Why talking about mental illness helps

I’d almost make the argument that the thing that makes the most sense about depression is that it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Like, none.

Understand that this is just my perspective, but hear me out on this one.  Depression, anxiety, mental illness, the works, they make no damn sense.  I mean, isn’t one of the things that makes us human the ability to control our own thoughts and act independently?  “I think, therefore, I am?” and all that?

Which is why having a mind that works against you so darn frustrating.

Call me crazy here…okay, don’t, I do that enough on my own…but I think that one of the reasons that depression is so frustrating, confusing and mystifying is that it goes against the very thing that makes us human: Our ability to think.  Humans are fundamentally logical and emotional creatures, right?  I firmly believe that there is a piece of our own minds will always believe that it is in control.

Of course, that isn’t the case.

Even now, even as someone who has been living with depression for years and doing so in a very public forum – it still makes no sense to me.  How is it that people who are so successful, loved and popular can still suffer so?  And I ask myself this question despite the fact that I am someone who has depression.

So, that brings me back to the crux of this blog entry: Why I think that talking about depression/mental illness in an open, honest and public manner helps, and why I always encourage others to do the same.

I think it helps us make sense.

I firmly believe that the idea that we aren’t in complete control of our emotions and thoughts is a truly alien one, something that most of us struggle with on some base level.  To that extent, I think that talking about mental illness helps.  It helps us process what’s going on in our brain and make sense of the thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing.

I obviously don’t have all the answers to mental illness – if I did, I’d be a lot richer, and at least a little bit happier.  But I would suggest this: If you are one of the people suffering in silence, do what you can to change that perspective.  Talk about it.  You may not have access to a supportive network of family or friends, but I think you’d be surprised at the amount of online support groups that you can participate in – anonymously or not.  Even the act of sitting there, and formulating your feelings, can help process your emotions and make a positive difference in your life.

And, on a personal note: I’ve found that this blog has helped my advocacy tremendously, and not just because it gives someone else a chance to read my thoughts.  By putting “pen to paper,” so to speak, it gives me a chance to organize my thoughts, examine my feelings and reevaluate the way I handle my own recovery.  It’s also helped me to rethink some of my public advocacy, in particular the portions related to stigma – it’s not just stigma that matters, but self-stigma.  

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Am I onto something here?  Let us know in the comments, and have a wonderful day!

Going meta: Observations and topics for the future

So the this blog is now a few months old and I wanted to take a second to note my experiences in writing it so far.  This is not the first blog I’ve ever run – it’s the third, I think – and there are, as you can imagine, a few things that make it stand out.

First, some comments about the audience for this blog, and this came as a surprise.  There aren’t quite as many people reading it as I had hoped.  That’s disappointing.  But, what is surprising is the level of engagement.  My posts here get more likes and comments than they ever did on any previous blog.  That’s surprising and interesting.  It tells me that the people who are interested in mental health are passionate about the topic and want to engage with it.

Second, a realization about the topics.  The most popular entries for this blog are, in order:

  1. What you should know if you love someone with depression
  2. A shameful disparity: Minorities and mental illness
  3. 4 ways to stop an anxiety attack
  4. Depression is more than feeling sad

What connects these entries?  Well…not a lot, actually.  Not that connections all four of them, anyway.  Numbers 1, 3 and 4 all provide some unique insight on mental illness.  #1 was far and away my most popular entry, and I think that’s because it’s something with which people can sympathize.  The lesson, for me, is that people seem to really be interested in entries that provide some level of up close examination for mental illness, and that is what I will continue to try to focus on.

With a few exceptions, the entries where I focus on more public policy aspects of mental illness are not as well read.

