What does peace feel like to you?

I’ve written before about my relatively desperate attempts to meditate. I phrase it that way because it seems like, no matter what happens, my efforts fade away. Then I’m reminded of how important meditation can be for depression at a later date. I start again, I start again, and the cycle continues.

The good news – well, at least for me – is that I am in a cycle now where I am actually meditating. While I haven’t noticed a change in thinking yet, I will say that I always feel better and more peaceful in the immediate aftermath of a meditation session. And, that sense of peace is what I want to discuss in this entry, because I had a genuinely interesting realization while meditating the other day.

The meditation I practice – which, from what I’ve read, is the best kind for a depressed or anxious person to engage in – is mindfulness meditation. It’s a little complicated to explain – mainly because I don’t understand it and I kinda suck at – but the basics is focusing on nothing – and, in so doing, improving your focus.

Like I said, I’m terrible at it. My mind moves at a million miles an hour and I can’t shut it off. That’s one of the many reasons I am meditating: To try to relax and improve my focus.

So, the other day, I’m meditating. I have been sticking with five minute sessions – YouTube videos – and doing so because if I do longer I fall asleep. Anyway, I’m almost done. That realization is met with a degree of happiness and sadness. Happiness because I can get back to work. Sadness because I am at peace. And then I realize something: I’m at peace. Meditating is nice, and when I can actually concentrate enough to do it right, it fills me with peace.

That, then, triggers a question: What does peace feel like to me? There’s an easy answer, too: A fullness. A fullness in my chest which crowds out any negative feelings.

So, here’s my suggestion: Find what peace feels like to you. Because if you do, you can recognize the feeling when you actually experience it. And maybe, from there, learn how to keep it with you, even if it’s only just an extra moment or two.

Anyway, that’s something to think about: What does peace feel like to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Six questions: Interview with John Corey Whaley, author of Highly Illogical Behavior

So this is an interesting one, mainly because the book deals with a topic I’ve barely tackled: Agorophobia. Today’s book is Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. From the blurb:

Sixteen-year-old Solomon has agoraphobia. He hasn’t left his house in 3 years. Ambitious Lisa is desperate to get into a top-tier psychology program. And so when Lisa learns about Solomon, she decides to befriend him, cure him, and then write about it for her college application. To earn Solomon’s trust, she introduces him to her boyfriend Clark, and starts to reveal her own secrets. But what started as an experiment leads to a real friendship, with all three growing close. But when the truth comes out, what erupts could destroy them all. Funny and heartwarming, Highly Illogical Behavior is a fascinating exploration of what makes us tick, and how the connections between us may be the most important things of all.

1) Did this book come from your own personal experiences with mental illness, or that of someone close to you?

I’d say it was a combination of both, but Solomon’s anxiety is definitely an exploration of my own.

 2) Were you trying to write a story about mental illness, or were you using the agoraphobia to make a broader point? I suspect the answer lies in the middle, and if that’s the case, what made you use agoraphobia specifically? 

While I did set out to tackle mental illness as a subject, I also wanted to make sure the story was really a character study more than anything else—and a way to help readers empathize with someone like Solomon.

3) Your book is clearly remarkably effective at taking shots at the stigma which surrounds mental illness. How did you write a character that was so multi-layered, and in the words of at least one reviewer, so much more than his mental illness?

That’s a tough question to answer! I guess I’d say that I focused really hard on making sure Solomon-and the other characters-all left more of a lasting impression on the reader through their personalities and not their problems.

4) The cover design – with the different colored lines and someone walking in what looks to be a box – is one of the more noticeable covers I have seen. What inspired that?

I can’t take any credit for the cover, but I will say I LOVE IT. It’s simply the chaotic lines of color leading Solomon outside to the crazy world, where his friends are waiting.

5) Members of minority communities tend to suffer even greater from mental illness – can you talk at all about how your book attempted to address the subject of mental illness among the LGBT population, and why you chose to go that route?

As a queer American, and one with mental illness, I’ve seen up close the effects of mental illness on my community. It was important to me portray a young gay man with mental illness who wasn’t defined by EITHER thing solely.

6) As noted in the blurb, one of your main characters tries to “fix” another’s mental illness. What’s your advice to those who think this is a viable strategy?

Anyone who wants to help someone with mental illness deserves a chance to be heard, sure, but it’s very important that those without mental illness understand that you can’t “fix”  a person. Mental illness is wired into a person, so much care, research, and care must be taken when helping someone deal with their illness.

Want to tell your story? Great. Here’s how.

