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What the hell is “mental illness”?: an introduction

A deeply personal preface to the historical, sociological, and medical rise of mental illness and its subsequent outcomes

Published onApr 25, 2017
What the hell is “mental illness”?: an introduction

I was 20 years old when I took a handful of pills. White, yellow, blue, marked with code that only means something to drug companies, or doctors and pharmacists, but meant nothing to me. I still struggle to remember exactly what happened that night. How did I get there, why was I so torn apart, what was going to happen next? There was nothing glamorous about that table, or beat up old sofa, or my life at that point. But, I do remember the friction of each pill traveling down my cotton mouthed throat as I took another sip of Keystone Light or some equally awful beer that my fraternity house had supplied for the night.

I wasn’t any different at glance. My brothers, my friends, my teammates, they were all in the room with me. They took those pills too. They drank those beers, they laughed, and they cried sometimes, but I think the only thing that separated me from them was the overwhelming hope that another night of what we all perceived to be normal partying would be my last.

Was it a suicide attempt? It’s not like this happened only once. Attempts? It all still seems to blur together, but the only thing I knew for sure is that I needed help, but I guess I did a fucking fantastic job of hiding it from everyone else.

I drove back to Chicago with my best friend, we’ll call him W, before he flew back to Texas or to drive to Iowa to meet his family for the holiday. Did he know if anything was wrong with me? As we barreled up I-65 in a snowstorm blasting Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, I felt glad to be away from school, but terrified to go home. I had scheduled my first (and last) appointment with my primary care physician about how sad I had been feeling. I had called my mom the week before and explained that I needed to get in for a checkup before lacrosse started in the spring or some other line of bullshit that I have tried to perfect over the years. Anyway, she bought it and understood that I needed to see the doctor NOW. Two days before I had to sit down with my family members that weren’t even thankful to be at the same table with each other, I had to tell a stranger that I wasn’t even thankful to be alive.

I picked out the rock salt in between the treads of the boots I was wearing as I waited for him. I hadn’t showered in like two days, was wearing dirty sweatpants, and still had my jacket on with the hood up when he walked in the examination room. If you don’t agree with anything I ever write, fine. But if you’re going to take away anything from this post, listen to the age old saying, “Wear clean underwear in case you have to go to the emergency room.”

My doctor began a normal examination for a sports physical. I lifted my legs, took deep breaths, and said ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh when prompted. There was some light conversation about the upcoming basketball season as both of us attended BIG 10 schools. He asked how I was doing in my pre-medical coursework and about my family whom he all saw at his practice as well. He finished his examination and closed up my chart, which prompted me to make what probably sounded like a car crash come out of my mouth as I tried to get his attention for a “one more thing.”

Apple usually releases a new iPhone when Tim Cook stands up on a stage and says, “one more thing,” but I only managed to announce that I was feeling (overwhelmingly) sad and was wondering if I could try some drugs to make it go away. To be fair, this wasn’t the first time I had expressed this to him, or to my family and friends. I started feeling “sad” years before this, but it was written off as “seasonal.” Vitamin D and one of those stupid lamps was the treatment plan I was given.

As expected, he balked. I watched the look of surprise and judgment wash across his face. My ratty outfit became less of an ode to streetwear and more of a representation of craziness and laziness. He pulled up a chair and made me repeat myself. I explained to him how I was stressed about my future in the medical world, how my life at home wasn’t great, how I was not finding any joy in the things I was doing, and how my drinking and drug use was moderate, yet concerningThis was my way of saying I am trying to kill myself — he was supposed to see that, but he didn’t. To make a long story short, he told me that I should feel this way because medicine is hard and that everyone else’s family is just as dysfunctional as mine. He then followed this up with a half an hour of how he felt the same way during his residency training, which was supposed to make me feel better? Like an idiot, I listened to his song and dance and declined the Lexapro (that I then called back a few months later to demand) and went home without my dignity and 140 dollars poorer. I certainly wasn’t going to call the therapist he resistantly recommended to me either.  

I’ve bounced around since that visit, gaining perspective along the way. I wouldn’t say that I have been cured, but things are better-ish. I became involved in mental health advocacy work, which helps me stay the most positive about my experience. It allows me to be a creative, tell my story in ways that break down walls, and help others who have had similar experiences with mental health.

