While some of my teammates have really awesome and inspiring reasons to work here, mine is a little more self-centered.
I met our founder, Zhi, through a friend of mine and he told me about the mission of Affect. Everyone at Affect knows him for his high-energy pitches. As he shared some of his experiences, it became clear that he was very, very passionate about mental illness. His stories were really moving, but they weren't really why I joined.
I joined this team because I'm an engineering major who wants to move back to my hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. Those don't seem related, but they pose a large problem: Namely, there isn't much engineering happening there. Like so many things, we outsource most of our professionals, flying civil engineers in from the Mainland (our term for the Continental United States) and sending them right back as soon as their projects are done. If I want to move back home and work on medical devices, there is a significant chance I will have to start and lead my own company.
So when Zhi told me about his idea for a mental health startup, I was much more focused on the startup part.
This is not to say I don't care about mental health. My college, a little nerd school called MIT, offers us resources for all kinds of issues, from an anonymous peer-to-peer texting service called Lean On Me to the 24/7 Mental Health Office hotline. It is a well-known fact that, like many other competitive schools, we have had suicides in the past. I've heard of a few in my past two years as a student here.
But since I didn't know any of those students personally, my personal connection with the topic is somewhat limited. This is thanks in part to where I grew up. A United Health Foundation survey found that residents of the Aloha State reported the fewest "Poor Mental Health Days" in the past month. I figure it's something about the beautiful weather and the beaches that are only a short car ride away. In my 18 years living at home, I can only recall two encounters with mental illness: a family friend's suicide and the disappearance of a student at my high school. While both were shocking in their own right, my relationships with them were limited.
That being said, I knew I had to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. I needed to learn about mental health.
As a rising college junior, I obviously began by searching for the most comprehensive research I could find on mental illness... is what I wish I could say here.
One of my favorite places to look for a brief summary of information is TED-Ed. This YouTube channel, part of the TED Talks family, produces short animated videos about everything from world history to modern linguistics. They have videos dedicated to several different mental illnesses -- I would highly recommend their 6-minute video on bipolar disorder. It's written like an informative podcast and complemented by elegant and simple illustrations. The narrator also has one of the most soothing voices I've ever heard, which makes it easy to just sit and get lost in these videos.
Searching for high-quality information on the Internet is always risky, of course. At the same time, it gives me access to many perspectives that would otherwise go unheard.
One of my favorites was Surviving Anxiety by Scott Stossel. An experienced journalist, Stossel opens up about his decades of living with anxiety. (As early as first grade, he experienced near-daily psychosomatic headaches.) He is brutally honest about the less glamorous aspects of anxiety - like losing control of your bodily functions. You won't find that in a Xanax commercial.
What really makes the essay stick with you is Stossel's mixed feelings about whether his anxiety has helped him to some of his proudest accomplishments. Does his neurosis somehow cause him to put out higher quality work? He muses about the possibility below:
I had already been hoping to get back into reading during the summer, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone by picking up a book on mental illness. After looking through reading lists like 24 Books That Are Straightforward About Mental Illness and 11 Books That Will Change Your Perspective on Mental Illness, I went to the library and borrowed Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D.
When PTSD surfaces in the media, most of us think of our wounded warriors returning from the front lines. We think of veterans, their families, and their unacceptably high suicide rate. We think of terms like shell-shock, which originated with the incorrect theory that the disorder was caused by blunt trauma to the head (more closely related to concussions than to mental illness) but is still used today.
Herman, however, is not a military psychiatrist. In fact, she spent her career working with battered women in domestic violence shelters and similar settings. At the end of the first chapter, she helps us see how the women she works with may not be so different from the wounded warriors that come to mind:
Personally, I hope to pick up books focused on other mental disorders once I finish this one. Next up on my reading list is Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. It would also be nice to read about less common illnesses like obsessive compulsive and borderline personality disorders.
Since blogs are not vetted in the way that books are, they are less a resource for verified information and more a way to become familiar with the human side of mental health. Tumblr, a famous microblogging platform, has gained a reputation lately as a unique space for those struggling with mental illness. The forum is designed for posts of different lengths, meaning that bloggers can choose to post quick reminders to eat three meals a day or comprehensive essays on how they experience depression. Additionally, the site's tagging function allows visitors to search for specific topics within the database. According to the Guardian, the five most popular tags related to mental health are mental illness, mental health, BPD (the acronym for borderline personality disorder), recovery, and self care.
One can also follow any of the countless blogs that focus on mental health awareness. Some emphasize specific illnesses while others cover general wellness and self-care. Thanks to the sheer number of pages on the site, those with less common mental disorders can usually find a space curated to them such as shitborderlinesdo, which is dedicated to BPD. Tumblr has acknowledged its role in the mental health community with small but significant gestures. For example, a site-wide search for "depression" takes you to an intermediary page with resources for crisis intervention.
Reddit is another popular place to find support. The tag mentalhealth boasts over 30,000 subscribed readers who are greeted with a note from the admins: "Please show respect and empathy when replying to personal posts." The page is meticulously organized with 22 categories for specific mental disorders and specific queries like Rape Support and Make Me Feel Good. One feature that differentiates Reddit from Tumblr is the option to directly share links. Several of the most recent updates on the mental health page are news articles from outlets around the world.
Still, the majority of the discussion consists of questions put forward by anonymous users. Some of today's posts include Do I read my mother's suicide note? and Slowly deteriorating. Strangers (also mostly anonymous) offer their own advice, along with messages of support. This kind of communication is certainly what sets these online communities apart from the rest.
Despite the stigma surrounding mental health, there are really a lot of resources out there if you just look a little bit. Comment below with any other suggestions on where to find information!
Banner image courtesy of Flickr