It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.
— Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Mental Health

*This entry was originally posted on Medium on July 5, 2016*

What is mental health? Before I go into my entry, I would like to share with you a definition and some facts from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO’s definition of mental health is:

“A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”

Here are some random facts on mental health (from WHO):

  1. Around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have mental disorders or problems
  2. Mental and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide
  3. Mental disorders are important risk factors for other diseases, as well as unintentional and intentional injury
  4. Stigma and discrimination against patients and families prevent people from seeking mental health care
  5. Globally, there is huge inequity in the distribution of skilled human resources for mental health

There are 5 key barriers to increasing mental health services availability (also from WHO):

  • The absence of mental health from the public health agenda and the implications for funding
  • The current organization of mental health services
  • Lack of integration within primary care
  • Inadequate human resources for mental health
  • Lack of public mental health leadership

Being someone who is seeking information on mental health, I’m shocked at the lack of attention paid to it. Sure, there is a lot of information online but there are so many opinions. Who is right? Is there a right answer? I assume no because as far as I know, nobody has truly figured out how the brain works.

Mental disorders of all kinds impact so many people. Yet it is seemingly swept under the rug. It is not viewed as a legitimate issue. People tend to shy away from the unknown and there is a lot we do not know/understand about our psyche.

The last six to seven months I have been trying to educate myself on mental health because I have reached a stage in my life where I am dealing with certain anxieties and stresses and realize that I have no real method of coping. I realize that I do not truly understand what these things are and it is really upsetting.

I have always had this baseline level of anxiety that, to me, seemed completely normal. I just assumed everyone had that same baseline, and to a degree I still think that. There is no person that is devoid of anxiety as every human being in this world goes through ups and downs. That’s just…life.

But what I did not realize growing up was that people experience anxiety in vastly different ways and in, equally, different levels of intensity. In my household, we never talked about mental health. Physical health on the other hand was discussed all the time. I was overweight as a child and remained overweight until I was about halfway done with university. My parents always wanted me to lose weight.

Maybe it’s a Korean thing, but when seeing relatives, there is always a criticism that they share with you, about you. And it’s usually based on your physical attributes. Or if you are of a certain age (18 or older) they will start asking if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend. I digress, as this alone could be a whole other topic that I can touch upon another time.

Back to physical health. Long story short, when it came to health, that is all that mattered, or at least that is all that was taught to me. Sure, in high school health class we talked about mental health, depression, anxiety, etc. But it was so out of context for me. I even joked about it.

My senior year quote was, “Depression is like trying to slay a dragon with a plastic knife.” I did not use that quote because of the content. I chose it because of who said it (a guy from the class below mine that had a penchant for saying odd/funny things), not because of what it actually meant to me. At that time of my life, it meant nothing. I was not depressed. I did not even really know what depression was at that point.

Fast forward twelve years and here I am, a week into my thirties and am almost as clueless about mental health as I was back in high school. The main difference between now and then is that I have experienced more in life and seemingly have more self awareness than my younger self.

In the last year and a half I have experienced more significant change in my personal life since I graduated from university. My relationship with my girlfriend ended, I left the company where I started my career and worked for six years, and I realized that I experience and possibly suffer from several forms of anxiety.

I had mentioned before that I always felt that I had a baseline level of anxiety that was considered normal. Normal in the sense that it is something everyone has and experiences. I couldn’t tell you exactly when but, as if some mysterious force flicked a switch in my brain, my anxiety levels elevated and have not come back down.

Sure, I have good days (even weeks) where I am completely happy and feel on top of the world. But I more often feel the complete opposite.

For illustrative purposes

Six to seven months ago I decided it was time for me to seek professional help in the form of therapy. The problem was, I did not know where to look. How does someone that essentially knows nothing about mental health find the right help? Do I need a psychiatrist or a psychologist? What is the difference? What kind of therapy do I need? I had so many questions.

I was lucky enough to meet a new friend who shared with me their experiences and they were actually the catalyst for me to start going to therapy. Without going into too much detail, having someone to talk to that has also has gone through or is going through similar things is eye opening.

I logged onto ZocDoc and found a place that took my insurance and I set up an appointment. I had my first session on December 30, 2015.

For four and a half months I saw my therapist once every week. At the time I could not say whether he was good or not because he was my first therapist. I had zero expectations.

