No, I’m not okay, and yes, you can help


Photo credit: auntjojo under a Creative Commons license

This weekend, I have been, well, what I like to call “wallowing.” Actually, it’s been going on a bit longer than that, but on Thursday I broke through the Netflix-induced haze and graded a class set of papers (and yeah, just doing that much is kind of a big deal). And it’s not to say that I’ve done nothing at all this weekend, but I haven’t done as much as I should have, and that’s led to a cycle of wallowing, guilt for wallowing, more reason for wallowing, more reason for guilt for wallowing … and so on and so forth.

And then in this charming vortex of unpleasantness, I realized that exactly one year ago today, I first wrote openly about my own longtime struggle with depression and the stigma that surrounds mental illness. February has always been a particularly unpleasant month for me (and at least one depressed friend concurs, so perhaps a move to go straight from January to March is in order). So I figured that today is as good a day as any to revisit the topic, because it certainly hasn’t gone away.

To be honest, every time I speak or blog about this issue, I half expect for the world to come crashing down around me as people realize that I’m maybe not quite as “put together” or “stable” as they thought I was. I don’t like asking for help, and I don’t want to be treated any differently.

Wait. “I don’t want to be treated any differently”? Really?

I’m starting to see how problematic that statement is. It’s a statement born from the ugly epidemic of stigma that surrounds depression in our society, and it makes no sense. Imagine a person with a broken leg. Wouldn’t we treat that person somewhat differently, recognizing that some tasks might be more difficult (or downright impossible) for that person? I would certainly hope so.

So why do those of us with depression often hesitate to ask for some extra understanding for ourselves when we are going through a difficult period? I imagine that some of this stems from the fact that depression and other health disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, low self-esteem, and a general desire to keep our problems under wraps lest we be found weak. It probably also comes from hearing, time and time again, you’ll be fine…just get through it…your life isn’t that bad…

But every time we say it, we are in fact making things worse for everyone with mental illness, because we are suggesting that we don’t sometimes need a little extra understanding. And I think what we are really trying to say is “I don’t want to be treated like my mental illness makes me ‘lesser than.’”

So maybe, instead of trying to fight stigma by saying, essentially, that we shouldn’t be stigmatized because we don’t require any help, maybe we could work instead to be open about the fact that yes, sometimes we do need help, and sometimes we do need some understanding, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we are weak. It just means that we have a mental illness, and that illness is just as real as a physical ailment.

I’m trying to do this. It’s hard. On the first day of class this semester, I stood in front of a lecture theatre of 100 undergraduates (future teachers, no less, who are often burdened by an intense desire for perfection) and spoke about my depression, despite fearing that it would make them treat me differently. I did so to show them that it’s okay to need help and to show that sometimes being an ally means risking our own privilege (in this case, this is the privilege I’m afforded by staying quiet about an “ism” that isn’t outwardly visible).

And I’ve noticed that my students have started speaking out as well. A few weeks ago, students in STARS Regina ran a Twitter chat about supporting students with mental health. Several of them have also taken the brave step of blogging about their own experiences (Raquel, Kendra, Dave, and Meagan, to name a few).

Ultimately, we all need to be more open, and to trust in the humanity of those around us. So to all of us who need a little extra kindness sometimes, I apologize for discounting that. To all of my friends and colleagues and students and complete strangers who are just a little broken (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), I’m sorry for trying to minimize your stories. And when you find yourself wallowing, as I often have recently, remember that you are not alone, and that we, the broken ones, are all around, perhaps hiding in fear of stigma, but always ready to listen and give a little kindness.

And by the way, to whoever decided that we should add the extra leap day to February, thanks a lot.

10 thoughts on “No, I’m not okay, and yes, you can help

  1. This is very powerful and truthful, Katia. I have often heard people minimize the significance of mental health and mental illness, not understanding why people can’t just ‘be happier’ and ‘get over it’. I’m glad to see people of influence blogging about this and bringing to light the reality of mental illness and the stigma that comes along with it.

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. You brought up some great points about depression in this post that are so often ignored by both those who live with it and those who live around those who live with depression. The one that I clung to the most is about asking for help. I don’t do this because I often wonder what it is I would even ask help for. “Uh.. help, I don’t know why I’m sad?” That just sounds so silly that I figure it’s not even worth it, so I go back to my darkness and try to keep trudging on. The thing is I do need help, we all do, and even when we don’t know what we need or what exactly is wrong it’s ok to ask for help. I think that the more us “broken ones” talk to others, and to each other, we may be able to find our voice and not be afraid to lean on others in times we don’t know what else to do.
    I hear ya about February though…ugh.

    • Thanks, Kendra – I understand what you mean about it sounding silly, but I’m trying to think about what it really might mean to ask for help…Still working on that. And yeah. More talking, more sharing. Thanks for the support 🙂

  3. Thank you for writing this and I am glad that I noticed this post.
    My immediate reaction was, “Katia, depressed, no way” and then of course the guilt that follows that reaction of judging you. I have had similar feelings about this surrounding talking to people openly about my alcoholism. In my internship the first thing that we did for an ice breaker was say something about yourself, followed by your favourite drink after a hard day of teaching. I was frozen that my first introduction to this staff was going to be admitting my struggles to a group of people and have that be their first impression of me. I didn’t go first so I was able to think of a response as everyone listed off martini’s, wines and scotch preferences. I was embarrassed that this experience made me feel flawed and that I had to hide something that is so important to who I am. As I look back I think that I should have been honest. Even though alcoholism is fairly recognized compared to other types of mental illnesses in society, it still is attached with the stigma that their is something wrong with the person that is suffering. So I hope the next time that I am confronted with an opportunity to speak up that I do not hide behind my ism and do exactly what you are doing in this post.
    Thanks Katia

    • Thanks for sharing that – and I don’t think you need to feel guilty about not sharing – this kind of stuff takes a while to get comfortable with (and I’m still not comfortable at all), and being in a new position as an intern would make it especially difficult. As well, I actually found I had to blog about this before I felt comfortable finally speaking about it to students – weird, I know!

  4. Thanks for sharing, Katia. This is such an important post. My favourite part is this:

    “So maybe, instead of trying to fight stigma by saying, essentially, that we shouldn’t be stigmatized because we don’t require any help, maybe we could work instead to be open about the fact that yes, sometimes we do need help, and sometimes we do need some understanding, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we are weak. It just means that we have a mental illness, and that illness is just as real as a physical ailment.”

    Often, I find myself trying not to treat others differently because of their mental illness. I wonder: Am I doing this because I’m worried about their mental illness or because I’m supporting them as a person? After reading this, I realize it doesn’t matter because worrying about their mental health and supporting them as a person are the exact same thing! Vulnerability is important because it reminds others that their support is needed and that it helps.

    • Thanks for the support, Raquel, and thanks for your own work in blogging about this issue. Even though teachers are very caring individuals, I feel that vulnerability runs counter to the story of the good teacher, which makes it difficult to admit to.

  5. This is such an important topic to read and write about. I appreciate your honesty and openness. I am seeing so many mental health issues in my role as a teacher and having role models like you for our future teachers will help them be compassionate and understanding leaders. Thank you.

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