So, going forward, here are my plans for this blog:

  • Provide that unique insight: Without sounding too much like a self-aggrandizing schmuck, people – particularly those with some sort of mental illness – seem to truly appreciate this discussion – and I don’t just mean the blog.  I think others like hearing that there are people out there, like me, who are in recovery.  I will continue to blog about that topic, and try to make sure that people know there is hope, regardless of what sort of mental health disorder you suffer from.
  • Serve as a resource for families & friends: The most popular blog entry – one which discussed what family should know if they love someone with a mental illness – was an interesting lesson for me.  We constantly talk about people who suffer from a variety of diseases, but we don’t focus enough on the caregivers.  That’s something I’d like to explore more as the blog goes forward.
  • Explore the interaction between technology and mental illness:  I’m scared – really scared – about our over dependence on technology and social media.  I worry about how this may affect mental health.  I’ve written a little about the topic in the past, but I really think this is one that is going to blow up over time.
  • Discuss public policy and mental illness: I know, I know – I said above that those entries aren’t as popular.  That being said, they are still read and I think they serve a useful purpose.  Like it or not, mental illness is largely affected by public policy, a topic I am all too familiar with in my real job.  For both my readers – and for me – it’s something I am going to continue to focus on.
  • Promote my book: If you’ve made it this far, you get a secret – in the first half of 2018, I’ll have a fiction book published.  I’m not going to reveal too much of the details yet – don’t worry, I will! – but know that it is a young adult, sci-fi adventure – one that deals with mental health and living with depression and anxiety.  You can expect to hear more about this one later.

Now, all of that being said, a blog isn’t a blog without readers.  So, let me ask you, my friends – what can I answer for you?  What questions would you like to see this blog explore?  What topics are you interested in?

Let me know in the comments below – and thanks so much for reading!

 

Shhhhhhhh and listen

I have always found that, when depressed, one of the most difficult things for me to do is to shut up and actually listen to others.  This makes sense, of course: When you get depressed, you have a hard time escaping your own head.  After all, depression and rumination are linked; that is to say that when you are depressed, you are more likely to think about yourself.  Your problems.  Your issues.  Your concerns.  Doing so makes you more self-absorbed, which, in the case of many people (me for sure!), can make you feel incredibly guilty and like a burden to your loved ones.

I also want to tie this back to the current political environment in which we find ourselves.  Last week, I went on this FB rant:

tl;dr – I listened and learned something.

I find that there is a big connection with how self-centered I feel and how depressed I am, and that the more I focus on the needs of others, the better shape I’ll be in.  I suspect this feeling is universal – indeed, there is evidence to show that is the case.

On an intuitive level, this makes all the sense in the world.  Thinking of other people makes you more likely to get out of your own head, less likely to ruminate, and more likely to break the cycle of destructive thoughts that are bouncing around in your own brain.  It can be hard.  Really, really hard.  I remember my therapist once telling me that avoiding people and allowing yourself to retreat in to a corner is the absolute worst thing you can do when you are depressed.

He was right, as far as I am concerned.  I think trying to think of others and actively engage with other people when you are down can be next to impossible, given the mood of a depressed person.  That also makes it all the more important that you try and break through and change your focus…get out of your own head.

Now, this is all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question…how you gonna do it?  How can you break that cycle and start engaging with other people well all you want to do is grab your iPad and dive into a blanket fort?

A few thoughts on that:

  • Most social interaction is casual and almost thoughtless – that is, it lacks conscious effort.  When you are down, you have to actively make yourself talk to someone else.  Get up.  Get out of the chair.  Go find the spouse you’ve been ignoring because you are trapped in your own head.  The kid you were letting watch too much TV.  Talk to them.  As them how they are doing.  Try to start a conversation and hook yourself in.  Make a conscious effort to do something real.
  • Can’t leave the house, or don’t want to?  Pick up the phone.  Don’t text!  No texting!  And don’t send a FB message!  Call someone…you know, like phones used to be used.  Start talking with a real voice.  Engage in that human connection that I think far too many of us have delegated to texting and messages.
  • Read a book.  Alright, this one is slightly different than the first two.  But, staring at your phone, mindlessly scrolling your way through your Facebook newsfeed, isn’t going to help yourself.  Instead, try to break the cycle by getting lost in someone else’s life.  See if you feel better on the other side.

