My personal interest in behavioral health started two decades ago, through the things I began to experience at the age of 14. I’m sharing this because that teenage version of me would have benefited from someone else defying stigma and having the courage to speak up and be open and honest about their own struggles with mental health. I’m here to remind you that you are not alone.
Throughout my teen years and early twenties I went through the mental health gauntlet that many others experience. Suffering in silence, convinced I was alone in my struggle, imprisoned by shame, fear, guilt, and worst of all a loss of hope. My experiences include ongoing suicidal thoughts, an abandoned attempt at suicide, voluntary admission into a hospital, years of therapy and countless medications, and an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which is a mood disorder that generally involves alternating phases of major depression and mania. I can’t say all of that is behind me and that everything is fantastic now because recovery is not a destination, it’s a life-long journey.
I have heard similar stories of struggle from many others over the years. From teenagers to adults. Each involving their own mental or emotional suffering, traumatic experiences, loneliness, obstacles and setbacks, and loss of hope. Understanding and compassion, these two things make the world a little less dark, but if we want to practice these two things it takes a lot of courage to break the wall of silence that stigma builds. Even if we are able to break through the wall of silence, it takes at least a little bit of hope to begin the process of walking out of that darkness. And it takes support to rise above the pain caused by behavioral health conditions.
Sometimes our busy lives don’t allow us to see the suffering in others, or it doesn’t provide us with the opportunity to express our own suffering. Just because someone appears to be on top of the world from the outside; highly successful, popular, attractive, all the things we attribute to “having it all,” doesn’t mean they’re not falling apart on the inside, or carrying a huge burden on their shoulders, or concealing a heart-wrenching emptiness within.
Not everyone shows their pain, some people hide it very well, and such people are often fearful or ashamed of how they feel due to stigma. Because of this shame they intentionally hide their suffering from others and it prevents them from seeking help. The belief that emotional pain and mental suffering are signs of weakness is the very core of the stigma in behavioral health. And it’s this stigma that kills.
Some people are so embarrassed and ashamed of how they feel that they’d rather end their own life than tell others how they feel. Suicide does not discriminate. Anyone can die by suicide. No matter the gender, age, race, sexuality, financial status, employment status, perceived success, popularity, or happiness. Suicide transcends all demographics.
By making the two core aspects of behavioral health (which are mental health conditions and substance use) a prominent subject in our conversations, we begin the process of reducing the stigma that leads many to suffer in silence. It needs to be understood and accepted that it’s okay to ask someone if they are feeling depressed. It’s okay to ask someone if they are considering self-harm, it’s okay to ask someone if they are thinking about or planning ways to complete suicide. No one wants to die, people just don’t want to hurt anymore. When they can’t see any other way out of that pain than through suicide, it’s typically because they see the pain and their life as one synonymous struggle.
When we experience mental health issues, we have to reach out and get help. Is that easy to do? It certainly doesn’t feel easy. So what does it take? Well, it takes self-awareness, it takes compassion, it takes education, it takes action, it takes time, it takes faith in something, and most of all it takes hope. Even the tiniest little bit can make a difference. The hope that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be different and possibly even better than today. Sometimes that hope can be born from the truth that change is the only constant. Hope is the spark that sets us forth on the path of recovery.
Every recovery begins with perception. The perception of pain, the perception of self, and the perception of life beyond the obstacles and setbacks we face throughout our lives. By having this self-awareness of our thoughts and behavior, by activating this shift in our self-perception, we are able to focus our attention on personal wellness, the well-being of others, and our future.
Awareness, both of ourselves and of others is a key factor in living life beyond the issues we face. Awareness involves observing our own behavior and paying attention to our thoughts and our feelings. Perhaps the most important key to recovery is expressing how we feel through whatever medium you feel comfortable with.
Recovery at its core is about learning the best practices for maintaining wellness in a world and in a life that will continuously bring obstacles, setbacks, and even heartache. It’s about having the tools, support, and resources to take on those challenges one step at a time and triumph over them. Our recovery centers on establishing goals that are attainable, believing that change is possible, and finding the courage and inspiration we need to move forward.
It means acknowledging our behavioral health conditions, understanding them and understanding that we and they are not one in the same – that we are more than our conditions. It means that we recognize the signs and symptoms of episodes or relapses, or the risk of those states of mind, and we put into practice the tools we’ve learned to overcome them.
It means that we understand and practice the steps we need to take to rise above our conditions and live a life that not only benefits us, but those around us who depend upon us. Finally, recovery also means we accept that it doesn’t equate perfection – that there will still be struggles, but with the tools we have learned to utilize we can and will live a better life experience than the one we’ve known for far too long.
Focusing more on the things we can control and focusing less on the things that we cannot control can really save us a lot of unnecessary suffering. Knowing ourselves, our abilities or talents, strengths, accomplishments, builds us up when we’re facing adversity because it tells us that we’ve been through hard times and difficult experiences before and still came out on top.
Another key factor in recovering from mental turmoil is patience. Patience can mean the difference between success and failure. Finding solace, establishing a network of support, getting to a point of stability through medications or therapy, all of these things take time. We all wish that we could wake up tomorrow and everything would be good or at least fine, but neither life nor mental health unfold like that. It’s a process and that process takes time, energy, and commitment.
Mental health and physical health are inseparable parts of living well in recovery, as maintaining physical wellness helps to carry us through our struggle with a mental health condition. When we become sick or experience a physical injury, we don’t think twice about going to a doctor to seek help, but when facing mental health issues we seem to hesitate or even outright avoid seeking help. It’s stigma that causes this apprehension to seek help, but it doesn’t make any sense to allow ourselves to be controlled by it.
Aside from speaking to our doctor about our mental health, we should also seek support from those we would otherwise consider ourselves to be close to. This does require a willingness to open up and spend time discussing things that feel immensely personal and this may create a sense of vulnerability, but what many see as an exposure of weakness is really just a statement of strength. Exposing our pain to others gives them a path to emotional connection and if they too are suffering, then sharing our pain can literally be the threshold for initiating someone else’s healing process.
When 19-year-old me found out that other people were hurting too and that I wasn’t alone in how I felt, it changed everything for me. Every person that I’ve ever met and communicated with, due to this process of sharing, provided opportunities for understanding and compassion. These things make a world of difference.
Every small gesture and every endearing question can open that door of understanding and compassion. These things make life after a mental health crisis or prolonged emotional suffering, a surmountable possibility. Hope is born from acts of kindness and concern, and through hope we bear witness to a better life.