When I was 13, I attempted suicide for the first time.
Alone and in secret, I swallowed nearly 40 pills, wrote “See you later” letters to my family and friends, laid down in my bed and went to sleep. Unbeknownst to me and those around me, I was suffering from severe depression.
I woke up a few hours later, vomited throughout the night, and the following day, I was treated by my pediatrician for dehydration. My doctor believed I had experienced a stomach virus and I went along with her diagnosis. It wasn’t the first or last time that I would lie to conceal the true state of my mental health.
On the outside, I appeared to be an over-zealous, sarcastic, talented teenager. On the inside, I was filled with self-judgement, self-hate and an indescribable sadness. I masked my illness with humor and deflection. I learned how to wear a smile, while thoughts of suicide played over and over again in my head.
When I was a senior in high school, I attempted suicide again and nearly succeeded in ending my life. I was 17 years old.
My story has a happy ending because I am alive, but not everyone is as fortunate as me. Not everyone who carries out their plan of suicide gets the chance to wake up and have a go at life again.
This is why it is incredibly important that I speak up and why I have chosen to share my story now.
We are in the year 2016 and suicide is tenth on the list of leading causes of death in the United States. Right here, in the home of the brave and the land of the free, people that we love are choosing to end their own lives. Our doctors , our veterans , our LGBT youth, our brothers and sisters and many of our loved ones are falling victim to mental illness and losing all hope right before our eyes.
For many years, I hid my battle with mental illness because I was ashamed and worried about what other people would think of me. I was scared of being judged, mistreated and hated, so I kept quiet. I didn’t think I needed to share, but now keeping quiet about living with mental illness is too big of a burden to bear. I’ve realized that my life isn’t the only one at stake. Yours might be too.
In the past year, approximately 9.3 million adults reported having suicidal thoughts, 2.7 million adults made plans for suicide and 1.3 million adults attempted suicide. I can’t help but wonder how many adults didn’t report their suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts. I can’t help but wonder how many adults are currently hiding their mental illness, just as I did, for the sake of “fitting in.”
So, what do we do? I believe we can create change and it begins with these four simple steps:
1. We must start talking about mental health and never stop.
Every year in the United States, approximately 1 in 5 adults (age 18 +) will suffer a diagnosable mental disorder. This translates to roughly 43.8 million people who will experience disorder in their mental health and possibly be diagnosed, while many others go undiagnosed and potentially untreated. By simply opening the discussion about mental health, we can inspire one person to stop hiding and seek treatment. If mental illness has touched your life, consider sharing your story. Share your experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent, tell your story of how you overcame postpartum depression twice. Share how you have healed and how you still are healing every day. Share your ups, your downs—share your experiences in all their realness. Conversation is a catalyst for change. Be willing to lead the change.
2. We must drop the stigma associated with mental illness and start treating people as they are.
People who are in need of support and understanding. People who, like me, are probably scared and just want to know that everything is going to be okay. People who need to know that they are not alone and that healing, even in the smallest capacity, is possible. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my short time on this planet, it’s that we are all connected and, at some point in our lives, we will all be in need of healing. Different levels and types of healing, of course, but we will all need it nonetheless. We are all more alike than we are different and it is time we drop the stigma around mental illness and encourage healing.
3. We must acknowledge that healing requires time and effort, and it doesn’t always look the same.
What might work wonders for one person, may very well send another off the deep end. Healing oneself and learning to live with mental illness is a process that requires compassion, consistency and patience. It takes action, and just as there are many different types of mental illness, there are also many different paths of healing.
My path to healing began five years ago when I found yoga. To this day, yoga continues to heal me in ways I never experienced through therapy and medication. Learning how to breathe in difficult poses on my yoga mat has helped me breathe through difficult moments in my life. I lost my father about seven months after I began my yoga practice and on the day he was buried, I had never been more grateful for my breath. The simple act of breathing deeply chemically altars your brain. Taking deep breaths can help you manage stress and anxiety and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Breathing is incredibly simple, yet so powerful. There is a realness in taking big deep breaths and, to me, experiencing something real helps me heal. When I breathe with focus, I feel more connected to myself and the world around me. When I feel connected, I don’t experience thoughts of suicide. When I don’t have thoughts of suicide, I experience mental wellness.
The beauty in healing is that there is no set path and it is not a one time ordeal. The truth is, it is possible to heal and it probably won’t look or feel how you imagine. Whether it is yoga that helps you heal, talking to a friend, balanced nutrition and sleep, meditation, journaling, daily walks with your dog or medication from a knowledgeable medical provider, I want you to know healing is possible.
4. We must check in with our own mental health every single day.
As a mother and business owner, it can be incredibly easy for me to get caught up in taking care of everything and everyone else while I put myself on the back-burner. This story is all to common among many adults in the United States. We spend so much time being busy that we forget to take care of ourselves—and our mental health often pays the price. I’ve learned, when I don’t take care of myself, it is nearly impossible for me to provide healthy care for anyone else. When my mental health suffers, so does everything else in my life.
BKS Iyengar once said, “Before we can make peace among nations, we must first create peace within the nation that is our own being.” Mental wellness starts with us, as we continue to move forward in life, make ourselves and our mental health a top priority. This act of caring for yourself will inspire others to do the same thing. Imagine what our world could look like if everyone made their mental health top priority.
By implementing even one of these simple practices into our daily life, we will actively contribute to the mental wellness of our entire planet. The path of shifting from mental illness to mental wellness takes time and our work here has only just begun.
I invite you to start today, right now, from where you are. Be brave and willing to stand for mental health. The life you might save, could very well be your own.
Author: Megan Howe
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Mark Ingle/Flickr