Last week, I wrote an entry about why telling your story – your own personal experience with mental illness (or anything, really) is so important. Study after study shows that the best way to reduce stigma is to put a human face on it. The power of saying, “Me too” cannot be underestimated – that’s why it is literally called the #MeToo movement.

That being said, telling your story can be absolutely terrifying. You may have no idea what to say, how to say it, or what the reaction is going to be. The fundamental truth is that once you put yourself out there, there’s a before and after in your life. As I’ve said repeatedly about my own life, I found the ability to tell my story in the courage of those who told there’s. To that end: Here are some tips about what to say, and how to say it:

Pick your medium. You don’t need an op-ed. You don’t need to stand on a chair and scream, “I HAVE DEPRESSION!” Telling your story may be as simple as opening up to a friend of colleague, or resolving yourself to do so in the future. It may be a long-winded Facebook post or blog entry (and I am the MASTER of those, with an emphasis on long-winded!). In all seriousness, understand that different medium will have different impacts. Pick the one that works best for you.

Read/watch others. Reading and watching what other people have said will give you a much better idea of how to say what you want to say. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. More importantly, paying attention to the stories of others will remind you of a fundamental and very important truth: You aren’t the first, and you aren’t alone.

Read from the experts. Related to the point above: Read what others say when discussing your particular issue. Know what words and phrases are good, and what don’t work as well.

Understand that most people will be overwhelmingly supportive. In a weird sort of way, one of the things that disoriented me the most was how kind people were. It never felt like something that was “so brave” or anything like that – it just felt like something that had to be done. And that became almost a source of anxiety – that now I had this standard to live up to. So, as strange as it may sound, brace yourself for the weird sensation of people being really, really nice and appreciative.

Understand that some will not. There will always be morons and unkind people. Just keep in mind that when someone inevitably says something ignorant, it says more about them than you.

If medium-appropriate, make it a story. Part of making in impact with your story is telling it as a story. When I discuss my own battles, I always begin with something like this: “On August 11, 2014, my life changed forever. That was the day that Robin Williams killed himself.” I think that’s a good hook and a good way to start. Anyone reading will think, “Huh. That’s interesting. Why did that have an impact on him?” And it goes from there. Tell your story as a story. Be specific. Use visuals. Give dates, times and locations. Don’t approach your personal story as an academic book report, replete with cold numbers that fail to convey passion – tell your story with the personal power it deserves.

Understand the impact. This is the one that I missed the most. Depending on who you are and how you choose to say your piece, you may wind up having a greater impact than you realize. When I told my best friend what I was going to do, he correctly noted that this would have a much greater impact on me or my career than I could have ever anticipated. When I told my mentor, she told me that she’d be surprised if the piece I wrote didn’t make state-wide news. Both were correct. Understand that people will look at you differently – and probably in a better light.

There. Hopefully, this post can serve as a guide to help you tell your story. As always, let me conclude with a question: What did I miss? What helped you tell your story? What didn’t? Please let us know in the comments!

How anxiety affects your life – in ways you may not even think about

I have to be honest: On a personal level, I’m really lucky. My struggles over the past few years have more been with depression than anxiety. Honestly? I’d prefer it that way. When my anxiety was at its worst – when it was worse than the depression, worse than any physical pain I’d ever really experienced – I struggled. Panic attacks could come anytime, any place, for no reason, and they felt like a snowball rolling downhill – once they started, they simply could not be stopped. That was absolutely terrifying and a pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Fortunately, I cannot remember the last time I had a real anxiety attack, and I am beyond grateful for that. My anxiety has morphed into something more generalized; a constant, gnawing worry that searches for something to be worried about. I have a really difficult time relaxing. That sort of thing. To be clear, I’d take this over anxiety attacks in a millisecond, but it doesn’t mean I’m without the scars from those battles.
That’s something I think about frequently: What ways are my own mental health affecting my life, even if I don’t still actively suffer from certain components of it? Here are some answers to this important question: How does anxiety affect your life in ways you don’t even realize?
You become less adventurous: Anxiety makes you afraid. And fear makes you less willing to try new things or explore different facets of life. One of the many, many reasons anxiety sucks so much is because that fear places your life into a little box that seems to squeeze in. You only go to familiar places. Talk to familiar people. Engage in familiar activities. Why? Because doing something new is scary. And that may lead to an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, I’ve found that those scars remain.
Worry becomes the default state: In those moments where you have nothing to worry about, you find something anyway. You find something to take all your nebulous fear and latch it there, because it makes you feel better. Yes, you read that right. A personal equilibrium becomes a fearful state.
The moments of peace are few and far between: This is related to the above, but honest to God, I don’t remember the last time I felt really, truly at peace and relaxed. There is ALWAYS something to stress about, to be worried about. It’s always there, like a predator and a prey. Is that just being an adult? I’m not sure. Which leads me to…..
You don’t know what is normal: This is one of the strangest questions, and it’s more a philosophical one, I’d argue: What is normal? How much anxiety/depression/fear is “okay” – how much is “acceptable” – and how much isn’t? It’s a strange, esoteric question, but a vitally important one, because how you answer it will greatly alter the level of treatment you get. I don’t know what normal is, because I don’t think I’ve been there in decades. If ever.
Anything to add? As always, I’d love your thoughts. How else has anxiety hurt you in ways you haven’t thought about? Let us know in the comments below.

