art by Kirsten Kramer

Mental health and coronavirus

I think it’s important that more people understand trauma, and how it affects us, especially as we, as a species, try to survive the pandemic intact.

I am writing about the post-trauma of cancer because, I have had an experience like this before, because of how I grew up.

And so, I think it’s important that more people understand trauma, and how it affects us, especially as we, as a species, try to survive COVID-19 intact.

My parents and I have been going back and forth all week over what to write and what not to write. They are extremely private people, and just because I want to tell my story, which involves them, doesn’t mean they want it out there.

So that puts me in a bind, because as a journalist, I am trained to respect the privacy of people who aren’t public figures, and also, I love my parents.

So, I’m not going to write much about how I grew up. But I will say this: my parents don’t want me to write about it because of the stigma around mental health.

And that’s unfortunate.

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My parents are wonderful people and I love them so much. I don’t want them to feel shame from our history. We have a great and profound history, as do all humans, in my opinion.

My parents raised me with values I cherish like work hard and that you must take what you want — no one will just give it to you — in life, which is beautiful, always. My mom is a tremendous feminist, so props, ma. Thanks for that.

If there’s one good thing that can come from the coronavirus, I hope, it could be a cultural shift in attitude towards people struggling with their mental health.

Mental health problems are ‘widespread’ during the pandemic, quite understandably, according to a May 6 report about a mid-April study commissioned by a company that offers virtual medicine products.

An outside firm surveyed 1558 people who use the company’s virtual-doc services through their employers. Forty-seven percent reported the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health, overall. The results were higher for women, at 52 percent, and for young adults, at 49 percent, according to the report.

A friend of mine, in her early 30s, told me recently that she’s been experiencing symptoms of anxiety for the first time. She said she was surprised at how terrible it is.

I couldn’t agree with her more. In my experience, depression and anxiety are just as physically painful as anything else, often times more. And this is coming from a recovering cancer patient.

The issue of mental health was, until recently, addressed only in whispers in my family. We eventually gave it a coded name: the disease. I grew up around the disease. It was tough. And whoever was suspected to have it was often othered throughout the family.

Legitimately sick people were othered, in my opinion, because of a general societal ignorance regarding mental health that is rooted in stigma, which has created fear, sometimes especially in families where someone is suffering from a mental health crisis.

This othering created huge rifts that took many different forms, among many different relatives, which traumatized me.

I developed eating disorders; I dated the wrong guys; my sports and my grades suffered. I moved out early. The consequences of those actions and more cascaded through my 20s.

And to grow up, I had to reckon with all of it, through therapy.

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, when I was 27 years old. (I am now 33). I was in Columbia’s graduate journalism program at the time and I was a mess.

So I sought help.

Through years of therapy, I grew aware of my own self-destructive behavior that I inherited from someone, somewhere, back in time, either by nature or by nurture. I also became aware of other problems that I had created all on my own while making my way through the world.

As I became self-aware, and began to understand why I made choices that were ultimately bad for me, I started to make better ones.

And, as a result, my life got better. Good begets good, and so on.

In short, mental health stigmas aren’t just hurting those who suffer from legitimate illnesses, but also their family members, who suffer too. And all those people should be seeking help, because their lives will likely improve, like mine has.

But many of them won’t get help until the stigma goes away.

Thanks for reading. 🌻


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