When Stigma Kept Me Quiet

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I’m grateful now for something I didn’t think was possible years ago, when I was first diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia — People are talking about mental illness.

Stigma is still strong, but it’s beginning to lessen. The conversation is open. Nearly every day, I hear someone speak out. Often there are news stories focused on mental health. Actors, singers, athletes, and famous people publicly share their stories.

People are acknowledging that mental illness is a real medical illness that should not be ignored.

Schools are starting to offer courses in mental health. Teens are learning about mental illness through programs such as Ending the Silence, developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Thousands of mental health organizations around the world have resources available to help those affected.

Things have definitely changed since I was a young girl, when I experienced confusing and frightening symptoms, which I kept secret. I knew my problem wasn’t normal and didn’t think anyone would ever understand. I didn’t dare speak up, in fear of being ridiculed.

It took me twenty years of suffering before I received medical help.

I’m not the only one who has waited so long. NAMI says that people who have a mental health condition typically wait eight to ten years after the first warning signs appear to get help. The main reason?

Stigma.

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Most of the time, I was fine. I graduated from college, got married, and had two baby girls. But by my early 30s, my panic attacks became more frequent and more severe.

I was angry with myself because I couldn’t stop the symptoms. My internal monologue wasn’t very kind:

This is stupid. I worry too much. No one else feels this way.

What’s wrong with me? 

Maybe it shouldn’t bother me when my heart beats too fast, and I get lightheaded and dizzy. It’s just how I am. So what if I feel sweaty and shaky, and start to black out? I need to be tougher when I think I’m going to faint. I have to calm down when I feel like running out of the place where I’m panicking.

Who does that? Get over it.

It’s the dumbest thing ever that I don’t want to drive because I’m scared of feeling panicky. People get annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, but their hearts don’t pound and they don’t need to pull over to get hold of themselves.

And when I feel disoriented? That’s the worst. It’s like I’m living in a dream and things aren’t real, like an out of body experience. That’s creepy. I can’t let myself think that way. This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m so weird.

I should be able to stop it. Just STOP it.

No matter what I do, I can’t let anyone know. They’ll think I’m strange. I doubt a doctor would know how to help. Maybe I have a brain tumor. I don’t want to scare my family.

Whatever. I’m fine…

Usually.

When I look back on how I used to talk to myself, it makes me sad. I was sick and needed help.

Growing up, I’d never heard anyone talk about mental illness. I had no idea my symptoms actually had a name: panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder. I couldn’t believe it when my doctor told me that millions of other people suffer from it too.

And all that time, I thought I was alone.

HARVESTING SINCE 1892

I was shocked when my doctor said that medication could help me. I was even more amazed when the antidepressant worked.

When my daughter Talee was 10 years old, she started to show signs of panic attacks. It broke my heart to know that she had to deal with the same terrifying symptoms that I’d had.

Even though I’d been through it myself and knew that many people had anxiety, I still felt the stigma. I didn’t want Talee’s teacher or the other parents to know my daughter had a mental health issue. I didn’t want her labeled.

But I was NOT going to let my sweet girl suffer in silence and secrecy, as I’d had. I pushed the stigma aside with all my might, and reached out for medical help right away.

Thankfully, both Talee and I have recovered. And now, I speak out to reassure people that there is help available and they are not alone.

The conversation must continue. The more that people talk about mental health and mental illness, the less taboo it will be for future generations. Let’s end the stigma.

There is hope.

#CureStigma

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My Post Featured on the NAMI National Blog: Celebrities and Mental Illness

In the NBA, you have

I’m super excited that one of my stories is being featured today on the NAMI National Blog. It’s about an incredible chain reaction that happened in March, between two NBA All Star players — DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love — and “Today Show” anchor and host of “The Voice,” Carson Daly.

Please have a look by clicking here.

Have a wonderful weekend! And Happy Mother’s Day!

Take care,

Jenny

10 Ways Technology Can Benefit Mental Health

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My millennial daughters were part of the first generation ever to grow up with computers, cell phones, and the Internet. I appreciate the incredible technological advances but as a parent, I experienced challenges that seem to go hand-in-hand with electronics.

It was a constant battle to monitor screen time. I wanted to make sure that texting, posting, and searching the web didn’t devour too many hours of the day. I had concerns about online safety, cyber bullying, and the effects social media would have on my girls. I knew that constantly comparing themselves to others on Instagram and Facebook could lead to low self-esteem, loneliness, and depression.

Much attention has been given to the negative aspects of technology and mental health.

But what about the positive side?

