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Lessons Learned in the Dark of Depression

For over 25 years, I have gone in and out of the throes of depression. During my worst episodes, I seriously considered ending my life. Thankfully, every time I wanted to give up, God rescued me out of the pit of despair and helped me see His love and light. Even though I would have preferred to not go through the darkness for so long, and though I had wanted to give up so many times, I am thankful that God taught me so many valuable life lessons that I now strive to apply to my life.

 

One lesson I learned from going through depressive episodes is to be more open and genuine with others in expressing my true self. In the past, I was so afraid of what people would think of me that I never told anyone for a long time about my struggles, past and present. Unfortunately, I got so used to hiding that when I finally decided I needed help with my issues, some people thought I really didn’t have those issues! However, the longer I struggled, the more apparent it became to me that I needed to talk to someone about my issues, and more than likely, several people.

 

Then, I started to talk. I began opening up the layers of my pain in my past. What I realized is that many of the people I opened up to struggled with similar issues! Also, I didn’t get most of the judgment or condemnation I had feared, and those that judged me were often the same ones that God would later remove from my life anyway. When I started opening up and being vulnerable with others, not only did I forge stronger bonds with those around me, but I found that the pain I went through in my depression lessened as I started to heal.

 

Another lesson I learned from going through depression is to value my time more–especially the good, depression-free times. When I am depressed, I can only see the wounds and ugliness of myself and life. I feel like I am in a long, dark tunnel with no end to it. However, when I am content with life and glance back at (but not dwell) on my depressive episodes, I realize how blessed I am! Reflecting back causes me to value and appreciate the good times more, because I see how far God has brought me from the darkness of the worst of my depressive episodes.

 

The most pertinent lesson that God has taught me from going through depression, in my mind, is that He had a purpose and a plan for allowing me to walk in the dark for so long. I have learned that God has been using my struggle with depression, and the past hurts that had exacerbated my depression, to help me minister to others with similar or even more complex issues than I ever had!  He has also used my struggle with depression to help me be more compassionate and caring towards others in pain, and in order to strengthen my character by tearing down the layers of selfishness and self-righteousness in my heart.

 

If anyone is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts right now, know that God has a good purpose for all you have been through. We may never know what it is this side of the world, but God never wastes our pain.  Let this be our hope to never give up no matter what life brings us.

 

This article was originally published on Patricia’s website: https://placeinthisworld224.wordpress.com/2019/09/24/lessons-learned-in-the-dark-of-depression/

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You’re Not a Loser

Life doesn’t always go our way. Sometimes it rarely goes our way. We make plans but they don’t work out, we make goals but they change, we set expectations of ourselves and we don’t meet them, we want to be somewhere in life (career, financially, spiritually, family life, etc.) and we don’t see how we’re ever going to get there. It’s tough.

Compound that with depression and we can easily feel like we’re losers. Depression lies like that: you’re unworthy, you’ll never succeed, you can’t handle life, etc. But that’s simply not true.

You’re God’s child; therefore, you’re not a loser and you never will be. And these difficult experiences and life circumstances? A therapist once told me that if we learn from all of our perceived failures, they will never be empty experiences. Those experiences make us more like Christ and better at ministering to others.

If you’re faithful to Christ in the present moment, you are doing what He asks of you. Remember: Christ followers possess the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead. If you simply trust Christ and His process of making you new, you will do powerful things in His name. And that’s the farthest thing from being a loser.

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Reframe Your Goals

One of the biggest demotivators when we suffer from mental illness, particularly in depression and schizophrenia, is the loss of enjoyment and pleasure, also known as anhedonia. This leads to not wanting to engage in previously enjoyed activities.

This in turn leads to many other emotions such as boredom, loneliness, guilt and grief. Of course, these emotions also negatively impact your thoughts and physical symptoms.

When you don’t enjoy an activity, you stop doing it. When you stop doing things, you aren’t engaging in anything that will bring enjoyment. Bit of a catch-22, isn’t it?

It is really difficult to engage in an activity if you don’t receive any enjoyment from it. Unfortunately, though, when you suffer from mental illness, it can mean you don’t enjoy very many things at all! And when you don’t enjoy life, you feel there is no point to living.

Think about this short list of things that you may have enjoyed previously, but when depressed, find little or no enjoyment:

 

Activity: Eating

When you are well: Good appetite, enjoy your food, eating with others

When you are unwell: No appetite, everything tastes like cardboard, isolative

 

Activity: Church

When you are well: Enjoy worship, want to fellowship with other believers

When you are unwell: Perhaps feeling rejected by God, lack of emotion toward God, angry at God, isolative

 

Activity: Sport

When you are well: Energy to play and meet with others

When you are unwell: Lack of energy and motivation, isolative

 

Activity: General socialising

When you are well: Want connection with others, enjoy activities together

When you are unwell: Lack of energy and motivation, isolative

 

You know that you should be engaging in activities, but you feel that there is no point because you won’t enjoy it anyway. What can you do about it?

