Breaking the stigma: Talking about mental illness can save lives
Thirty years ago, I was a teenager in San Marcos with mental health issues. The lack of knowledge about mental illness at the time and the stigma surrounding mental illness nearly killed me.
Don’t get me amiss — people tried to help. Teachers knew something was wrong — my grades dropped, my demeanor changed. I sent out signals the best ways I knew how, but mental illness was not something you talk about. It was considered something dangerous, something mysterious and maybe supernatural, some kind of failing. And in my severely depressed state, it made sense to me that I was deeply lacking as a human being and maybe deserved to feel the inexplicable sadness I lived with every day, so I didn’t have much motivation to seek an intervention.
Concerned friends dragged me to church. I was told that Jesus could help me — that the darkness that had fallen over my brain and my heart would yield to the holy light of God if only I prayed and asked for help.
Do you know what happens when you tell someone that God will take their pain and despair away if they pray, and they pray, and their pain and despair do not end? God loses a lot of His appeal, and that person ends up feeling even more worthless.
But, as so often happens, one day I hit rock bottom. I survived it, and having survived it, I decided to actually ask for help. I had made a suicide attempt one morning before I got to school. As soon as I could after I got to campus, I went to a counselor — even though he was an academic counselor — and told him I wanted to die and had in fact tried to die earlier that morning. He called my mother and told her what I had said. My parents, who thankfully had the insurance and funds to send me to a therapist, did just that.
After a few months, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and given a medication to take because the issue wasn’t with any particular event — it was with the chemical makeup of my brain. My outcry, a man’s willingness to listen, and my family’s love, patience and resources saved my life. I still have some hard days, and hard months, but I am proud to say that I grew into a productive member of society who’s as well-adjusted as can be expected in the field of journalism. Just like someone with high blood pressure or diabetes, I have a prescription — complemented with diet and exercise — to help manage my condition. I go to a church where I am not condemned for my imperfections.
Decades after I graduated from high school, there is a network of individuals and organizations in San Marcos doing work to help young people living through the same kind of thing I lived through: the Mental Health Coalition. This group is working to support organizations that provide mental health support and connect people in need with those resources. There are plenty of young people in San Marcos whose families do not have the ability to pay for therapy, but steps are being taken to close the gaps in available care. Moreover, the San Marcos CISD has made social-emotional counselors available on its campuses to help students who need support, like I did 30 years ago.
Social media, frequent school shootings and academic pressures can make it hard to be a happy and healthy child, teenager or young adult. Though there is always work to be done in the field of mental health support and awareness, I am glad to see that mental health is being taken more seriously and that needs are being addressed — especially for young people. Research into the causes of mental illness has come a long way since my high school days. So have efforts to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. I hope this column helps to make the subject less taboo and less abstract. I hope that the San Marcos community continues working to make life better for people living with mental illness.