Having Mental Illness…Can Be Good?

In this closing post for Mental Health Awareness Month, Kristen reflects on what she’s learned during a month of posts by people she knows. And in that time, she discovers that having mental illness isn’t always a bad thing. 

Suedle of Kristen in green t-shirt shaking with hands up, sue and Kristen hugging each other in the middle shaking together, green dragon with STIGMA on its shirt roaring at them - this is what having mental illness feels like

Hatching an idea

Sometime in March, when we started planning for Mental Health Awareness Month, Sue had this idea to tell a story with our posts – just one story of one person experiencing mental illness. In true Committed fashion, we began brainstorming what this might look like, and so it grew. What if we told this person’s story through the voices of the people around them instead? So many of our posts for Committed are first person experiences of mental illness. What if we showed what it was like having mental illness from the perspective of someone who knows or even loves someone else with it?

The idea comes to life

And so my mind immediately started churning. Who would I ask if we were going to my story for this? And I came up with a number of people that could provide something. Maybe they could do a blog post, a podcast or a video. These could shed light on what it was like to know someone with mental illness – to know me. At that time, I was purely in idea-generating mode, so I got excited – this could be really cool. It could also be a great way to show that even if mental illness doesn’t affect someone directly, it can still have an impact. I immediately shot off an email to about fifteen different people to see who would bite, and then went on about my business, considering that part of my work done for the month.

“What have I done?”

Then the first blog post came back. Before I even opened it, I thought to myself, “What have I done? I don’t want to know what people think of me and my depression and anxiety! This was a horrible idea. This was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea.” I waited almost an entire day before opening the document to read it. And then, once I did, I started breathing again. This was, well, it was frankly one of the most accurate descriptions of me that I could have hoped for. Then again, this was my best friend – it would make sense that she would be so on the mark while still being supportive. What would happen when my boss sent me hers? Or I talked to my son?

Having mental illness…can be good?

And then another post came in, and another. Soon I realized what they all had in common – besides me and mental illness, of course. These posts were less about me, and more about how knowing someone with mental illness – and more importantly in some cases, someone who was open about their mental illness – had changed their lives. And they had all been changed in some way – for the better. Some found it was easier to be open about their own illnesses. Some used what they learned to help the people they work with and supervise. And some were just more aware about the challenges of others. But all of them gained from me sharing my experiences.

Now what?

Now that Mental Health Awareness Month is over, what do we do? How do we take what we’ve learned and apply it? We are educators, after all. Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • Print off The Committed Project Toolkit and use with your co-workers or staff
  • Try doing the Spoon Theory activity yourself or with others to gain a better understanding of how it feels to have mental illness (password: GiveMeTheSpoons)
  • Use one of the posts from The Committed Project blog to start a conversation – the more we talk about it, the less the stigma can hurt us
  • Continue to read about mental illness and talk about it – all year long. It doesn’t go away for those of us who have it, and we can’t contain our experiences to one month.

We hope you’ll continue to check out The Committed Project for more great stories, resources and information about mental illness in higher education professionals. Mental illness affects us all the time – we need to keep discussing it.

About the Author

Kristen Abell is one of the two co-founders of The Committed Project and is our Executive Director of Awareness and Advocacy. Kristen blogs frequently about the issue of mental illness, especially her depression, and this month The Committed Project featured her story during Mental Health Awareness Month. She is extremely relieved that this microscopic look at her life is over. She’ll continue fighting the stigma around mental illness in higher education as long as she can.

My Mom Has Depression

Aedan is Kristen’s 11-year-old son. He has known that his mom has depression for the past three years – ever since a particularly bad episode almost ended her in the hospital. Since then, he has had multiple discussions with both his mom and his dad about mental illness. His dad interviewed him recently about his thoughts on mental illness for this video.

Kristen in glasses smiling with Aedan in blue t-shirt, also smiling. Aedan's mom has depression - he talks about it in the video in this post

My Mom Has Depression

Kristen has written about her relationship with Aedan before and how mental illness plays a role. Read Kristen’s letter to Aedan about her depression.

