As a mother of two Millennials, I’ve noticed differences between their generation and mine. Like how they prefer to spend money on travel, amazing food and experiences rather than physical things like homes and cars. These aren’t negative qualities—just different.
There is one difference I’ve noticed that is extremely positive: how they view mental health. I recently had a conversation with my oldest daughter, Mackenzie, who struggles with anxiety.
“Mom, you wouldn’t believe how many people my age talk about mental health,” she said. “It’s not a taboo subject anymore. I know a lot of people at work and friends outside of work who see therapists or take medication for anxiety and depression.”
I couldn’t hide my smile. Obviously, I’m not happy they’re dealing with mental illness, but I’m glad they’re not afraid to bring up the subject. My experience growing up was completely the opposite. I felt totally alone. My panic attacks began when I was 10 and I kept it a secret. I didn’t want to be seen as strange or different. By the time I was in my 20s, I panicked every time I drove or went to the grocery store. I knew my symptoms weren’t normal, but I still said nothing. Stigma and fear kept me quiet.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie was 23 when symptoms of anxiety first started to show. At first, I don’t think she wanted to admit she was having problems. She spent hours at the office, working her way up; she rarely took time to relax, never thinking much about her mental health. She blamed her lack of sleep on her motivation to get ahead, and her lack of appetite on acid reflux. But there was a deeper problem.
Mental health conditions run in our family. My mom had depression. My youngest daughter and I have recovered from panic disorder. Mackenzie was aware of our family history, and maybe that made it easier for her to talk about her symptoms. But I think the main reason she was encouraged to get professional help was that she heard her friends and coworkers openly discuss their mental health issues. Mackenzie didn’t feel ashamed or alone.
Millennials are often referred to as the “anxious generation.” They were the first to grow up with the constant overflow of the Internet and social media. The Internet can make life better, but it can also make life complicated, as Millennials often compare their personal and professional achievements to everyone else’s. This can result in low self-esteem and insecurity.
The world is at Millennials’ fingertips, but they also feel its immense weight. “Everything is so fast-paced and competitive. Part of that is social media,” Mackenzie told me. “The sense of immediacy—everything has to happen right away, at the click of a button. There’s pressure to constantly be ‘on.’ To look and sound perfect, and act like you have it all together. But you don’t.”
She continued, “I’m relieved my friends and I talk about being anxious and depressed. I don’t have to pretend anymore.”
A 2015 study by American University said that Millennials grew up hearing about anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide, and they are more accepting of others with mental illness. Millennials are more likely to talk about mental health than their parents or grandparents. As more people speak out, the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to lessen.
Word is spreading through social media that mental health is an important part of overall well-being. Celebrities are openly sharing their struggles. The younger generation is learning about mental illness at an earlier age (thanks to programs like NAMI Ending the Silence).
It’s still difficult for many people to be open about their mental health issues—I’m not saying stigma is completely gone. But at least it’s not a totally taboo subject, like it was when I was growing up. I’m thankful Millennials are helping to break that stigma barrier a little further. I’m so glad my daughter doesn’t feel alone.
Jenny Marie is a mental health advocate and blogger. Jenny is married and has two daughters. Her blog is called Peace from Panic.
Trigger Warning: Suicide
One November day in Gaston County, NC, traffic was at a stand-still on I-85. It was unfortunately caused by a 16-year-old who took her life on the highway. As cars grinded to a halt, a pick-up truck was rear-ended by someone not paying attention. The driver of that truck lost his life.
If someone had recognized the warning signs of suicide in this young girl and gotten her help, two deaths could have been avoided that day.
This incident really affected me. I’m from Gaston County and with all the advocacy work I do in Charlotte as a member of NAMI Charlotte and as a new state board member of NAMI NC, I felt that I had neglected my hometown as a mental health advocate. Also, I know what it’s like to feel the pain of wanting to take your own life.
I felt that way twenty-two years ago on Valentine’s Day, 1995. Thank goodness, my aunt heard my cry for help, knew the warning signs and saved my life. When you go through something like that, I feel you are obligated to turn around and help others who are dealing with the same pain. I knew I had to do something in my hometown.
Starting The Conversation In School
I went to Ami Parker, Director of Counseling Services for Gaston County Schools, and told her, “I don’t want to see what happened to the young lady on the Cox Road Bridge happen to another child.” I asked her to consider a Mental Health Awareness Week in the Gaston school system. And Ami didn’t hesitate. She even took it a step further, planning for the children to take the lead.
She knew kids would respond better to kids and the conversations they would start amongst themselves—and they did. They went online and got information to present to other students that would get them involved. Because of this, kids from middle to high school were truly engaged in the week-long Mental Health Awareness Week. They created posters and banners from everything that said, “See the person, not the illness” to “Our school is StigmaFree.”