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As the vast tech world continues to expand, there are numerous ways it can benefit mental health. Recently I learned about one of those ways.

There’s a new type of online chat group, called a Slack community. Slack stands for “Searchable Log for All Conversation and Knowledge.” Entrepreneurs Zach Schleien and David Markovich are co-founders of a free Slack group for people with mental health issues. It’s called 18percent. The name comes from the 18 percent of Americans living with mental illness.

Zach was inspired to start 18percent after a close friend took his own life after battling schizoaffective disorder/bipolar type 1. Zach said he never knew how much his friend Louis was suffering, as Louis never spoke about his struggles.

Zach wanted to create a space on the Internet where people could talk openly about their mental health problems anonymously and help each other, in the form of a peer-to-peer global support group. He said some users don’t want to discuss their issues with family and friends but they feel comfortable in an anonymous chat group.

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Thousands of online tools are available to support those living with mental illness. Technology can offer convenience, 24-hour service, and anonymity. For example:

  • People in the United States can text the Crisis Text Line at 741741 anytime and talk with a Crisis Counselor.
  • Google has teamed up with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to offer a mental health screening questionnaire for U.S. residents who search for “depression” on their cell phone.
  • Apps are targeted to people with conditions like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and schizophrenia. The apps are designed to help manage symptoms and track moods.
  • Mindfulness and meditation apps (like Headspace, Calm, and The Mindfulness App) can help lower stress.
  • Blogging and writing can be therapeutic. It’s freeing to write down thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and release them out into cyberspace. Can be anonymous. Creativity can flow; try poetry, list goals and dreams, write a letter to your mental illness. The blogging community can be a wonderful source of encouragement and support.
  • People can talk anonymously in online chat groups, like 18percent, 7 Cups, and NAMI Discussion Groups.
  • Online therapy, such as BetterHelp and 7 Cups, offer professional counseling services. Some mental health professionals give one-on-one therapy through video and text.
  • Computerized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CCBT) is one of the new frontiers in psychotherapy, offering online CBT to treat depression, anxiety, and other behavioral health problems. Advantages are that it can be delivered on-demand and is less expensive than visiting a therapist.
  • Scientists are testing Virtual Reality as a tool for exposure therapy.
  • Online fundraising can benefit mental health organizations. Following the death of his friend, Zach Schleien not only started the Slack community, 18percent, but he raised $10,000 for NAMI through an online crowdfunding platform called CaringCrowd. Zach’s goal is to raise $30,000 for NAMI in May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mental health technology can bring amazing opportunities. But this is a new area and experts warn consumers to be careful about trusting an app or program. The National Institute of Mental Health says, “there are no national standards for evaluating the effectiveness of mental health apps that are available.” The NIMH suggests people ask a trusted health care provider for recommendations.

Technology has made enormous strides I didn’t dream were possible when my daughters were little. At least now that Mackenzie and Talee are in their twenties and independent, I don’t have to worry about constantly monitoring screen time.

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Why I Love Talking to Teens About Mental Health

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This week I was so excited to do my favorite type of volunteer work with NAMI — presenting their in-school program, “Ending the Silence.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) developed the presentation to raise awareness of mental health and mental illness, and to help end the stigma.

My co-presenter and I gave six one-hour presentations to high school freshmen. We were in a huge classroom with about 90 students in each presentation. That’s nearly 500 kids in two days, who learned about the warning signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, and what to do if they notice those signs in themselves or a friend.

I’m passionate about starting the conversation with teens. To let them know it’s okay to talk about mental health issues. Just like a physical disease, mental illness is a real medical illness that needs treatment.

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As presenters, we speak candidly about our own challenges with mental illness. We talk about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. We let the teens know that suicide can be prevented. We stress the importance of taking immediate action if they see signs of suicide in themselves or a friend. Talk to a trusted adult; call the National Suicide Lifeline at (800)273-8255 or text them at 741741; don’t keep warning signs a secret.

We emphasize the fact that millions of people throughout the world are affected by mental illness and that:

  • There’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Having a mental illness does not mean a person is weak.
  • Developing a mental illness is not anyone’s fault.
  • There is medical help available.
  • There is hope to get better and to have a productive, happy life.
  • You are not alone.

During the presentations this week, I looked at the students’ faces and could see how engaged they were. This is a serious subject that normally isn’t talked about so openly. It’s something they might be concerned or curious about, but aren’t comfortable with.

I wondered how many students in that room struggled with a mental health issue. Or maybe it’s their brother, sister, or parent who does. Mental illness affects the entire family. I never know who I’m going to reach, or who the message is going to resonate with.