The importance of sharing your story

You are all probably sick of me hearing me talk about my own depression/anxiety by now, and why I made the decision to tell the world about it. But, using my personal experience, let me pivot to another topic: Why I think you should tell your story.

I shared my story as a way of trying to make people realize that anyone, anywhere can suffer from mental illness, and in an effort to help destigmatize this terrible disease. As I thrust myself into the issue, I researched more and more ways to try and do just that. What I found, uniformly, was this: The most effect way to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness is to engage in a contact strategy.

What is a contact strategy? Well, just what it sounds like: Make sure that more people have contact with someone with mental illness. Have those people – regular, ordinary people – discuss who they are, what they suffer from, and how they are able to live a successful and productive life despite their illness.

Does the same strategy work for fighting suicide? Absolutely, and this can come from family members who have lost or those who survived a suicide attempt. While there are guidelines and best practices for sharing those stories, doing so can be hugely beneficial:

Stories of suicide loss told from the heart are powerful. They promote healing for those who are newly bereaved, educate the public about how to support survivors of suicide loss, and increase awareness of suicide risk factors and warning signs.

As you have likely seen in the news lately, many celebrities and other prominent officials have discussed their own battles with mental illness or suicidal ideation. This is wonderful in that it can lower the overall effect of stigma. But, I’ll never forget one particular piece of research that I read: While it’s important, it is not as effective as a “normal, regular” person discussing their own pain and battles. That’s because celebrities are seen as “other” – they are different than normal people in that they occupy an elevated societal plane. Thus, while celebrities going public is great, it has to come from the heart and be a ordinary person who discusses their story.

And that’s where you come in. I’ve previously noted that the most important thing I felt I did when it comes to mental illness was share my story with the world. I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same. Not only is it good for everyone else – mental illness needs a human face – but it’s good for you as well! I know that sounds strange, but trust me on that. There is something deeply freeing about letting lose your deepest, darkest secret in public – particularly when that “secret” is nothing you should be ashamed of.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss this concept further, including tips on the best way to share your story. But for now, please, if you are able, consider going public with your mental illness. It’s the best decision I ever made in my life, and I’d encourage you to do it if you can.

Depression is on the rise; here are some guesses about why

The news about depression is – well, depressing. According to the most recent information, major depression is on the rise, and that spike is particularly acute among teens and young adults. Meanwhile, a new CDC report shows that suicide is at a twenty year high, having jumped more than 25% across America since 1999. In more than half the states, that rate has increased 30%; in my home state of Pennsylvania, it’s up 34%.

These numbers are not acceptable, they are not healthy, and they are not sustainable. The ugly truth is that we live in a world that seems broken, and we have an obligation to repair it.

Before we can do that, however, we have to ask ourselves this very important question: Why? Why are rates of depression and suicide spiking like this? There are a lot of people smarter than me who have given there reasons, and those are incorporated into my post below.

Please note my usual disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, scientist or researcher. I have some evidence in some of these cases, but by and large, this is all just a gut feeling.

1) The world is more interconnected, and we know how terrible some things are

As this article perfectly demonstrates, the world is more connected than ever before. There are 2.5 billion smartphones in the world. Half of all adults on the planet have access to these devices that can instantaneously connect us with anyone, anywhere, or give us access to news in any corner of the globe.

Ahh, let’s look through our phones, shall we? Check out Twitter. Oh, I see the President is yelling at ::insert race-based insult here::. Right, what else? Thousands of children who are being separated from their parents and may never see them again. Super. What else? Hmm, border patrol is randomly asking people for their papers. Lovely.

Oh, and that’s just America, and that’s just today.

It’s difficult to look at the news and not be depressed, and feel an overwhelming sense of doom. If you are lucky enough to live a life of relative comfort, how do you avoid an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame? My kids are currently sitting on the couch, eating a healthy breakfast and playing a game for the Nintendo Switch I got them yesterday. Thousands of children in America – asylum seekers who fled their homes – will never see their parents again. How do you deal with that guilt? That disconnect?

