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 Topical Time

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Are you familiar with the term cognitive flexibility? It refers to the ability to change our thinking based on new information. A link has been established between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive flexibility. There’s ongoing research on how conitive flexibility affects our decision making.

I don’t know about you, but when I get poor sleep it’s hard to focus. It’s harder to be optimistic. It’s easy to be forgetful. It’s easy to get frustrated.

Some of us use caffeine to reduce symptoms of sleep deprivation, but it’s possible to become caffeine dependent. If you miss that morning cup and you’re sleep deprived your symptoms could be even worse.

Instead of relying on caffeine to supplement your poor sleep, evaluate your sleeping hygiene. Do you do anything to wind down before bed? Is there a set time you stop looking at your phone? Do you try to regularly go to sleep around the same time?

These questions refer to aspects of a healthy sleep routine. I’ll use myself as an example, but keep in mind I’m still struggling to establish this so it doesn’t happen every night:

  1. Wind Down – I’ll try to drink some relaxing tea, do yoga, read, or listen to soft music about an hour before bed.
  2. No Phone – This one has been the hardest to stick with. I try to stop looking at my phone at 10, 10:30 PM at the latest. Often times it doesn’t happen. I’ll grab my phone to check that my alarm is set and since it’s already in my hand I’ll open an app like Facebook and start scrolling away.
  3. Bed Time – If I’m following the ‘no phone’ rule this gets easier. I aim to be falling asleep by or before 11 PM. If I don’t put down the phone, or if I’m watching some engaging television, all bets are off and who knows when I’ll actually fall asleep.

Better sleep will give us better cognitive flexibility, but that’s not all. Improved sleep is linked with a number of health benefits. It helps curb inflammation, supports a healthy weight, and can lower depression.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you have to follow your sleep routine every single night for the rest of your life. I’m not asking you at 9 PM on a Saturday to tell your friends that you need to go home to lay down in bed and turn on your white noise machine (BUT if you need an excuse to leave this is a hilarious one).

It’s not about perfection. It’s about trying to be mindful. After those long nights out try to wake up around the same time, avoid taking naps, and get back into the nightly routine as soon as you can.

Your body will thank you for it!

Posted in Life Lessons

Holiday Survival Guide

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… and for many it’s also the most stressful. The intent of gathering with friends and family is to celebrate and spread happiness, but often we lose the meaning and end up stuck on the logistics of gift giving and the strain of dealing with difficult personalities.

So, how do you cope and keep yourself from having a breakdown when you burn the casserole and Uncle Jim brings up politics at dinner? I turned to the wealth of knowledge that the internet provides for answers.

Mental Health Today has a great article written by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W. on How To Survive The Holidays with a ton of helpful advice. Brief highlights for me are their suggestions to:

  • “Be careful of “shoulds” – it is better to do what is most helpful for you and your family. If a situation looks especially difficult over the holidays, don’t get involved if possible.”
  • “There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. “
  • “Stop putting unreasonable pressure on yourself to be happy during the holidays. When you have legitimate reasons for being happy, acknowledge them and be gentle with yourself.”

I have a habit of getting stuck on what a family oriented holiday should be, how I should feel, and what I should do. This is problematic because I end up putting pressure on myself to perform family verses experiencing it. Wherever you end up whether it be with your family, your partner’s family, in a soup kitchen, on a trip, or at home alone there is no right way to celebrate.

Even Kesha can relate to the holiday mental health struggle! In a recent essay for TIME she wrote, “Around the holidays, I often feel like I’m supposed to be everywhere, with everyone — all with the added guilt that it’s the season of giving.” To combat this societal pressure and maintain her mental health she constantly reminds herself, “It’s not selfish to take time for yourself.” When you make it a priority to take time for yourself, “you will actually be much better company for those around you.”

Be kind to others, be kind to yourselves, and let’s leave the stress and pressure of getting the holidays right behind us.

Posted in Free Time Fun, Life Lessons

How to Get Shit Done When You’re Depressed

I do not want to do ANYTHING when I am depressed. The alarm clock in the morning is a startling reminder of another monotonous day that I did not ask for, but am forced to suffer through in order to remain a loosely functioning human being. I spend the entire day fantasizing about being back in bed under the covers, surrounded by cats, staring blankly at the wall. I dread the moment when my eyes close and it begins all over again.