One suggestion that may work is to ‘reframe your goals’.

When you have anhedonia (loss of pleasure/enjoyment), having enjoyment as the end goal of an activity isn’t a good idea. You are setting yourself up for failure because it is likely you won’t enjoy it, or at least not very much.  This will just demotivate you to attempt other activities.

But when you ‘reframe’ or change the goal from enjoyment to something else, you have a much higher chance of engagement. Let’s explore this a little:

 

Activity: Eating

Usual goal: Satisfy hunger and enjoy food

Unsuccessful outcome: Not eating as not hungry and lacking taste

Reframed goal: To give your brain nutrition

Successful outcome: Eating small amounts of nutritious food to feed your brain

 

Activity: Church

Usual goal: To enjoy worship and connect with others

Unsuccessful outcome: Won’t go to church because won’t enjoy worship or connecting with others

Reframed goal: Worship God because He is worthy, irrespective of how I feel; I need connection (in spite of not wanting it)

Successful outcome: You attend church

 

Activity: Sport

Usual goal: To enjoy the sport and connection

Unsuccessful outcome: Won’t play sport because won’t enjoy it

Reframed goal: To increase my endorphins and have connection

Successful outcome: Play sport and have connection

 

Activity: Socialising

Usual goal: To enjoy it

Unsuccessful outcome: Won’t go because loss of pleasure

Reframed goal: Because I need connection

Successful outcome: Meet with friends/family

 

 

It is really important to understand that when you can engage in activities, as much as it is a huge effort to do so, a vast majority of the time you feel brighter afterwards (even if thoroughly exhausted).

The result of ‘doing’ has such a positive impact on your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions too. Let’s use the example of going out for coffee with a friend:

 

Thoughts – you have positive thoughts from the conversation; something else to think about; and it lessens your thoughts about loneliness

 

Emotions – you feel less lonely and more contented; you feel more motivated to do it again; you feel less guilt because you have been meaning to catch up with that friend for ages

 

Physical reactions – you have neurotransmitter boosts; you may sleep better due to feeling more contented; often your appetite increases a little too.

 

As you can see from the above example, there are so many positive outcomes to be gained from doing an activity – it’s not just about enjoyment.  Give ‘reframing your goals’ a try.  It may surprise you how it helps to motivate you to engage in some much needed activities.

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Asking For Help

Have you ever had family, friends or even acquaintances offer to help when you are unwell? Somehow, though, you struggle to come up with ideas, even though you know all too well that you could do with some help.

 

There can be many reasons why we don’t ask for help from others. Perhaps this list of reasons has been your experience:

 

  1. You don’t want to be a burden
  2. You just want to be left alone
  3. You feel guilty for needing help
  4. You are embarrassed
  5. You can’t think of ways others can help

 

Let’s briefly address these reasons:

 

  1. No one wants to be a burden – it can even seem a noble thought to have. However, you must remember that mental illness is doing all the ‘talking’ here.  Put the shoe on the other foot – if your family member/friend were unwell, you would be desperately wanting to help, just to be able to bring some relief to your loved one. In my experience, the family member/friend feels more burdened by not being able to do anything than by actually helping.

 

  1. Once again, mental illness takes a hold of your thoughts and makes you want to isolate. It is wise to remember that illness and isolation are inseparable –  isolation means illness, illness means isolation. We need to allow others to help us, even if only in small ways, to help break the chains of isolation.

 

  1. Guilt is an emotion that comes to the fore a lot with mental illness. You can have guilt over lots of things from not being able to earn an income to not spending time with family. But the negative cycle of guilt only makes you feel worse. There is no need to feel guilt from others helping you. Remember, they want to help, and it allows them to feel useful, even in some small way.

 

  1. When you let embarrassment rule the situation, you are denying yourself the opportunity to feel loved and supported. And once again, you also deny others the opportunity to reach out to you.

 

  1. Even if you want others to help you, the brain fog and lack of energy and motivation make it difficult to come up with ideas. Often you are just too tired to even think. Once again, these symptoms of mental illness are the very things stopping you from asking for and accepting help.

 

Whether you can relate to one or all of these reasons, it doesn’t negate your responsibility as a part of your recovery to accept or even ask for help.