The world may not, really, be getting worse. But thanks to the availability of information and news, it sure does feel like it is.

2) Technology and social media are bad replacements for real connections

Yes, My favorite topic: Writing about how technology is killing us all.

Seriously, as I have discussed previously, the increasing prevalence of technology and social media are poor replacements for the real connection that we all need and crave. How many times have you turned to the comfort of the soft blue light of the device in your pocket, only to come up empty when it didn’t fill a gap in your heart? In this fantastic article in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge persuasively argues that social media and technology is making our generation less comfortable and more depressed. I completely agree, and I think – and hope – that we realize this more and more in the years to come.

3) We’re busier and feeling the pressure of life more

Of the three causes that I’ve written about, this is arguably the one least supported by the evidence and most supported by a gut feeling. But, if you’re reading this now, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, because you feel it too: The pressure. Today, I must go here. I must do this. I must pay the bills. I must make sure that my perfect children remain perfect, walk 10,000 steps, eat all of the right foods, tweet something good, oh, God, the house is a mess, and have I eaten any trans-fats today? CRAP.

You know what I mean here. The pace of life seems to be caught in a constant phase of acceleration. There’s no down time. No rest. And that, combined with the pressure of the real world, leads to more broken minds.

I don’t know – I could completely off here, but I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts. Where do you think I am right? Where am I wrong? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

From The Mighty: The Power of a Public Life

If you are someone who follow’s websites that deal with mental illness, odds are good that you have heard of The Mighty. It’s a website that features stories on mental illness, disability and more, and allows people a chance to express themselves and read/learn about the struggles of others. I’m pleased to say I just had a story I wrote accepted and published there – you can find it here.

The general crux of what I wrote is this: There is a power in living a public life with who you are, and not hiding your mental illness anymore than you would a physical one. I have found this time and time again – the openness in which I live my life has made it a better one, and it’s not just because I’m a public official – it’s because I don’t give a damn. Hiding who you are takes too much energy. Telling the world who you are is beyond freeing. Trust me on that.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote. Enjoy!

Well, let me start with a bit of a confession: My job requires that I talk about myself a lot. It’s something I’ve never quite been comfortable with, but, well…sucks for me.

Let me add a second confession: The title of what I wrote – “The Power of a Public Life” – means two different things.

And, a final confession, since I believe in being totally honest (again, despite my full-time job): I’m writing this in part to talk about a really public portion of my life. Now that the confessions are out of the way…

Hi there. My name is Mike Schlossberg. I’m 34 years old and lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman, Brenna. We have two wonderful children: Auron (7) and Ayla (5). Bonus points if you know the origin of the names.

So, what makes me a little different? Well, three things. First, I’m a full-time elected official. I have the great privilege of serving as a Pennsylvania State Representative for the people of the 132nd Legislative District, representing parts of Allentown and South Whitehall township. I’ve had this job since 2012.

Second: I live with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I have all my life.

And third, which you probably figured out: I’m very, very honest about my struggles.

That wasn’t always the case. I never really hid who I was, per se, but I never talked about it openly.

That changed with the suicide of Robin Williams.

Like many of you, I mourned his death, and wondered how a man with his resources and force of personally could ultimately lose the fight against his demons. On the day his suicide was announced, I was putzing through Facebook, and came across this status: “So sad Robin Williams committed suicide. Shame he didn’t have enough faith in Jesus!”

My damn head almost exploded. How could someone be so ignorant? Did people really think this way? Apparently, given the guy’s statement and all the “likes” it had, yes.

So, I decided it was time to tell my story, and wrote an op-ed in the Morning Call, my local paper. You can find that here. In it, I detailed my own struggles with depressionanxiety and suicidal ideation.

Since then, I’ve done more. I cofounded and cochair the Pennsylvania Mental HealthCaucus. I spoke about my own challenges on the floor of the House of Representatives. I’ve appeared in PSAs and spoken at countless events. Legislatively, I’ve fought for funding increases and introduced legislation to help poor mothers get access to treatment for postpartum depression, as well as reduce suicides.

To my pleasant surprise, telling my story was… well, to be honest… an amazing boon for my career. I was so angry when I wrote the op-ed that I didn’t think of the political ramifications. I was floored when people began to call my office to say, “I have depression too,” ask for advice or just say thank you. I won awards and accolades from across the state. I don’t mention this to boost my own ego, but to make a point: Living a public life wound up being the best thing for my career. It’s my trademark issue. People want that — they want to see people for who they really are, not just their public face. I have this theory: Deep down, everyone wants a real person. They don’t want the mask. And if you are brave enough to show who you really are, they’ll be grateful.