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Sometimes the kids totally surprise me. Actually, they blow me away with what they say.

One girl came up to my co-presenter and me, looked us straight in the eyes and said, “You two are SO brave. You’re so brave to stand up there and tell your stories and talk about this to all of us. Thank you.” Then she asked if she could give us a hug. Of course.

Following another presentation, a 15-year-old boy wanted to talk. He seemed nervous, almost jittery. He told us he has so much mental illness in his family and doesn’t know how to handle it. We listened to him, offered our input, and gave him resources to look into. By the end of our conversation, he seemed more at ease and grateful to be able to talk about his problems, and not worry about being judged. He smiled, shook our hands, and thanked us for the talk.

What another student said melted my heart. I’m not sure why, but I noticed her while I was speaking. She was in the back of the room and looked timid and was pretty, with short light blond hair. It was busy after the presentation, quite a few kids came up to ask us questions, including the timid-looking girl. I looked at her and said hi.

She nervously smiled and said in a sweet, quiet voice, “I just want to let you know that you two are like angels.” Wow. This is a ninth grader telling us we’re angels. 

That was powerful. In just a few words, she said so much.

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We thanked her for the wonderful compliment. She went on to say that she has a really hard time around people (social anxiety) and depression. She thanked us for talking about mental illness. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe we were there, speaking about something that greatly affects her life.

We opened the conversation. Maybe now she’ll be able to talk to her close friends about her struggles.

These teens want to know they’re not alone. They want to know their problems are real and that they matter. They want to be heard, understood, and not judged. Even though they might keep their feelings a secret because of stigma, they want to be honest and talk about it. They’re tired of pretending.

That’s why I love talking to teens about mental health and mental illness. I want them to know it’s okay. That they’re okay.

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All Things New: Meet Author Lauren Miller!

All Things New is an amazing Young Adult book that I just read and absolutely loved!

I’m grateful that the lovely author, Lauren Miller, reached out to me after reading a post I wrote on NAMI’s national blog, detailing my experience as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence. I visit high schools and speak to students about mental illness. Very fitting, as Lauren’s book centers around a girl who has severe panic attacks.

All Things New is about 17-year-old Jessa, who has anxiety and panic attacks and doesn’t tell anyone. She becomes very good at hiding her secret and pretending. She gets in a horrific car accident, that leaves her with scars and a brain injury. She leaves her old life in California to live with her dad in Colorado. Her anxiety becomes worse. Until she meets Marshall, a boy with a heart defect who helps bring Jessa out of her closed-off world, into the broken, but beautiful, real world.

The theme running through the story is that we’re all broken, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of our broken pieces. The book shows how we can make it through; with love, kindness, and courage.

No one wants to talk about

I recently had the chance to interview Lauren to find out about her life and her work as an author. Please join us…

Your latest book, All Things New, centers around Jessa, a teen with an anxiety disorder. Why did you want her to have a mental health condition, and specifically, panic attacks?

From the very beginning, I wanted All Things New to examine the notion of emotional and psychological wounds — the pain we carry that no one can see. For me, that pain was anxiety, which I hid for years. It was exactly the type of challenge I wanted to give Jessa, my protagonist, because anxiety is real but invisible, and it’s closely connected to identity, another core theme of the story.

After Jessa’s accident, she has a form of face blindness, where she sees scars and bruises on random people’s faces, that aren’t really there. So interesting, and that would really be hard to deal with! I’m curious to know how you researched that.

As with all my books, I reached out to experts for help! I emailed with my hero, Oliver Sacks (through his assistant, Kate) before he passed away, which was a total writer’s highlight. Dr. Sacks suffered from face blindness and hearing from Kate what he experienced was a great help. As my story progressed, Jessa’s condition became less like true face blindness and more like ‘regular’ brain injury-induced hallucinations. In addition to that Jessa also suffers from something called aphantasia, or mind’s eye blindness, which means she can’t see any mental images in her head. For that, I corresponded with a professor in England named Dr. Adam Zeman who helped me tremendously to understand a condition that, at the time I started writing, didn’t yet have a name! The science/research aspect of the writing process is one of my favorite parts of writing.

There’s a slightly spiritual theme, as Jessa goes through challenging obstacles to put her life back together. I don’t want to divulge too much, but I’m talking about the first man who helps her at the scene of the accident, and the counselor. To me, that was comforting. Why did you add the spiritual element?

For me, the world is both a physical and a spiritual place, with both aspects being equally real. I’ve experienced moments like Jessa experienced–inexplicable things, people showing up who can’t really be explained, odd coincidences that provide meaning and purpose. So it was natural for me to add these aspects to my story (in fact, all of my books have slight supernatural themes!)

