stigma

5 Reasons to Try Therapy

As I parked, I wondered if anyone would drive by and recognize my car. At this point, I was so worn out from life I lacked the energy to care about the stigma anymore. I shrugged and walked across the street to the Counseling and Testing Center on campus. 

It was a temporary building and everything was a bit squished inside, but I appreciated the office’s relocation to the outskirts of campus instead of at the heart of social life, like it was before. It felt safer.

Over the following weeks, I stopped worrying if people would spot my car or notice me walking in for appointments. In the crowded temp building on the edge of campus, an internal shift began. I gravitated from the outskirts of myself toward the very center, and as I tended to my heart I found there was no place I would rather be.

Three years later, I’m still an avid fan of therapy. In fact, I think everyone should go to therapy. Here are a few reasons why:

1. You probably need it.

After experiencing firsthand the benefits of therapy, I’ve encouraged scores of people (okay, pretty much everyone I know) to make it a priority. The responses vary, but I’ve noticed something. 

The people who are most adamant about not needing it usually need it the most.

A main roadblock to getting into a therapist’s office is stigma. Stigma—which I like to call a Silent Killer—tells us therapy is only for people who are “weak,” “have problems,” or are “broken.” 

But aren’t we all broken? Don’t we all have problems? In this case, “stigma” could be a synonym for “pride.” 

Therapy isn’t solely for times when we’re so beaten down we can’t get back up without help (though it is incredibly helpful for those times). It’s also for anytime we desire to be healthier, know and love ourselves well, and interact with and love others well. Which should be….all the time.

If you haven’t figured out how to love yourself yet, therapy is for you. If you ever have conflict with others, struggle with self-hatred, or have a screwed up family, therapy is for you.

If you’ve figured out life already or if you are smart enough to figure it out without help…therapy is especially for you. (I know because that used to be me.)

Adobe stock photo

Adobe stock photo

2. It's a healthy practice - like a wellness checkup.

In nursing school, patient education is heavily emphasized, especially when it comes to disease prevention.

“The best treatment,” I remember my professors instructing, “is prevention.”

When it comes to mental health, a similar premise holds true. Much like medical care, therapy is not limited to addressing acute situations. Rather, therapy is useful for promoting wellness holistically.

It helps increase our emotional IQ (I didn’t even know this was a thing until I started going to therapy) and keep our mental habits and frameworks in working order. 

Nearly every operational thing needs periodic maintenance in order to function at full capacity—cars need oil changes, air filters in our homes need changing, etc.

Our brains benefit from maintenance too.

3. Counseling is different from venting to a friend or receiving advice from a mentor.

A common misconception about therapy is it’s simply a place to vent or externally process—much like a coffee date with a close friend or phone call with a confidante. 

While therapy does provide the opportunity for both venting and processing, it also creates space for so much more. 

It provides an objective perspective—and someone who will call you out on your bull. Many times, we aren’t aware of our weaknesses or lapses in judgment, and neither are the ones closest to us. In fact, they might have the same blindspots we do.

Therapists focus on what's best for us and are extensively trained to identify and help us address underlying issues.

They are equipped to see past the smoke screen and find the fire. Sometimes the fire is obvious and blaring, and other times we've dismissed it as a smoldering pile of ashes from the past. That's a skill worth paying for.

Sessions are helpful for working through difficult situations, but perhaps their true value comes in the way they challenge our way of thinking.

4. It allows you to empathize with others.

Being willing to try therapy for yourself serves a dual purpose when it comes to relating to others. 

First, it allows you to relate to those who go to therapy. Some of the people I connect with most are friends who also go or have gone to therapy. They understand how wonderful it can be and how difficult, how the stigma still stings sometimes, and how it’s worth it anyway.

It shows me they are humble enough to seek help and admit they’re still growing. It lets me know they’re less likely to judge me for my issues.

Second, it gives you a leg to stand on when you suggest someone else try out therapy. Mental illness is increasingly widespread, and odds are you have already suggested that a loved one seek therapy. It’s one thing to encourage a form of treatment you’ve “heard” works. It’s a whole different thing to endorse a practice you’ve been willing to try yourself.

5. It could change your life.

When I walked into the office for the first time on campus, I was terrified and I was proud. 

Yet therapy changed my life—and it still is. (At some points, it probably saved my life.) Therapy isn’t the be all end all, but it is incredibly helpful.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in therapy, it’s this:

We’re all broken, including me. It’s okay to need help, and it’s courageous and healthy and right to ask for it.