That being said, as incredibly fulfilling as my job can be, I found myself wanting to do more. In 2014, I went through a particularly rough patch. I’ve always had a hobby: I write. And, during the worst of this bad spell, I decided that I wanted to write again as a form of therapy. I went with a young adult, science fiction plot about a group of teenagers who get put onto a spaceship and have to save the world. The twist: The main character suffers from depression and anxiety. Sound familiar?

To my pleasant surprise: The book is being published on June 5. “Redemption” is available here.

So. Back to my point. My job requires I live a public life. Every success and every mistake — and believe me, I have made them — are for the whole world to see. The ultimate anecdote to that? Pure, unadulterated honesty. Even with my so-called “flaws,” like the depression and anxiety that periodically rear their ugly heads. I’m still in therapy. I’ve taken medication every single morning from 18 on, and I talk about that all the time, because I want the world to know who I really am. I have publicly said I don’t think I’ll ever “get over” my depression — recovery is a journey, not a destination. I will always struggle.

But I’ll do it for the whole world to see. That honesty — that willingness to live a public life – is beyond freeing. In a very public job, the whole world knows who I am.

My point is this: Embrace the freedom that living a public life can bring. And help others show the rest of the world who they really are.

New study links social media and depression

I’ve written about it before, and now there is even more proof: A new study has linked social media and depression

I caught this article in Forbes, which notes:

The team calculated that for every 10% rise in negative social media interactions a person experienced, their risk of depression rose significantly—by 20%. For every 10% rise in positive experience, risk for depression fell by 4%; but this association was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.

Lovely. In other words, negative experiences on social media can make us depressed, and they far outweigh the positive ones. Why? According to the conclusion of the study, this is because of “negativity bias” – meaning that people are more likely to remember and feel negative experiences, rather than positive ones.

I don’t need to go on too long of a rant, I think, about the serious dangers of social media when it comes to our fragile mental health. The connection is clear, albeit not in a causational way just yet (there needs to be more research to determine if people who are prone to depression are more likely to use social media, if social media really does make people depressed or if there is a third factor linking the two).

That being said, I think it is extremely clear that social media and technology, for all their strengths, can have an absolutely devastating impact on our mental health. I legitimately wonder if, decades from now, we’re going to look back on this period as a turning point in our society, one where we first truly began to deal with the psychological dangers of society, or continued to allow it to eat us alive.

I’m pretty young – only 35 – so it’s not as if I have the memory or expertise to analyze how each technological impact benefited and hurt society. I suspect that the answer is both. However, I think that the reason that these changes seem so much more pronounced and ubiquitous is because the technology has evolved too. Phones never leave our side – they are often the first and last things we touch during the day, and we spend hours staring at their tiny screens, searching for connection and fulfillment that will never really come. They are everywhere, and so is their impact.

That, I think, is why these changes seem so much more widepsread. Rates of depression and suicide are both increasing dramatically, and there is ample evidence which indicates that phone use and social media is playing a role. We need to do more about this issue. What that means, I don’t know yet, but I want to find out.

Sigh. End rant. I miss anything? Anything you want to add? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

Six Questions: Interview with Paula Stokes, author of Girl Against The Universe

Good morning, everyone! Another Six Questions entry for you, and I think this one is particularly interesting. The book is questions is Girl Against The Universe, and the author is Paula Stokes.
From the summary:
From the author of The Art of Lainey and Liars, Inc. comes a fresh, contemporary story about a girl coping with PTSD and the boy who wants to help her move on from the past.  Perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen or Jenny Han.

Sixteen-year-old Maguire knows the universe is against her. No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when she’s around. Like that time the roller coaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash–and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch. Despite what her therapist tells her, Maguire thinks it’s best to hide out in her room, far away from anyone she might accidentally hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star who wants to help her break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for him is to stay away, but it turns out staying away may be harder than she thought.

1) Being a psychiatric registered nurse must be the perfect background to write a book like this! Can you talk a bit about how that experience informed your writing?
 
I wasn’t a psych nurse when I wrote this book back in 2014, but I was an RN with a BA in Psychology. I enjoyed incorporating some of the psychological theories that have really resonated with me–like selective attention, self-fulfilling prophecies, systematic desensitization, attribution errors, etc.–into the story. In fact, researching for and writing this novel is part of what made me realize I wanted to go back to nursing but pursue a mental health focus. Having a general background in both psychology and nursing helped me know the right questions to ask, and I reached out to a psychologist and to a couple of friends in therapy for advice on some of the scenes.
 
