Written by Chua Jia Ying
Mental illnesses are hard to detect – one must be extremely attentive to the little details in order to do so. Precisely because there is no set of objective symptoms, the ignorance towards all issues related to mental illness is alarming.
According to a study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it was found that 90% of individuals whose cause of death was by suicide suffered from one form of mental illness or another. This raises a few key questions: are mental illnesses detrimental to society and if so, what are the preventive measures that can be carried out to reduce its fatality? Before we formulate a diagnosis, it is important to understand what mental illnesses are and how it feels to live with a mental illness, to truly be able to detect its symptoms and empathise with those suffering from it.
Young (alias), for as long as I have known her, has always taken medication sneakily in the bathroom during recess and brought a notebook with her regardless of where she was heading to. The notebook was full of random, indecipherable scribbles. In the beginning, I never understood why she did those things. Over the years, as I became more aware of societal issues, I finally understood that it wasn’t a bad sore throat that required the medication and that she wasn’t testing out the ink left in her pens. It was social anxiety.
In light of Mental Health Awareness month, I asked Young if she wanted to sit down for an interview about mental health. Although reluctant at first, she was glad to finally be given the outlet to be freely express herself. Here are the details of our interview.
Q: What are the mental health issues you suffer from?
A: I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety.
Q: At what point did you find out that you were suffering from social anxiety?
A: Well, social anxiety wasn’t something I was born with and neither was it something that just popped into my mind one morning. Honestly, I didn’t find out until I had a massive panic attack right before a graded presentation and refused to go to school for days after. That was the breaking point that prompted my mother to take me to a psychiatrist. At first I was told that it was stress-induced anxiety. I wasn’t prescribed any medication on the account that what I was feeling would eventually go away. When months passed and I still had trouble going back to school without leaving halfway due to terrible panic attacks, we went to a different doctor and received the diagnosis I still live with today, social anxiety disorder.
Q: You mentioned that you took medication. How did those medications aid you in coping with the disorder and were they effective?
A: I’m taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. They both help in controlling my level of anxiety by keeping my blood pressure and heart rate fairly constant as I go about my day-to-day activities. They were effective at first, very much so. The thing about medication is that the effects are only temporary, while the side effects continue even after discontinuing the medication. At the recommendation of my doctor, we eventually reduced my dosage until it reached a bare minimum and I only had to take them when things got really out of hand.
Q: What were your coping mechanisms when you stopped taking your medication?
A: Everyone has their own methods with coping so take mine with a grain of salt. My coping methods require a heavier investment – I go for flying yoga classes every Saturday, besides practising regular yoga on a day-to-day basis. My trainer had me develop breathing techniques as I learned, but I found that they also helped with calming my nerves. After every session, I feel as though a weight has been lifted off of my entire being. It’s a wonderful feeling. I look forward to my classes each week.
Q: Looking back on it in hindsight, how did you feel as you were developing social anxiety?
A: My social anxiety was not something that just developed out of the blue. Rather, I would say that it felt like there was a trigger that began a chain reaction causing everything to feel as if they were all crashing down. I felt confused, scared and possibly all the other negative emotions on the human spectrum.
As a child, like many others, I exuded confidence. I was always the first one to answer a question raised in class and I was never one to shy away from performances. I yearned for the spotlight and at one point of my childhood, considered going into theatre as a legitimate option for my future career.
But as I grew up and became more exposed to the real world, I started seeing all these imperfections embedded in me that I had never noticed before. I started feeling more self-conscious, more careful and more reserved. Eventually, I started thinking that maybe I should keep it down in class, for fear of people thinking I’m attention-seeking. That maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said two days ago, because what if my classmates thought that I was being pushy? My self-consciousness turned into self-doubt right under my nose and I didn’t realize until it was too late, until it morphed into self-loathing. You don’t get to pick how much these thoughts bother you, and for me, they were just more amplified than normal.