Resources for talking to kids about mental illness

Talking to Kids About Mental Illness – American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Mental Illness – PsychCentral

How to Talk to Kids and Teens About Mental Illness – U.S. News & World Report

About the Author

Aedan is one kick-ass kid. Seriously, not only does he understand mental illness and depression, he loves Harry Potter, Minecraft, and riding his Y-Fliker around the neighborhood. He also doesn’t like haircuts, just finished fifth grade, and would want you to know that he’s working on having his own awesome YouTube channel – as soon as he figures out all the technical stuff. He is loved dearly by both his mom and dad, and he’s just a good human being.

Using Depression for Empowerment

Sean and Kristen have been together for over fifteen years, and married for most of it. There is no one who has more insight to Kristen’s depression (besides maybe Kristen herself) than Sean. In the past few years, though, he’s seen a different side to the illness – he’s seen her using depression for empowerment. 

Sean makes kissy face at Kristen, who he believes is using depression for empowerment

Down in the valleys

For much of my relationship with my partner, I was able to see bouts of visible struggles with her mental illness. These were, for the most part, fleeting. They would come at periods of high stress, or sometimes even seasonally. There would be a period of adjustment, sometimes even a struggle to cope, and then Kristen would adjust and move on.

Some periods were more difficult than others. Sometimes Kristen could see the valleys approaching, and sometimes I helped her take stock of where she was at. In all of this, my partner found a way to pull through it. Again, some episodes were easier to manage than others, but she always managed to find her path forward. Even in some of her darker times, I always admired her ability to keep pushing. She was resilient. She found a way.

Turning the darkness into light

I think that resilience helped to change her relationship with her depression. Looking back, it seems like one day she decided she had enough of dealing with depression on her own. She made some amazing connections and met new friends who brought strength to her struggles with mental illness.

To me, it kind-of seems like she just decided to face her depression head on. She was no longer finding a path through a dark time. Instead, she decided to turn around and bring some light to others.

Using depression for empowerment

Now, it seems like Kristen has some command over her depression. I compare it to the way that announcers talk about a pitcher having command over his or her fastball. I think Kristen has been able to exert a similar control. By turning around and facing her depression, she has empowered herself and many others to talk about mental illness more openly. She is using her depression for empowerment.

The number of people I’ve seen reach out to her to talk about their own struggles or struggles with their family members is amazing. Depression will always be a part of Kristen’s personality. It’s part of who she is. But instead of just finding peace and adjusting, she is using that relationship with depression to empower herself and educate others. Kristen knows there will be tough times, but I think the resources she has created for herself and others are something truly special.

About the Author

Y’all, Sean Grube is the bomb-diggity. He is a director of housing by day, and an amazing and loving and supportive partner and father by night and day. He goes to all the Boy Scouts stuff with his son so his partner doesn’t have to, and he does all the cooking, so he’s pretty much your dream guy. Most importantly, if he didn’t support his partner as well as he does, she would have a much, much more difficult time getting through those valleys. He is her heart.

Helping My Friend Tear Down the Wall of Depression

What do you do when your friend experiences depression? How can you help? Kassie – one of Kristen’s oldest friends – writes about their friendship while experiencing Kristen’s depression.

Kristen standing next to Kassie - friends despite depression

It feels strange and somehow illicit to write about someone else’s depression. Like I’m wandering into territory that isn’t mine to share or discuss. Even when it’s someone I’ve known and loved for twenty years, it feels somehow invasive and presumptuous to write about. Even when that dear, dear friend has invited me to write about it. It still feels wrong.

Maybe it’s because mental illness is such a personal experience and such an individual experience and for so long such a stigmatized condition. If you have cancer we’d gather together and bake lasagnas and offer to clean your house and drive you to chemo and watch your kids. But if a friend has a mental illness, what do we do? Do we ignore it? Do we hide from it? Do we wait to reach out until you’re having a “better day” or you’re in a “better mood?” Are we hesitant to ask “how are you doing?” Would we hesitate if it was cancer? Nope.

