Meet Jessica is part of the 1,000 Journeys Project, in which we aim to collect 1,000 narratives of people's experience with mental health. Our team of designers artistically render representations of the participant’s journey.
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So two years ago, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It was in the middle of my Sophomore year. Things were changing in my life… And honestly, even though I’m so aware of mental health, I didn’t even see the beginning signs until it was at a point where I needed a lot of help. I kind of denied not seeing that, not seeing the signs. I have a happy life, and I was ashamed and felt guilty about feeling the way I felt. I finally acknowledged to myself that I needed to seek professional help that winter… but it still took me about three months to actually call a psychologist.
I think a big barrier to seeking help is yourself. Depression makes you feel very lonely a lot of the time, so you withdraw from people. I was very stubborn about not telling people what was happening, which wasn’t that great for me, because… I struggled with some poor coping methods for a bit? Binge drinking, putting myself in dangerous situations, some self-harm… I was not coping well...I was not coping well and I wasn’t telling people about it.
It took me so long to act on what I already knew because, when I first started experiencing symptoms, I was working at a lab at Harvard, and I was like, “go, go, go.” I’m a straight A student and have always been competitive and a bit of a perfectionist. But then I was “go, go, go” but crying every half hour in the bathroom. So, like, it was very much… in that environment, and in many job or school environments, I thought it was not acceptable to slow down and take a break. To show weakness. You kind of close off not telling people. Because if you do, they might think that you can’t handle things. Judge your abilities to work independently, to get work done. Cause I got all my work done. I wouldn’t want people to judge me for my depression.
So, once I decided to actually seek help, I did some internet searches and called a few places over the course of a few weeks. The first place I called was my university health services because I had a crisis moment. They were not particularly helpful at the time, there were no mental health specific people there, so a nurse sat down with me. She wasn’t well equipped to deal with what was happening and wasn’t very understanding of the mental health field. I think it’s extremely disappointing. Not only what I experienced but what other people have on different universities' campuses. Young adulthood is really stressful and a lot of mental health issues begin in early adulthood. I feel like that’s a time when people should have preventative care.
In a survey conducted across many college campuses, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that among individuals with diagnosed mental health conditions enrolled in college currently or within the past 5 years:
It doesn’t take three weeks to see the orthopedic, your leg is broken so you cast it almost immediately. It’s not like that with mental health. There are a lot of crisis moments. But… I have health insurance so it was not difficult for me to find help initially, but then… a year later my insurance dropped my psychologist. But, I wasn’t gonna go find a new one because that seemed like too much effort and time, so I got a second job to pay for her. Just because she was helping me so much and I didn’t want to go through the whole process again.
When I finally chose a psychologist, I took her first available appointment - a 1 month wait.
My psychologist was the perfect match for me. But after about like 7 months or 8 months, talk therapy wasn’t enough for me. It was helping me in certain aspects of my illness. I would be fine for a few weeks and then suddenly I’d be hit with symptoms again. It was unpredictable, so I decided to go on an antidepressant. I have health insurance so I have really good access to care and was able to get a psychiatrist. Although I did have to wait a few weeks for an appointment, that’s pretty typical of mental health services. Luckily, the first medication worked for me and currently I’m still on that medication.
I think it’s very scary our healthcare system is still based on privatization, and health insurance, cause that’s really terrifying. Some of the people that need mental health services the most are often unemployed, often without health insurance. It is scary that your care can be taken away at any time. Especially if they get rid of covering preexisting conditions. Cause I have a lot of pre-existing conditions.
So I was wondering in your own words, would you be able to define what having depression was like for you?
Depression makes you feel like you don’t know who you are. You feel totally different than your normal self. And depression makes you think things that are not true and things that you wouldn’t believe otherwise about yourself and about the world. Like that you have no future, that you are a failure, that your boyfriend secretly hates you. I struggled with anhedonia, the lack of interest or pleasure in anything. Which I think is especially difficult in college because you are trying to figure out what you want to do. People are like, “What are you interested in?” And you’re like, “Well, right now, I’m not interested in anything. And…the things I used to love, I don’t love anymore.” So that was particularly hard. And just the fatigue of it all. You feel really out of it. Numbness, emptiness, and guilt were my strongest emotions. Every day feels really long.
I was dating someone at the time and I know it was really really hard on them. They really tried to help. But I think a lack of knowledge about depression hindered their ability to understand that I needed more than ‘just be happy’ commentary. I didn’t tell my close friends and my family until I was feeling better. And when I told them everything, which I think some people were hurt by my decision to wait to tell them… but, I wasn’t ready to tell them...they were all supportive.
When your journey first started, what advice would you give yourself knowing today?
That people who love you want to help you. And they would help you if they knew. A large part of myself is that I like helping people. And I think when I was sick, I didn’t let people help me, but if I were them, I’d want to help me. So I… if my friend was sick, I would want them to tell me. I can’t just preach that and not own it.
What would you say to those who still hold some sort of bias against those with mental illness?
People wear glasses, and they depend on them every single time they open their eyes. And for most people their eyes get worse over time. Sometimes people with mental illnesses need medication. They need their glasses for their brains. And sometimes they’ll need medication for the rest of their lives like some people need glasses. So… I think people just need to step back on their initial judgement. Cause they never know...it can happen to them or someone they love, because… it happens a lot. People get sick.
I think people should tell their journeys. I think it makes them human. Just because people can’t always see mental illness doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Statistical information gathered from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Time to Change and Mental Health America.