplated whether or not it was worth it to share my own journey and insights on the topic. I feel slightly wrong commenting about the struggle when I’m still in the middle of it, and I was quite worried that this post would only add to the stigma behind mental health. Nonetheless, I know that there is no better time to take the risk and open up about this part of my life than during a month dedicated to exactly that.
Coming into college, I knew I was more anxious and emotional than the average person, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe I had any form of mental illness. Two years, four therapists, and quite a few different medications later, it’s hard to believe that I ever knew a reality without mental illness in the picture. My chronic anxiety and insomnia often feel inescapable, and though I do all the exercise, self-care, and affirmations out there, mental illness is still an everyday battle for me. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found the coping mechanisms that work for me, but the truth is, I’m still very much figuring out how to manage the psychological, physiological, and emotional symptoms. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of really calm, joyful moments. In fact, I originally wrote this post on a genuinely good day. Mental illness isn’t always a complete wall of darkness. For me, it’s like a dark tunnel that you can see the light at the end of. Sometimes you feel like you’re really close to that long-awaited light, and you feel really excited and joyful. Sometimes you feel like the light is so far away, even as you move more and more forward. Sometimes your eyes get a little blurry, and you can’t see the light for a bit. Those moments are really scary. But what has saved me is clinging onto that ever-present, hope-filled speck of light, no matter how tiny it feels. To all of those who struggle with mental illness like I do, I sincerely hope you are able to find that light at the end of the tunnel every single day. To those who want to support someone with mental illness, help them see that light. It’s as simple as giving them a casual hug when you know they’re putting on a fake smile, or listening to them cry their eyes out as they lose it in front of you.
Though the past two years have sent me to hell and back, they’ve also taught me so much about mental health and life as a whole that I’m not sure I could have learned in any easier way. I learned how powerful it is to hold your puppy when it feels like your world is crumbling. I learned that while your loved ones will support you in any way they can, you need to be your own hero at the end of the day. I learned that falling in love won’t fix you, but I also learned that you aren’t undateable if you suffer from mental illness. I learned that the human brain and body are hella strong, and that it is in fact possible to get an A on an exam after a night of 0 hours of sleep. I learned that mental illness is often simply a matter of shitty brain chemical regulation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any agency in the battle. I learned that hiding from the world isn’t the answer, as consistently shutting yourself out to protect others from dealing with you only allows the mental illness to win. I learned that shifting out of a really bad mind space, even if it’s only effective 30% of the time, is still better than letting yourself stay in it. I learned that there’s so much more to people than their mental illness, and that I would so much rather be defined by things like my dedication to justice reform, my love for running, or even my obsession with reality television. I learned that you aren’t a burden, no matter how hard it is to fully believe that. I’ve learned that no matter how many times you might feel like you have no strength left in you, you absolutely, 100%, most certainly have the power to keep fighting. I believe that mental health awareness largely consists of making the effort to understand how difficult it can be for people to learn the above (and similar) lessons.
I’m happy that mental health is something that is talked about much more bluntly these days, but there are still fundamental issues in the way society handles mental illness. My school doesn’t have enough therapists to provide students with individual therapy unless they present extremely severe symptoms. My school is also infamous for threatening to take administrative action against students who showed suicidal ideation but did not want to be admitted into a psychiatric facility. People all over the nation cannot afford adequate mental health counseling, and racial disparities are sadly extremely vivid in this issue. Criminals who are clearly mentally ill are forced into prisons that only add to their traumatized psyche. Mental health is tip-toed around on a micro and macro level, and that’s why awareness months such as this one are so critical.
There are 52 million people in the United States alone who struggle with mental illness, and I will never claim that my story is representative of the obstacles and triumphs of everyone’s journeys. I do, however, believe that there is something so relieving in knowing that we aren’t alone in the general struggle. I don’t know how much power a single post can have in creating institutional change, but I’m hoping that sharing my story and what I’ve learned can either provide connection for those struggling or awareness for those who want to help a struggling friend or family member. No matter what side of the battle you’re on, do your best to show yourself and others grace, patience, and love. It’s a hard battle, but with awareness and both external and internal support, it’s one we can keep fighting together as a society.