Trigger Warning: Mentions suicide, anxiety and depression.
The first time I went to therapy was as a sophomore in college when a random panic attack before my first ever Honors’ class sent me spiraling all the way to the counselors’ office. I continued to go for the rest of the semester, grateful that the offices were tucked away discretely on campus so that I would never have to explain to friends what made me go to therapy. Two years later, my older brother died of suicide.
Armed with a tangible reason, I was no longer concerned about what people thought as I prioritized my mental health. The cluster of internal dilemmas within had never weighed heavily enough on the invisible scale of emotional pain before, but my brother’s death became a fitting ticket of validation that allowed me to seek help without being ashamed. And that thought haunts me.
My brother’s suicide was completely unforeseen. He was a charming, intelligent, friendly, and sensitive man who was loved by so many. He was a student at a university in Boston, worked full-time, and would only come home once in a couple of years. In his last message to us, he confessed that he felt like he was putting on an act of keeping it together. Other than the toxic society we all wade in and get contaminated by, my brother was also struggling with an internal dialogue he never let the rest of us in on. I spent months thinking about why he thought he wasn’t good enough, but even longer wondering what made him think he wasn’t even good enough to ask for help.
The cluster of internal dilemmas within had never weighed heavily enough on the invisible scale of emotional pain before, but my brother’s death became a fitting ticket of validation that allowed me to seek help without being ashamed.
It’s not that he didn’t have access to information or resources. In the past few years especially, the conversation around mental health awareness has continued to expand and include a variety of voices and experiences. However, as the conversation deepens, it often uncovers struggles that are far more ‘intense’ than our own. A person dealing with waves of anxiety may feel their pain outweighed by another person who battles crippling OCD. A person with high-functioning depression will always seem better off than a person wrestling with paralyzing depression. The Pandora’s Box of information around mental health has finally opened but as we process this overwhelming amount of information, we often end up placing problems side by side on the same invisible scale my sophomore-self was using.
I understood anxiety as the feeling that envelops you during an overwhelming panic attack, when in fact that there can be layers of anxiety that lead up to it instead. As a student, I spent too many mornings before an exam heaving over a toilet bowl after a night of insomnia, and ending the day with a fever. Dubbed a nervous girl with a weak stomach, I didn’t realize the impact anxiety had on me until the full-blown panic attack in sophomore year. I remember the feeling of relief that settled into my chest as I was given an appointment with a therapist based on the panic attack. It almost felt like I was worthy enough to finally be helped, rather than being ‘dramatic’ or too sensitive.
Self-imposed shame is an obstacle for innumerable people around the world who have accepted mental health’s existence but cannot extend the dialogue to themselves without admitting defeat.
Because the conversation around mental health gained momentum only a few years ago, there are a lot of negative thoughts that we have internalized as an ignorant society that belittle the vast spectrum of mental health. If a mere headache can have layers of treatment – from an aspirin to eye-tests to MRIs – then why does the chronic sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach have to be deemed any less worthy? And yet, we wait for a breakdown to be able to relate all our newfound knowledge about mental health to ourselves. It’s easier to offer help, love, and support to those we care about so when we see a friend struggling, we help them discuss all their options without brushing the issue aside. But when it comes to ourselves, we decide independently that resources like therapy and medication are reserved for those who are ‘really suffering’.
This idea of self-imposed shame haunts me as it remains my biggest obstacle against helping myself. It was an obstacle for the 19 year old girl who didn’t know how to tell her friends she had to see a therapist because she was nervous and didn’t know why. It was an obstacle for my brother who hid behind a cloak of high-functioning depression for so long, it kept him from seeing how much he was struggling himself. And it’s an obstacle for innumerable people around the world who have accepted mental health’s existence but cannot extend the dialogue to themselves without judging themselves for being ‘weak’ or admitting defeat.
We shouldn’t need a dramatic life event to justify helping ourselves. Just like there are ways to cater to milder forms of physical ailments, there are also ways to cater to the mental challenges we go through every day. The judgmental thoughts that arise and keep us from doing so, are thoughts we internalized long before we had all the information we do today. To continue the progress this dialogue has made, we must also stop judging ourselves and equating the idea of self-help to a defeatist attitude. Our health is personal and does not need to be justified to, or validated by anyone else. In the past few years we have made enormous strides in accepting the information around mental health; perhaps it’s time to destigmatize and accept its resources as well.