You Are Welcome Here

by Kristen Abell

Over the past few weeks, I have felt a sadness welling in me – not necessarily a depression, but more of an overwhelming fear and frustration with my place in the world as someone who experiences mental illness. Several things contributed to this, but the death of a fierce mental health advocate, Carrie Fisher, has definitely pushed it to the brink. Continue reading

The Toolkit is HERE!

We would like to officially introduce you to The Committed Project’s Educational Toolkit. It is designed to help you facilitate conversations about mental illness at your own college or university. We encourage you to share it with colleagues across your institution and professional organizations. Don’t forget to email us or tag The Committed Project to let us know how you are using the Toolkit!

The Committed Project Educational Toolkit

The Anxiety Chronicles: Confession 1

by P.L. Thomas

Have you ever felt anxious? Right before giving a talk, or waiting on news that could be bad or good, or minutes before a first date?

Well, you don’t understand then; you don’t and probably can’t understand what suffering from anxiety is like because individual events of anxiousness or worry would be a relief to those of us who suffer the unwanted psychological cocktail of anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD (among others).

Colleen Flaherty has recently detailed the stigma of mental illness within the academy:

Railton’s topic? His battle with depression, which he says he’s hidden for too long.

“As academics, we live in its midst,” Railton said, according to a draft of the John Dewey Lecture he delivered last week at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division in St. Louis. “We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are ‘educated’ about depression — we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”

In the same way that don’t ask, don’t tell policies implied that being gay was something shameful to be kept private, Railton said, the social codes surrounding mental illness prevent many who need help from seeking it. He encouraged those who have struggled with depression and related conditions, such as anxiety, to come out and share their experiences, rather than conceal them for fear of judgment.

October of 1999—my lifelong battle with anxiety (I’ll use that term for the cocktail noted above) became nearly debilitating. For almost 40 years, I had managed it, masked it so powerfully that when I was rendered unable to sleep due to some invisible force that gripped me every time I tried simply to lie down and then relented to visiting my doctor, he was completely unable to diagnose my condition.

A new partner in the medical group noted immediately that I was having panic attacks (although I reject the “attack” part in that it suggests incidences over the pervasive weight of anxiety).

Like Railton, I admit that possibly the greatest challenge with anxiety is that it becomes a vicious cycle of masking to hide the most embarrassing weakness of all: anxiety is completely irrational. In the rational world of academia, few things are worse to admit.

So my life within academia, higher education especially, is a constant but unenjoyable Merry-Go-Round of trying to explain the irrational to the rational.

“I don’t fly,” I explain calmly.

“You don’t fly?” the person always asks, as if this is unfathomable.

“I have flown,” I add, anticipating where the conversation is going. “And in part, that is why I don’t fly.”

“Just take something,” comes the next round.

“It is not the flying,” I continue diligently. “It is the entire concept, and thus, I would have to be medicated from the moment I knew I was going to fly and then until I returned.”

But virtually no one who ventures into this with me understands. Go back to the opening above.

There is nothing rational about a 54-year-old man with a doctorate and successful academic and scholarly career not flying but driving his car every day and cycling 9000-10,000 miles a year (and having been run over by cars twice during that 30-year hobby).

Nothing rational at all.

But if you are interested, I can detail that anxiety: I hate any sort of formal situation (generally they make me want to run to anywhere else), I hate not knowing (and this isn’t about control; it is genuinely about not knowing), and sleep is both the most wonderful thing ever in the human condition (during my collapse in 1999, I was on sleeping meds and cannot explain the joy I discovered at 38) and a constant struggle (I often wake in the night with one or both hands gripping the headboard, white knuckled).

And just as it took decades for me to recognize my anxiety, I have been forced lately to see that my daughter likely shares some of these challenges (although I had been fooled into thinking that she is quite unlike me) and that my granddaughter, fists always clenched and feet crossed and flexed, will soon carry on this unwelcome family tradition.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Other Stories

If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I’d say, “Clench your fist. Now hold that for 54 years and then get back to me.”

While that is entirely fair, it really isn’t helping for those who sincerely wonder what this anxiety is like. So as I mentioned above, my anxiety is a pervasive condition, a fact of life from which I basically never have any relief (except for the cycling, which appeases both my OCD tendencies and creates durations of pain that nearly shut off my mind).

It is a constant (and I mean constant) internal dialogue not of a split mind, but one singular mind that functions simultaneously in the irrational and rational worlds.

Exhausted yet just thinking about it? Sorry, but that is getting you close.

Michael J. Totten, writing about the popularity of zombie narratives, explains:

The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety”—and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.

And for me, The Walking Dead (graphic or TV series) is exactly that—a recreation of living under the weight of anxiety. Rick Grimes and his band are under the relentless fact of zombies, forced into an irrational world of the living dead.

With Season 5 and episode 12, the power of this TV series to portray anxiety is now in full view.

Safely behind the walls of Alexandria and apparently among new friends, the primary characters have a different challenge:

Much of the episode “Remember” deals with the group learning to live in a new place surrounded by strangers. Although everyone can have a new house, the survivors sleep together, play it safe. They have every reason to worry, every reason to find safety in numbers.

Living during the zombie apocalypse is never being allowed to live in the moment, existence dominated by the glaring light of the next moment.