 

Some of the simplest things can be so impacting. Perhaps you could write a list (or ask someone to help you write a list!) of practical things that others can do when you are unwell. Here are some suggestions:

 

  • Prepare a nutritious meal – not onerous as they are already cooking
  • Give you a lift (e.g. to appointments or church)
  • Pick up some groceries for you (remember you need to feed your brain for recovery, so suggest simple yet nutritious items like almonds, walnuts, fruit/veggies – these don’t need any preparation!)
  • Pop in for short visits – when you are unwell you probably wouldn’t want a lengthy visit, but you still need interaction from others. Educate your family and friends that just a quick visit is fine.

 

These suggestions aren’t necessarily time consuming or difficult to do, yet they can positively impact your recovery, whilst at the same time benefiting the other person. Asking someone to help you in a way that uses their strengths and interests will be energising to the other person also.

 

It is important to remember that God expects His children to help others, so don’t deny others the opportunity to be obedient to His word. I will leave you with some verses from that perspective that might release you to ask for help:

 

Philippians 2:4  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

 

Hebrews 13:16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

 

Matthew 5:16   In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

 

John 15:12       My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

 

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When Missing Church Isn’t Okay

Saturday night rolled around, and Jocelyn was starting to feel feverish and a bit nauseated. By Sunday morning, she was full-blown sick and wouldn’t be making it to church.

 

At church that morning, people asked a friend of Jocelyn’s where she was, if she was ok. The friend wasn’t sure, so people were left to wonder.

 

The next day, a lady from Jocelyn’s Sunday school class called her, but Jocelyn didn’t answer. “Hey, Jocelyn, it’s MaryAnn. Just giving you a quick call to make sure you’re doing ok. We missed you in church on Sunday!”

 

Jocelyn didn’t call MaryAnn back all week. She figured she’d just tell anyone who asked the next week that she’d been ill. No one would question that.

 

Now let’s rewind. (Or, for those of you who don’t remember the VHS era, let’s go back to the Main Menu and choose the Start Over option.)

 

Saturday night rolled around, and Jocelyn was starting to feel depressed and a bit anxious. By Sunday morning, she’d had several full-blown panic attacks and wouldn’t be making it to church.

 

At church that morning, people asked a friend of Jocelyn’s where she was, if she was ok. The friend wasn’t sure, so people were left to wonder.

 

The next day, a lady from Jocelyn’s Sunday school class called her, but Jocelyn didn’t answer. “Hey, Jocelyn, it’s MaryAnn. Just giving you a quick call to make sure you’re doing ok. We missed you in church on Sunday!”

 

Jocelyn didn’t call MaryAnn back all week. She figured she’d just tell anyone who asked the next week that she’d been dealing with her depression and anxiety again. No one would question that.

 

Right?

 

No, unfortunately, almost everyone would question it.

 

So, Jocelyn talked herself out of going the next week before it even got close enough to worry about.

 

And she continued to talk herself out of going—it became a vicious cycle. She didn’t want to have to explain what she struggled with when she knew so many disagreed. And trying to simply say she had been sick wouldn’t work. First, she wasn’t sure it even counted as being sick. Second, everyone would ask, “Oh, did you have that nasty stomach bug that’s going around?!” But she knew she couldn’t say “yes” to that, because she hadn’t.

 

Now this story is entirely fictional, made up solely for the purpose of this article. However, Jocelyn’s story is far too familiar to many of us—on one side or the other. No one questions our missing church when we have an illness of the body. Why are we not afforded the same understanding when an it’s an illness of the mind? Rather, we are told, “You should make yourself come to church. You’d feel so much better!” Although these common phrases are not meant to hurt, they do. No one would tell someone who had the stomach bug and a fever to come to church because it would make them feel better.

 

Thus, it begs the question: Why do some feel the need to tell a friend who has had five panic attacks in a row that aren’t being helped by medication (medication that usually works, by the way) to show up to church to “feel better.” Is it because we’re to be “of a sound mind”? If that’s the reason, we need to re-examine the context of that verse.

 

But that’s for another article.

 

Those of us who struggle with mental illness have even come to believe some of these lies. Will church make us feel better? Sometimes. But sitting in service not being able to pay attention because of the anxiety and depression riddling your body probably isn’t helpful. The pastor sees a congregant who isn’t paying attention, and the struggling congregant isn’t getting anything out of the sermon.

 

So, I beg you, if your brother or sister is struggling with mental illness, don’t throw platitudes or advice born out of fear, misunderstanding, and/or stigmatization at them. Come alongside them—send them a card if you feel so inclined. Offer to make a meal. Do what you’d do for anyone missing service for a physical reason.

 

Mental illness is no easier to deal with than a physical illness, so, please, stop expecting those struggling mentally to make it to church every time the doors are open any more than you’d expect a physically ill person make it there.

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The Face of Bipolar and Anxiety: The Mixed Episode

I’ve seen so many times (usually on Facebook) about what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety. However, what I have yet to see is what it’s like to live with bipolar and anxiety. To truly understand what bipolar and anxiety combined look like, you’d best buckle up—this ride’s going to get a bit wild.