There is more – so much more – but I want to hear from you.  How do you get out of your own head when you are depressed?  Let us know in the comments!

When depressed is caused by nothing at all

I have an interesting question for those of you out there who suffer from depression: What do you do when your depression is caused by nothing at all?

There are times – and I suspect that this is for everyone, not just folks who have depression problems – where I get depressed for no reason.  At least, none that I can think of.  I remember my therapist once telling me that there was always something lurking around in the back of my mind somewhere.  That depression is almost never caused by “nothing.”  I suspect that he is right, and that makes it even more frustrating.

I’d argue that this can often be worse than feeling miserable for reasons that you can identify.  Obviously, that depends on the reason you are down, but if there is a reason behind a depression or sadness issue…well, then you can actually deal with it.  When there’s no reason, it’s harder to grasp.  In instances like these, fighting depression is like pushing smoke.  It just can’t be done.

On instances like this, I come back to a conversation I had in a psychology class when I was in college:

glass-half-full.jpg

Ahh, yes, the glass half full.  But, this one comes with a different spin.

I once had a Muhlenberg professor describe mental illness as a combination of genetics and environmental factors.  This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but hear me out.  Let’s say that the water already in the glass is your genetic predisposition to depression.  Additional water gets poured in as a result of environmental factors and other stressors, and when the glass overflows, bam, you are depressed.

In this metaphor, people who aren’t predisposed to depression are less likely to be depressed, but that’s because they have less water in the glass to begin with.  Those people can still get depression, but it’s gonna take a heck of a lot more water (life stressors) to get them there.  For others who have a history of depression or a genetic predisposition, it only takes a little bit of water to get the glass overflowing.

I agree with my psychologist – it’s never really nothing.  It’s always something – maybe something you don’t want it to be, maybe something you are ashamed or embarrassed by, but there is usually something bouncing around in your head which is going to push you over the edge into a depressive funk.

So, here’s my advice: When it’s nothing at all – when you are depressed, but have no idea why, try to ask yourself what’s truly on your mind.  Work?  Family?  School?  As best you can, within your own head, ask yourself those questions.  Create a judgement free zone and allow your heart and your head to tell you what’s really up.  I hope this doesn’t come across as new-agey mumbo-jumbo, but as helpful advice.  Sometimes, the best way to get yourself feeling better is to ask yourself the right question – even if you don’t really want to know the answer.

I hope this is helpful, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – for this one more than most!

An in-depth look at suicide statistics in the United States

Before you can truly solve a problem, you have to have a better idea of what that problem is.

In my policy-making career, I’ve taken a long look at suicide reduction.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one-size fits all approach; different demographics require different solutions.  We know there are certain groups more likely to commit suicide, and those groups require different interventions.

First, here’s a look at what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has found.  The basic statistics are tragic:

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • 44,193 Americans die by suicide.  That’s an increase of 25% since 1999.
  • For every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts (Note: Terminology matters – “committed” or “successful” suicide have negative connotations, and “completed” suicide is a much more appropriate term).

Now, this is a broad overview.  Let’s take a closer look at these numbers in-depth.

Gender

According to the CDC:

Males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9% of all suicides.

One of the reasons for this: Men are more likely to attempt suicide via a firearm, which is much less survivable than other suicide methods.  This is also despite the fact that women attempt suicide three times as often as men.

Race

In most mental health related fields, it is members of the minority community who are on the wrong end of the statistics.  That being said, for race, the reverse is true: Whites have the highest suicide rates of any ethnicity, followed by American Indians.  African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are well behind.

More research certainly needs to be done in this realm, but at least one researcher suggests that, “White older men, however, may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging, likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood.”

Age

While suicides have been increasing across all age groups, those of middle age (45-64) have the highest rates of suicide, followed by those 85 or older.

