SEPT | By Jody Serrano
When you start having mental health problems, no one tells you they might take years to resolve. It’s understandable—mental health professionals are often trying to help you get through the day, finish school, keep going to work, or deal with a variety of other struggles. Over the years, every time I went through a depression or felt my anxiety skyrocket again, I felt like there was something wrong with me. That I had failed.
This year, I especially struggled with depression. I was haunted by the treatment I had received at a toxic company. At home and online, I was plagued by the daily death, despair, and isolation brought on by the pandemic. Money played a role too, as I’ve been financially supporting my sick mom for years. Often, I would lie awake in my bed at night for hours worrying about one thing, and another, and another. In times like those, the weight on my shoulders felt unbearable.
“Maintaining good mental health is hard work and can take a long time, but you are not alone, and you have many options.”
On the day that I tearfully told my doctor and my therapist that I needed help again, I felt a little lighter afterwards. Maybe it was the experience from going through this so many times, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel guilty for being depressed and anxious. I was just relieved to be getting help. When I told my family and friends about my struggles, they weren’t exasperated, but instead offered their support.
Most importantly, on that day I realized that we are all a product of our life stories. I’m grateful to be where I am now, but it hasn’t been easy: From a young age, I’ve known hunger, abandonment, loneliness, and mockery. I’ve even had moments where I haven’t wanted to live. But instead of trying to ignore those chapters of my life, this year I’ve learned to accept that they are part of my journey, and they may always be. They’re just not the main story. This understanding, which is perhaps obvious to some, has made all the difference for me.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege of talking about their mental health journey because they’re not with us anymore. I was almost one of them. Mental illness is an important risk factor for suicide, which was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019, accounting for more 47,500 deaths. That year, 12 million Americans seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Over the years, I’ve put off getting help many times. At times, when I got help, I pushed back against it because I felt like getting help meant acknowledging that I was somehow “defective.”
Today, Sept. 10, is Suicide Prevention Day, so I want to share some lessons I’ve learned throughout my battle. And although everyone’s struggle is different, I hope this advice gives people some ideas to help them move forward. Overall, I want everyone who reads this to know that maintaining good mental health is hard work and can take a long time, but you are not alone, and you have many options.
Recognize when you’re not OK and need help
Our society prides itself on pushing through at all costs, but that can sometimes lead people to postpone or decline getting help when they need it. Sometimes we can even receive these messages from friends and family who tell us to “tough it out” or to “get over it and appreciate what we have.” And while their intentions are good, you may get the message to keep quiet about your mental health struggles or try to get through them alone.
“I avoided using the words “depression” and “anxiety” for years because I didn’t want to be seen as different from other people.”
Over the years, I’ve put off getting help many times. At times, when I got help, I pushed back against it because I felt like getting help meant acknowledging that I was somehow “defective.” I’ve also isolated myself during periods where I was depressed because I didn’t want to “burden” or “scare” anyone. In the end, though, the person I was hurting most was myself. Today, I regularly count on my psychologist, psychiatrist, and family doctor. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.
Find yourself a therapist who is also your ally
It can take a while to find a therapist that you connect with and who gives the help you need. Even though it’s hard and frustrating, don’t give up on finding them. It took me years to find a good psychologist. I happened to find her in the historic Spanish city of Segovia when I studied abroad. From her, I received kindness, compassion, empathy, and a human compass that helps me find my way out of the dark and painful mazes in my head.
To this day, she celebrates my victories, offers comfort when I cry, and challenges the painful ideas and expectations in my head. She also taught me the most important lesson on my mental health journey: “The only person who’s going to be with you for the rest of your life is you, so your focus should always be on taking care of you.”
Treat your mental health like you would treat your physical health
If your wrist was broken, you likely wouldn’t refuse painkillers or surgery. Yet, the choice to receive medical treatment for mental health problems is often difficult to make. But it shouldn’t be.