 

The phone rings. You’re deathly afraid of the phone because of your anxiety, and you don’t really speak to anyone on it aside from your mom and best friend. Even talking to your dad is weird and stilted. Grandparents? Nope. And, if you have a significant other, you’re only talking to them with ease if you’ve been together forever.

 

The caller left a voicemail. You knew it was another close friend, but you went from the immediate response of fear to justification of apathy. You didn’t really have to answer it. Not now.

 

You know you should listen to the voicemail; but the moment you do, that’s the moment it becomes real…and that’s the moment you feel obligated to call back.

 

So you put it off. Day after day.

 

Then you get a text. “Hey! We’re going dancing tomorrow night, just the regular group. Wanna come?”

 

You love to dance. And you know everyone in your small group quite well. You don’t want to miss out. And, besides, the last day or so, you’ve felt more upbeat. You didn’t sleep last night, but you know the anxiety won’t become a major issue for another little bit. Maybe a day or so. You can do this.

 

In fact, you’re feeling upbeat enough to pick up your cell and call the friend back. You excitedly say that you’ll go.

 

But then you don’t sleep that night either.

 

Mania has arrived…and with it? Agitation is setting in. And then the anxiety, even worse than normal.

 

It’s now the morning of the day you’re supposed to go dancing. But now, it’s not sounding like such a great idea. You’re not upbeat anymore: you’re just wide awake, though deathly tired and down, and the anxiety is worse than the day that friend called.

 

Welcome to a mixed episode. You’re not just manic anymore. Oh, yes, you’re still manic, but not the on-top-of-the-world manic you were before. Now you’re just beyond wide awake and vibrating inside, but you don’t want to go anymore. You’re too down…and did I mention anxious about how it would go? What if you get into an accident on the way? What if you have a horrible time? What if…

 

And the questions go on.

 

This is where you decide whether to back out. Sometimes you don’t go; sometimes you do.

 

This time, you ignore what you’re feeling and suck it up. You go.

 

The ride is truly ok.

 

No, better than ok. You’re with that friend that called, and you’re having a great time. You do better in person with this friend than over the phone. At least for now.

 

But then you get there.

 

This particular gathering is lesson-based, and the lessons take place before the open dance. Everyone wants to participate—even you!—but the idea of dancing with different people scares you to death. Especially since you don’t actually know any of them.

 

Your mania-induced anxiety is rising.

 

Your friends convince you that you can do it, though, so you do. You’re sweaty from the anxiety before you even start, hoping that your partner pays attention to the instructors, rather than trying to talk to you. Why? Because your mania-induced anxiety is even worse than your normal anxiety; and your everyday, normal anxiety makes you lock up when talking to strangers. Small talk? Not your thing. And you don’t have a friend to talk to or a phone with which to look busy to save you.

 

In the hour lesson, you have to talk to only a few people for a few minutes before you get to move on to your next partner.

 

Then, the open dance starts.

 

But you’re starting to crash. It’s eight o’clock, which is still early; except, you haven’t slept in two nights. You only have two guys in your group that you can dance with. Unfortunately, in your group, the ratio is 2:4. You don’t really mind, though. You don’t have to dance the whole time.

 

But then, those other three female friends convince you that you need to stand on the edge of the wooden dance floor to be able to get a partner. After all, one of the two in your group is preoccupied with someone specifically: that leaves one. One partner to four. Your best odds are that you’ll dance one in every four songs.

 

But even that’s ok: you’re starting to get tired. You’re crashing, remember?

 

What happens, though, you weren’t prepared for, though you should be. It happens every time. One of your friends is taken by the available partner in your group. That leaves you and two friends standing on the sidelines. You can’t hear them above the music because they talk too quietly, so conversation is impossible. You’re just standing there, feeling like you look dumb. Needy.

 

And then a stranger comes by, and takes off to the floor with one of your friends.

 

Now there are two of you.

 

Your anxiety is rising again. You’re edgy, still manic enough to want to snap, but you’re getting tired of standing there. It’s been two songs. Your friends aren’t back.

 

Then, the one friend you’re left standing with is whisked away. Now? It’s just you.

 

You stand there another minute with no one, acutely aware that you’re one of the taller friends, while most of the available partners are shorter, which makes them feel weird. Unfortunately, you’re not the thin taller friend.

 

You start to back up toward the table away from the edge of the floor. No one’s there: just everyone’s stuff. You stand next to it, wondering if maybe that’s still good enough to get a partner.

 

But no one comes over. You see the one partner in your group making his way through your friends, and even some strangers. You haven’t danced in the open dance yet…and you’ve been there a half hour.