A series of questions plagued my mind and kept me awake in the middle of the night until I reached a point where I no longer asked myself anything but one question: why am I who I am? It felt like I had truly established the fact that I was no longer and will never be satisfied with myself. It felt like I’d just given up and succumbed to whatever it was that had set out to bring me down. The worst part was, I didn’t have the will to do anything to change the way things were.
Q: How do you think society is perceiving mental health issues?
A: Honestly, a lot of people glamorise mental illness. Social media plays a huge role in romanticisation. If you go on sites like Tumblr, there are innumerable blogs assuming self-harming and mental health issues as their “aesthetic”. Acacia Brinley, a former Tumblr star with millions of Instagram followers capitalised on the fact that she practised self-harm and rose to fame that way.
I felt very ashamed of myself when I was diagnosed. In fact, people took it lightly and for the longest time, thought I was kidding because of all the glamorisation. Some people even thought I was trying to be a hipster (laughs). That was a few years ago, of course. Now, mental health issues are receiving more awareness and are seen under a slightly more positive light. Whenever I tell my new friends about my disorder, they are extremely encouraging and sensitive about it.
Despite wanting people to understand what social anxiety is about, simultaneously, I wanted nothing more than to live like a normal person, as cliche as it sounds. So I was grateful when they didn’t ostracize me or completely change the way they acted around me for the sake of not upsetting me. We still joke around as usual and we still throw jabs at one another, but when my anxiety starts to overwhelm me again, they’ll always be there to take care of me and make sure that I feel alright before sending me home.
Q: Have you come to terms with your mental illness, and how did you do it?
A: Eventually, I found that by acknowledging that my mental illness existed and that it was a part of my identity, I could cope with it; because by no longer being in denial about my illness, I was finally accepting treatment and taking the initiative to feel better again. It takes a lot of willpower to conquer anxiety or any other mental health issues. By no means have I conquered it, but I’ve reached a point where I’m co-existing with my mental illness.
Q: What advice would you give for those who are also diagnosed with mental health issues?
A: My ultimate advice is to talk. Talk to your parents, your friends, your lecturers or guidance counsellors. If you find it difficult to talk to people you know, then talk to organisations like the Befrienders. Your identity will be anonymous, while you still have an outlet to express yourself. Talk to anyone at all, but whatever you do, do not bottle it up.
I am very fortunate to have met a couple of friends I can truly place my trust in. They were unconditional in the love and appreciation they had for me and in turn, I gave them my most prized possession – my thoughts. I was initially incredulous about it being the right move, but expressing myself has helped me relieve myself of the burden weighing down on my shoulders. I thought they would avoid me after, but we became much more tightly knit.
When I told them about how I felt about opening up to them, I got an earful from them and I quote, “There’s nothing shameful about needing help and that applies to everyone, not just people who suffer from mental health issues. You need to accept help to be helped.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I hope that we’ll one day be able to see a society where there is as much emphasis placed on mental health as there is on physical health.
Q: Lastly, is there anything you would like to say to your social anxiety?
A: Anxiety, you’re very much a part of me and as much as I wanted to get rid of you in the shortest time frame possible previously, I don’t anymore. You’re a part of my identity and I acknowledge that. You can be annoying, frustrating and tedious to deal with but you’ve also broadened my perspective on many things. You’re still me and I’ll find ways to forgive you eventually. You can’t make me feel any less confident, empowered and loved than I am anymore because between the both of us, I’m the one who’s taking charge from now on.
Mental illness is apparent. It is glaring right at us. At some point in our lives, we are bound to feel stressed out and even hopeless, but these feelings will eventually fade away for the lot of us. For others, these aggravating – and to an extent, agonising – feelings extend to an everyday basis; an experience we would never be able to understand. So, it is up to us to acknowledge the fact that mental illness is a growing issue and that countermeasures have to be taken to help those who are suffering, so that they do not have to take extreme measures themselves.