It’s times like these I can give myself credit for continuing to shower regularly. Seriously. When my entire body and mind are weighted with this miserable fog the simplest of things become major successes: getting out of bed, completing chores, and making it to class are just a few.

So, what happens with bigger things like event commitments, social gatherings and creative projects? Cancelled and stalled. And guess what failing there does? Deepens the depression. It’s a vicious cycle. My therapist has been challenging me to go through with things. She encourages me to acknowledge the physical pain/mental fog and keep moving forward despite it. I was resistant to this, how would it work? What if I go and am more miserable than I was before? How can I be around people when I feel so broken?

I now know why she wanted me to do this: going through with it makes me feel so strong. Yes I am miserable. Yes I would rather be in bed. Yes the first thought that crossed my mind when I woke up was death. Yes everything sucks and probably will still suck tomorrow…. BUT THAT DIDN’T STOP ME!

On Halloween I wrestled with the Chicago MudQueens! Tonight I am going to see The Used at Aragon Ballroom. Tomorrow morning I’ll be doing yoga and attending a free wellness seminar on the Mag Mile. Sunday I’m gathering with a group of dear friends for our annual Friendsgiving. If you had asked me about these events two weeks ago I would not have been excited. I would have felt overwhelmed, anxious and stressed. It felt like too much, but it doesn’t anymore.

Not only does my strength and confidence grow with each plan I make and keep, but I can experience these moments of blissful relief from the heaviness that comes with depression. There are moments where I am filled with incredible peace, happiness, and gratitude. I’m in awe of how simultaneously I can experience soul crushing sadness and heartwarming joy.

As it is with many of my topics “doing it anyway” is not news. Psych Central has a great post that goes over some helpful Strategies For Getting Things Done When You’re Depressed. The one that resonated the most with me is to make decisions for yourself, not to make decisions around your depression. If you’re looking for a longer read on this topic check out Get It Done While You’re Depressed by Julie Fast.


P.S. Thank you to my talented friend Danielle McKay for spending a few hours of her Saturday night covering the basement at Reggie’s with plastic wrap and painting my face. Didn’t it look amazing?!

Posted in Free Time Fun

Another Mood.

I am still riding out a bout of intense depression and couldn’t muster the strength for a real post. Instead I started playing with words, words beginning with the letter o. I challenged myself to create a poem with o-words expressing my current state of feeling. I think it turned out quite nicely and maybe the positive spin here is that even if I feel like garbage, I can still find some fun playing with words and expressing myself.

OVERCOME

overwhelmed openly observed

obviously obfuscating outcome

obscured oxygen oozing organism

obnoxious obsession overact

opposite outlook ominous

obtuse obtrusive offensive

odd obscene outcast

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, Life Lessons

Hour of You

I challenge you to spend one hour each day in November focusing on your dreams. Why? In conversations lately I’ve been running into people who get themselves stuck in the same situation that I find myself in now. There are so many things that we WANT to do, but when we get home from work/school/social obligations we readily let go of those things we hunger for and settle for the quick escape that presents itself instantly in the form of television, movies, and social media. It makes me wonder what we could accomplish if we spent the first hour we got home tuning into ourselves.

You might be wondering what that looks like and I don’t have an exact answer for you. For me it’s going to be writing as my dream is to one day be a published author. Here are some questions that will help you determine how a daily action can bring you closer to achieving your dreams: What are your dreams? What is a goal that you have wanted to accomplish, but never had enough time for? What are your values and morals? What do you want your life to look like in 5 years? In 10 years? What’s something you’ve wanted to do that you never allowed yourself to believe was possible?

If there isn’t anything you want to work on that’s fine, but you should still take an hour to be present with yourself. Spend some time meditating, go for a walk, journal, the options are endless. Who knows, maybe when you’re taking this time a desire or passion that you weren’t aware of might present itself! For more on the power of connecting with yourself check out this interesting read on Wired written by Robert Wright: How Mindfulness Meditation Can Save America.