Dear Mr. President Obama (and future Ms. or Mr. President),
I felt like I was in a deep, dark hole that was filling with water... fast.
"Sorry, we aren't in your network!" More water, up to my knees.
"I don't take any insurance. It's all self pay. Click." More water, waist.
On hold for 45 minutes with insurance company. "We're denying that claim." Chest.
"It's a three-week wait." Drowning.
No one in this country, or world, should have barriers to getting excellent mental health care. I am one of the lucky ones, who finally found a brilliant psychiatrist, but I am writing on behalf on those who are still waiting... who are at risk for drowning.
I had seen a few psychiatrists, years prior, who spoke to me (condescendingly) for a few minutes and sent me off with a new diagnosis and script. I didn't fill it or only took the medicine for a few weeks. Why? Because they didn't gain my trust. They didn't care. Also, this wasn't my pinky toe we are talking about here. I would not fear the wrong treatment for something so minor. This was my brain. I cherished my brain.. my creativity, my intelligence, my deep compassion, but I also was trapped by anxiety, OCD and depression that was debilitating.
Here's how I got lucky with the psychiatrist who changed my life, but it shouldn't have been luck. It should have been easy.
"We don't have anything open for three weeks." I begged them to find an opening. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do." I wouldn't get off the phone. I managed between sobs to beg again...
"Please." My whole body was shaking. "Please."
Suddenly the secretary said, "You must have an angel... Someone just canceled with our best, head psychiatrist." The water in the metaphorical hole started to go down. I could breathe.
I don't know where I'd be without having had this appointment, and my heart breaks for others who do not get this level of care. I do know where I am now I because I was finally able to see this psychiatrist and get the care I had always deserved. I want this kind of chance for success for all people struggling with mental health conditions.
I found success because I was finally able to trust this psychiatrist. I was able to trust her because she spent more than 15 minutes with me like others had. She wasn't a new resident of the month. ("Hi -- I'll be here for a few months so I think we can build a solid relationship. What's going on? Okay, here's a script. Nice working with you... What was your name?")
She treated me with respect and dignity. She knew I was intelligent and explained what was going on scientifically. She would say things like, "You're so smart. You're going to get better and do so many great things!" I told her couldn't take medication and she said I needed it like a diabetic needed insulin and that it was nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of. I told her treatment was weak and she said it was strong. I brought up myths about medication and she debunked every one. She knew my name.
There was a hand reaching to me in that deep dark hole. I took her hand and got out. I started walking forward, skipping... Now I'm running... flying... I'm in a rocket ship! (Still my creative, dramatic self!) Now I want to help others who are where I was. Everyone deserves this chance. So many wait in holes for a hand, with water rising.
Where I am now?
I haven't had any relapses since receiving this excellent care (7 years strong). I am a thriving, happy, valuable member of my community. I have wonderful relationships. I moved to New York City to follow my dreams. I am a full-time graduate student in music education at NYU with a 3.9 average. I volunteer every Saturday. I'm an "awesome teacher." A former student wrote me a note, "Thank you for bringing kindness to us." I love inspiring kids to become great musicians.
I am a Dramatists Guild Fellow, developing a musical about mental illness with the help of Broadway professionals. I've become a mental health advocate and have been featured in The Washington Post, PBS News Hour Chats, The Huffington Post, The Mighty, and was just interviewed by CBS News, New York. I started the viral #imnotashamed campaign on Twitter, and people with mental health conditions from all over the world are stepping out of the shadows and saying, "I'm proud of who I am and what I've been through." I'm not ashamed and here's why." "We deserve better care."
I have medical debt from mental health care on top of student loans. As a future NYC public school teacher, these won't be easy to pay off, but again, I am one of the lucky ones. People are going broke paying for their care. The last thing someone struggling with chronic emotional pain needs is piling debt.
As John Oliver pointed out, our country seldom talks about mental health care until a tragedy, which further stigmatizes people with mental health conditions and is used as a scape-goat for gun control. On top of the debt and the inability to access care, people with mental health conditions are shamed, stigmatized, and made to feel like they are not worthy, whole human beings. They are made to feel like monster and freaks. People with mental health conditions, as a group, are no more likely to be violent and are more likely to be victims of crimes.
People are too ashamed to get care because of stigma. They wait far too long and then when they finally try and it's complicated and hard to access. They finally get it and it's low quality. It's rushed. This all needs to change.
Why can't we talk about mental health care all the time? Why can't we highlight the brilliant minds and phenomenal contributions people with mental health conditions bring to the world? J.K. Rowling struggled with depression and said, "Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." Everyone deserves that chance to rebuild, to succeed!
Again, I am lucky. As a New Yorker, I see homeless people every day, some who seem to be suffering from mental health care problems. I can't believe that we aren't taking care of them. I can't fathom that veterans who have served our country are on the street, suffering from mental health conditions.
Through the #imnotashamed campaign I met a young veteran who has PTSD and has had trouble getting mental health care. He's made such a great sacrifice for our country, why don't we do everything we can to serve him now?
We also need to educate future generations. We need to start with the children. We need to make sure they do not feel the paralyzing shame, guilt and fear that we have felt. We need to make sure that they are met with open arms, not heart-breaking silence. We need to prevent another mother, father, sister, brother, friend from being tragically lost. We need for children to know the symptoms. When I was 14, I had no idea what was going on with me. Living in chronic emotional pain is exhausting. We need them to know that it is not permanent, there's a name for what they are going through and the help needs to be easy to access and excellent quality.
Please join me on Twitter and claim #imnotashamed of mental health conditions. Share your mental health care stories with the tag #mentalhealthcare so our voices are heard and things will change.
Our voices will be heard, because we are speaking in solidarity for what is right. It is right for every person to be treated with dignity and respect, whether they have a mental health condition or not. It is right for a person to have access to excellent mental health care. It is right for us to value and take care of one another.
Thank-you for hearing my story. On behalf of the people who are still waiting for that appointment, scared and alone, I ask you, please, hear us. We deserve better.
One more important thing: I think you are an amazing president and I'm so happy with what you've done for health care. Thank you. You rock. I also love when you sing. This music teacher is impressed! Great pitch and tone!
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.