I resisted taking medication for my depression and anxiety for years because I didn’t want my friends and family to think I was “crazy” or that there was “something wrong with me.” A few months ago, I reached a point where I didn’t know what to do or how words could calm the storm in my head. I realized that I needed help, and I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. It’s been years since I’ve had the emotional stability that medication has given me, and I regret not being brave enough to accept that treatment as a possibility sooner, simply because I was scared of what others would think.
Surround yourself with friends and loved ones who accept both your good and bad days
I know what it’s like to lose friends who can’t deal with your mental health issues. And you might not blame them; seeing someone they love in a bad place can be scary, especially when they don’t know what they can do to help.
Yet, that experience has also made me treasure the people who have stayed with me, even during the time when I wasn’t sure I wanted to wake up the next day. These are people who have seen me cry and wrestle with the demons in my head countless times and have still always responded with love and tried to help me. Surrounding yourself with these types of people makes it so much easier to focus on improving yourself and getting better. With my friends and family, I can talk freely and not worry about getting judged or being cut off.
Be honest about your struggles
I avoided using the words “depression” and “anxiety” for years because I didn’t want to be seen as different from other people. Recently, though, I’ve started to incorporate these words into my daily vocabulary. I don’t shout them to the sky—everyone has the right to privacy, after all—but I don’t shy away from them either, partially because being open about my own challenges can help reduce the stigma for all of us.
Last month, I started working out with a new personal trainer at the gym. As I suffered doing leg exercises, I listened to him talk about how his girlfriend was going through a hard time with her family and how he was worried about her. I shared some of my struggles with him and told him I talk with a therapist regularly and take medication for my depression and anxiety, and told him to think about having a conversation about mental health with his girlfriend. He appreciated my honesty. And if she’s struggling, maybe he’ll be able to encourage her to find the help she needs.
Learn to respond to that inner voice that demands perfection
One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with over the years has been perfectionism. If something didn’t go the way I planned it, I would start to break down. With my therapist, I’ve worked on these issues, and it’s taken a while, but I’ve learned to step away from that expectation of perfection. (I believe this pressure is especially cruel to women, who are often expected to be successful, slim, well-dressed, mothers, wives, and forever young all at the same time.) You and your support system can come up with strategies for talking back to that voice in your head that demands perfection.
“It’s taken me almost 10 years to get to a good place with my mental health. I’ve felt like throwing in the towel many times, but I’m so glad that I didn’t.”
Recognize social media for what it is
There have been times where I’ve avoided Twitter and Instagram for months at a time because of what I would find there. On Twitter, there was only success, people getting amazing jobs, and doing amazing things, with a side of its common toxicity. It gave me the impression that if I wasn’t doing great and amazing things, I was a loser. When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was worried about being bullied.
Meanwhile, on Instagram everything was perfect. Everyone was living a perfect life, even during a pandemic. Considering that I was working at home, hardly traveled, and preferred sweatpants to cute outfits, I felt my life sucked. But, of course, social media tells a unique type of lie that presents life stories that are glossed over, edited, and shared in the best light.
That doesn’t mean I avoid social media altogether, but I’m more aware of recognizing what I’m really seeing and try not to let other peoples’ posts make me feel bad.
Learn that you are not your accomplishments
Ever since I was little, I felt that people didn’t see me unless I was being impressive—winning a contest or ranking at the top of a class. The feeling stayed with me through high school, college, and into the work force. And while it has done some good in a way, I learned that when I think of my accomplishments as the only things that matter, not only is it exhausting, but also becomes heartbreaking when I can’t produce anything at all.
In Spain, where I’ve been living for five years, there’s a common saying that’s stuck with me: “We work to live. We don’t live to work.” I’m continuing to learn that my value comes from being a person, living my life, and continuing to grow.
It’s taken me almost 10 years to get to a good place with my mental health. I’ve felt like throwing in the towel many times, but I’m so glad that I didn’t. I wish I had known these things years earlier, but sometimes you have to learn in your own time, and in your own way. Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m cured, or that I won’t struggle. But it means that I’ll keep fighting, learning, and living. I hope you will, too.