 
2) What kind of feedback did you get from people who have had similar experiences to your main character, or who have PTSD/anxiety disorders?
 
One of the things I did prior to publication was give the manuscript to three people who had talked openly online about having anxiety and/or PTSD to get their feedback. One of them I did not know at all, but she was a well-known blogger in the YA community who I was following on Twitter and I just saw an opening and went for it. It was scary waiting for their thoughts, but all three of them were really positive and thought the book balanced the reality of mental illness with a hopeful outlook for people who are struggling. They felt I did a good job capturing the somatic symptoms and thought processes of someone with anxiety and PTSD. I have a moderate amount of social anxiety myself, and this book was partially inspired by my own illogical thoughts about how I was responsible for a string of bad events that happened on a solo vacation I took, so I definitely modeled Maguire after myself in places. Obviously my own experiences aren’t going to be the same as other people’s, so the portrayal of anxiety and PTSD didn’t work for everyone, but mental illnesses are not monoliths so that’s to be expected. I’m sorry to anyone who I let down because they didn’t see their struggles represented in this story.
After publication, the reviews were mostly positive and several people sent me messages about how the book spoke to them on a personal level, how it made them want to be more brave or to reach out and ask for help. One big YA blogger reviewed the book and said she wished she’d had it when her mother died, because then maybe she would have gotten the help she needed. It’s incredibly rewarding to send a book off into the world and see it have such a positive impact.
 
 
3) One of the concepts I address in my book is that recovery isn’t an end state, it’s a journey – your writing seemed to mirror that concept. What advice to you give for young adults – heck, anyone, really – who are living that reality and frustrated by it?
 
This is hard for me to answer because everything has always been a journey for me. I grew up in a low-income Midwestern household where my parents were always struggling both personally and professionally. At no point ever would I have described my childhood as stable. Ever since I moved out, my life has been a series of trying on careers and relationships and places to live in a quest for a stability that I still haven’t achieved. I’m over 40 now and it still feels normal to me to be a total work-in-progress, so it’s kind of the same with mental health. The idea that you can just make the right choices and put in X amount of effort and then everything will be fine is a fallacy. I don’t think life works like that for most people. Everyone has stressors and if one of your stressors happens to be mental illness then you’ve got to learn how to minimize how disruptive it will be to your life and accept that you may never be totally *cured* but you can still have a full and rewarding existence. In the book, the therapist, Daniel, says that mental health is fluid and that’s true for everyone. Even people who have never met the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness still have their good days and bad days. So I guess my advice would be that everyone needs to stop trying to be perfect and just be open to who we are and make who we are work for us as much as we can. And therapy! I went to therapy last year because my anxiety was starting to negatively impact my personal and professional life and even just six sessions helped me so much.
 
 
4) Did you design your book to be read by the general public or specifically those that can relate to your main characters struggles? I imagine both, and if that’s the case, how did you straddle that line?
 
The straight answer is that my editor would not have approved the book for publication if she didn’t think it would appeal to a general audience, but I had no idea how the book would be received by people who hadn’t struggled with mental illness or couldn’t relate to Maguire’s magical thinking. I don’t ever think about the “business side of things” when I’m drafting. The story needs to be told the way it needs to be told and if I had the Sales/Marketing team in the back of my brain muttering “But will rich readers from Northeastern cities want to read this? Will librarians in Mississippi buy this for schools?” I would never be able to finish a book.
Once I got done with the initial draft, one of my first beta-readers said she thought the book would really resonate with kids who blamed themselves for their parents’ divorces, which was something I hadn’t even considered. Basically I hoped that even if readers couldn’t relate to Maguire feeling like the Universe was against her, that they’d be able to relate to what it’s like to struggle against negative thoughts that hold us back from being the people we want to be. And if they couldn’t do that, well, the book is still a cute romance with some funny moments and a poignant story about finding your place in a blended family.
In the revision process, I focused on making the abridged therapy sessions thought-provoking for everyone and giving the therapist a personality so those chapters didn’t just feel like me as the author telling readers what to think. I also pulled back on some of Maguire’s obsessive thoughts in places where I felt like being in her head might be getting exhausting or overwhelming for readers who had never struggled with anxiety or PTSD. It’s definitely a tricky balance to represent something like anxiety realistically but also doing so in a way that makes people want to keep reading. I think my best suggestion for writers is to spend time getting to know your characters and understanding them as fully fleshed-out people. Readers will be more likely to root for characters who feel real to them, and they’ll also be more willing to struggle alongside them, even when they can’t relate to what the character is going through.
 
