It can happen several ways. It can be losing someone you care about because of your behavior. It can be a health scare after binging and purging too many times. It can be a suicide attempt. Coming to the realization that you can’t keep going down the road you’re on can happen several ways.
It’s rarely easy. It’s usually jarring. It might feel like rock bottom. It’s often preceded by questioning, denial and fear. Questioning if therapy is really that helpful. Denial that it’s actually a problem. Fear of being judged or ostracized.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that eight to ten years is the average time that passes between the onset of symptoms of a mental illness and treatment. This means the average person who has a mental health condition, whether it’s depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anorexia, among so many others, live with their conditions for eight to ten years before seeking treatment.
The reason so many let years pass before seeking help? Stigma. The idea that someone who has a mental health condition is damaged, broken, screwed up or has something innately wrong with them stops so many from seeking help. Sometimes mental illness occurs due to brain chemistry or genetics. Other times, they’re brought on by events that happen to an individual, examples being sexual assault, emotional or physical abuse or the death of a loved one.
UConn students who have been affected by mental illness spoke with the Daily Campus about their experiences with stigma and how they’re been shaped by their mental health.
Kristina Drollinger – Junior studying women’s, gender and sexuality studies and human rights
Drollinger said stigma is frustrating and creates a barrier for many who could benefit from therapy or medication.
“I think there’s a stigma that you shouldn’t be getting help until you completely lose your shit,” Drollinger said. “I think that idea is really, really harmful. It not only characterizes every single mentally ill person as being ‘crazy’… But also, it prevents a lot of students on UConn’s campus and in the larger world from getting help because they feel like ‘I’m not bad enough.’”
Drollinger said she’s experienced anxiety, depression, self-harm and bipolar disorder. She doesn’t look at the conditions as labels though. Rather, Drollinger called the diagnoses validating.
“It’s like ‘Here’s what you’re feeling and here’s what it’s called,’” Drollinger said.
Drollinger said personally, she’s dealt with stigma regarding everything from her medication to her therapists. Sometimes, she says, people are surprised that she’s seen multiple therapists.
“Finding a therapist is kind of like dating. It’s quite possible that you’re not going to find someone the first time you sit down,” Drollinger said.
Drollinger said, while she is helping herself, she still struggles with stigma and being open.
“Honestly, I still haven’t hit the point where I’ve gone all-in in regards to taking care of myself because I do still deal with that stigma. I can be on medication and still not want to seek therapy or talk about it, which is difficult for me,” Drollinger said.
Ultimately, Drollinger said she hopes more people see the benefits of therapy and medication and stop thinking of mental illness as something to be ashamed of.
“If [there] is something that’s wrong with your brain and it can be fixed by medication, why would you not do that? If someone had a physical illness, you wouldn’t tell them to just go for a run, just read a book or do something that people tell everyone with mental illness to do.”
Will Keating – Senior studying cognitive science
Keating has found a lot of inspiration through his own experiences.
“I will not rest until suicide is not the second [leading cause of] death in adolescents,” Keating said.
Keating is attending UConn and majoring in cognitive science to study mental illness, particularly among teens and young adults.
Keating attempted suicide when he was younger, ending up in the hospital his junior year of high school. Once his attempt was “on record” – medical files and all – he felt like his struggle was on display for the whole community, including his family, classmates and teachers.
When a hospital worker suggested in-patient care, Keating said he lied, denying he was dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts and said the attempt was for attention.
“If I go to in-patient care, I’m committed. I’ll never be able to have a normal life,” Keating said, of his mindset at the time.
Keating said he wanted to forget about the suicide attempt and tried to put it behind him, but began self-medicating and abusing cough syrup and Vicodin. Keating struggled to get clean but after getting into a fight one night and coming home with bruises and cuts on his face, Keating’s worried parents called an ambulance and he was sent to the emergency room.
“This was the second time in-patient care was discussed and this time I didn’t get out of it,” Keating said. “It was the best experience of my life.”
Keating said he wishes he went to in-patient care sooner and thinks he wouldn’t have self-medicated if he had.
Keating said stigma he held against himself prevented him from getting help earlier. He referenced a Louis CK joke about the stigma surrounding suicidal thoughts.
“[Louis CK] is talking about if you talk to your therapist and he asks you ‘Do you have any suicidal thoughts?’ you say, ‘Oh no, of course not.’ No one wants to say yes because if you say you do, the therapist pushes a big red button and people come and tackle you,” Keating said.
Keating said, while depression has brought him pain, it’s provided him with a lot of experience and compassion. He acknowledges it as a part of him, rather than ignoring it. He says he has a greater appreciation for the little things.
“You need little victories with depression, whether it’s an A on a test or it’s a chocolate milkshake. You need things that can really keep you going,” Keating said.
Keating said he’s learned to accept depression as a part of him, without letting it take over.
“Major reoccurring depression: this is my label. Three little words that obscure thousands.”
Amanda Wright – Junior studying communication and political science
Wright finds a lot of humor in her mental illness.
“I don’t have time to be mentally ill. Like, I don’t have time to get help” Wright said, half-joking, half-serious. Wright expressed frustration over the amount of dedication and time it takes to treat mental illness.
“It’s really frustrating and hard. It’s a really long journey to finally get okay,” Wright said.
Wright has had depression, social anxiety and ADHD since she was a child. She said when she was younger, her parents thought she was autistic, because of her resistance to meeting new people and her hyperactive behavior.
While she’s careful not to joke about others, Wright finds comfort in joking about her depression, instead of feeling upset about it. She admits some people find it off-putting, but she doesn’t think people should take the way she views herself offensively.
“You’re neurotypical. You can probably get over it by tomorrow. This is going to affect me for the rest of my life,” Wright said, of people who find her jokes offensive.
Wright said even her parents caution her against being open about her mental health, but she said she tries to be open so people can better understand depression and how it affects her.
Wright thinks stigma can be particularly tough in college, as so many students are under pressure.
“It’s really hard to be this perfect, well-rounded student who does all this stuff and has a job that pays and get a 4.0 and be in clubs. It’s very frustrating,” Wright said.
Wright said getting help has been essential to her well-being. She says she doesn’t feel like herself without her medication and doesn’t know what she’d do without it.
“If I rode it out, I’d probably be dead by now, as morbid as that is,” Wright said.
Wright said she doesn’t look at mental illness as something that hinders her. Rather, sometimes it can be an advantage.
“My brain works in a different way. I can think of things faster because of my ADHD,” Wright said. “The less quote-unquote ‘normal’ you are, the more you have to offer because you have a different perspective.”
Wright compared stigma against people with mental illness to other forms of discrimination like homophobia, racism and sexism. She said stigma can be combatted through attempting to understand one another’s differences, instead of passing judgement.
“I know it’s out human nature to judge things… but we can easily shut those thoughts off,” Wright said. “Stigmas can be stopped but it’s up to the people who are stigmatizing… Make sure your voice is heard.”
Never deny yourself the help you need. It’s okay to not be okay.
Schae Beaudoin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.