What is particularly striking and tragic is where suicide falls in terms of leading causes of death.  It is the 3rd highest cause of death for those 10-14 and 2nd for those between the ages of 15-24 and 25-34.

Method – and gun ownership

49.8% of all completed suicides result from firearms, with suffocation (26.8%) and poisoning (18.4%) as the next most used method.  It is important to note that there is a strong link between gun ownership and suicides.  Suicide rates are higher in states where there are high levels of gun ownership, and lower where there are low rates of gun ownership:

The lesson? Many lives would likely be saved if people disposed of their firearms, kept them locked away, or stored them outside the home. Says HSPH Professor of Health Policy David Hemenway, the ICRC’s director: “Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”

But few can survive a gun blast. That’s why the ICRC’s Catherine Barber has launched Means Matter, a campaign that asks the public to help prevent suicide deaths by adopting practices and policies that keep guns out of the hands of vulnerable adults and children. For details, visit www.meansmatter.org.

As I hope this entry has demonstrated, “suicide” should not be viewed as a monolithic disease or condition.  It varies from person to person, group to group.  We have to treat is as such, and ensure that any treatment effort addresses the many various demographics that suffer from suicidal idealization or attempts.

How to explain mental illness to your kids

Like the vast majority of parents, my children are the light of my lives.  My son, Auron, is six; my daughter, Ayla is four, turning five in November.  I won’t sit here and wax on and on about how much I love them – I don’t have that kind of time, and you probably don’t have that level of interest.  But, for the sake of this blog entry, please understand that they are one of my main reasons for living, my biggest source of joy and a constant fountain of entertainment, surprise and hilariousness.

So, I suspect many parents can sympathize: Having children when you have depression can add innumerable guilt and sadness to an already debilitating disorder.

When I think about depression in relation to my kids, I think of it from two angles.  First is how it will likely one day affect them.  There is no question that mental illness has a strong genetic component.  Also, as much as it pains me to admit it and as hard as I try to make it otherwise, I suspect that both of my kids will learn some of my behavior and internalize it. Even more unfortunate is that a major source of childhood trauma is having a parent with a mental health disorder, and an expanding body of research has shown that these Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can have significant and detrimental effects on the life of a child.

One of the symptoms of depression is guilt, and lemme tell you, this entry is not helping.

Second is how my disorder affects their lives.  As much as I hate to admit it, depression and anxiety have affected my parenting skills.  There’s no doubt that there have been times where it has affected my mood, made me snappier or less willing to do things.  Kids can tell when you are worried or down.  They are like little sponges.  They just know when things are off, and they are far, far more intuitive than most people realize.

So, all of this leads me to the critical question of today’s blog entry: How do you talk to your kids about depression?

Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the age of your child.  The first time it ever came up for me was when my son was about four and happened to walk into the bathroom when I was taking my medication:

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Taking my pills, buddy.”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Are you sick?”

Me, internally: Crap.  

Followed by: “Well, Auron, you know how people sometimes get really sad?  Or really scared?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Daddy sometimes gets really scared or sad for no reason.  These pills help make sure I don’t get too scared or too sad, and they make it easier for me to have a good day.”

“Oh.  I’m gonna go watch Bubble Guppies.”

At that age, I think that was a pretty good way to describe it: Simply, and by relating it to something they already understood.  As my kids have gotten older, I’ve expanded that conversation to talking about it to a stigma perspective.  Whenever we are trying to illustrate something that we think is silly (All boys are better than girls at sports by default, for example), we scream “THAT’S NONSENSE!”  I’ve used that frame to describe how some people don’t think it’s okay to get sad, or get scared, and to try to tell the kids that anyone who is sad or scared should see a Doctor, just like if they had a broken arm.  Do they understand it?  I think so.  I hope so, anyway!

As they get older, it is my hope that the way I have dealt with my mental illness – openly and honestly – will help them recognize the symptoms of it within themselves.  I never want my kids to think that whatever circumstances they may be born with are completely out of their control – I want them to know that they do have the ability to deal with whatever challenges they may face.