5) What’s your advice to authors who want to write credibly about a subject like PTSD or mental illness, but they don’t have the life experience to necessarily do so?
 
My advice for anyone who wants to write outside their own perspective or experiences is first to reflect really hard about *why* they want to write that particular story. I support the #ownvoices movement, but I also think authors should be able to write any story they need to tell. (And if you’re not sure how I can reconcile those two things, it’s simple–I think publishers need to publish the best stories without imposing any kind of cap or quota based on characters’ cultures, races, disabilities, orientations, etc. If you publish thrillers and you receive five thriller manuscripts with gay, disabled, Chinese protagonists and they are all awesome then publish them all–it’s not like those groups haven’t been underpublished in the past.)
But when it comes to writing outside your experience, I think authors need to have a specific reason for doing so, beyond “oh well I saw this article about a person with X disorder and I realized there aren’t many books about X disorder so it seemed like a cool thing to do.” Mental illnesses aren’t “cool things” to be exploited for profit any more than races or cultures are, so my recommendation would be that unless the writer has a strong personal motivation to tell the story, e.g. “Someone I love has panic disorder and I wrote this book both as a tribute to her and a way to better understand her so I can support her when she’s struggling” that they should steer clear.
In order to write convincingly from outside your experiences, especially when representing a marginalized group, you need to be willing to commit at least an hour of research time for every hour of writing time (which is a lot easier to do if you have a strong personal motivation for telling a story). You need to be brave enough to approach multiple members of the group you’re representing to read your manuscript and you need to be open to hearing their honest feedback. You need to be willing to take responsibility and apologize when you mess up. You need to accept the fact that no matter how hard you try, your portrayal won’t work for everyone (see above, not a monolith), and that your good intentions may be interpreted negatively. You may offend some people who might then decide to be very vocal about what they didn’t like about your work. Writing can be terrifying, huh? Good thing we all make millions of dollars. Oh wait… 😉
6) When it comes to mental health, anything you wish authors would do more? Less?
 
Here’s a short list 🙂
 
1. Stop portraying therapists as either lecherous dudes who sexually harass main characters or new-age hippie ladies who mean well but are hilariously bumbling at their jobs and completely hopeless at helping their clients. These portrayals are ubiquitous in movies and books and the overall result is to make people less likely to seek therapy. Therapy isn’t right for everyone, but it’s a powerful tool that can help a lot of people and we need to be encouraging people to seek help, not avoid it.
2. Stop portraying psychiatric medication as some sort of evil force that takes away people’s emotions or turns them into zombies. I work at a psychiatric hospital where 90% of the patients are on some sort of antidepressant, antipsychotic, or mood stabilizer and not a single one of them has turned into a zombie. MEDICINE SAVES LIVES. Also, it’s not 1970 anymore. There are tons of different psychiatric medications and if you try one and don’t like how it makes you feel, you can just tell your provider about the side effects and they can often eliminate them by adjusting the dose, dosing schedule, or medication regimen. Sometimes it is literally as simple as taking your dose at night before you go to sleep instead of in the morning. Like therapy, medication isn’t right for everyone, but no doctor is going to force you to take it unless you are in an inpatient facility under a court-mandated hold and an active danger to yourself or others. So if it *might* help, why wouldn’t you want to give it a try? Again, as writers we should think long and hard before we actively discourage people from pursuing treatment that could change their lives (and the lives of those around them) for the better.
3. Be realistic when combining mental illness and romance in the same book. “Love cured my depression” might make for a great Disney movie, but it’s not at all realistic and perpetuating the “love conquers all” myth can do a lot of harm to people who are actively struggling. Long-term unconditional love, like that of a parent or sibling or best friend can definitely help–people with strong support networks are more likely to reach out for assistance–but in books (and YA in particular) there was a tendency in the past to have a struggling character meet a new romantic prospect and find healing through “new love.” I don’t know about you, but to me new relationships are extremely stressful–there’s this element of crushing uncertainty about who likes who more and whether the other person will leave me if they find someone better or if I confide in them or share too much. They tend to exacerbate, not cure someone’s mental illness. I made a point when writing Girl Against the Universe to have Maguire push Jordy away at first because she knows she can’t handle a relationship, and then later in the book there are examples of where their fledgling romance complicates things for both of them as opposed to being some sort of magical salve.
4. Remember that mental illness is a long-term thing for most people. Authors don’t need to “fix” everything by the end of the book. Even if you want a happily ever after for your main character, keep in mind that plenty of people with mental illness are living rewarding and joyful lives. Having your character make the decision to seek help or having them improve somewhat with therapy but acknowledge they’re still going to struggle is a realistic way to portray mental illness in a novel. You don’t need to come up with some kind of miracle cure by the epilogue.

