Isn’t it strange that talking about mental health – something that is so helpful to the person struggling and for raising awareness broadly – is one of the hardest things to do?
I have struggled for years with talking about my mental health. In high school, I didn’t have the vocabulary. I didn’t know that what I was feeling could be anxiety and depression. I was also surrounded by people at home and at school who were going through much worse, so I put my experiences on the back burner and repressed and denied them wherever possible.
Unsurprisingly, this backfired. Every year of college brought with it new realizations about what I had experienced in the past and was currently experiencing. I didn’t just have labels for things like “anxiety,” “depression,” “self harm,” and “disordered eating.” I also gained an understanding of my own emotional patterns and triggers, and how to manage them.
A lot of this was uncomfortable. I inherited a lot of my father’s emotional reticence. But I had two major motivators that forced me to process things for myself and try to articulate them. The first was an organization I joined called Ears for Peers. Ears for Peers is a completely student-run, anonymous and confidential support hotline at my university. As an “Ear,” I was trained by the counseling and mental health professionals on campus, and then over the next four years spoke to dozens of students experiencing a whole spectrum of mental health issues.
Denial is a powerful force, but eventually, immersed in this world, I had to start to come to terms with my own mental health. One plus side was that I was able to use my own experiences to help other people. The hurt I had experienced didn’t feel so purposeless when I was able to use it to connect with a caller. It also helped me learn my own limits. It took until my last year on the line, but I finally learned how to say “I’m sorry, I can’t take a shift today because I need to focus on my own mental health.” In a sort of “put your own oxygen mask on first” scenario, I realized that I was unlikely to be much use to anyone else if I was mired in my own brain.
The other force that motivated me to address my own mental health was being in a serious, long-term relationship. Through most of college I dated someone who had very little first – or even second-hand experience with mental health. He truly wanted to understand, but that placed the onus on me to open up, be vulnerable, and share things with him in a way he could understand. I’m not gonna lie – it was hard and there were many times where I just wasn’t good at it. To be honest, I’m still not. But now I understand the importance of being better, and I know where I need to improve.
Talking about mental health, even outside of the sometimes-intimidating one-on-one environment with a therapist, is one of the hardest things that I am still learning to do. I find it easier here, where the people reading this are largely nameless and faceless. But I know it will be just as beneficial to me if I get to a place where I can have the same frank conversations face-to-face with my friends and family.
Let me know if you’ve ever experienced this struggle, or if you have any tips for learning how to open up.