I cannot control the mental illness that I have anymore than I can control the weather.  But, just like dealing with a rainy day, I can bring an umbrella.  I can take care of myself by ensuring that I see my therapist when necessary, that I take my daily medication, that I recognize my mistakes and try to learn from them, and by practicing good coping skills.  In that way, I hope I can teach my kids a very critical lesson: You cannot always control the hand that you are dealt, but you can control how to react to it.

As always, I welcome your comments.  How have you dealt with your own mental illness when it comes to your kids?  What have you said – and what have you left unsaid?  Let us know below!

4 ways to stop an anxiety attack

I’ve had a particularly interesting internal debate – well, interesting to me, anyway – about which is worse, depression or anxiety.  I’ve repeatedly come to the conclusion that, at least with the way I have both, I’d rather have depression than anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong – both suck something fierce.  That being said, with depression, if it isn’t too severe, you can still function.  Anxiety, and particularly anxiety attacks makes doing basic tasks next to impossible.

College was the worst for me in that regards.  I would have periodic anxiety attacks, usually brought on by a particular situation.  I developed fears of set events – travelling in buses or planes, for example – that caused me to avoid travelling in general.  Therapy and medication helped get me through, but I still remember how traumatic those events were.  I remember not being able to travel on a bus with my coworkers because I was so, so scared of having an anxiety attack.  Or having a major one while traveling for work that almost caused me to run off of a plane.

Learning how to control my anxiety is what got me through those dark times, and learning how to stop an anxiety attack before it started – or at least how to stop one once it was underway – was immeasurably helpful.  Learning these skills gave me the confidence that I needed to believe that I could survive the worst anxiety attack, and that taught me how to live again.

With that, here’s a few techniques that I’ve successfully used in order to try and head off an anxiety attack before it started, and cool one down when it began.

Oh, and standard disclaimer: I’m not a Doctor or professional. I’m a guy with a blog.  Don’t let my random thoughts stop you from seeking professional, medical advice!

1) Pick a number.  Count to seven.  And keep going.  One of the things I found when I was at my worst was that the brain desperately needed a distraction.  I believe it was a therapist who first made this suggestion to me: Pick a task and run with it.  Pick a random number – 136.  Add 7.  And keep going.  This will, hopefully, distract your brain enough to stop the anxiety attack in its tracks.

2) Breathing Exercises.  There are a ton of variations on this, and there is also ample evidence that anxiety and depression can be ameliorated in the long run with proper breathing techniques.  When I was younger, I found this to be particularly effective, particularly when I first started suffering from anxiety attacks.  I would literally sit there in 8th grade homeroom and say to myself, “There is nothing else but your breath.  Take a deep breath.  Fill your chest as much as possible.  In through your nose and out through your mouth.”

For a more formal exercise, click here.

3) Pick an object.  Any object.  This is related to the first technique.  Getting yourself out of an anxiety attack often means changing the way that you are thinking in order to stop yourself from cycling through panic.  To that end, find an object.  It can be simple or complex.  Stare at that object.  Get lost in it’s texture and colors.  How does it look?  What does it do?  Is it moving?  What are it’s colors?  Rough or smooth? Ask yourself simple questions, and then allow those questions to become more complex.  Remember, the goal here is to get your mind to concentrate on anything other than the panic.

For me, when I was at my worst, the challenge with this was trying to get myself to concentrate on an object, because starting too long at something could make me feel worse.  If that’s the case for you, no problem!  If one object doesn’t work, try picking a different one.  Or, allow yourself to look away for a moment before coming back to the object in question, and starting the cycle over.

4) Call someone.  I found that conversations with others – people I trusted, who wouldn’t judge – could be helpful.  If you allow yourself to get lost in your own mind, you can get yourself into trouble.  To that end, talk to someone you trust and love.  Talk about the anxiety attack.  Talk about the weather.  Do whatever works for you, but just make sure that you can get out of your own head.