I can’t tell you how proud I am of the kids being so engaged and involved. One middle schooler told me that she rode the bus with a boy who cut himself. She had told him to “quit cutting” himself, but he didn’t. In this teachable moment, I told her that she did the right thing, but he needed more help than she could give. And she needed to let someone know he needed help. The young girl agreed that she would.
This is exactly why events like these are so important. It starts conversations among children. If we can start conversations with children, maybe those conversations can spread to parents.
Steps To Spread Awareness To Schools
If you want to have a Mental Health Awareness Week in your local school, start with the school’s counseling department, like I did. Make sure you’ve done your research on mental health, stigma and suicide, so when you talk to a counselor they’ll see you’ve done your homework. Most counselors would be glad to help you bring this deserving cause to the attention of the principal and teachers. I am so proud of and thankful for Ami Parker and her willingness to be proactive with bringing awareness to mental health. And I’m sure there are more people like her out there. We dedicated our event to the young girl who died by suicide in November, in hopes to stop others kids from going down the same path.
Kids are our next generation. We should be teaching them about the importance of mental health and the warning signs of mental illness. If we teach them well enough, maybe stigma won’t exist once their generation grows up. Maybe they will know when to ask for help and when to offer someone support. Maybe lives will be saved. With the looks of things, I think Gaston County schools are off to a very good start.
By Fonda Bryant
Fonda Bryant is very active in the community bringing awareness to mental health. She has been a volunteer with NAMI Charlotte for over three years and recently was elected to the state board of NAMI NC. She also volunteers with MHA of Central Carolinas and with the AFSP. She speaks to the rookie classes of CMPD, and is vocal about mental health, whether on television, in the newspaper or radio, her passion for mental health knows no boundaries.
It has been almost two years since I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD and generalized panic disorder. I can be pretty open about mental health and my diagnosis. However, I almost never share the more extreme parts of my illness, or I hide it completely due to the stigmas attached to it.
After years of being misdiagnosed and going on and off antidepressants, I was finally given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That was a huge breakthrough for me. It made the way I felt and the severe mood swings I would experience feel validated. There was a reason. I now had words to explain what I was going through: mania, depression, hypomania.
I now know why all of the medications I’ve tried over the years never worked for me. Like most people with bipolar, I had been diagnosed consistently with depression and anxiety disorder. The reason for this common misdiagnosis is due to the fact that most people with bipolar don’t acknowledge or recognize the mania. For many—not all—mania is relief from the depression. You feel good, productive, accomplished, unstoppable. However, the mania can also be dangerous and is always met with an inevitable crash because your body can’t withstand that type of exertion without rest. So, when I would plunge into severe depression and couldn’t take it anymore, I would go see a doctor.
The antidepressants never worked, and the antianxiety medications made me a zombie. Often times, I would get worse, but the doctors always told me it was because I stopped taking the medications. I found out recently that antidepressants can actually throw someone with bipolar into mania or depression. Again, I finally felt validated.
Still, I found that the validation I felt, or the acceptance of this diagnosis, was not felt by everyone. There are many reasons for this: lack of knowledge, bias, misconceptions, etc. Below are some of the responses I have received after telling people about my bipolar diagnosis. Some people have been supportive, some well-intentioned, others ignorant, or just plain hurtful. A few of the responses I have received are listed below.
“You don’t have bipolar.” “You seem normal.” You don’t seem crazy.”
I’m not crazy. I have a mental illness. I don’t announce it to the world when I can’t get out of bed for 48+ hours or that the reason I have recently taken up so many hobbies or work so many hours is actually one of the many, many symptoms of a manic episode.
“You didn’t seem like you had bipolar until you were diagnosed.”
This one hurts a lot. I have finally, for once in my life, had my feelings and emotions validated. I understand better why I am the way I am, and for the first time, I can actually work towards a proper plan to treat it, or minimize it. I was also very good at hiding it most of the time. This response completely crushes that feeling.
My mania was controlled by being massively sedated, and I learned that no one wants to talk to you when you’re depressed, so I would just disappear during those times. Now, I am learning to cope and experience the emotions and moods that come with my illness.
Now, I must learn to cope and experience the emotions and moods that come with my illness. I am experiencing a lot mentally, emotionally, and physically due to new medications, quitting antianxiety medications and actually being allowed to claim bipolar and feel it’s heavy full weight and the burden it bears. This means those mood swings, emotions and deceptive thoughts must be felt for the first time in a long time and that’s extremely challenging to say the least.
I talk about it because I trust you, I need support, or I want to explain why I have been acting the way I have lately. Having bipolar disorder can put a massive strain on relationships. There’s nothing worse than seeing its effects and not knowing how to stop it.
“I feel like bipolar is just an excuse.”