Depression Can Create a Wall

It can be hard to feel close to a friend who struggles with depression. No matter how long you’ve known and loved that person, or how well you know them, or how many times you’ve sat at their kitchen table and shared a meal and a large glass of wine and talked and talked and poured your hearts out into each other’s ears, depression is a wall. Sometimes that wall is tall and strong and overwhelming, and you cannot get through or around that wall to find your friend on the other side.

Stone wall in front of flowers - Wall of Depression

Sometimes, though, the bricks in that wall have been knocked down a bit and you can see your friend on the other side, working to take the bricks down with their limited energy, struggling one by one, yanking them out, to try to reach their loved ones and to see themselves on the other side. And some days that wall is just a small garden edging that you step right over to stand face to face with your friend, and offer them the hug you know they desperately need, that you need too.

Helping to Tear Down the Wall

And that wall changes weekly, monthly, yearly, up and down again, sometimes thick and impenetrable, sometimes barely noticeable, just a small barrier like a red brick trim meandering around a flower bed.  But the wall is there. It’s always there. They are always facing it and measuring it and figuring out where they stand with it. And as a friend you have to work around it, always knowing your friend is there on the other side, using all of their energy to fight against it and just keep going some days.

So you push against those bricks too. You climb that wall, you help dig out that masonry with your fingertips to reach them on the other side, you don’t disappear, you stay and help them fight it however you can. You listen. You check in. You push when you think you should. Because this wall isn’t your friend’s choice, it’s your friend’s burden. And yours too, because you love them. Their sarcastic humor, and passion, their advocacy and bravery out in our sometimes dark, gnarly world, all of that is on the other side of that wall, always.

Depression Doesn’t Disappear

And you know if you haven’t talked in a few weeks, the wall is back and strong again. And you check in. You call. You push. You ask hard questions if you must. Even if your friend is married to a wonderful spouse/partner, they still need you to listen and hear them and give them a heads up if you are worried about them. And be there. Show up. Because they can’t fight that wall alone. And the fight, the effort, the struggle only strengthens your friendship and your admiration for them. So stick with it, fight it out, ask how you can help, and show up. Keep showing up. They deserve it, and so do you.

About the Author

Kassie Sands has been one of Kristen’s best friends since way back in the college days – for reference, that’s a long time. She works in the nonprofit world and Kristen suspects that some day she’ll be an author. Also, she’s pretty freaking amazing.

How Does It Look to Have Mental Illness?

Sometimes the best way to understand mental illness is to see how it affects just one person. During May, we will explore how it looks to have mental illness through the experience of Kristen, starting with her own discovery of her depression.

Kristen sitting at table with son sitting on table and husband sitting on other side - I have mental illness

When we started planning for the 2017 Mental Health Awareness Month on the blog, I knew I needed to dig a little deeper into my experiences with mental illness. So I went to my journals, looking for an idea of when I realized I might have mental illness. There were a number of mentions of being depressed or upset in my journals – as there likely are in the journal of most teenage girls. But every once in awhile, something peeked through that sounded like there was something more to it. If you can ignore the melodrama of a teenage girl, you can get the occasional glimpse…

…I’ve screwed up so much lately that I might as well screw up some more. I feel miserable. I feel like shit. I guess there’s a good reason for that, though. I feel a deep depression coming on. A deep and long depression. (7/28/92)

That is a journal entry from when I was 15. People often ask me when my depression started. I don’t remember for sure, to be honest, except that I spent a good portion of my teenage years feeling pretty similar to what I’ve described here. I think I hid it well – most of the time I felt like I didn’t have a choice – I had to go to class, I had to make straight As and do the school play and be captain of the swim team and play the piano and make it into the honor society and and and… It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those things – many of them I did enjoy. But I also never felt like it was an option to let myself sink.

I Might Have Mental Illness

When I got to college, I began to be able to explain these feelings a bit better in my journal – and to others. My sophomore year of college was particularly difficult at times.