As always, these are just suggestions, just my thoughts.  Have better ones?  Let us know in the comments!

4 Video Games that portray mental illness

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a video game nerd.  Hardcore.  And, as someone who is a bit obsessed with eradicating stigma that is related to mental illness, I remain fascinated by public portrayal of depression, anxiety and addiction.

Video games, I believe, are art.  I define art as the ability to make a profound emotional impact on a person.  As such, the portrayal of mental illness in video games – and indeed, humanity – continue to fascinate me, and make me think.  The good news is this: Video games can often describe the human condition in a more thoughtful and complete than many movies and television shows.  That line of thinking inspired this blog entry: How does video games portray mental illness?  How accurate is that portrayal?

Oh, and spoilers below.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

LifeIsStrange

This one is the prequel to Life is Strange, one of my favorite games, made by Square Enix.  It is a walking simulator  in which you follow Chloe, the main character, as she battles her way through high school and falls in love with Rachel, the previously unseen character who plays a pivotal role in Life is Strange.  

I firmly believe that Chloe is suffering through some major depression symptoms.  Her father has died a few years before and her mother is dating a man who she openly despises and fights with; both of these experiences can lead to depression.  She drinks and does drugs often enough to have a regular dealer to whom she owes money. Her best friend is gone, and not communicating with her at all.  She comes across as angsty, but it’s more than that.  Her quotes, thoughts and actions are often self-destructive and reflect a young woman in pain.

To me, this is more than just a teen being a teen.  She’s miserable, she fights with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, her family has financial issues, and she is clearly discovering her sexuality.  These are all symptoms that lead my to believe that Chloe is suffering from depression.

What makes the game more relatable is the game’s treatment of Chloe.  In the start of episode one, she is petulant and miserable – not the greatest portrayal.  However, as the game evolves, she becomes a more sympathetic character, and a multi-layered one at that.  You see her hopes, dreams and ability to connect with others.  And, by hearing her thoughts, you can hear all of the truly heartbreaking things she is thinking and saying to herself, about herself.

You intrinsically want Chloe to be better, to have healthier thought patterns and make better decisions.  And, in that sense, I hope that the game can give people a better idea of what it is like to live a life under duress, as Chloe clearly does.

A Night In The Woods

NightInTheWoods

Disclosure: I’m only part way through this one

A Night In The Woods is a platformer. You play as Mae, who has just dropped out of college and returned home.  I’m not very far along this one, but where I’ve gotten to, strange things are happening in her hometown after she reunites with her friends.

The college drop-out part is interesting.  Again, I’m not far in, but thus far, Mae has refused to talk about what happened to her in college, aside from saying that college “didn’t work out” or some variation of that phrase.  She reconnects with old friends, who all have their own battles:

Mae, the protagonist, experiences depression and anxiety, which sometimes create dissociative states during which she becomes completely disconnected from reality. It is implied, though never directly stated, that Gregg has bipolar disorder. His poor impulse control gets him into bad situations, and at times these factors impact his feelings of self worth. Bea and Angus both struggle with the consequences of abusive pasts and their relationships with their families.

As has been noted by Kotaku, the game’s creator’s have both discussed their own battles with mental illness:

The game’s creators have spoken candidly in the past about their own mental health struggles. Scott Benson, who animated and illustrated the game, has type two bipolar disorder. Programmer Alec Holowka runs the Everybody’s Fucked Up podcast, which aims to break through stigma around mental illnesses by interviewing people who have experienced them. (Bethany Hockenberry, the writer of the game, was unable to meet with Kotaku for an interview.)

This game is different than the standard platformer in a few ways, but chief among them is that it allows users to make dialogue choices that affect the game.  This puts you in the driver seat and gives you the perspective of Mae, thus ensuring that you get a first-hand look at what it is like to live a life with depression.

