On my drive home today, I was listening to a podcast called Everybody’s Fucked Up, a podcast by two video game developers who have both struggled with mental illness. One of them, Tessa Vanderhart, discussed how one of the best things she discovered in therapy was that it helped teach her that no one who suffers from mental illness is truly alone.
That reminded me of a story from when I first got to college, and when my own depression really exploded. It was the 2nd or 3rd day of school, and I am completely freaking out. I still remember everything about it: It was a gorgeous, late August day. I was sitting on the steps just outside of my dorm, on my oversized cell phone, talking with my Dad. A group of girls walked by, and they were laughing and smiling. I knew one of them from high school, and she waved at me. I sheepishly waved back – my face was obviously tear-stained. I had been balling, homesick, can’t adjust, I am convinced I had no friends, it’s never gonna get any easier, I want to go home, all that good stuff. Anyway, I’m on the phone with my Dad, telling him how I was sure I was the only one who felt this miserable, because, after all, I didn’t see anyone else who was as upset as me. Exasperated, he responded, “Of course you don’t! That’s because they are all in their rooms, crying like you!”
He was right, of course. I later found out that .5% of the kids in my class actually dropped out the first weekend because they just couldn’t handle being away from home, and that says nothing of the kids who were just struggling like me. But, that story actually illuminated a bias that I’ve found still remains when it comes to mental illness: Far too many people think that they are truly the only ones suffering, because they don’t see anyone else.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
I want to give you two statistics on mental illness and try to personalize them as much as possible. A quick look at the literature shows:
- 43.8 million American adults – about 18.5% – experience mental illness at some point in a year. So, dear reader, let’s assume for a moment that you are one of the unlucky 18.5% of Americans who suffer from mental illness, and you think you are the only one. Okay. Let’s say you are sitting in class, and say there are 25 people in that class. Odds are pretty good that you and four others have mental illness.
- 18.1% of Americans will experience some sort of anxiety-related disorder over their lifetimes. You work in an office of 50 people, and you are in the bathroom, heart accelerating, stomach churning and bawling your eyes out, but trying to do so quietly so no one wonders what is wrong. You think you are the only one? Odds are that nine other people are in a different bathroom, panicking for no reason or reliving some highly traumatic event.
One of the bad things that researchers and politicians have a tendency to do is to talk in the abstract, to talk in big, global numbers, and not give those numbers any context. Sure, 43.8 million Americans sounds like a lot, right? What makes even more of an impact is a personal one – a friend, a colleague, a classmate, a coworker. This is even more important for people who suffer from mental illness – we are more than just a number, and it’s important that we be seen as such.
When you think of mental illness, or when you think of your own mental illness, one of the hardest things to remember, sometimes, is that you aren’t alone. As you sit in your bed crying, or at your desk, wondering how you are going to get through the day, or scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed in a desperate effort to take away your pain, you have to try to remember that you aren’t the one suffering. There are millions upon millions of you – of us – that share your pain at any given moment.
Try to remember that, and try to let that thought give you some comfort – you aren’t the only one.