A friend shared this article “15 Things Not to Say to Someone with a Chronic or Invisible Illness” on Facebook, and it is so well written and so accurate, I want to share it as widely as possible. Please take a moment to read this! Things that you think might be encouraging or supportive to say can easily come across as dismissive and belittling.
This week is Suicide Prevention Week, and today is Suicide Prevention Day. In honour of the day, I am going to share, once more, a piece I wrote in January 2012. This piece was originally published in Brock University’s Brock Press. Yup, that’s right, I “outed” my mental health experience to the entire university. Ok, well, the tiny fraction who actually read the school paper! It was definitely one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but if we’re going to break down stigma, we need to talk about it, right? I got some encouraging feedback from others, so I have faith it was worthwhile.
Your Mental Health Toolbox
I’ve been watching a lot of Mike Holmes lately. (In fact, I’ve got Holmes on Homes playing in the background now). You know, that good-looking guy on HGTV who rescues homeowners from incompetent contractors and ignorant home inspectors. I have no intention of taking up the trades myself, but it’s interesting to watch the team transform homes (and lives) and to learn what goes into making a good house.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about mental health. Hyperbole and a Half (http://hyperboleandahalf. blogspot.com) had an interesting post about her “adventures in depression” a while ago and recently The Bloggess (http://thebloggess.com) shared her fight with it. But closest to home is my own mental breakdown at the end of last term. Depression and I go way back—we’ve been tight “frenemies” for more years than I care to remember. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself in the midst of anxiety and depression, but I wasn’t happy to be there. What does mental health have to do with a show like Holmes Inspection? Well, if we think of our bodies as buildings that need constant care and occasional repair, I think there’s quite a bit we can learn from a guy like Mike Holmes. Here’s some of what I’ve been reminded of this year:
Make it right.
Holmes’ trademark phrase is all about doing stuff right and fixing the stuff that’s wrong. But when I’m depressed, the last thing I feel capable of doing is fixing anything. Everything seems overwhelmingly hopeless. I think this is pretty common. But the important thing is not to stay inert. If you’re feeling depressed, reach out to someone for help to start the healing process. If you think a friend might be depressed, make the first move and reach out to them. We need each other to help us heal.
Ants are a sign of bigger moisture problems.
It’s so important to be aware of the ant-sized signs of depression. Even with my years of practice, I can still miss the little warning signs in myself and consequently let things get far worse than they have to be before seeking help. Signs and symptoms include: feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless; sleeping more or less than usual; eating more or less than usual; having difficulty concentrating or making decisions; loss of interest in taking part in activities; decreased sex drive; avoiding other people; overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief; feeling unreasonably guilty; loss of energy; feeling very tired; thoughts of death or suicide (Canadian Mental Health Assocation, www.cmha.ca). If you are experiencing some of these signs, please talk to your doctor immediately.
Call in the pros.
If you need plumbing done, call a plumber. If you need electrical done, call a certified electrician. Often, I find all I need to cope with stress is a long chat with a good friend. But sometimes I worry about wearing out my friends’ ears or my problems seem to big (or even too banal) to bother them with. At times like I that, I book an appointment with a pro. Don’t be afraid of talking to a professional therapist. It is not as scary as you might think—trust me, I have years of experience! At the very least, think of it as someone who has to listen to you rant for an hour because it’s their job. I mean, what’s better than talking to someone who has no choice but to listen to you?
You need a complete thermal break between inside and outside.
Just as heated spaces have to be separated from unheated spaces, I find it’s important to keep some of my life separate from school. I call this having boundaries. I aim to have one day a week when I do no schoolwork so that I have space for my hobbies, my friends and my family. I also have learned to make rules for myself about what kinds of work I’ll bring home and what work will stay at the office. I’m not always successful with these goals, but just having them helps keep my life a little bit more balanced. When was the last time you carved some time out of your schedule for yourself?
Always have two spare spaces on your electrical panel.
You’re not supposed to overload the electrical panel or your house might burn down. We shouldn’t overload ourselves with work or we’ll burn out. Since I know I’m bad about overloading things, I try to be aware of what I commit to and prioritize the things that do need to get done. Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ can be scary, but it does get easier with practice. Have you said ‘no’ to anything lately?
Have a whole home surge projector.
Holmes is big on whole-home surge projectors because they’ll protect everything if your house gets hit by lightning. I think of the surge projector as the key indicator that tells me something’s going wrong. This surge projector is often a close friend who notices that something’s up before I’m willing to acknowledge it myself. Be aware of how you feel when you are both mentally well and ill so you can notice when things start going sideways.
Your electrical should be properly grounded.
What keeps you emotionally grounded? One way I take care of my mental health is by making time for the things that are truly important to me. I go hiking, practice photography or absorb myself in scrapbooking. Even better, I meet up with the friends who matter the most to me. My friends from academe can commiserate or celebrate with me as the occasion warrants, and my non-academic friends remind me that there is a huge, interesting world outside of the university’s walls. Spending time with family (especially my little nieces!) reminds me whose opinions really matter. Make a list of what keeps you emotionally grounded and make sure to put those items on your to-do list.
Use the right tools for the job.
You don’t use wood screws to put up drywall, you use drywall screws. So when it comes to mental health, use the right tools to get better. Maybe all you need is to step back from work for a weekend and get some perspective. For some people, the healing process will involve medication; for others, it might involve talk therapy. Some people find the help they need from their faith organization. For many people, it’s a combination of different things. No two people are alike, so you need to work with your doctor or therapist to find what works for you. Trust me, it might take a while to figure out what works but it is totally worth the effort!
At the end of almost every Mike Holmes episode, the grateful homeowners have a party for Holmes and his crew. Don’t forget to celebrate your recovery with the people who supported you. As The Bloggess says, “When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark” (2 Jan 2012). Recovery is a long, hard process and we should be proud of ourselves when we make it.
Having a mental health episode of some sort is practically a rite of passage for grad students. Everyone I’ve talked to about my experience has a story of his/her own to tell. I knew coming in to grad school that there would be tough times and I would likely have a depression episode before I finished my degree. And although I have learned how to manage depression and live with it over the years, I haven’t spoken publically about my experience. Until now. And I’m doing so now because I think it’s time we started talking about this.
So let’s start talking.
Some links for Suicide Prevention Week:
Ms. Hazardous’ post Not About Sportsball
The Bloggess Something About September (and search her blog for “depression lies” for lots of good posts)
Directory of Canadian Crisis Hotlines/Centers
Distress Centers in Ontario, Canada
Canadian Mental Health Association Understanding Mental Illness