Living during the zombie apocalypse colors everything, as Rick tries to explain:

Rick’s interview with Deanna is the most important. He keeps telling her—and everyone else—not to trust him. Not to trust anybody.

“You should keep your gates closed,” he tells Deanna. “Why?” she asks.

“Because it’s all about survival now, at any cost,” he replies. “People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live.”

“Are you telling me not to bring your people in, or are you already looking after this place?” she asks him, but he doesn’t answer.

And I think this is why so much of the TV series focuses on night, as viewers watch Rick, Michonne, and Daryl sitting awake or suddenly waking in this new safe haven.

Anxiety as a disorder is relentless as the zombie apocalypse; it fosters an irrational response to the world that feels completely rational while you are inside it.

Just a couple days before The Walking Dead episode above aired, I read “Sleep” by Haruki Murakami from his collection The Elephant Vanishes.

“This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep,” the narrator, a wife and mother, begins, adding: “I’m not talking about insomnia.”

Like The Walking Dead, this story can be read as a story of anxiety about a woman who admits, “It was literally true: I was going through life asleep.” Reminding me of Kafka (Samsa lives a bug’s life before the transformation into a bug), Murakami transforms metaphor into the literal.

The power of this story, I think, is the careful and gradual blurring of the narrator as rational and then irrational due to sleep deprivation, all the while maintaining the ability to narrate in a reasonably controlled tone (a narrative mask).

The main character also echoes Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger, who admits one can adjust to anything (prison or not prison is no difference): “Without noticing it, I had become accustomed in this way to a life without books.”

Murakami’s story details a woman who can no longer sleep but believes that condition allows her to live life more fully, although as readers we watch as she becomes more and more isolated from the world, notably her family:

No one noticed that I had changed—that I had given up sleeping entirely, that I was spending all my time reading, that my mind was someplace a hundred years—and hundreds of miles—from reality. No matter how mechanically I worked, no matter how little love or emotion I invested in my handling of reality, my husband and my son and my mother-in-law went on relating to me as they always had. If anything, they seemed more at ease with me than before.

“Sleep,” then, falls into an existential tradition of literature in which the human condition is portrayed as starkly alone: Samsa as bug in a human family, Meusault as heartless murderer and social pariah, and this sleepless woman who loathes the faces of her sleeping husband and son.

“In other words,” she explains, “people live in the prison cells of their own tendencies.”

And as inadequate as words may be, I have to confess that this captures well what anxiety is, the prison cells of our own tendencies.

But prison cells we did not choose, do not deserve, and like the haunting lyrics of the California rock of my teenage years, prison cells where we can check out, but never leave.

Originally posted on The Becoming Radical on March 2, 2015.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English), series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), and author of Beware the Roadbuilders (Garn Press). NCTE named Thomas the 2013 George Orwell Award winner. Recent edited volumes include James Baldwin: Challenging Authors (Sense, 2014) and Becoming and Being a Teacher (Peter Lang USA, 2013). His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. Follow his work @plthomasEdD and the becoming radical.

Describing Mental Illness in Language that Matters

by Kristen Abell

Although I had already been thinking a lot about the topic of how we use emotions to describe mental illness, a friend of mine recently shared a Twitter thread in which someone discussed the idea of depression as “extreme sadness.” They quickly refuted the idea that they experienced depression that way – instead, it often looked like irritability, anger, apathy, etc. This led me to express an idea that I’d been mulling over: the idea that “sadness” in depression looks a lot different than sadness for someone who does not experience depression.

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A Brief Guide to Neurodiversity

by Peter Smagorinsky

While sharing a vacation cabin with my siblings, one of my sisters and I were on kitchen duty. She said, “It’s a good thing we’ve got OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). The kitchen is spotless.”

I agreed with her except for one thing: the D. “If the place is spotless because of our obsessive-compulsiveness, how can it be a disorder?” I asked. Obsessive-compulsiveness seemed like a good sense of order to have under these circumstances. Continue reading

I Am Seeing Someone New

by Kelley McCarthy

Before meeting someone new, I get anxious, my heart races and my palms sweat. I REALLY want to cancel . But I shouldn’t.  I can’t. I need to meet this person. They are going to be great, I tell myself.

Then there is that lovely awkward moment when you do finally meet them. You give them a semi-fake smile, a handshake and then you wait for that dreaded question. ” So, tell me about yourself,” they ask.

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by Clare Cady


TO: Present Clare Cady

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


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.


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.

Committed: A Note to My Savior

by Sylvester Gaskin

Hey you,

I had a long day at work, and I’m glad you’re finally home. I’m happy you had a good day at work and you had fun at your new yoga class. You’re sitting on the couch, eating your dinner, and I can’t stop thinking about how you saved me. You’ve heard me talk about it many times, and you don’t believe me. But it’s true; you’ve saved my life more times than I can count. And I’m thankful.

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A Picture Worth a Thousand Memories

by Sara Ackerson

I take photographs to capture the moment, the memory, the crease in a person’s face, the sparkle in their eye.  But more importantly, I take photographs so that I do not forget.

I typically refer to my memory as Swiss cheese-like.  It has a lot of holes.  Memories for me are triggered by smells, by sounds, by certain expressions.  Without those triggers and my photographs, I’m not sure what I’d moments I’d hold dear.

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