Mental Illness: It’s Time to End the Stigma

The Importance of Women's Health

Sharing this happy, cheerful photo of Essley and me because (1) I haven’t always been this happy, and it’s a good reminder, and (2) Essley said something so inspiring and brilliant to me the other day that I share at the end of this post. Thank you for reading. 

I don’t usually get “heavy” here on the blog. I never do, in fact. I like to think of this as a place that people can come to escape and feel inspired and happy. But even between the fun home and family and fashion posts, I like this space to feel authentic. And there is something I feel necessary to share today.

June has brought the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both by suicide. And 8 years ago tomorrow, June brought the death, also by suicide, of Jeff. Perhaps a few of you reading this know me in real life and know the story. But for those who are newer, I met Jeff when I moved to Colorado at age 22, we were married in my 20s, and even after the split, we remained very close and spoke almost daily (including a few hours before he passed). We did not work as a couple, but we did work as family, and he was my brother – even through some brutal times. We spoke almost everyday, and I watched closely, for years and in constant fear, the peaks and valleys of his mental and emotional states as he battled depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. (My Robbie was by my side through these times, by the way, full of compassion despite the unusual and difficult nature of the situation.)

Jeff was a charismatic person who appeared full of joy, passion, and life to those who knew him. He was the life of the party. He was instantly popular. He seemed confident and happy. But to his family, myself, and his closest friends, Jeff went to incredibly dark spaces between the light. I won’t get into details here, but he felt and did things that were scary and heartbreaking. He did seek help. He got treatment. He also attempted suicide several times throughout his life, and on June 13, 2010, around 2 AM, it finally worked. The phone call I received shortly after it occurred was the worst of my life. And the days, weeks, and months that followed were horrific, both in terms of the logistics of helping Jeff’s family with his affairs and in terms of the emotional devastation.

But nothing I felt, or any of we “survivors” felt, was close to what Jeff felt. And like most people who suffer from mental illness, Jeff – even with therapy and medication – felt isolated and ashamed.

Reminding those suffering to seek help and to call suicide hotlines, etc., is important. But it’s not the solution. It’s not that simple. What we really need to do is evolve as a society and rid mental illness of the stigma attached to it. Period. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or another illness, they (usually) don’t feel ashamed to share their diagnosis – which opens them up to the support they need. When someone is diagnosed with mental illness, very rarely do they feel comfortable sharing it. And after enough time of carrying around that “secret,” some really hefty damage is done.

I have generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve never mentioned that here, and it’s generally mild, but it’s real and it can be difficult, and maybe it’s something I should talk about more. And I hope anyone else suffering from anxiety or depression or other issues will feel comfortable sharing too. I am very lucky that things like breathing and exercise and healthy food and mindfulness (and occasionally, when I feel a true panic attack coming on, Xanax) allow me to keep it under control. But not everyone is that lucky. Mental illness is not something for which one should feel ashamed. It’s common and it’s dangerous to pretend it doesn’t exist.

I’ll leave you with something Essley said to me a few days ago: “We need to be kind friends to everyone, especially the sad people.” It’s time we all stop shaming those with mental illness, or pretending it doesn’t exist.

I love you all, and if you are suffering from mental health issues, I am here to talk to you. I promise.

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