The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has devoted the month of May as a time to promote awareness and education around mental health. Each year, the goal is to fight stigma, create stronger support systems, and advocate for equal mental health care.
Every year, we need this month of commitment to mental health. We need it because there are millions of Americans suffering with mental illnesses. We need it because there are just as many Americans struggling without access to treatment. We need it because stigma and shame permeates the air and stifles the conversation. We need it because there is still so much work to be done.
Mental illness can take shape in many different forms. One of those forms looks a lot like a big black blob. It's vast, it's life-altering, it's suffocating, and its name is Depression.
I've seen several articles circulating today (here and there) about what it feels like to live with depression, and I've clicked on all of them in an attempt to better understand. They were all unique descriptions of what it feels like to live under depression's strong grip, but the overall message was the same: the darkness is real -- so tangible you can almost taste it. This feeling of blackness, emptiness, and fogginess has a weight so potent it can keep you from accomplishing the most basic tasks. It can squander away your day, obstruct your vision of tomorrow, and leave you feeling so hollowed out that it hurts to breathe.
Maybe it was triggered by recent life events; maybe it wasn't triggered by anything at all. All we know for sure is, it's always there waiting for you.
All of your uncertainties and fears seem to be enlarged and expanded by depression's hot breath. "I told you that you weren't good enough," he hisses. "Now do you see how small you are?"
You try to escape its biting grip, but wherever you go -- there it is.
The pain ebbs and flows -- some months are better than others -- but that spell remains thick and syrupy around your days.
Sometimes you try to reach out for a lifeline -- for a breath of fresh air -- but other people can't see this shadow properly. They don't know how it sits heavy on your limbs, pushing you backwards with every step. They don't know how it makes you cry hot tears, even when you don't want to.
Depression might try to attach itself as your sticky shadow, but there will be a day that you have a longing so deep that you begin to fight back. A day where you can imagine detaching yourself from its diligent embrace.
Maybe all it takes is someone showing up. Maybe it takes a walk in the sun, a few downward-facing dogs, some mindful thinking, or a friend with a knack for listening.
Whatever it is, that thing that tugs you out, it's not someone telling you to just "cheer up," or "move on," or "take medicine." It's someone seeing the struggle, and asking you what you need. It's someone making sure that you don't stay in that ditch alone. It's someone or something helping you move closer to the days where your mind is clearer, the days where your passions come creeping back in.
It's a friend, it's yoga, it's a hike, it's a note, it's a coffee shop, it's a joke to break the silence.
Something that pushes that oppressive weight away and whispers, "You are not alone."
So what can we do to help? What can we do unfriend this toxic relationship with depression? For starters, we can talk about it. Just. Keep. Talking. That will at the very least help remove a layer of stigma and shame. Next, we can advocate. Advocate for mental health parity, proper education around mental illnesses, access to appropriate treatment, and wellness in our schools and homes. And finally, we can become a support system. When you see someone struggling, take a moment to really see them. Then ask them, "What can I do to help? What do you need?"
The answer will not be simple, but it will be a start.