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My Journey through Depression to Happiness

"Why you smiling, Miss?" I turned to see who was speaking. I was volunteering with high school students, and one of them looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.

"Because I'm happy," I replied, my smile widening. As the words left my lips, I almost cried. I wanted to add, "Because it's been six years since I began struggling with depression, and I'm finally happy. I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life! I'm happy to be volunteering here, and I'm happy to be alive."

Six years later, I'm happy to be alive.

When I first experienced depression, I had a lot of ideas about what the cure was. Most of them were wrong. Today, I still have a lot of ideas, and though now I'm better informed, I admit a lot of them are probably still wrong. We only know in part, and we see as in a mirror, dimly.

Six years later, I'm trashing my formulas for happiness and discarding the empty claims I know what "holistic healing" is. As I look back, here's what I notice.

fog athens.edit.jpg

Therapy counts.

Stubbornness tends to run in my family, and pride tends to run in me. This combination resulted in a three-year refusal to consider seeking professional help. A breakdown (or five) after a difficult summer in Cambodia led me to a counselor's office, where I finally found hope in the face of suicidal thoughts.

In therapy, I learned how to process emotions. I experienced grace. I met Jesus in a new way.

However, though therapy brought me a long way, I still floundered in waves of depression, especially with transitions to and from life overseas.

Observation: Therapy has literally been a life-saver. It brings perspective and fosters humility. It can facilitate major healing. It requires hard work mentally and emotionally. It is often the first step in breaking down stigma and pride. Though it's thought of as a practice reserved for "people with problems," therapy can benefit everyone. We all have problems, after all, whether we admit it or not! Perhaps the only difference between those who go to therapy and those who don't is the humility and courage to recognize and own our problems.

Bottom line: Therapy can do wonders for health! It is not a guaranteed cure for anything.

God can bring breakthrough.

At the beginning of the year, I found myself at a weekly gathering with friends from church. As the sound of piano keys and voices filled the house, I remembered how earlier in the day the Lord had nudged me to ask for prayer for depression. I didn't understand why. Over six years, I'd prayed and asked for prayer more times than I could count.

Yet in obedience, I approached Alexa, one of our leaders and now a dear friend, and tapped her on the shoulder. Her eyes met mine with a smile. Nervously, I explained I was experiencing depression and asked if she would pray for me.

"Yes," she replied, "I actually would love to because I've experienced depression myself."

Surprised and grateful, I closed my eyes as she prayed over me. She prayed for me to experience whatever breakthrough she had experienced.

The next morning, I woke up with hope surging in my chest. I felt 85% better! The Lord had brought breakthrough.

Observation: It's important to realize healing doesn't come as a result of actions or disciplines themselves. This is why "read your Bible" and "pray more" are dangerous solutions to give someone who is depressed (not to mention the propensity to come across as insensitive and judgmental). Even though these practices can connect us with God, these actions cannot heal us. Prayer, reading the Bible, Scripture memory, worship, nor repentance can heal us. Furthermore, God does not promise to heal us from depression or relieve our suffering, even if we do ask Him!

Bottom line: God can heal in an instant. His desire is for His children to come to Him with our burdens. He does not guarantee breakthrough, and spiritual disciplines are not cures.

Medication can be effective.

Shortly before asking Alexa to pray for me, I began taking antidepressants. It was somewhat of a last-ditch effort, as I'd always been in staunch opposition of medications. My reasons ranged from, "I don't want to be dependent on anything" to "They don't actually work" to "I'm weak if I take them."

When I finally visited a doctor, the first medication I tried actually made my depression worse. I'm thankful my therapist recognized and addressed this. When I switched to a different pill, I slowly began to notice positive effects: more energy, fewer suicidal thoughts, and an overall elevation in mood.

Since these effects occurred so closely to the prayer-sparked breakthrough, I wondered if the medications truly did anything or if it was simply the prayer. When I asked the Lord about it, I felt I should continue the meds. Later, a dose increase resulted in more positive effects. In fact, I went from feeling 85% better to 95% better!

Observation: In my head, finding a spiritual answer (prayer) to depression was more attractive because I thought a physiological source meant there was something wrong with me. Additionally, physiological depression can't be proven by a simple test or lab result, so there's ample room for questioning and criticism. This can be the hardest treatment choice for church-goers because it can be seen as a lack of faith.

In reality, taking medications shows incredible courage, resilience, and incredible humility to admit we are not in control of our minds. This lack of control is true for all people, but the facade is often forced down only in those of us with mental illness. Many times, people who take medications are meeting God in a new way, with humility and a recognition of how little we know about our brains and how little we control. If righteousness includes "right thinking" about God and how we relate to Him, then the humility involved in taking medications can bring about a form of righteousness.