 

So you sit down.

 

The number of thoughts running through your head is insane: I’m not good enough. I don’t dance well. I lumber. I’m fat. I’m too tall, I’m ugly. I wouldn’t know what to say, anyway.

 

Finally, the one partner available in your group comes up.

 

You get to dance now.

 

You try to dance without thinking too much about form, but while still thinking about it enough that you maintain it properly. This partner is a talker. Amazingly, he is one of the few you can talk to.

 

But that doesn’t make it any easier. You have anxiety, remember? Every time you say something, you internally question it. Was it stupid? Should I have said it?

 

Yeah, that was stupid.

 

So you laugh at the end of your sentence, but your laugh comes out weird. More of a grunt, because you know it wasn’t truly funny. You just didn’t get the reaction you thought you would from the person you’re dancing with.

 

After miraculously managing to get in a dance or two, you start lobbying to go home. You’re tired, not on top of the world anymore like you were when you first went manic this time, and your anxiety has such a strong grip that you’re still playing through your conversations from hours earlier.

 

Eventually, everyone agrees to leave. You’re in the car, about to cry because you feel like you’ve made a fool of yourself all evening. Those conversations you’re still playing through in your head don’t stop. In fact, they’re going to continue. For how long, you ask? A day. A week. A month. You may recall the conversation years later and still wonder, was what I said stupid? Did it sound stupid?

 

Your friend drops you off, and you make it into the house. You’re so tired that you don’t bother with a nightly routine. Your nightly routine is hit and miss anyway. You just put on some pajamas and climb into bed.

 

Welcome to the crash: depression has hit. You may be in bed for a day…or a week. I can’t tell you. No one can.

 

But this? This is the face of bipolar and anxiety.

 

This is me.

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High School and College Are Breeding Grounds for Mental Health Issues

I could see him in the corner of my eye, and I could tell he was looking in my direction. I kept my eyes on my work. Most people if they have a question ask the front desk attendant, not the trainers. But he came up behind me.

“Look at how much I did on the overhead press,” he said, holding his phone in front of me.

“Wow,” I said, “That’s impressive!”

“Yeah, it’s good to do heavy weight in here after a stressful day,” he said.

“Oh, absolutely. This is the best place to be when you’re stressed,” I replied.

“Yeah, today was horrible. I teach in a high school, and one of the senior girls committed suicide last night,” he said.

My heart sank. “Aw, jeez. That’s terrible.”

He shook his head. “Today was bad. I had to get in here and get the stress out. I’ll be back tomorrow too.”

“Absolutely, man.”

He looked toward the door and started walking. “All right. See you tomorrow,” he said.

“Yes sir.”

I glanced back at my work, heart still heavy. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, stressed, confused, or distraught. Maybe it was all the above. I said a quick prayer for the girl’s family.

The next day I opened up my school email and saw a message from the head of school. It was a school-wide email clarifying what had happened with a certain student, whose name I didn’t recognize. I opened the message, and my heart sank. Two nights before, a male student took his own life.

 

The Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in High School and College

 

Unfortunately, this isn’t all that uncommon. In America at least, most people have experienced hearing the news of a classmate’s suicide (or news of their child’s classmate’s suicide). It happened the one year I taught middle school. All staff got an email about an hour before school’s end informing us of an emergency meeting. The moment students left, we all huddled into the 7th grade language arts room, where our principal told us in tears that one of the high school students committed suicide a few hours ago. Several teachers gasped.

“Who was it?” one of the teachers asked, her voice shaking. At that moment I realized she likely knew the student. She had been the 6th grade math teacher for a long time. It was a small community—only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. The middle school teachers knew every high schooler except transfers.

Our principal said his name.

“Oh no,” the 6th grade math teacher said, immediately stepping back and burying her face in our social studies teacher’s shirt.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and “suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24.” For those adolescents who develop mental illness, it takes, on average, eight to ten years before they get help[i].

Regarding college students,

 

Researchers from the World Health Organization, led by Columbia University Psychology Professor Randy P. Auerbach, surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.) and found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness. Auerbach says this finding “represents a key global mental health issue.”[ii]

 

Furthermore, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant presenting concern among college students (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4%), and relationship problems (35.8%). Other common concerns are suicidal ideation (16.1%), alcohol abuse (9.9%), sexual assault (9.2), ADHD (8.9%), and self-injury (8.7%)”[iii].

 

What’s the Problem?

 

Adolescence is a turbulent time. Indeed, “50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24”[iv]. High school and college years are the time when most mental illness begins.

