World Mental Health Day: A Very Personal Story
I was fourteen when I started to realize the impact mental illness could have. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders when I was told that all the trips to the ER, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and behavior patterns were characteristics of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is commonly mistaken as being neat or tidy (as someone who is far from organized, I truly wish it was that simple!). In reality, it’s a debilitating disorder in which the sufferer has uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts along with a particular set of behaviors that need to happen to stop the intrusive thoughts. When my OCD reached a point that was life-threatening, my parents started to seek out treatment. I ended up in a two-week intensive treatment program where I was given the proper information, medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to cope with the illness. Through early adulthood, I found that I could lead a productive, mostly OCD-free life, so long as I used the coping mechanisms and took my medication regularly.
It wasn’t until last year when I hit my all-time low. I found myself repeatedly having panic attacks and getting into intense verbal arguments. The scariest part of these episodes was when I would dissociate, as though I were watching myself from outside my own body. I remember sitting in the ER last summer with two security guards watching me closely (to ensure I wouldn’t hurt myself or anyone else). I’d ended up at the ER after pouring coffee all over my boyfriend while he was driving. Days earlier, I’d thrown a plate over something small he’d said. Once again I saw mental illness take the driver’s seat and quickly sabotage my job and my relationships. My new symptoms helped my psychologist diagnose me with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is often confused with Bipolar Disorder and is characterized by unstable emotions, varying moods, and uncertainty about how the sufferer sees themselves. This can lead to outbursts, unstable relationships and impulsivity. Because of my BPD, I’ve found myself constantly leaving jobs, moving to new cities and ruining great relationships. Though my behavior can be unpredictable and impulsive, there’s one thing that has remained constant since my diagnosis: a passion for speaking out about mental illness and reminding other sufferers that they’re not alone.
Through early adulthood, I found that I could lead a productive, mostly OCD-free life, so long as I used the coping mechanisms and took my medication regularly.
With conversations around mental illness being more widely accepted, many of us who struggle are able to find a platform to spread awareness and create conversations with a community who can relate and support. Celebrities and influencers have taken it upon themselves to open up about their struggles and support the campaigns of mental health organizations. Buzz words like “Mental Health Advocate” or “Self Love Warrior” are deliberately displayed in the Instagram bios of influencers within the space. While we should applaud those who are willing to be raw and vulnerable, having access to treatment is not something that is available to everyone and many who speak out about mental illness are speaking from a place of recovery. As today is World Mental Health Day, I’ve been thinking about what it truly means to be a “mental health advocate” and how we can make an impact and work to shatter the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
One way to help reduce the stigma around mental illness is to educate ourselves on just how prevalent mental illness is. With the statistic being that in the US 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness in a given year, it’s likely that we all know someone who is currently suffering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 41% of those suffering adults will have received mental health services within the past year. African Americans and Hispanic Americans use mental health services at half the rate of Caucasian Americans, and Asian Americans use services at one-third the rate. If we start treating mental illness the same way we treat physical illness, we can help shatter the social stigma around seeking treatment.
I recently started an event series on mental health. At our most recent event, I asked panelists to have a conversation around how to support loved ones who are mentally ill. We discussed how people often shy away from having conversations around mental illness in fear of saying something that could be triggering or offensive. They are hesitant to ask about mental illness because they may not understand what the sufferer is going through. Each panelist agreed that they’d rather have someone ask a question about their mental illness that’s incorrect or offensive than not ask at all. The conversations don’t need to be perfect, but it’s important that we start having them.
There are many mental health organizations that do meaningful work to help change the way we view and treat mental illness. One simple way to act is to take a pledge to be stigma-free and see sufferers for who they are, rather than for their illness. Organizations like NAMI provide information on how to take action on policy issues and organize local mental health events.
New York recently became the first state to require mental health education. If we continue to educate and raise awareness around mental illness, we can ensure that more mental health services are made available.
It haunts me to think that if I hadn’t gotten treatment when I did, it might have been too late. I wish I could hug fourteen-year-old me and reassure her that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, that it’s ok to talk about what you’re going through, and that there is hope. No one should have to suffer alone.
Brittany Potter is a mental health advocate, digital marketer and world traveler. She recently founded the Show Up Series, an event series around mental health, body positivity and self-love. Her passion is to create a safe space for people to Show Up and celebrate themselves.