Bottom line: Medications aren't for everyone, but the biological component to depression should not be dismissed. Medications can help. They are not a guaranteed cure.

sun on flowers.edit.jpg

Circumstances matter.

Situational depression is real and I probably experienced some with reentry, but for now I'll focus on general, ongoing life circumstances: the places we live, the jobs we hold, the social circumstances surrounding us.

When working as a nurse at the hospital, I experienced extreme stress. I felt pressure to be enough—perfect, even—and struggled to keep up with these expectations. The high-stakes and often-harsh environment was rough on my heart and my soul.

For a long time, I categorized my job as an unchangeable part of my life circumstances. I also mistakenly believed resigning from a career meant I was a failure, weak, and not good enough. I viewed quitting a job as a cop-out.

A few months ago, I made the choice to quit nursing in favor of health. After the initial shock of quitting the career I received all my training in, I walked into a season of great joy. I not only made the jump from feeling 95% better to 100%, but I'm happier now than I ever have been in my life! I didn't even know happiness this great existed. Wow, am I grateful!

Observation: Changing careers symbolized a surrendering of my will and sense of security, a courageous step of obedience and trust, and a commitment to what was best for me, even if it wasn't popular. I did (and still do) receive questioning when I tell people I willingly walked away from nursing, but this consequence is nothing compared to the unbelievable happiness it brings me every day.

Bottom line: A stressful circumstance is not to be underestimated. Unhealthy and stressful circumstances can have immense repercussions (like severe depression), but changing them is not a guaranteed cure.

Overall Lessons

Many possible solutions to depression exist, but none are guaranteed. I used to think if I altered just one of these factors enough, I would find happiness. I thought if I prayed enough, if I just kept going to counseling, or if I took the right pill at the right dosage for the right amount of time, I'd be better. The truth is I had to alter all four aspects of my life before I found happiness.

The only guarantee to come with each step I took toward health was a humble questioning of my biases and beliefs.

What do I really believe about depression?

How do I believe it relates to spirituality?

Do I assume others are weak, lazy, or fearful because they won't seek the same treatment I do?

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6 Reasons I Won't Tell You I'm Depressed

“I never would have guessed you were depressed. You always seem so happy.”

“Really, depression? I had no idea…”

These are common responses when I mention depression has been part of my life. I hear the same reactions when we lose someone to suicide:

“Can you believe it? I never even suspected he was struggling.”

When the truth emerges about people who struggle with mental illness, others are usually shocked. However, I’ve come to expect the disbelief and surprise. After all, as someone who hid depression and anxiety from the world for years, I know firsthand how hard we work hard to hide mental illness from others. We wipe away our tears before walking out the door of our homes, and we try to keep our heads lifted high in public. We wear superhero masks and put on Emmy-worthy performances day in and day out. Though every person has unique reasons for sharing or not sharing struggles with depression, here are the top six reasons I don’t tell others I’m depressed:

1. It’s awkward.

This is sad but true. I remember the first time someone shared with me her struggle with depression, and I bumbled through an awkward response of “I’m sorry…I um, I have to go.” At the time, I didn't understand depression and knew very little about it. I had no clue how to engage in a conversation in something I didn’t understand. It made me uncomfortable.

Since then I have gained plenty of firsthand experience about depression and have a much more caring, empathetic response. I’ve also experienced those bumbling, awkward responses from the other side of the conversation; I’ve been the one to witness others stammer and blush and suddenly forget how to talk when depression comes up. Though the awkwardness doesn’t bother me much anymore, I do think twice about how someone will respond before mentioning depression.

2. I don’t want to come across as needy.

Unfortunately, the stereotype “depressed” person is "weak," needy, and perhaps clingy. In an effort to avoid this stereotype at all costs, we keep our struggles to ourselves. We strive to keep up our reputations as strong, independent individuals. Isn’t this the American ideal?

Yet herein lies the misconception that strong means not needing others—and furthermore, that neediness is equal to needing help. For a long time, I avoided talking about depression because I believed needing help made me less-than and weak, in the end only to discover true courage is practicing vulnerability and asking for help.

Adobe stock photo

Adobe stock photo

3. I’m afraid there’s something wrong with me.

Ashamed. Horrified. Scared. These are the emotions that plagued me in the pits of depression. Because depression is difficult to understand and has no cut-and-dry medical explanation with a formula to get better, it’s easy to fall into the lie that depression is an inherent flaw within me.