The brain undergoes significant change during this time of life, and it follows that the brain is more susceptible to maladaptation. According to research on psychiatric disorders and adolescence:

 

The relationship between typical changes in the adolescent brain and the onset of psychopathology is not a unitary phenomenon, but an underlying theme may be conceptualized as “moving parts get broken”. Adolescence is characterized by major changes in the neural systems that subserve higher cognitive functions, reasoning and interpersonal interactions, cognitive control of emotions, risk-vs-reward appraisal and motivation. Not surprisingly, when not adequately surmounted, it is precisely these challenges that increase the risk of cognitive, affective and addictive disorders…Adolescence is a time of substantial neurobiological and behavioral change. These changes are usually beneficial and optimize the brain for the challenges ahead, but may also confer a vulnerability to certain types of psychopathology.[v]

 

It makes sense that mental illness develops during adolescence. The brain is changing and this is when many individuals experience true hardship for the first time. The amount of social, mental, academic, and athletic pressure placed on students doesn’t help.

 

  • Pressures and Stress

 

Research suggests that the expectations placed on the children of parents with higher social status increases suicide risk and self-harm risk: “Children from privileged backgrounds – social class I (doctors, lawyers, academics, etc.) appear to be at increased risk. While traditionally a low-risk group, children of high social class parents, especially females, may feel additional academic pressure during adolescence because of higher parental- and self-expectations”[vi].

This makes sense. In America, we tell high school students (especially middle-class, upper-middle class, and upper-class) that if they want to be successful, they need to go to a prestigious university. To do this, students must earn good grades, complete many hours of volunteer service, play a sport, play an instrument, be involved in student council, be involved in other school organizations, and have other hobbies they can tell colleges about in their applications. This is busyness that rivals the busyness of an adult working full-time, or even over 40 hours a week. Some kids thrive under this pressure, some don’t.

For those who don’t—well, too bad. You want to be successful, right? You don’t want to work in a gas station for the rest of your life, right?

I was one of these kids. I developed depression at 15. Within a year I started feeling the pressure to polish my resume for college. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t have the energy. But I had to.

Much of the same pressure applies in college. To graduate in four years, you must take between 12 and 18 hours of classes per week every semester. This can be a heavy load. For students with existing mental health conditions, this is probably hard enough. But to properly take care of yourself so you can take that many classes, you need to eat well (which takes time), sleep enough (which, for most people, is 7-9 hours per night), exercise regularly (which takes time), have rest time (which is longer for those with mental illness), and have social time. And that’s not mentioning work, which many students need to do to pay rent or help pay for college (crippling debt after college is another topic in itself).

I’ve never met a college student who isn’t swamped with work. They’re constantly stressed. These conditions are just asking for mental health problems.

Because of all the work and other demands placed on high school and college students, they don’t sleep enough. A National Sleep Foundation poll from 2006 concluded that “more than 87 percent of high school students in the United States get far less than the recommended eight to 10 hours, and the amount of time they sleep is decreasing”[vii]. Students have way too much going on, but they know the only way to “succeed” in school is to complete all their work and fulfill all their obligations. Even if they manage time well and use healthy coping mechanisms for stress, they’ll still lose sleep simply because the amount of work they have. In high school and college, lack of sleep becomes a badge of honor, a way of showing how dedicated you are to success. But it’s nothing anyone (including these students’ teachers) should be proud of. The consequences of sleep deprivation are far-reaching: “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts. It’s a problem that knows no economic boundaries.”

Research is starting to show that suicide rates increase during the school year[viii]. This doesn’t surprise me. I went through teacher training to become an English teacher, and I taught and tutored for a total of two years. For high school and college, I think teachers assign too much work. Some assign work like their class is the only class students take. Teachers and professors need to be aware of how much work they assign, and they need to do a better job of considering students’ health. Many teachers and professors tell their students to take care of themselves and then render it impossible with how much work they give. Let kids be kids. Let them have lives. Peter Gray sums up the negative effect of scholastic pressure well in the previously-mentioned article,

 

School is clearly bad for children’s mental health.  The tragedy is that we continue to make school ever more stressful, even though research shows that none of this is necessary.  Young people learn far more, far better, with much less stress (and at less public expense) when they are allowed to learn in their own natural ways, as I have pointed out in many of my previous posts and in my book, Free to Learn.

 

 

  • College culture

 

College culture is a problem in America. Many students go to college for the “experience”—which usually means drinking, partying, sex, and going to football games. Some of these students still excel academically, some of them don’t. This culture and the social pressure to conform that goes with it is a breeding ground for addictive behaviors (alcohol, drugs, and sex addiction). And addictive behaviors are detrimental to mental health, even if that manifests itself further down the road.