All I feel like doing any more is sleeping. I don’t want to go to class, and what’s more, I don’t care that I don’t want to go. At this point, I feel like dropping out, to be perfectly honest. But every bone in my body is fighting for my life. I cannot let this overtake me. I have to maintain some control of my life. I just don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping and crying. I know I’m depressed. I just don’t know what to do about it. (10/21/96)

At that time, there were no ads on TV for various antidepressants with their ridiculously long list of side effects (I mean seriously, have you ever really listened to all the possible side effects? No wonder people are scared to take meds for their mental illness). I didn’t know that people like me – people in the midwest state of Kansas, people who did well at school, or people who had friends – could be depressed. I assumed that, well, I don’t know what I assumed – I just didn’t think it was an option for me.

Seeking a Diagnosis

The spring of my junior year of college, however, things really came to a head.

I’m really  hurting right now. This is worse than I’ve been in awhile. I hardly got out of bed yesterday. The only reason I’m up now is because I have to work. I feel so alone. I can’t tell my mom how bad I feel…D’s been a big help, but I feel like I’m worrying him too much. If I could pretend like I was fine and fool him, I would. And I just can’t tell {my other friends}. So yes, I’m lonely.

I don’t know what to do. It’s taking every ounce of strength I have to get out of bed and go to work and to class today. And it’s so hard to talk to people. I just want to stay in my room. And yesterday I finally cried. And cried. I just sobbed. I almost couldn’t stop. And when I finally did, I fell asleep out of exhaustion. I don’t know what to do. (4/8/98)

Fortunately, it was around this time that a friend of mine divulged to me that she struggled with depression and saw a therapist. For whatever reason, that conversation allowed things to finally click for me, and I made an appointment with my doctor, who put me on an antidepressant. It would be this acknowledgement of my illness, more than anything else up to this point, that would help set the course ahead for me.

Living Life with Mental Illness

Maybe it was the fact that it was our family doctor, and not a psychiatrist, that prescribed the medication that helped me start to view my depression as an illness – not as something wrong with me. Don’t get me wrong, I still occasionally get mad at myself because I have mental illness, or think I’m weak or not enough. But I have been armed with the knowledge that those thoughts are simply not accurate. And that has allowed me to come to terms with my illness in a way that I suspect many of the people with whom I interact are not used to seeing. I think it’s for that reason, more than any other, that I’ve been able to become an advocate for others who have mental illness.

Before you get to read or hear from other people talking about my mental illness and me on the blog this month, I just want to say that I appreciate those of you who have been on this journey with me so far, and I look forward to those who will join me in the future. I hope to continue stomping out stigma with all of you for a long time.

We Work Best When We Are Whole and Healthy

by Caitlin (CJ) Jones

Each October we celebrate Careers in Students Affairs Month. Countless professionals plan programs and host sessions to spur top leaders into considering the path so many of us chose. Then we move into November, an overall tough month. We are nearing the end of the semester: faculty are preparing for finals, staff are intentionally connecting to those with various post-midterm alerts, undergraduate students are anxiously awaiting a break and second year graduate students are nervously preparing for the upcoming job search. Continue reading

Finding Another Option

by Kristen Abell

I was barely thirteen the first time I considered suicide as a solution to my problems. I remember feeling as though there wasn’t another way out – that I couldn’t possibly deal with the pain and hurt and confusion another day. I remember multiple times standing in the street in front of my house – to be fair, a street that was not terribly busy, but I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and at least that way maybe I couldn’t be totally responsible for it.

Within a few years, I had planned and unplanned my death several times. I’m sure I didn’t know the limits of pain as a teenager, but it certainly felt like I did, and it wore me out. Multiple times I was just certain that I could not go on, that death certainly had to be easier than what I was currently facing.

Continue reading

MEMORANDUM

by Clare Cady

MEMORANDUM

TO: Present Clare Cady

FROM: Past Clare
RE: Rules of bipolar depression
DATE: July 5, 2016

Clare,

It has come to our attention through several channels that you are starting this week dealing with a bout of bipolar depression. We are deeply sorry for this and hope that you are able to move through it in a healthy and comfortable fashion. As a result, we would like to remind you of the basic rules you created in a time when you were not feeling so low. Please adhere to these rules as closely as you can in order to ensure you do not experience the negative side effects of depression. We know that the direct effects are bad enough.