As I said, I’m only a little way into this one, but I’m very curious to learn more.

Please Knock On My Door

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one.

PleaseKnock

This is the portion of the blog entry where the games start getting a touch more obvious.  In Please Knock On My Door:

Please Knock on My Door is a simple game about a person living with depression. The protagonist, a blocky, inky-black character, lives a fairly standard life: Wake up, go to work, come home, repeat. The days are punctuated with mundane tasks like making a sandwich or showering, but each one carries extra weight as it drains — or bolsters — the main character’s mental fortitude.

The game’s art style is simple and stripped down, forcing players to experience the emotions of the game, not be overwhelmed by its graphics, and the focus on simple decisions and how draining they can be gives players the experience of depression, and the added knowledge that each decision made can weigh on a normal human being.  In that sense, it seems to concentrate on giving players the sense of just what a burden living with depression can be.

Depression Quest

Depression Quest

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one either.

Gee, I wonder what this game is about?  From the website:

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.

The game was designed by Zoe Quinn, who faced a slew of death threats for her efforts.  Charming.

As for the game itself: You live the life of someone with depression, making what are relatively mundane decisions about living life.  That being said, in the game, happier decisions are often grayed out, forcing the player to experience life as through someone with depression.  The game is told through a series of text decisions.  In that sense, again, it tries to get the user to experience depression from a first-person perspective.

These are just four, and there are certainly many more.  Any other games you’d like to share?  Let us know in the comments below!

Your smartphone may be making you depressed

I remember catching this story ages ago: A study found that the more time you spend on your iPhone, the more likely you are to be depressed.

Then, yesterday, a friend was kind enough to send me this article about how the University of Berkeley was offering students “counseling” in response to a conservative speaker coming onto campus.  I totally agreed with the article’s premise: That it is absurd to offer counseling for an optional speaker who some students may disagree with, and that such an offer does real harm to the mental health world be further stigmatizing and cheapening the need to get help.  However, there was a passage in the article which really caught my eye:

Researchers have, however, identified reasons to be concerned about the psychological health of teenagers and young adults. In her new book, “iGen,” social psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we may be on the brink of a major mental-health crisis among the generation born between 1995 and 2012, a crisis she links to smartphones and social media.

This made me wonder: Just how true is this statement?  As always, standard disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, just an observer with a real interest in mental health.  That being said, it certainly appears that the answer may be yes.

First, there’s this powerful Atlantic piece, written by Jean Twenge, which makes the case that iPhones are, without a doubt, leading to a “mental health crisis.”  It also argues that smartphones are causing problems at rates previously unheard of in past generational changes:

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

The articles conclusions are stark and tie directly to smartphones.  It makes the case that teens are going out less, spending less time with friends, showing less independence, dating less, having less sex and driving less than cohorts from previous generations.

So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

The case here is clear: Screen time makes teens less happy, and more likely to screen for depression.  Seriously, there’s a ton in this article, so if this is an area of interest to you, I highly suggest you read it.  It made me want to set my phone on fire.

Anyway….

Other articles have confirmed the link between smartphones, depression and anxiety.  What is most interesting to me is the nature of this relationship.  Anyone who has ever taken Psych 101 knows that correlation does not equal causation, meaning that just because two things are connected does not mean that one (smartphone use) causes the other (depression or anxiety).  That may be the case, but it may be that depression and/or anxiety actually cause an uptick in smartphone use; personally, I can vouch for this – when I get anxious, I frequently turn to my phone as a crutch or escape from reality.  It also may be a third item, like lack of self-confidence, simultaneously causes both depression and an uptick in smartphone use.

That being said, the Atlantic article I discussed above makes the case that the relationship is linked, and that smartphone use is causing depression.  That conclusion, however, is not uniform, per this meta-analysis:

…the studies examined were correlational, meaning that it is not clear if smartphone use causes symptoms of mental illnesses or if symptoms of mental illness cause greater smartphone use.