Jessa has a special relationship with her dad. I loved what he said when she was afraid to drive again. “I want you to be free. Free from the panic and worry, free from all that terrible self-doubt I see in your eyes and blame myself for. But you have to want it too, Jessa. You have to decide not to let fear win.” That says a lot, doesn’t it? Not letting fear win.

YES! I love that line, too. It’s the advice I have to give myself, over and over again.

What do you want readers to come away with, after reading All Things New?

More than anything I hope my readers will come away feeling hopeful about the future. Whatever hard thing they are going through, there is wholeness and healing in store for them, even if they can’t see it yet. I also hope my readers with anxiety will come away knowing that they are not alone!

Are you writing your next book? If so, can you tell us what it’s about?

I am actually working on a movie script right now–an adaptation of my first novel, Parallel. It’s been so fun that I think my next project will be another script! I have an idea for a coming of age movie about a girl who’s boyfriend is sent to rehab her senior year of high school, loosely based on something I experienced. But there will be a fourth novel, for sure. I just don’t know what it’ll be yet.

Lauren has written two previous YA books, Parallel and Free to Fall. You can visit her at laurenmillerwrites.com.

You can find All Things New in book and Kindle edition on Amazon. Click here!

 

 

Millennials and Mental Health… Featured on NAMI’s National Blog!

I’m happy and proud to be a contributor to the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) website. You can read my latest story here.  As a mental health advocate, I believe it’s so important to talk about mental illness, to help end the stigma.

Fortunately, it seems as if the “anxious generation” — millennials — are willing to speak out more than any other previous generation. When I was younger and dealing with panic disorder, I never told anyone. I was embarrassed to have these “strange” symptoms that no one else seemed to have.

Both of my millennial-age daughters have had issues with anxiety and panic attacks, which required treatment. Throughout their journeys, they’ve realized they aren’t alone. Friends and coworkers openly talk about their struggles with anxiety and depression.

The stigma is starting to lessen. Continue the conversation.

Please click here to read my story on NAMI’s blog.

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Excited to be Published on NAMI’s National Blog!

I’ve written a post on my volunteer work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is now published on their site. You can see it here: https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/August-2017/Talking-About-Mental-Health-Should-Start-Early

I’m a presenter for NAMI’s in-school presentation for middle and high school students, called Ending the Silence. We discuss the warning signs and symptoms of various mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and suicide.

I’m passionate about speaking to the youth. I think if the conversation is opened up with adolescents, it’s a step toward lessening the stigma. I want teens to know they shouldn’t be ashamed to have a mental health condition and that there is help available.

There is hope.

Knowledge

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Let’s Talk About It

“What should I do if my friend is having a panic attack?” “If you have anxiety, will you get depression when you’re pregnant?” “I know my friend is depressed, but she won’t admit it. What should I do?” “Can you get panic attacks while you’re sleeping?”

These are some of the questions I was asked last week when I spoke to a class of 36 high school juniors. I presented a program called Ending the Silence, developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The purpose is to raise awareness of mental illness and help end the stigma.

I love to speak to high school students and bring attention to mental health. If I attended something like this when I was a teen, maybe I wouldn’t have waited so long to get treatment for anxiety and panic attacks.

Mental illness is a difficult subject to discuss, and can be especially hard for young people. If kids aren’t embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it, there’s a good chance there would be less stigma for the next generation.

When I stood in front of the class to share my story, I noticed how engaged the students were. I had their full attention, and for the next fifteen minutes they would learn how panic changed my life and also my daughter’s. They’d see that recovery is possible. I wondered if any of them had ever heard anyone speak openly about their struggle with a mental illness.

My co-presenter and I explained the warning signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder.

We assured the teens there is no shame in having a mental health condition. We told them millions of people around the world live with some type of mental illness. It affects not only the person dealing with the disorder, but their families as well.

Our message to the students was clear. The stigma needs to end. Many people don’t say anything about their condition, in fear of being ridiculed. Stigma can keep someone from reaching out for medical help.

It took me twenty years to go to my doctor. I knew it wasn’t normal to have extreme bursts of fear. My heart would beat fast, I’d get clammy and shaky, and was afraid I’d faint. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong with me. I didn’t think anyone would understand, not even my doctor.

We wanted those high school juniors to know they aren’t alone.  If they or someone they know has a mental health condition, it’s important to talk about it and get help. The sooner, the better. We wanted those students to know that even though mental illness can be extremely challenging to live with, there is hope.