  1. Admit that you are depressed and that you are not in control of your feelings. Denying it or calling it something else is not helpful or healthy. You will take better care of yourself if you admit that there is a problem and you are powerless over it. If it works for millions of addicts out there, it can also work for you.
  2. You are not required to go to work, but you cannot stay in bed all day. We understand that you may have to take a sick day or two – after all, bipolar IS an illness. This is completely normal and understandable. However, it is not acceptable for you to stay in your bed with your computer watching Netflix for the entire day. Get out of bed. You can watch Netflix on the couch.
  3. You must tell at least one person you are depressed. We don’t care who, we just care that you tell someone so that at least one person knows that you are dealing with it. The best option (if it is available to you) is to just tell your supervisor when you call in to work. Friends, family, even complete strangers are all acceptable. We do recommend someone who knows you but are willing to concede that sometimes you just want to keep this private. We know that the act of telling someone is cathartic for you – even if you cannot recall that at this time.
  4. You must eat three meals. You do not have to cook, clean, organize, shop for groceries, or even leave the apartment; BUT you have to eat. If you can, eat healthy things. We understand that you may not be able to do this. If you cannot, we prefer that you eat junk rather than not eating at all.
  5. You must exercise. This is loosely interpreted but does not include sitting on the couch all day watching Netflix. On the worst days it COULD include doing situps and leg lifts on the floor next to the couch while watching Netflix. This is entirely acceptable.
  6. NO major life decisions. No, you cannot quit your job, end your relationship, buy a house, get a tattoo, drive to Chile, go bear hunting, or set out to run a marathon without training. Right now you are not in control of your emotions, and decisions should be put on hold until further notice. We recognize that some of the examples given are more likely to be associated with your mania. We included them here because manic Clare is even more likely to make rash decisions than depressed Clare is. All interventions are good interventions in this case, and thus we have included these notes on this rule today because it applies to mania as well. Please note that while it may seem like these kinds of decisions may make you feel better, you will still be depressed afterward because you are not in control of this (see rule number one).
  7. Be kind to yourself. Examples of this can include: taking a bath, getting a massage, making a (small) purchase of something you wanted, sitting in the sun, calling a friend (you may or may not disclose your depression – either is fine), eating truffles (please avoid eating the whole box, but if you do we will not judge), or going to the shelter to pet puppies (you may NOT adopt one however). It is also OK to do things that are not active but simply tell yourself kind things, or avoid telling yourself unkind things. Do things that you know make you happy, even if today they do not.

We appreciate any level of cooperation you can muster regarding these rules in the coming days. Please know that we recognize that by having these rules at all we are inevitably setting you up for what you will consider some level of failure. We do not consider it so. Understand that while these are framed as rules, we see them more as guidelines for healthy navigation of bipolar depression, and that there may be days where you will be unable to engage in all seven. THIS IS ACCEPTABLE. Please note that if you are unable to adhere to rules one or two for three or more days you should call your therapist and discuss options for increasing your personal safety.

It is advisable to review this memorandum the moment that you believe that you are experiencing depression in order to ensure maximum impact. We also understand (as with everything in this memo) that this may not happen. If you have read this far we are in deep appreciation of you and want you to know that we love you. Lots of people do.

Sincerely,

Past Clare

Clare Cady is a senior program officer of national college programs at Single Stop and the director and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. She has a background in education and the nonprofit sector, and has worked both in student affairs and outside of the profession. Beyond her work, Clare is a backpacker, singer-songwriter, crossfitter, and t-rex enthusiast. Her belief in critical thought and questioning leads her to never accept the premise of the given question, and her dream is to one day snuggle a polar bear. Connect with Clare on Twitter @clarecady

My Trauma Informed Office Changed My Life (And My Work)

When we hear about all of the innovative and successful businesses out there focused on employee wellness with gyms, unstructured work days, and daycare we usually don’t think about student affairs. But, why not us? As I took a new job in a new state, wellness has been a cornerstone of my office which has significantly improved the quality of my work and the quality of my mental health.

