Your Mind Matters

Originally published in the October 2018 issue of The Vindicator

While some like to think that the month of October is reserved for spookiness and the romanticization of autumn, there is a day weeks before Halloween that should be given more attention. Every year, World Mental Health Day falls on October 10th, and this year’s focus, according to the World Health Organization, is the “investment by governments and the involvement of the social, health and education sectors in comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based programmes for the mental health of young people.”

Recent representation of mental health in the media has been controversial and even toxic to Millennials and Generation Z. The release of “13 Reasons Why” in 2017 and its graphic portrayal of Hannah Baker’s suicide sparked a national outcry from educators, health professionals, religious communities, and parents alike, yet it was still renewed for a second and third season due to high viewership. There is a degree of responsibility to consider when dealing with such emotionally heavy and triggering subject matter, regarding accuracy and providing informational resources. While Netflix did start displaying content advisory messages for season 2 of “13 Reasons Why,” the show’s creative team are still part of the problem regarding the stigma that surrounds mental health and the general public’s apprehensiveness with talking about it.

The World Health Organization reported that half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-to-29-year-olds. Most cases of depression and other mental illnesses go untreated. This is partly because mental illnesses fall under the category of chronic, or “invisible” illnesses—conditions whose effects aren’t physically manifested, thus making one’s pain difficult to validate, especially by peers and loved ones. There is a problematic line of thinking that associates the way we look with the way we feel—if someone looks put–together or falls under someone else’s idea of healthy, then there is no pain or contrasting emotion to detect. This only adds more pressure not to talk about what’s under the surface for the sake of eliminating another person’s discomfort. Sometimes it’s unintentional and other times it’s not, but in order to move forward, we all must have more willingness to be more empathetic, and realistic. It’s not healthy to ignore what your body is telling you, and it’s unacceptable to invalidate someone’s struggles just because it makes you uncomfortable to hear them talk about it. There are a variety of external factors that contribute to a person’s overall mental state — including (but not limited to)  trauma, loss, physical and emotional abuse, past or current toxic relationships, addiction, financial and/or academic stress, and effects from other illnesses.

Seeking professional help for mental illnesses is a privilege in the United States—most health insurance providers don’t cover mental health, or have expensive co-pays for therapy sessions. In Mental Health America’s Access to Care rankings for 2017, Vermont was #1, while Ohio fell at #29, and Alabama placed #50. These numbers indicate how much access to mental health resources exist from state to state. The rankings are based on nine measures, ranging from adults with a mental illness (AMI) who did not receive treatment to mental health workforce availability.

Generationally speaking, the rise of social media has made it possible for those with anxiety, depression, and other illnesses to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and struggles more openly. Someone who has been using their platform to combat the stigmatization of mental illnesses is Sammy Nickalls (@sammynickalls), a writer and editor who created the hashtag #talkingaboutit, which has been gaining momentum on Twitter and other social media outlets.

What inspired you to start #talkingaboutit?

SN: I had a really hard time when I was living in Lancaster, PA in a one-bedroom by myself. I was so anxious I could barely leave my bed. After days of this, with the laundry piling up and my workload growing higher, I was scrolling through Twitter from my bed and saw a half-joking tweet from someone about how she's been lying on her couch all day with a cold. I thought, why can't I talk about my mental health as openly as I'd talk about my physical health? And what would happen if I tried?

What is the goal of #talkingaboutit?

SN: To make everyone feel as comfortable talking about their mental health as they do talking about their physical health (disclaimer: not referencing chronic pain/invisible illness here, but headaches, common colds, etc). In an ideal world, this would destigmatize mental health issues and make it easier for people to reach out to get help (and also make it easier to share resources and feel a little less alone).

Did you/did you not grow up in an environment that allowed you to discuss mental health (depression, anxiety, etc) with ease?

SN: My family has always been fairly open--I've been an anxious person ever since I can remember, and my parents always did their best to be understanding and kind about it. However, the area I grew up (rural Pennsylvania) was very conservative and tended to consider any mental illness to be "crazy" or "loony."

Have you noticed a significant change in mental health awareness / representation of mental health in the media?

SN: Absolutely. We're in a mental health revolution. Social media has been a big part of this, but also, celebrities, television, films, other pop culture staples have started to discuss mental health more openly. Of course, this is in part because the public demands it and they follow the money, but it's still a much more positive representation than I've ever seen before.

Do you think that there is a degree of responsibility to be taken when talking about mental health?

SN: Yes. It's important to be mindful of potential triggers. For example, I try not to talk viscerally about issues I've dealt with in the past, like self-harm or eating disorders, without providing an ample trigger warning. It's also essential to never cross the line from mental health advocate to mental health expert/therapist/doctor unless you have actual medical experience/training. Armchair diagnosing is harmful and can ruin lives.

What do you think are the best ways to go about fighting the stigma that surrounds discussing mental health?

SN: Keep on talking about it. Surround yourself with people who are accepting of you talking about it. Maintain your own support system so that you can keep feeling comfortable and loved enough to share your experiences. The only way we can fight it is to constantly keep mental health at the forefront of the conversation.

We often react to things that we don’t understand with fear. If something is going on inside of you that isn’t making you feel like yourself, vocalize it. Your mind matters, and it’s important to take the necessary steps to take care of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean going straight to a medical professional and seeking a diagnosis, especially if proper healthcare isn’t a feasible option. It’s okay to start small, because even a few acts of self–awareness produce significant results. In this day and age, solutions can be found at your fingertips—if you’re having a bad day, use #talkingaboutit and you may find a community of people who are going through the same thing as you and can provide you with resources that aren’t unattainable. Most importantly, keep the conversation going—by fighting the stigma, you’re shining a light on those who think they’re being left in the dark.


Special thanks to Sammy Nickalls for taking the time to be interviewed for this piece.

For more information about the Access to Care Rankings, click here.