For a long time, my primary interest in global health is women’s health. In recent years, I've also been cultivating and interest in neglected tropical diseases. I feel like having two "official" fields of interest is usually a good place to stop.
However, I also have a growing interest in mental health. And that one is a loooong story.
My freshman year of college I was diagnosed with depression, and a couple years later with generalized anxiety disorder. My depression stems from unaddressed underlying issues exacerbated by major life changes – for example, my depression also flared when I started grad school, moved to a new city, etc. Yeah, it’s kind of inconvenient.
Depression is a major part of my life – I’m on medication, I have to make exercise and quiet time a priority rather than a luxury in my schedule, I go to therapy, and (partially thanks to the anxiety) I’m constantly worried about it getting worse. I’m tired a lot, I don’t sleep well, and I have rather annoying side effects from my anti-depressant. And for a long time, I put a lot of energy into hiding my condition.
Thanks to the pervasive stigma associated with mental illness, having depression is “embarrassing.” In college, I had hall mates with mono and chronic anemia – when their conditions forced them to miss class, sleep all day, or be short-tempered, they were excused. But mental illness is still seen as a “choice” rather than a condition, and so I kept my illness secret. And let me tell you – it is EXHAUSTING to keep a part of you secret for so many years.
It took me a very long time to start to trek up my own personal mountain of stigma. I started slipping it into conversation casually. When Robin Williams passed away I publicly offered a list of suggestions, from personal experience, for helping a friend suffering from depression. Simply put, I just didn’t try to hide it anymore. And finally, I tackled the issue head-on by speaking about my experience and the circumstances that many college students with mental illness face at my graduate university’s TEDx Salon event.
I can’t say it was the most polished TEDtalk in the history of TEDing. I was nervous, my voice shook most of the time, and I stayed glued to my PowerPoint like it was a lifeline. Yes, basically the opposite of TED. But I also admitted to a room of about 40 friends and strangers that I suffered from depression. “Terrifying” is not a strong enough word. Thank god for my anxiety pill prescription.
Throughout college I avoided any psychology classes because I did not want to read about myself in a book. Then, during my second semester of graduate school I felt compelled to take a class on Global Mental Health. It was challenging, both academically and personally, but it was eye-opening.
Newsflash: I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS. SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE ONE. WE JUST DON’T TALK ABOUT IT.
We don’t talk about it because we’re scared. Because mental illness is seen as a weakness rather than an illness. Because in many places people are still jailed or institutionalized for being ill. Because some people see it as the devil’s work. Because some people still believe that mental illness simply doesn’t exist. And when we don’t talk about it, we don’t seek treatment. We suffer. We lose ourselves and our place in society.
And let me tell you, that’s just a load of bullshit. Society’s attitude towards mental health needs a swift kick, and I’m ready to start kicking.
After my TEDTalk, two audience members came up to me. One told me that she saw her daughter in my words, and wanted to know how she could help her. The other told me about her own relief in finally seeking a diagnosis, and expressed how comforting and refreshing it was to talk about it openly.
I don’t know yet exactly what capacity I can work in, but I know that speaking up is the first, and most important step.