I am responsible for my actions. I will own up to those actions, accept that I am accountable, and work as hard as I can to fix it. It’s not an excuse, but it is a cause. A lot of times, especially in the past, everything is blurred by the mania or depression, and I don’t see the effects of my actions until clarity returns.
Believe me, it’s as frustrating for me as it is for you. The guilt, shame and self-hate can be so real. This is why many of us end up isolating ourselves. Sometimes I feel that all I do is apologize, even if I don’t know why. I know that this makes it seem less sincere, but I can’t control the intense feelings of guilt. Don’t be afraid to tell me when I’m doing something wrong or if my moods are affecting you. I don’t want to make you feel the way that I do. But don’t tell me that bipolar is just an excuse. It’s a reason, and I want you to know that sometimes the bipolar causes me to act in a way that is not me. I have been working on it desperately.
“That’s the bipolar talking.” “Have you taken your meds?” “Maybe you’re just imagining it.”
My feelings are real and not always a symptom of my mental health condition. Everyone gets angry, sad, excited, passionate, etc. Believe it or not, my emotions are not always synonymous with my illness.
“You don’t need medication.” “Just think positive.” “Just calm down.” “You need to do yoga.”
You have no idea how frustrating and exhausting the years of trial and error in medications and treatment are, or how frightening the side effects of certain medications can be. Still, I continued to seek treatment because the symptoms of not treating the illness were far worse. I held that mentality before. “I don’t need meds. I feel fine.” This was typically when manic. I was wrong. Even though there are many other things I do to help manage, I do also need medication.
A lot changed for me after coming off of antidepressants and benzodiazepines. I had more energy. I talked faster than I already did. I wanted to do and accomplish more. I was more excitable. I was more agitated. I would get easily frustrated. For good and for bad, a lot of the symptoms haven’t and will never completely go away. I would take things out on my husband, my mom, my family, and my friends without realizing it, or I completely isolate myself when I do.
I was prescribed medication to treat my ADHD. Now, not only was I dealing with the stigma of having bipolar, but now I had to deal with the stigma of the medication to anyone who knew. People started looking at me differently and attributing a lot of my actions, and even accomplishments, to either the illness or my medication. “That’s why you’re so productive.” “That’s why you’re so sped up.” “You don’t need that.”
Actually, I do. It doesn’t affect me in the same way that it affects people who don’t have ADHD. I’ve always had a hard time focusing, sitting in one place, being on time, staying on task. This gets even worse when I’m manic. Medication isn’t a cure all, but it can help manage the extremes of my condition. You’re not in my head.
Before my medication, there were times that I would self-medicate. I would drink too much, or make reckless decisions. The guilt that would follow would be unbearable. All I would feel is shame. Then the cycle would repeat until periods of stability. This is an impulse and cycle that I do not miss.
For the first time in a long time, I am learning to deal with my feelings, emotions and moods. It hasn’t been easy for me and it hasn’t been easy for those close to me. For that, I am sorry. The ones that stuck around, were there to listen, or to offer support, have been critical in this journey. Mental illness can be extremely lonely.
I am particularly grateful for my husband. He bears the brunt of my illness the most and it kills me. He does it graciously. He’s understanding. He doesn’t take it personally when I’m in a mood. He doesn’t judge. He listens. He encourages me to get better. He has had such a positive impact on my life, my health, and my happiness along this journey. I am in awe of his patience, supportiveness, and kindness. I appreciate him more than he will ever know.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone you have it. They’ll judge you and treat you differently.” “I wouldn’t tell your boss. It could affect your job.”
Sadly, this is often true. I’ve experienced it first hand and usually the ones who give this response are others that have dealt with the repercussions of disclosing their mental illness. I’ve done this many, many times. I’m quite good at it. I push through it. I smile when I am miserable. I slink off somewhere to manage an anxiety attack. I don’t talk to anyone when I am depressed.
When I reveal it, it is often not met kindly. However, that’s the reason I have decided to talk about it even more. The stigma is there because most keep quiet. This is what emboldens me to share my experiences. You never know who is suffering mentally. You can say you have a physical disease and most often, you are treated with concern or empathy. If you mention a mental disorder, the subject gets changed or the conversation get quiet. It’s an isolating experience.
Bipolar disorder doesn’t define me. There are also many good qualities that I have. I am passionate. I am adventurous. I am inquisitive. I am empathic. I am creative. Most importantly, I am strong.
A new year means New Year’s Resolutions.
What are your New Year’s resolutions?
The three most popular resolutions are to lose weight, get organized, and spend less/save more. No big surprises there. Come January, most of us are ready to hit the gym. We’ve put on a few pounds over the holidays or just lazed around the house for the past couple of weeks. I’m feeling a bit like a slug myself. It’s time to get our bodies healthy!