As I said above, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I do know that smartphones can have a deleterious effect on mental health and social development.  I suspect this is an area that will be the subject of increasing research as time goes on, and I certainly hope that is the case.

Now, go outside!

Fangirl: The book that reminded me that Writing = Therapy

As I’ve said before, one of the things that has helped me cope with my anxiety/depression issues.  There’s a few reasons for this, and I’ll get into that shortly, but I wanted to write what basically amounts to a thank you note to Rainbow Rowell, author of Fangirl, and talk a little bit about how I found a wonderful creative outlet…and, maybe, how you can too.

First, my personal history.  Ever since 8th grade, I’ve loved to write.  Like most young, male teenage authors, the first thing I ever wrote was…uhh, Star Wars fan fiction.  It was terrible, but that’s completely besides the point.  At the time, it made me extremely happy, and why not?  It gave me the opportunity to create, and feel like I was part of a franchise that I adored.  During my teenage years, writing continued – I wrote two full-length novels (unpublished, of course, probably because they were pretty bad).  In college, as the anxiety and stress continued, I tried my hand at poetry.  Again, it gave me…something.  The chance to express what I was feeling, and in putting it on paper, leave a piece of it behind.

What I remember the most about these novels, even more than their plot, is that they helped me cope.  Novel number one was about my family history, the loneliness that came with it and just being a teenager in general.  Number two was working through some of the challenges I had in my family at the time.

Both novels gave me hope.  They gave me a sense of control.  And in my worst, most loneliest moments, they gave me something to hold onto.  Not for nothing, but novel #2 never made it through revisions.  Once I came to peace with what was happening in my life, I more or less stopped writing it.

This was all in high school.  Fast forward fifteen years: I’m married, two wonderful kids and a State Representative.  To my surprise, I managed to achieve a dream and become a published author, but a non-fiction book: Tweets and Consequences.  

It was around the first half of 2015 that I hit a rough patch with my depression, arguably one of the rougher ones I had hit in years, maybe even since college, when my depression and anxiety really first began/exploded onto the scene.  At the time, I remember feeling misreable and just so helpless, searching desperately for a way out that I just couldn’t find.

What wound up pushing me to a better place was writing.  And what helped get me there was Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  From the book:

In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life-and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

The book resonated with me because the main character, Cath, is clearly having major adjustment issues to college (as I had) and discovering who she is.  She uses her writing to cope and get her to a better place, and the book details her struggle in terms of finding a voice that is authentic and truly belongs to her.  Cath is clearly a talented writer, and the book explores her writing journey, meshing with her adjustment to college, family separation, romantic experiences, academic struggles and more.  I’d also argue – and many others have also made this comment – that Cath is clearly suffering from some form of depression.

And that is exactly where the book hits a chord for me.  I remember there being one scene where Cath is in an advanced writing class with older students, and the professor – a big time author, if memory serves – is asking the class why they write.  One student answered “therapy.”  And that’s a note that just rang so, so true to me.

For me, writing was always a therapy for a variety of reasons:

  • It allowed an escape.  An idealized world where every situation could be reasonably thought through, all alternatives explored, and all potential problems dealt with accordingly.
  • It allowed me the chance to work through problems, to put myself in someone else’s shoes.  In a sense, I think writing allows you to sort the various parts of your head and put them somewhere better.
  • It allows you to mark the moment.  And I don’t mean remember.  I mean something stronger.  To carve it into your consciousness and make sure that the emotional core of an event – everything you are trying to deal with – are always remembered.  Every feeling, every sensation.
  • You can play God.  Play the hero, play the villain, whatever you want.
  • Ideally, you can work through your past, and channel it into something good.  I think that’s an important theme of my overall mental health journey: Once I realized I could go public, and help other people in the course of doing so, I became a better public official and a better person.

To those of you who write, in any form, for mental health purposes – I feel you.  And to those of you who don’t – maybe give it a go.