I would go into the sessions and he would ask things like, “how are you feeling?” or “what has been bothering you?”

Therapy cannot work if you are not honest with yourself and your therapist. I thought it was going to be really difficult to open up but I surprisingly found it easy to just talk freely and openly. Maybe because I knew it was a complete stranger who’s purpose in my life was to listen and help resolve my issues.

I learned a few things. I learned some breathing exercises to help calm myself down and relax. I learned that I need to not use my phone late at night before I go to bed. I learned that I need to be honest with myself.

Unfortunately my time with this particular therapist ended abruptly. I received a call from the owner of the practice saying that my therapist could no longer see his patients. The woman on the phone was actually quite rude and then asked if I wanted to see another therapist from the practice. I declined. I decided to take a little break and see if I could apply the things I learned to my daily routine (as I had been practicing) and see if I could deal with things on my own.

I lasted two months. My anxiety level shot up and I was having a really hard time coping. I was having panic attacks on a regular basis and I actually went backwards. I reverted to bad habits. I put strains on relationships and I was the most miserable as I had ever been.

To be honest, I don’t know why I’m typing in the past tense. This is happening to me now. In the present.

I am at a point in my life where I am open to trying new things that have the potential to improve my quality of life such as online therapy via Talkspace.

talkspace.jpeg

If you are not familiar with Talkspace, it is an online/mobile therapy app. You chat with a consultation therapist and answer some questions. You are then assigned a dedicated therapist whom you speak with in a private chat. The service of course is not free, there is a monthly or quarterly subscription model.

My experiences with Talkspace, to-date, have been okay at best. I signed up for a quarterly subscription so am committing to 3 months. It is a place for me to just type away how I am feeling at any given moment. The therapist will then respond back to you. What I really like is that it logs the conversations and you can just go back to see what was discussed as reference.

The challenge is that I find myself editing what I type. It is not the same as if I was just talking with a therapist in person. It is also hard because you do not get instant feedback. I never know exactly when my therapist will respond, but usually within 24 hours during weekdays. Weekends they log off but I can message them freely at anytime.

Time will tell if Talkspace is effective.

I started seeing an in-person therapist again as of two weeks ago although they don’t take insurance (another barrier to treatment). I entered the session with at least some expectations having gone to therapy in recent past. I realized that my last therapist did not really challenge me. I talked and talked and he offered up some suggestions, but never really dug deep. This new therapist is incredibly engaging and she really digs into the things I say, which I enjoy. It is uncomfortable at first, but is that not the point? To get away from our normal habits and really challenge ourselves…

I have also tried hypnotherapy. Now I cannot tell you what hypnotherapy is exactly but I really enjoyed my single experience. I ended up feeling extremely relaxed and had the best night of sleep in over a year. The idea is to train yourself to self-induce hypnosis. I have not gotten to that point yet though.

Source: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight

Source: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight

Throughout the last few months I have come to realize that I take some things really personally. Things that I did not take personally in the past. I keep asking myself why? Why do I let certain things bother me so much? Why do I care so much about X/Y/Z?

I realize that I need to develop a new way of thinking and learn new ways to cope with my anxieties. This requires immense effort because I essentially have to create new neural pathways in my brain.

I am quickly figuring out that this journey I am on does not have an end. I do not mean that in an ominous way. I mean it in the sense that we are always changing and we need to be mentally fit to adapt.

I want to share my journey because one of the problems within our society is the overall lack of conversation around mental health, yet people talk about their weight-loss journeys all the time or their daily CrossFit workouts. I recognize there is a stigma with mental health but I genuinely feel that we need to be more open about it.

I am not spilling my guts to you. I am not giving you the details that I would otherwise only share with my therapist. That said, I am not in a place to talk about mental health objectively because it is so personal to me.

I admit that this entry has been in my draft box for almost a month now. It has been edited so many times because I was not sure if I was sharing too much, or not enough. I cared too much about how people would perceive me based on assumptions that I made up in my head. That is a really dangerous thing to do.

At the end of the day I know that there are many others that are going through similar experiences, and many more that have it way worse than I do.

My goal is to share the things that I learn on my journey. If I am advocating for more openness and conversation about mental health, I should start with myself.

I welcome a dialogue. If you have any suggestions or feedback for me, please leave a comment.

Learning to Cope