And if you struggle with organizing your time, space, and finances, it’s wise to get things in order and stick to a budget. These are all valuable pursuits.
But what about your mental health?
In my opinion, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Do your New Year’s resolutions ever include getting yourself mentally healthy?
Mental health matters. If you don’t attend to your mental and emotional needs, your quality of life suffers; your work suffers; your relationships suffer; your physical health suffers.
Mental health is easy to take for granted. It’s not like a broken arm or a heart attack. There’s nothing visible to alert you that your mental health is suffering. Of course, there are signs, but you have to be paying attention. In fact, often people don’t recognize their mental health problems until they manifest as physical symptoms.
Common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and stress often show up as physical health problems, including headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, stomach aches, heart burn, heart palpitations, changes in appetite, or trouble sleeping.
Often we try to deny our emotions and mental health problems. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma that makes it hard for many of us to acknowledge and seek help for these issues. Sometimes we have a hard time accepting our own emotional pain, fearing it’s a weakness, and instead we push it down, drown it in food, drink, or other compulsions.
Practice preventive mental health care
We all know the importance of preventative healthcare. You probably get a physical exam and some blood work every year or two to make sure your body is functioning properly. Unfortunately, most people don’t take the same approach with their mental health. Rarely do people go to a therapist as a preventative measure or talk to their primary care doctor about their emotional well-being. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There are also many ways you can practice preventative mental health care on your own.
- Get enough sleep
- Pay attention to your feelings
- Spend time in nature
- Pursue a hobby
- Laugh often
- Grieve your loses
- Accept yourself, imperfections and all
- Only try to change yourself, not others
- Ask for help; you’re not superman or superwoman
- Spend less time in front of electronics
- Connect with friends and family
- Try to do things because you want to, not out of obligation
- Practice gratitude daily
- Express your feelings
- Surround yourself with positive people
- Remember it’s healthy to say “no” sometimes
- Forgive yourself when you screw up
- Limit alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs
- Spend some time alone
- Get to know yourself
- Listen to your instincts
- See a therapist
- Practice deep, calming breathing
- If you’ve been prescribed psychiatric medications, take them as prescribed
Your mental health is essential. All positive change is built one small bit at a time. Choose one way to prioritize your mental health and practice it until it’s a way of life. The pay off will be worth it.
I first saw a psychiatrist for my anxiety and depression as a junior in high school.
During her evaluation, she asked about my coursework. I told her that I had a 4.0 GPA and had filled my schedule with pre-AP and AP classes. A puzzled look crossed her face. She asked about my involvement in extracurricular activities. As I rattled off the long list of groups and organizations I was a part of, her frown creased further.
Finally, she set down her pen and looked at me, saying something along the lines of “You seem to be pretty high-functioning, but your anxiety and depression seem pretty severe. Actually, it’s teens like you who scare me a lot.”
Now I was confused. What was scary about my condition? From the outside, I was functioning like a perfectly “normal” teenager. In fact, I was somewhat of an overachiever.
I was working through my mental illnesses and I was succeeding, so what was the problem?
I left that appointment with a prescription for Lexapro and a question that I would continue to think about for years. The answer didn’t hit me all at once.
Instead, it came to me every time I heard a suicide story on the news saying, “By all accounts, they were living the perfect life.”
It came to me as I crumbled under pressure over and over again, doing the bare minimum I could to still meet my definition of success.
It came to me as I began to share my story and my illness with others, and I was met with reactions of “I had no idea” and “I never would have known.” It’s easy to put depression into a box of symptoms.
Even though we’re often told that mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes, I think we’re still stuck with certain “stock images” of mental health in our heads.
When we see depression and anxiety in adolescents, we see teens struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives. We see grades dropping, and we see involvement replaced by isolation. But it doesn’t always look like this.
And when we limit our idea of mental illness, at-risk people slip through the cracks.
We don’t see the student with the 4.0 GPA or the student who’s active in choir and theater or a member of the National Honor Society or the ambitious teen who takes on leadership roles in a religious youth group.
No matter how many times we are reminded that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, we revert back to a narrow idea of how it should manifest, and that is dangerous.
Recognizing this danger is what helped me find the answer to my question.
Watching person after person — myself included — slip under the radar of the “depression detector” made me realize where that fear comes from. My psychiatrist knew the list of symptoms, and she knew I didn’t necessarily fit them. She understood it was the reason that, though my struggles with mental illness began at age 12, I didn’t come to see her until I was 16.
If we keep allowing our perception of what mental illness looks like to dictate how we go about recognizing and treating it, we will continue to overlook people who don’t fit the mold.
We cannot keep forgetting that there are people out there who, though they may not be able to check off every symptom on the list, are heavily and negatively affected by their mental illness. If we forget, we allow their struggle to continue unnoticed, and that is pretty scary.