Posted in Mindfulness Matters, Personal Perspective, Topical Time

Suicide in the 21st Century

The first week of June was filled with devastation and despair. First, Kate Spade, a celebrated handbag designer, committed suicide at the age of 55. Then, Anthony Bourdain, acclaimed chef and storyteller on his show Parts Unknown, committed suicide at the age of 61. Lastly, a comprehensive study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found a 30 percent increase in suicides in more than half of the states over the last two decades.

If reading that last paragraph made you feel hopeless, you aren’t alone. Mid-June I was going to work, going to class, meeting with friends, but I was numb.

I was reading Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days at the time. His chapter on “Behavior Modification” illuminated more troubling information about mental illness in America. Despite tremendous growth in pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness, Harris notes there hasn’t been a decline in suicides. In fact, along with the rise of suicide, there’s been a 500 percent increase in depression since the 1980s.

I know medication can save lives. It’s critical in some situations. I would never suggest someone refuse medication or suddenly stop taking medication. However, I’ve tried over a dozen antidepressants in the past 15 years. In my opinion, medication on its own isn’t enough. Talk therapy (psychotherapy) can help people gain a greater understanding of mental illness and learn different skills that can lower distress. The American Psychiatric Association acknowledges that medication and talk therapy have similar effects on the brain. Therapy’s saved my life, more than once, and conversations I’ve had with others make me well aware that I’m not the only one.

On a national level, there’s been recognition of the power of communication when it comes to extreme distress and suicidal urges. Signs like these have been going up all around the city urging those who need help to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

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Talking is the last resort. If it’s the last resort, it should also be the first. Unfortunately, as is the issue with most treatments for mental illness, there are so many barriers to talk therapy like access, affordability, and stigma that people who recognize they need help often can’t get it.

So, where does all this leave us?

The events of early June made it abundantly clear that suicide can touch anyone regardless of how much or how little they have. I think it’s important that we remember that and make an effort to check in on one another more often, especially if on the outside it looks like everything is fine. It’s not going to be easy with all the distractions of our digitized lives, but when we start the conversation we stop the stigma. That’s power.

We also need to push our elected officials to put more funding into mental health. Despite the 30 percent rise in suicides, our current president seeks to cut funding to the National Institute of Mental Health by 30 percent in 2019 (among other things). On the state level, New York and Virginia passed laws mandating mental health education. I think this has the potential to be a step in the right direction, especially with reductions in federal funding. Kids can learn how to take care of their mental health and that there’s nothing wrong with them if they experience mental illness. I’ll keep an eye out to see how this new law is implemented because I’m skeptically optimistic.

In a seemingly hopeless situation, there is still hope for us to hold onto. It’s kind of like the routine flight attendants go over before the flight takes off in case the cabin loses oxygen. Put your oxygen mask on first, but then turn to those around you and help them breathe. Take care of your mental health, but then do what you can to help your community engage with theirs.

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Posted in Free Time Fun, Life Lessons

Comedy Can Be Cathartic

Pain is often expressed through art. We can point to exhibitions of torment across almost all mediums, but comedy is an area where it’s still uncomfortable to explore difficult topics. There’s a social understanding that certain topics are off limits. If a comedian speaks about loss, suicide, or their own mental illness there’s a chance that the joke is going to be met with awkward silence.

One reason is that the joke might not be funny (haha). More likely, though, the audience tensed up as soon as the subject matter was announced. We’re conditioned from a young age that these topics and feelings are meant to be worked out internally and go unspoken, but that isn’t healthy. There are many comedians that have been making efforts to add these ‘dark’ topics to their comedic routines.

I’ve mentioned Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Health Happy Hour (MHHH) in a previous post on podcasts and it’s worth bringing up again. No topic is off limits. People of all ages (over 18) and backgrounds come on the show and talk about the really dark things they have thought and experienced. And there’s laughter! A term of theirs I love is “awfulsome” and it’s something that is truly soul-crushing, but looking back on it there’s something kind of awesome about it, even if it’s just the riotous laughter that sometimes happens when one reflects on life experiences.

Anna Akana is a former guest of MHHH and one of my top five favorite humans. Her younger sister committed suicide at age thirteen and Akana actively advocates for suicide prevention. Whether it’s through skits on her YouTube channel, her larger creative work like Riley Rewind, or a regular part of her comedic routine she challenges us to talk about suicide and the darkness we can easily be consumed with. She has a book out called So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters to my Little Sister that I cannot wait to get my hands on during winter break.

Maria Bamford is my hero. She is an established stand up comedian, an incredible voice actor, and she’s the star of Lady Dynamite, a Netflix show she stars in that’s loosely based on her life experiences. Bamford has bipolar two and is open about her struggles with hypo-mania, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and her recent hospitalizations. On the show she whirls though dark lows to vivid surreal highs and everywhere in-between. It’s one of the first pop culture representations that has found a way to joke about mental illness without making mental illness the joke (if that makes sense). It’s also the hardest I’ve ever laughed, possibly because of how close I can relate. I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to listen to and watch someone with a similar diagnosis be so raw and honest.

I think what I’m getting at here is that pain no longer needs to be a solitary experience. If isolating during your troubles helps you process, that is amazing and I am not trying to take that away from you. I’m merely suggesting that there are plenty of people out there who don’t necessarily want to be alone while they are in pain or going through something, but have been so culturally reinforced that it’s something they need to do alone. You don’t need to be alone, we can suffer together and find the laughter in the lows.

