Editorial: Mental health—let’s talk about it

January 21, 2023

Editor’s Note: The content in this issue deals heavily with mental health, anxiety, depression and suicide, which may be difficult or triggering for some readers. 

For the past few years, mental health has become a buzzword in our society. From burned out students at SIU to 2020 Tokyo Olympic gymnasts, people are beginning to speak up about their mental health and the importance of mental health to their overall well-being, but it hasn’t always been this way.

Until more recent years, mental health had been stigmatized and often vilified. When I started receiving treatments for anxiety as a senior in high school, I realized I was incredibly privileged to have grown up in a society where that was possible, but even now, mental health is still widely under-discussed and sometimes seen as taboo. It’s not a topic for the dinner table.

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The purpose of this edition of the Daily Egyptian is to dive into these topics that are uncomfortable and difficult to speak about in order to shed some much needed light on the issue of mental health.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness.”

With that many people experiencing a mental illness, ranging from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it is important to be able to have open dialogue about the subject to destigmatize mental illnesses and gain a better understanding of how mental health impacts an individual.

Dr. Jeffrey Kellogg, a practicing clinical child psychologist and professor at SIU, said in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become an even more relevant issue as many people experienced an increase of symptoms of depression and anxiety due to isolation and loss of connection from social groups.

“We were experiencing this pandemic and that had a profound impact on all of us, and that’s increased levels of anxiety across the board, it’s increased levels of depression across the board,” Kellogg said. “So it’s kind of like the new normal is that more people are experiencing significant amounts of anxiety and depression.”

Kids, too, are feeling the weight of the pandemic, with almost (PERCENTAGE—In think he says ‘half’ in the recording) expressing high levels of anxiety or depression and over “200,000 kids [losing] a parent or primary caregiver to COVID,” Kellogg said.

When a person experiences depression or anxiety, it doesn’t simply make the person sad or nervous. It can impact everything from a person’s ability to study and work to their digestive system, says Kellogg.

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“I think mental health is pervasive,” Kellog said. “It affects us in everything we do, and depending on how much disruption our emotions are, or if we have an anxiety disorder or a depression disorder or just normal reactions to life stresses, it can interfere and affect almost everything… It’s not a separate entity, it’s all one and the same. ”

But the walls around mental health and illness are slowly beginning to break down as awareness and understanding spreads about the issue, and part of this is thanks to the help of social media.

“One of the nice things about media and social media and those resources is there’s so many things available to us from our phones,” Kellogg said.

Social media has played a major role in my own mental health journey. When I was in high school, I was a dedicated fan of Hank and John Green’s YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, where I was first introduced to someone else who had anxiety. After the release of his book, “Turtles All the Way Down,” in which the main character deals with anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), John Green often spoke about his own experience with anxiety and OCD.

In a 2018 interview on 60 Minutes, John Green described how his thoughts spiral after an anxious thought, “Instead of being able to move on to a second thought, that thought just expands and expands and expands and expands, and then I use compulsive behaviors to try to manage the worry and the overwhelmedness that that thought causes me.”

I immediately felt connected with what he said. My anxiety would often look something like this in high school: I would feel stressed because of an upcoming test in anatomy and physiology, and it would make the right side of my stomach cramp, then I would notice my stomach cramping and have the thought that maybe I am experiencing appendicitis. That would begin a spiral, and I would start panicking. At this point, I would start to feel lightheaded and very hot and clammy, which would only make me more convinced that I had appendicitis. After that, I would try to calm myself down by searching on my phone for what can cause stomach cramping on your sides, and the first thing that pops up is appendicitis.

I sometimes spent hours debating whether I should tell my parents because I couldn’t tell if I had a real or serious problem or if it was just me panicking. Hearing someone else who has gone through those same feelings felt incredibly validating, and I began to feel much less isolated.

Then, once I began to understand the emotions I was feeling, the more I was able to work towards finding ways of helping my anxiety and working through spirals and panic attacks.

My number one go-to for coping with anxiety is walking. I walk almost every day and any time that I begin to feel even remotely anxious. When I’m walking, I feel like I have more power over my thoughts, that I can think through them and rationalize them. When I am sitting and anxious, the only thing I can do is sit and think, but when I’m moving, it feels like I am actively walking towards clearer thoughts.

Kellogg suggests that another way you can cope with anxiety or depression is through apps on your phone that focus on mindfulness.

“There’s one by an Australian psychologist, it’s called Smiling Mind. It’s a free application and it’s a very sophisticated application,” Kellogg said. “It has modules for all sorts of age groups, kids as well as adults, and what’s nice about the application is it’s free… I’ve used it with clients and some of my grad students have used it.”

These resources and communities combined with education about mental health have helped to erase the stigma surrounding it – at least much of it.

“If you go back to the 50s and sometimes even the 60s, you didn’t tell people yet about your mental illness or mental issues,” Kellogg said. “I think over those couple of decades, the language has changed, has become less stigmatized and people are just more educated and more psychologically minded and recognize it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

He made it clear that everyone deals with stress. The difference is how much stress a person feels and how it affects them, so it is important to be accepting of stress in our lives so that we can find ways of managing it.

“I think our grade schools and our high schools are taking more of an active interest in teaching kids coping strategies, teaching kids about their emotions, or how to try and break down some cultural, and social barriers to recognizing that people have feelings and it’s healthy to express those feelings,” Kellogg said.

With all of the advancements we have made, however, there is still a long way to go. From young men to the LGBT+ community and communities of color, there are many underrecognized groups whose mental health is sometimes put aside.

Boys are often told from a young age that men don’t cry, and this language can be damaging to a person struggling with mental illness. Educating people that mental illness is not a sign of weakness and that emotions are not something to be ashamed of helps people to understand that there is something that can be done to manage their mental health.

“We’ve got to start in preschool and grade school and teaching kids how to cope with stressors and teaching kids how to manage your emotions and giving kids voices when they need to have them, and that will have a ripple effect generations from now when they can do that,” Kellogg said. “We still have a lot of strong feelings within our culture in our society about these things, so it’s not an easy process. But quit telling kids they can’t cry. Quit teaching boys that men don’t cry.”

So if you are feeling anxiety or depression, know that you are not alone. You are allowed to feel these emotions and you are allowed to talk about them and express them. You do not have to feel shame for your mental health.

Most importantly, there are things you can do about your mental health. Find something that works for you. Try going for a walk, a mindfulness app or consider speaking with a professional care provider. You are not alone, and there are people who are willing and passionate about supporting you.

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