Op-Ed: Suicides of Bourdain, Spade remind us troubles many face

As last week’s entry showed – and as I know far too many of you can understand – last week’s suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade shook me. Celebrity suicides always do. But, sadly, we know that the suicide contagion effect is real. I wanted to try to do something to stop it.

My local paper, the Morning Call, was kind enough to let me write this op-ed. I’m copying the text below, but if you can click on the link, please do.

We all have to speak up about this issue if we’re going to do anything about it.

When I opened Facebook on Friday morning, there was one sentence that I kept seeing, over and over again: “Not Anthony Bourdain!”

On Tuesday, it was: “Not Kate Spade!”

The death of two people who seemed to have it all was exceptionally tragic in and of itself. Unfortunately, the problem is so much more severe than that.

There is something particularly painful about suicide. Thankfully, most of you cannot fathom how someone could kill themselves, and that is a blessing.

But, please remember: Suicide and mental illness are disconnected from reality. People like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade seemed to have it all. But if you have some sort of mental illness, your brain and your heart may not recognize happiness or joy. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much joy you may seem to have — if you are mentally ill, your brain will not enjoy a life that “should be happy.”

Unfortunately, there is a suicide contagion affect: People are more likely to kill themselves after a high-profile suicide, and that risk is heightened among similar demographic groups. This may be a very dangerous time for people who face an increased risk of suicide.

To those of you who view suicide as an option, allow me a few words. They come from times in my life where I was so depressed I viewed suicide as an option. Give me the chance to talk to you as someone who spent hundreds of hours I’ve spent in therapy and takes anti-depressants to start every morning.

I beg you: Please remember that there is more than the pain of this moment. It’s a cliché, but it’s accurate: Suicide is a permanent end to a temporary problem.

I’ve written about this in The Morning Call before, but it’s worth telling you about my personal story again. My own suicidal moments came in college. I was a new student and scared out of my mind. I barely had any friends and I had been torn from everything I knew and loved. A bad roll of the dice in terms of genetics already predisposed me to depression, and I began to sink. I began to sink so badly that thoughts and plans of suicide began to float around in my battered brain.

Thankfully, I recognized I had a problem. I sought counseling and medication. Depression is part of my story. It always will be. I have struggled, but I have survived.

I am using myself to make a point. I was driving the other day, thoughts wondering, and my mind drifted back to this low point in my life. I was struck by this sudden realization: What would have happened if I had killed myself 17 years ago?

The answer is simple: My family and my closest friends would have been left with a hole in their heart, one which would have never really healed. Meanwhile, someone else would have lived my life, married my wife, had my kids. Someone else would have had the jobs I’ve worked and be representing the people of the 132nd District. Everything that should have been mine would be lived and loved by someone else.

And I was struck by what a waste that would have been. And what a tragedy. Choosing to end my life would have been an especially premature decision. My life is not free of pain, but by and large, it’s a good one. I wake up every day grateful for the decision I didn’t make.

I’ve had access to the treatment that I need. Everyone should be as fortunate.

Suicide is not an isolated problem. There were 45,000 suicides in 2016 in the United States — more than twice the number of homicides. That’s roughly 123 a day. Five an hour. One every 12 minutes.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-34. In Pennsylvania, it’s increased 34 percent since 1999. In Lehigh County, we’re losing roughly one person a week to suicide.

The money we spend in this area means something. Repealing Obamacare would have cut off mental health care access to millions of Americans and unquestionably increased suicide rates. We have a major mental health care practitioner shortage in this country. Millions upon millions of Americans cannot afford their prescription drugs. These things matter.

But I’m tired of hearing elected officials say that mental health matters. Don’t show me your words, show me your budget. Show me what programs you are creating to address suicide. Show me how you are dealing with the suicide among veterans and first responders. Show me what programs you are funding to ensure that we are caring for all Americans, no matter what they look like, where they come from and how wealthy they are.

Don’t give me your thoughts and prayers. Give me the money and the means to actually stop suicide.

To those who are afraid — to those who are anxious, addicted or alone — please know that there is hope. You may not be able to feel it, see it or believe it. But I suppose I am asking you to have faith — faith in yourself, in God, and in those who love you now or will love you in the future. As my own story exemplifies, there is always a reason to live, even if you may not know it at the time. As long as you breathe, you have hope.

Mike Schlossberg of Allentown is state representative from the 132nd District. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255; in Spanish, 888-628-9454; for the deaf and hard of hearing, 800-799-4889; or by text, 741741.