I helped start an organization at my University to focus on mental health stigma reduction that uses student’s input to develop initiatives that compliment bleeding edge research on mental health stigma that is backed by Bring Change 2 Mind, a non-profit founded by actress Glenn Close. (They have an unreal scientific advisory board sponsoring this, you should look them up.) I also had the pleasure of almost peeing myself when I spoke at Bring Change 2 Mind’s gala in front of people way more famous than me about my experience and college mental health reform that helped raise millions of dollars for mental health services programs. (I’ll be back this year as well, if you’re in NYC in two weeks and passionate about this cause, donate here.) 

I served on a national student board for the JED Foundation to help implement and evaluate national college programs aimed at suicide prevention, and developed focus groups at my University that bolstered insights into early intervention and transition year programs to protect students facing mental health issues.

I befriended my abnormal psychology professor when she let me into her office not to talk about exams, but about how I was doing and cared about me more than any college professor should. (Irene, if you’re reading this, thank you.)

I’ve continued my education at a medical school where I’m working on a graduate degree and a translational project that focuses on the functional neuroanatomy behind panic, fear, and anxiety in relation to new anxiolytic drug treatments.

My friends and family finally know about what I felt, how I feel now, and the future. I feel stable, accomplished and happy at times, and like I have something to live for. There are still days where I can do nothing but hide in bed and cry, where I’m consumed by waves of suicidal thoughts, where I think I am going to have to check myself into inpatient, but this is just the unfortunate reality of having a disease. This is scary to admit still. Especially when all the drugs that have been thrown at me do nothing but give me side effects without any actual treatment benefit and when good therapists are so hard to come by because of access and funding issues. But this is the harsh reality that I, and many others, live. Yet, all things considered, I feel like I have made (and continue to try to make) the best of my situation, and somewhere in this experience I have found the knowledge and drive to build projects and talk about experiences that can actually help make others’ lives better.

Most articles end here. (Albeit, most have much more profound and uplifting endings)

This one will not.

My story is not the point here. I am not looking for someone to send me a congratulations card because I did not off myself nor am I fishing for self-esteem boosting comments. I’m not looking for a round of applause for sharing my story to overcome stigma either. I only offered it to you as a way to validate my perspective and show you some transparency in a field where writers, speakers, and leaders are generally too scared to offer up anything too real in fear they’ll be scarred by their words for life. My story is a plea to convince you, the reader, hopefully a reader that is passionate about understanding and fixing mental health issues that I know a thing or two about suicide, mental health, sociology, neuroscience, and how to create (or at the very least, dream up) effective mental health care programs and organizations.

My story aims to portray that I have a general understanding of the lay of the land when it comes to the many ways we as a society try to treat/fix/hide/cure/obscure mental illness because I have inhabited these spaces and spent a decent amount of time looking around in them. Not to mention I’ve been graded on how well I can synthesize information about these topics on exams for a few years now too. I am not claiming to know it all. I am not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience by claiming mine is more important or more robust, but my take on this topic is formed through the lens of my experiences. What I am going to try to do now is synthesize some of my views to attack a topic that I find deeply broken — mental health advocacy and suicide prevention.

It is no secret that mental healthcare is broken. (yes, some things have worked, but in general the system is a train wreck). Over the next few weeks, (which will probably turn into months because science takes over your life) I will be posting a series of blogs that will attempt to explain what isn’t working, why it’s not working, what is kind of/maybe working, where we should invest our time and money now to make things work in the future, and what I would do if I could start with a clean slate to make a cohesive and functional mental healthcare system.

I’m talking a serious deep dive into topics such as rhetoric and language, the history of mental health and mental health treatments, non-profit roles, government programs like the VA, the ACA, and Medicare/Medicaid, health insurance company regulations, #hashtagactivism, how I think suicide prevention is a total fucking myth, academic research funding, big data struggles, the implications in using stigma versus prejudice and discrimination in mental health descriptions, etc. and how all of these things work together in a space that is supposed to create positive treatment outcomes, but more or less has failed hundreds of thousands of people.

Obviously this is a topic that has affected me and too many others. Some of the takeaways here are going to be gasp/cringe-worthy and some are going to be more or less common sense. But, if you are mildly interested in mental health, healthcare, politics, history, technology, or just enjoy attempting to make the world a better place, I think that I will catch your attention in the coming weeks.

So please, take some time out of your coming days to think about this issue more than just in passing. You not only owe it to your family, friends, co-workers, random people on the street, but also yourself. Mental illness many only affect a few, but mental health affects everyone.


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