Posted in Free Time Fun

Podcasts are Neat

When I’m not doing homework on my commute I still need something to fill the time. I tend to recycle the same music playlists and get easily distracted so I finally checked out the world of podcasts. Oh man, have I been missing out!

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There are endless free podcasts to listen to out there on ANY topic imaginable. Fun podcasts that I like to listen to are 2 Dope Queens, The Dollop and The Lady Gang. When I’m not interested in laughing I look for podcasts to help me think more positively like Optimal Living Daily and Happier with Gretchen Ruben.

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Something I never expected to get from podcasts was a greater sense of my own identity. As I explored the podcast landscape more I started finding mental health themed podcasts that made me feel like I was part of a larger community, but more than that, normal.

I found myself relating to the hosts and to the guests on podcasts like Psych Central and Mental Illness Happy Hour. In the rare event that I didn’t relate to the speaker listening to them talk about their own issues and how they cope with them was informative and enlightening.

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The importance of verbalizing your mental illness cannot be understated. Paul Gilmartin, creator/host/executive producer Mental Health Happy Hour, explains it best during an episode with Mike Levine. On the topic of speaking openly about your experience with mental illness he phrases what it does perfectly, “it gives us a chance to own our issue instead of it being owned.”

In sociology we talk about the politics of reclamation and I think this is a fascinating turn in mental health discourse that we are witnessing. The once predominant view that mental illness is a weakness or made a person bad or wrong or should be kept hush hush to prevent embarrassment for the family IS shifting. I think the driving force behind this change is that people living with mental illness (myself included) are done with hiding our pain and pretending we’re okay. It’s exciting and liberating to feel like I can be mentally ill and not feel guilty or shameful about it. Despite all of the incredibly frightening/saddening/soul-crushing things going on in the world, for the first time in a long time I feel like there’s still hope.

 

Posted in Life Lessons

Hi My Name Is….

Introductions are awkward! Now that the back to school season is upon us I have been seeing a lot of posts about the first day of class where everyone shares their name and something about themselves. I dread it too.

If most people loathe these introductions, why do we still do them?

I think despite the anxiety it builds they are a good way to break the ice. Everyone is equally uncomfortable about it so it puts students on a level playing field and forces them over that awkward first hurdle of ‘hello.’
Continue reading “Hi My Name Is….”

Posted in Free Time Fun, Life Lessons

Take Control Of Your Narrative

On many occasions we are our own worst enemies. One of these occasions is when we listen to ourselves say the words, “I can’t.” Once those words are in our minds or on our tongues we immediately find the reasons to back them up. For me, public speaking was always out of the question. I’m anxious, my face gets too red, I do weird things with my hands, I talk too fast… and by that point I’ve convinced myself it is beyond my capabilities.
Continue reading “Take Control Of Your Narrative”

Posted in Life Lessons

Asking Is The Hard Part

We are stubborn, fearful of rejection, and don’t want to “bother” anyone, or at least that’s how I feel when I think of asking anyone for anything. I get anxious even just asking my roommate/best friend/therapist if I can eat some of her chips. Okay, so, normally instead of some I eat them all, but that’s besides the point!

It dawned on me recently that while my dream is mine alone, I am not alone in bringing it to fruition. I can already count a dozen people that have had a hand in this blog from reviewing concepts to proofreading posts, and even promoting. I owe a great debt to each of them for their solicited assistance.

I might not have made this blog live if I hadn’t womaned up and asked Becky Sarwate to take a look and give me some feedback. I have found it to be true that most people are willing to help. All you need to do is be respectful, direct and work up the courage to ask.

There are two caveats. One is to make sure that you are making a reasonable request. Consider that this person is taking time that could have been spent elsewhere to help you accomplish your goal. Be specific in your request so they know what agreeing entails.

The second is to be grateful. Appreciate their kindness and the next time someone asks you for help before you say no graciously consider the request. Do not let the magic of these simple exchanges fall away!

Here’s some tools to help you ask away:

7 Effective Ways to Ask for Help (and Get It): I love number four the “Foot in the Door” or “Door in the Face.” Ask a smaller question to get the chance to ask the bigger one!

5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help: Cannot get over how excellent number five is: create a culture where asking for help is encouraged.

Asking For Help Reveals Strength, Not Weakness: “The truth is we all have gifts to share -” YES!

Savvy Psychologist: How to Ask for Help: Effective tools to use when the anxiety about the ask begins to set in.

2 Words That Make Asking for Help a Lot Easier: I wasn’t sure what the words were, but this makes sense. Those words connect with the human instinct to help those in need.

 



 

I couldn’t close a post about asking for help without mentioning Chester Bennington’s suicide. The weight of losing someone so pivotal in my survival as a teen and seeing the collective suffering of others has been tragic this week. One question keeps kicking around my brain, what can we do about it?

As much as this post is about someone asking for help, I think some of these techniques might be able to apply to those surrounding someone who’s struggling. We often know something is wrong, but don’t know where to begin or how to get someone to open up. Maybe if we follow that “foot in the door” method and start with some small asks with friends (ex. how has work/school/hobby been lately? what do you want for dinner? how is your family?) these might open a space to ask the bigger more personal questions. There’s so much stigma around mental illness that reaching out can be an insurmountable task, perhaps we can help those we love towards that step.

I wrote about my own struggles with suicide previously in Bouncing Back From The Blues. Sometimes my days are filled with suicidal thoughts, and other times, like now, I am lucky enough to only have a few a week. You are not alone. Have hope. Reach out. We need you.