 

  • Big classes, big schools

 

This is an issue in high school and college. For high school students, having big classes means less interaction with the teacher. It’s easier to get lost in large classes, especially for quiet students who are hurting. The teacher may think there’s nothing wrong with the student. However, if the teacher had a smaller class and more opportunity to work one-on-one with all students, he or she would be more likely to spot concerning behaviors. Research suggests that feeling involved in school (perhaps more likely for students in smaller schools) decreases suicide and self-harm risk: “pupils with low levels of school engagement and involvement are more likely to attempt or seriously think about taking their own life or deliberately harm themselves”[ix].

That’s not to say that mental illness and suicide don’t happen in small schools. I’ve witnessed student suicide in a small community.

At the end of the day, how close-knit a community is likely determines the suicide risk of its school(s) (see the research study above). In big cities and big school districts, it’s harder to have a close-knit community (although not impossible).

This is one of the cons of large universities, in my opinion. My freshman year I attended a small school in northeast Texas. I’m introverted and I had zero problem feeling socially connected during my time there. However, after I transferred to one of the largest universities in the country, it took me almost two years to feel remotely connected. Shocker: my mental health suffered drastically during that time.

 

  • Hopeless ideologies

 

This isn’t discussed enough in regards to mental health. In my opinion, this is a big problem facing our country for numerous reasons.

The anti-religious, often atheistic ideologies pushed by college professors affects almost everyone, whether we realize it or not. Influencers (i.e. politicians, teachers, writers, speakers, researchers, business owners and entrepreneurs, etc.) usually go through college. Some may come to college already holding anti-religious or amoral beliefs, but all are exposed to them in college, whether prior beliefs are reinforced or new beliefs emerge. These people—again, I’m speaking generally—then go into the world and advocate for inherently atheistic beliefs and policies (whether they realize it or not). Ideas are contagious, and college is a place for ideas.

If professors are increasingly atheistic, the general population will likely follow. As Christians, we know that beliefs grounded in atheism produce only death and decay. Universities are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encouraging harmful mindsets, which only results in people doing more to harm themselves.

If life has no meaning, then life is inherently hopeless. This mindset is a catalyst for the destruction of mental health. If all truth is relative and there is no right and wrong, what’s stopping someone from sleeping around or using drugs? Universities are encouraging self-destructive behavior. We need to call it for what it is and start the conversation about alternatives or how we can address the issue.

 

Are We Willing to Change Our Systems?

 

I understand that adolescents need to develop coping skills. I understand they need to learn how to push through challenges. I’m not saying we need to ensure our kids experience no hardship whatsoever. Healthy coping skills, time management, and perseverance should all be taught to high school and college students. But we also need to examine our systems and be willing to change ineffective and unhealthy traditions. Research studies increasingly confirm school’s negative effect on mental health, yet few people listen and fewer still do anything about it. If this continues, we will only perpetuate high school and college students’ mental health struggle.

 

 

References

[i] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 3 June 2014, https://www.nami.org/getattachment/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

[ii] Hess, Abigail. “Massive survey finds 1 in 3 college freshmen struggle with mental health—here are 4 things you can do.” 4 Oct. 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/04/4-ways-to-be-proactive-about-your-mental-health-in-college.html

[iii] Mistler, Brian et al. “The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey.” 2012, http://files.cmcglobal.com/Monograph_2012_AUCCCD_Public.pdf

[iv] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 21 Sept. 2016, https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/Children-MH-Facts-NAMI.pdf

[v] Paus, Tomás et al. “Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence?.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience vol. 9,12 (2008): 947-57. doi:10.1038/nrn2513

[vi] Young, Robert et al. “Do schools differ in suicide risk? The influence of school and neighbourhood on attempted suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harm among secondary school pupils.” BMC public health vol. 11 874. 17 Nov. 2011, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-874

[vii] Richter, Ruthann. “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic.” Stanford Medicine News Center. 8 Oct. 2015, https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html

[viii] Gray, Peter. “Children’s and Teens’ Suicides Related to the School Calendar.” Psychology Today. 31 May 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201805/children-s-teens-suicides-related-the-school-calendar

[ix] Young, Robert et al.

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Think on These Things

When depression’s ice

Freezes my life

And stops me in my tracks,

 

Or when feelings of inadequacy

Hit me like the felling of a tree

And I want to turn back,

 

I think of…

 

An expanse of sea—

His creative majesty—

Sprawling before me.

 

Something Lovely.

 

A child of innocence,

Meaning no impertinence,

Simply telling the truths of his experience.

 

Something Honest.

 

A gavel downward crashing,

As a judge, through mental thrashing,

Gives the sentence he can’t escape passing.

 

Something Just.

 

A bride deserving of her white,

Ready to make a life

In a new chapter as her husband’s wife.

 

Something Pure.

 

The Hand of the Lord,

Ready with His Word,

For my use—a Sword.

 

Something True.