Depression carries the critical inner voice causing us to doubt our sense of value and our sense of belonging. "A freak. A failure. Of no value," it whispers in my head. With the pressure to conform and my natural aversion to vulnerability constantly weighing on me, of course I choose to keep my depression from others.

4. Some days I can’t even admit to myself I’m depressed.

Given the fears discussed above, it’s no wonder I try to convince myself I’m not depressed! On my best days in depression and on my worst, there is almost nothing I have wanted more desperately than for depression to be gone. I have wished for a magic cure, I have prayed and begged God to “take it away,” and I have spent hours on the internet looking for solutions to this mood disorder.

I have wished depression never existed, and I have wanted to forget about it altogether. I have tried to ignore it, to run from it, to numb myself to it—and on these days of denial, hiding depression from others simply comes as a byproduct of trying to keep it hidden from myself.

5. When I’m with you, I genuinely may be happy.

This may sound odd, but when I greet my friends and see coworkers in the hallway, I genuinely am happy in that moment—happy to see them, happy to know them, happy to spend time with them. In those moments, I am happy. I want to hear about their week and tell them about my day. I smile and crack jokes and do more than my share of laughing because I truly enjoy their company. It simply isn’t the right context to mention my depression, especially if I’m not feeling the full weight of it at the moment.

Because most interactions with others happen in these more superficial, thirty-second conversations, it makes sense that many would view me as a generally upbeat and happy person. The truth is, in the moments I interact with others I may be genuinely happy, but these moments do not necessarily represent my overall mental and emotional well-being.

6. I don’t want unsolicited advice on how to get better.

Well-meaning friends have suggested everything from antidepressants to praying and reading my Bible more. They have told me about their Aunt Milly and what cured her depression and the miraculous recovery of their friend Billy Bob. 

For obvious reasons, this can be very annoying to those with depression. Everyone’s experience of depression is different, and what helps one person will not necessarily help someone else. It can also be exasperating because it can unintentionally imply that we aren’t already trying everything we know to get better. We probably already googled that therapy or pill or herbal supplement you’re telling us about, and we probably read about five articles on it while we were busy avoiding people!

Ways to Make the Conversation Easier

Though I've learned to become comfortable talking about depression openly, there are still ways people can make the conversation easier:

  • Create a nonjudgmental attitude/safe atmosphere
  • A focus on listening, not telling
  • Genuine desire to learn and understand
  • Phrases like “Tell me more about that” or “I’d like to learn more about depression and would love to hear about your experience”
  • An environment where others are vulnerable about their struggles as well (a "me too" culture)
  • The ability to relate but not compare (ie, “I/someone close to me has walked through depression, and I know it can be really difficult” versus “My brother was depressed but it wasn’t that bad”)
  • After listening, asking “How can I help?” or “What helps on the hard days?”
  • A “thank you for sharing” or acknowledgment of how much courage it takes to talk about taboo topics like mental illness.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the road of depression, or perhaps you’re walking alongside someone with depression. Regardless, I hope this list provides some insight—and please know, we are thankful for you. We are thankful for the conversations about depression, even if they’re a little awkward at first! We are thankful for community because even though we don’t always like it, we cannot do this alone.

Thanks for letting me tell you I’m depressed.

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The Truth About Depression: 5 Observations from Someone Who’s Been There

I have a confession.

I’ve struggled with depression for years. I’ve struggled with anxiety, too. For a long time, I tried not to let the world see my struggle. I let shame seal my mouth shut. But today, I want to begin sharing this part of my story—a part that I’ve desperately wanted to erase from my past but remains there nonetheless. I want to write about mental health because it matters, and I don’t think people talk about it enough.

So here is some truth about depression. I’m not a clinical expert or mental health nurse or any kind of therapist. I simply have observations from experience, from a raw wrestling with this intangible mood-killer and productivity-killer and sometimes people-killer. It’s my hope to begin writing more about my personal journey toward mental health, but for now, here are some foundational observations.

Observation #1: Lots of people are fighting the dragon of depression.

In high school, my English teacher used to say that “everyone has their dragons,” meaning everyone has things in life they are fighting against. The dragon of depression is a lot more common than we believe.

When I was a freshman in college, we had a chapel speaker give a lecture on depression. Opening with a statistic, he stated, “One in seven people suffer from depression.” One of the guys in my group started counting how many people were sitting in our row and said, “Hey, that means at least one of us would be depressed!”

I tried to shrink in my seat. That one person would be me.