Together, we can end the stigma.

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Ending the Silence

Last week I went back to high school. I had something I wanted to share with the students. At one point, I realized I had thirty pairs of eyes watching me intently. I knew they were listening. Really listening.

I told three different classes about my journey recovering from anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. I  explained how hard it was when my little girl developed panic symptoms. Talee was in fourth grade when she had a panic attack at school. She was terrified it would happen again. She literally couldn’t make herself walk into the classroom, and missed two consecutive weeks. She was afraid of being afraid.

I spoke on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. I’m trained as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence program, developed for high school students. The goal is to raise awareness about mental illness and to help end the stigma. We discuss the warning signs of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide. We talk about what to do if we notice the warning signs in ourselves or a friend.

I wanted those juniors and seniors to know I waited twenty years before I told anyone about my frightening symptoms. I knew it wasn’t normal when I felt disoriented, like I was living in a fog or dream. I knew it wasn’t right when all of a sudden, my heart would pound, I’d get lightheaded, shaky, and afraid I’d pass out.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was strange. So I kept it a secret. I figured I needed to deal with it. Alone.

The main reason I felt this way? Stigma.

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is strong and very real. It can delay someone from getting treatment and symptoms can worsen. Mental illness affects millions of people throughout the world. Not only individuals, but also their families.

My daughter and I were fortunate, as we both recovered from panic disorder. It wasn’t easy, and there isn’t a complete cure. But medication and positive coping strategies — eating healthy, exercising, deep breathing — enabled us to resume our normal lives. We’re productive, happy, and in control of our panic.

I don’t remember mental health being discussed when I was in high school. I didn’t know  anxiety and depression were considered a mental illness. I had no idea that other people experienced the same terrifying panic symptoms that I did. Maybe if I’d heard about mental health conditions when I was a teenager, I would’ve received treatment earlier.

That’s why I speak out as a mental health advocate. I want people to know they aren’t alone. There is help available. There is hope.

I’m looking forward to visiting more high schools to tell my story and do my part to help End the Silence.

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Stigma and Me

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Mental illness is a real medical illness. It must not be ignored. It needs to be treated–the sooner, the better.

I wish I would’ve known. It took me twenty years before I reached out for help for panic attacks.

I’m not the only one who has waited so long. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, states that people who have a mental health condition typically get help eight to ten years after the first warning signs appear. That’s a huge delay. The main reason?

Stigma.

I was embarrassed. Even if I thought about telling someone, I didn’t know how to describe my strange and frightening symptoms. I knew I was different and my problem wasn’t normal. I didn’t want anyone to know. I hid it very well.

My anxiety wasn’t always there. Most of the time, I was fine. I tried to kid myself into thinking it wasn’t a big deal.

My internal monologue wasn’t very kind.

This is stupid.  I worry too much. Who cares if once in a while my heart beats too fast, and I get lightheaded and dizzy? So what if I feel sick to my stomach, sweaty, shaky, and start to black out? I need to be tougher when I think I’m going to faint. I have to calm down when I feel like running out of the place I’m panicking. Who does that? Get over it.

It’s the dumbest thing ever that I’m afraid to drive because I’m scared of feeling panicky.  People get annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, but they don’t feel like me. Their hearts don’t pound and they don’t need to pull over to calm down.

And why would I ever be worried about going to the grocery store or the mall? Everyone else looks perfectly relaxed. What’s wrong with me?

The worst is when I feel disoriented, like I’m living in a dream and things aren’t real, and I’m having an out of body experience. That’s creepy. I can’t let myself think that way. This is absolutely ridiculous. I should be able to stop it. Just STOP it.

No matter what I do, I can’t let anyone know. They’ll think I’m weird. Am I going crazy? I don’t think so. But maybe. I doubt a doctor would know how to help. I don’t want to be sent for a bunch of tests. I wonder if I have a brain tumor. I don’t want to scare my family. Whatever. I’m fine. Usually.

When I look back on how I used to talk to myself, it makes me sad. I needed help and should’ve told someone. But I didn’t dream that was an option.

Now I know why I felt like that. Stigma. Growing up, I never heard anyone talk about mental illness. I had no idea my symptoms had an actual name. Panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder.

I thought I was alone.

I was shocked when my doctor said I could take medication to help me feel better. I was even more amazed when the antidepressant worked.

The discussion about mental health conditions must continue. The more that people talk about these disorders, the less taboo they will be.

It doesn’t matter if the symptoms are mild or severe, there’s help available. There is hope. You’re not alone.

Stigma… Go away.