 

 

“Think on these things,”

Paul exhorts:

 

It may not STOP the

Depression,

Anxiety,

Inadequacy—

 

But a Biblical attitude

Of Godly gratitude

Makes it harder

To fill our earthly larder

With feelings that God did not intend:

Ones that only came about with a Serpent’s end

In mind, in heart—

Of which I want no part.

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Trying to Function with a Mental Illness–Even During the Good Times

I’ve struggled with significant OCD and depression for a little over 10 years. When it first started, I could barely function at all. I managed to, but it took everything I had, and my athletic as well as my academic performance still suffered (I was in high school).

Since then, I’ve completed counseling and got on medication. I’ve also learned through the years what makes me feel better and what makes me feel worse. I’ve learned to manage myself. As a result, my mental health has improved considerably.

Things aren’t perfect, but I’m pretty happy with my situation in life. And yet, my mental illnesses still make it hard to function. For instance, as I write this my mind constantly wants to look at the coffee table to make sure my phone isn’t frozen on the home screen. In two years of having an iPhone that has never happened. But that’s the irrationality of it—I still feel the need to check, even though I know it’s a silly thought. As a writer, it doesn’t help that I’m always wanting to check something. It makes concentration very difficult. I just make myself push through.

Two of the worst parts of my day are leaving for work and going to bed. It’s hard for me to leave my house, and I dread it. My OCD kicks in, and I feel the need to check every door, light switch, electrical outlet, candle, and faucet, as well as the oven and stove. I often check multiple times, though the feeling remains—even when I leave—that I forgot something and need to go check again. I force myself to keep walking to my car, and the first few minutes of my drive are spent fighting off the feeling that something bad will happen in my house while I’m gone.

Here’s something that people with depression will relate to. Due to the nature of my job, I work in the mornings and in the evenings—I have the middle of the day off. Every day between 11am and 2:30pm I feel drained, although some days are better than others. I force myself to get up and go back to work. And this is coming from someone who sleeps around eight hours every night, eats well, maintains healthy relationships, isn’t particularly stressed, does outdoor activities, is married, doesn’t feel lonely, is involved in church, reads a lot, lifts weights regularly, and does cardio exercise regularly. I check off all the “healthy” boxes, and I still feel tired.

For me, this is the reality of living with mental health disorders. I’ve accepted it, but sometimes I still feel like I can’t win. I mean, isn’t exercise supposed to give you energy? But I played basketball last Thursday and Saturday, and I felt ridiculously sluggish on Sunday. This morning (Monday), I woke up and realized I slept an hour past my alarm. It definitely went off, but I don’t recall hearing it at all. What the heck? Would it be better for me not to exercise? I even read somewhere that team sports (like basketball) are supposed to be the best exercise for depressed people. It makes me happy when I play, but then I’m exhausted the next day—like, I’m in good shape and I can still barely move exhausted. I guess you can’t get a pure, through-and-through “win,” so to speak. With mental illness, even when you follow the rules there’s still something not working right. That’s the way it feels, at least.

If you looked at me at my job or at church, you probably wouldn’t think I struggle with any of this. I function pretty well…it just takes all my energy and focus, and I make myself do it. But there’s pretty much no part of normal functioning that I take for granted anymore.

We often assume that if people look like they’re functioning okay then they are. But we need to be aware that it takes some people everything they have to reach that point. We need to look deeper than the surface level and be understanding.

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They Tie Up Heavy Burdens

Rather than sit

In a pew, week after week,

I sit at home on a seat—

Far more comfortable, yes,

But with the same Book in my hands

That tells me His commands—

Not man-made, not man-upheld

Like a whited sepulcher,

Like untruths from a Hell

They’ve created.

 

I can sit in a pew

And listen to a man spew

Forth these lies

That in Your eyes

I’m less than,

Not Christian,

Because I suffer from depression.

 

“Oh wait, that’s not all?

“Anxiety, too?

“God doesn’t want anything to do with you.

“Or, if He does,

“First you must be clean—

“Repent of your ways, you sinner.”

 

But don’t you see?

It’s an illness of the brain—

A refrain

I dance to week after week,

Day after day.

 

I can sit in a pew—

Would that make me friends with you?

I can listen to the clatter

Of the offertory platter

As it goes by

And its din gets louder and louder

In my head with each passing moment.

 

 

Yes, I can do those things, too,

Just like you—

But then, because of this struggle,

The words start to tumble

From your mouth to my ears:

 

Unclean

Unrighteous

Unrepentant

Unsaved

Sinner

 

But who’s to say

That you have the right way

Of judgment,

Of unacceptance,

Of unwillingness to understand.

 

If that’s your God,

You can keep Him—

For to my God,

I am His beloved child.