My mental illness has historically been disregarded by my friends and family, who are otherwise completely loving and understanding. I have always been anxious, and my anxiety has never been fully understood, something that other people with mental illness can surely corroborate. I can relate to the confusion; I don’t fully understand my mind either. In fact, I barely understand it. But even in an era in which mental health is slowly becoming more destigmatized as it has become a more prevalent topic in the mainstream media (and we don’t lobotomize people anymore), I still feel misunderstood often, and I think this is because of a major fundamental flaw in the way mental illness is viewed.
When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, there was a huge shock throughout the pop-culture community. “Robin Williams was no ordinary clown, he was a clown in the round, a master of the one-liner, of verbal riff, mimicry, disguise, facial distortion, fury and hilarity,” said Simon Jenkins in a Guardian article published shortly after his death.
Yes, Robin Williams was funny. People loved him. Why would he commit suicide? He was rich, he was successful, he was beloved as an actor and as a person. “Robin Williams killed himself not from a lack of admiration,” said a sophomore University of Oregon student who asked to be anonymous. “Knowing you are loved doesn’t help and it isn’t enough.”
This echoes my own sentiments, although, of course, not to the same extent. When I was younger, my dad liked to take my dogs to the park to let them run free. I wanted to go on these walks, but every time the dogs ran out of my sight, I would completely freak out, much to the disdain and confusion of my father. These panic attacks also occurred when my mother was ten minutes late from work: I would call her five or more times and, even though I knew she was terrible at answering phone calls, my mind would immediately skip to an image of her in a terrible car accident.
“Taylor, just take some deep breaths,” my father (and, sadly, my therapist at the time) would say during these episodes. “She’s going to be home soon.” I felt like a complete failure. I thought this anxiety was ridiculous, and so did everybody else. I didn’t think anybody understood; I hid my medication from my friends when I had sleepovers. These constant feelings of panic eventually morphed into a depression that didn’t allow me to spend any time with friends because I didn’t want them to find out about my panic attacks. People told me they loved me; when I said that I wasn’t enough they contradicted me. But this didn’t cure my mental illness, and, sometimes, it made me feel worse.
May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and the students at the University of Oregon, following recent trends in the attempt to destigmatize mental illness and make people aware of its ramifications, placed 1,100 flags on Condon Lawn in order to represent the amount of people who commit suicide on college campuses every year.
“‘You matter,’ ‘You are more than worth it,’ and ‘You are loved’ are just a few of the messages sprawled across the little green flags planted in Condon Lawn this week,” said Natalie Waitt-Gibson in a news article for the Daily Emerald about the awareness campaign. This well-intentioned decision was misguided for more than one reason, one of those being that the flags were placed in the shape of an Oregon “O”, something that, to me, seemed exploitative. “Not only is it offensive to shape [the flags] into an ‘O’, but the messages written on the flags were unhelpful,” said the anonymous student. “[This] doesn’t deal with the long-term problems but instead with symptoms.”
This is not to say that telling your friends and family who struggle with mental illness that you love them is bad. Support from loved ones is extremely important in times of need. But it’s not enough. In my worst moments, when I am an anxious mess and I think I’m the most useless person in the entire world, not only is telling me that I’m ‘worth it’ degrading, but it’s also futile. I’m just not going to believe you. In these moments, my mind is so warped that I can’t imagine anybody finding me worthy, and no amount of kind messages written on flags is going to change that. However, we shouldn’t give up — but a paradigm shift is essential. Mental illnesses are diseases, and words can’t fix diseases. But destigmatization, research, and an understanding that hugs and deep breathing aren’t enough can push us in the right direction.
The University of Oregon Counseling Center has staff available to support and talk to students from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can reach after-hours support at the center by phone at 541-346-3227.
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
WHAT TO DO
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
OUTLETS FOR REACHING OUT
• 911: Imminent danger to self or others
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) (press 1 for Veterans Crisis Line)
• White Bird: 541-687-4000 or 800-422-7558 (24-hour local crisis line)
• Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS): Nonemergency, mobile crisis intervention: 541-682-5111 for Eugene or 541-726-3714 for Springfield
• Hourglass Community Crisis Center: 24-hour short-term mental health assessment and stabilization for adults: 541-505-8426
• Mental Health Crisis Response Program: 888-989-9990 (for parents of children through age 17)
• Looking Glass Youth & Family Crisis Line: 541-689-3111
• Trevor Lifeline: 866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)