I don’t know if that statistic is true or not, but I do know that a lot of people experience depression. It isn’t always physically debilitating, and we can’t see it with our eyes, but it still exists, and it’s a lot more rampant than we would like to believe.

Photo credit: Kateland Pricer

Photo credit: Kateland Pricer

Observation #2: Lots of people treat depression like a literal dragon—like a terrifying, mysterious myth.

Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, you probably don’t spend much time talking about myths. You probably spend a lot more time on what you believe is true and relevant and affecting everyday life.

That makes complete sense—when it comes to actual myths. The problem is, depression isn’t a myth. In that way, it isn’t like a dragon at all.

However, just like a dragon, depression can seem terrifying and mysterious. As humans, we tend to shy away from the unknown, and our solution for the mysterious is to pretend like those things simply don’t exist. I don’t think anyone quite gets depression unless they’ve been there—and even those of us who've experienced it don’t completely understand it. We don't understand why it affects some people more than others, how it creeps up or vanishes or lingers, or why certain treatments or medications do or don’t work. 

Even though we can't explain it, we must acknowledge depression. We have massive educational efforts for diabetes and heart disease—we even have billboards talking about stroke symptoms—but for some reason we refuse to address depression on a wide scale publicly. Yet ignoring depression can be dangerous—perhaps just as dangerous and lethal as ignoring a dragon’s existence.

Observation #3: Stigma is a Silent Killer.

In nursing school we once had a slide dramatically titled, “Hypertension: the Silent Killer.” I chuckled at how dramatic the slide was, but I never forgot it. Later, I decided that in the mental health world, stigma deserves that title. “Stigma: the Silent Killer” is not an overstatement.

Over the past few years, many courageous people have been speaking up about mental illness and opening the floor for a nationwide conversation around it. I have been so encouraged by this! However, these speakers are still a rarity. We have a long way to go.

Stigma is why the people experiencing depression are the ones you would least suspect. Because of stigma, we hide it and try to compensate and sometimes overcompensate. We pretend we're okay, but inside we hate the mask we put on. Stigma leads to isolation and contributes to shame, which leads to self-hatred, which leads to increased depression, which leads to more shame. Ultimately, stigma leads to a startlingly high suicide rate in America

If depression is a dragon, stigma is its right-hand dragon buddy. With stigma around, people believe experiencing depression is weak and shameful. The greater the stigma and shame, the less likely people are to seek help. (Trust me, I waited four long years due to stigma and pride before going to therapy and finding help.)

Observation #4: It can always be better.

One of the flaws of depressive thinking is the belief that “it can never be better.” It all seems pretty hopeless.

Sometimes, it takes a friend to hope for you—to believe that things can get better. I was blessed to know a great group of girls in college who also struggled with depression and were brave enough to talk about it in everyday conversations. We hoped for each other when we couldn’t hope for ourselves.

Several of those girls are some of my best friends today. What happened for us was an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be better. For individuals, for myself, my friends, and for society. Sometimes "better" is a simple step of courage away, found in working on a project we enjoy or joining a Bible study. Sometimes it's scheduling a coffee date with a friend and holding onto the knowledge that in exactly two days we'll have a friend to sit across from—encouragement and hope in tangible form.  Sometimes "better" is found in a text saying someone's praying for us.

Whatever form it takes, I believe it can always be better. I believe we can create a culture where it isn’t shameful to talk about depression, a culture where we hope for each other, a culture where we know we were made to need each other.

Observation #5: A change in culture starts with individual conversations.

Practically, how do we effect change? I believe it starts with awareness and conversations.

When we talk about depression, stigma is dismantled, and the truth comes out: depression affects nearly everyone at some point in their lives, and it doesn’t mean we’re weak. In fact, those who experience depression are some of the strongest, most courageous people I know.

When we can talk about depression and hopelessness and pain, we gain opportunities to sit with others through the darkness, which perhaps is the greatest help of all. When we can talk about depression, we open the door wide for those who are struggling to find the courage, hope, and community that really is out there for them. For me. For us.

I believe it can be better. I believe it starts with you and me, carrying on this conversation about the uncomfortable topics of depression and mental illness, through blog posts and social media and real-life conversations in coffee shops and work cubicles and homes. It starts with stark transparency and healthy vulnerability and bold humility.

The truth about depression is…it can get better. And it starts with us.

 

Thank you to my friend Kateland Pricer for graciously letting me use her photo! Katie created a set of photos that captures feelings I could never explain with words. Her email is K.pricer@yahoo.com. She is incredibly talented in the creative realm and just an all-around awesome person!

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