I could talk about all the ways my previous employer failed and how I hated being there. I had a lot of flexibility in my job, a lot of autonomy, and low expectations but my pay was far too low, the hours way too long and irregular, and there was very little support and sense of a team. This is not the story I am here to tell but it certainly exemplifies being part of a trauma informed office.

My office works hard on an issue that is even harder. Sexual violence is at the forefront of media attention and we are one of the largest institutions in the country. What I do in my position could put us in significant national scrutiny or praise. I feel a lot of pressure every single day to create and improve in amazing ways. My bar is set at the highest it has ever been in my career and I couldn’t be happier. So, why am I so happy and thriving in this role when the pressure is so incredibly high? The secret is simple; my office understands and focuses on trauma and holistic wellness.

We believe that each individual is unique and our job is to serve people. This means we take every opportunity we can to learn about different cultures and populations, we listen to our students’ and each others’ stories, and we make a conscious effort to treat each person we encounter without prejudgment. This is something I felt in my first interview with this office. When I showed up to work for the first day, I found it a true value. For me, being able to talk about my female partner at work has made a world of difference in my work performance and overall happiness. We have even created our own bullying policy and value building on each others’ strengths to create a culture of acceptance and teamwork.

We also strive to learn about another kind of diversity, the diversity of trauma. My office is always striving to learn more about how trauma affects the brain and how people operate. It is a value that we not only understand trauma in our students but also in ourselves. We do a quarterly assessment of our secondary trauma in order to track peak times of the year and check our wellness. Even though this hasn’t been in effect long enough to make adjustments yet, it still creates a feeling that my office really cares about my well-being.

Another way we recognize secondary trauma and the draining nature of our work is having a wellness-focused culture. My supervisor really exemplifies this through trying a new work structure this summer. She recognized that we were all working late evenings and long days trying to thoroughly work student cases and get campaigns out and rolling so she decided to create the option to work 4 10 hour days instead of 5 8 hour days. This gives us the opportunity to take care of our personal lives and and cut down on the extra hours we would work just staying late. In addition, once per month we set aside about a 2-hour block of time to do a wellness activity together. This can be painting ceramics, going to yoga class, going for a walk and taking pictures, or playing with puppies.  This all is in addition to us checking in with each other when we know one of us is stressed, is going through a difficult time, or otherwise needs some extra support. We are encouraged to take care of ourselves, hydrate, eat, and get sleep. Knowing the office has my back both in work and reminding me to take care of myself has boosted my creativity and work output more than I could have imagined in a matter of weeks.

Having each others’ backs is just one part of allowing each of us to be vulnerable. I reflect back on my first month of work when in a weekly one on one with my supervisor she asked me, “Are there any triggers I need to know about or anything I can do to help support you?”. I was surprised and a little uncomfortable at first but then I recognized what an incredible gift she had given to me and to the office. I could share what I needed, without judgment and with support. She has since shared some of her triggers with me and it in turn has made our office feel more human, more kind, and made it easier for all of us to support her as well. At the end of the day we recognize the humanity in our work and the toll being student affairs professionals can take on each of us, with or without mental health challenges.

Moving from a place that I was afraid to share myself and felt not cared for to this amazingly aware and supportive office has allowed me to increase my innovation and productivity ten fold (look for big projects coming out of my office soon, that’s what I did in 3 months) and has significantly improved my mental health. I was depressed and having breakdowns and PTSD episodes at least weekly. I have since come out of my depression and maybe had two in episodes in the past 4 months. I couldn’t be more thankful for my office, my supervisor(s), and for the culture she has worked so hard to create for us. There are many ways to create an office culture of wellness and support, not just these. The important piece is that you value and create it in every way you can. The investment will pay you and your institution back infinitely.

Tiff Dyer works as the Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator at The Ohio State University and has been diagnosed with PTSD and generalized anxiety. They spend spare time finding new adventures, exploring the city, and playing with their amazing west highland terrier and ESA, Max. Tiff strives to change the world one moment at a time and believes that everyone has something to teach. Connect with Tiff on Twitter and Instagram, @tiffmdyer.