So You’re Back In School

Summer vacation is over, at least for me. This week I began my predoctoral internship and my countdown to graduation (in case you were wondering, it’s 361 days). As I get adjusted to my new schedule, I may miss a week or two on my blog. No offense to my devoted readers, but finishing reports on time is priority #1 unless you can find a way to convince APA to count this blog towards my graduation.

Orientation has been a whirlwind of information overload. I know just about everything there is to know about the consortium, and my brain is absolutely fried. Tonight I am relaxing at a hotel near the main site so that I do not have to make the 90 minute drive in the morning.

I apologize for yet another short post, but I am exhausted, and my week isn’t over yet. Just a reminder, I am accepting questions/suggestions for posts. I am also open to guest posts from fellow graduate students if there is an area of expertise you would like to share. Thank you and good night!

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More Thoughts On Mental Illness (Please Stop Tweeting “Genie You’re Free”)

Thank you all for your thoughtful responses to my last post. It is times like these that I know I am in the right line of work. Because I tend to obsess, I’ve been reading the massive internet outpouring following Robin Williams’s death, and I decided that my last post does not contain everything I wanted to say on the subject of mental illness and suicide. The result is you get two posts from me this week. Below is a list of comments I often see in response to suicide, including inaccurate perceptions of mental illness and mentalities that are downright dangerous.

  1. If he/she had had more/better friends, he/she would not have died. I addressed this somewhat in my last post, but I will keep saying it until people understand: That is not how depression works. Mental illness does not follow this kind of logic. Look at the metaphor I used in my last post. Would you say that a cancer patient might have pulled through if only they had better social support? Yes, a solid network of friends is important when it comes to overcoming mental illness, but it certainly does not prevent suicide. When someone is in a suicidal mindset, they are not thinking about their loved ones. They are just thinking about the pain that they are in. I am NOT saying that their choice is selfish, but that the level of suffering that comes with clinical depression is so great that you are not capable of thinking of anything else. Have you ever had a kidney stone? Were you thinking about the people who would be inconvenienced by a commitment you were missing? Maybe it crossed your mind, but I would be willing to bet money that your primary concern was how much pain you were in and how to make it stop.
  2. He/she was not brave enough to keep fighting. Suicide has nothing to do with bravery. Again, mental illness does not follow this kind of logic. Suggesting that people with suicidal thoughts are cowardly is counter-productive. That kind of negativity only serves to further beat down individuals who are already struggling. This same argument applies to calling victims of suicide selfish.
  3. People with depression just need to be stronger and get over it. When I am feeling upset, I really try to avoid saying that I feel “depressed” because depression isn’t equal to sadness. Depression is a pervasive state of being that transcends more fleeting moods. There is a reason why a diagnosis of clinical depression requires that symptoms be persistent for a minimum of two weeks: Because depression is more than just feeling low or sad for a short while. Think about it. If it were so easy to “snap out of it,” why would anyone kill themselves?
  4. But he/she didn’t seem depressed. This plays into the myth that depression has to look a certain way. Most of us have a picture in our minds of what we think depression looks like, and while there most likely exist cases that fit this image, no two cases are identical. Everyone copes differently, and there is no way to know for certain what someone else is thinking and feeling. Some people prefer not to show their emotions and may seem stoic or even sad when they feel fine. Others project a similar demeanor in response to the pain they are in. Some use humor to cover how they are feeling. Others joke constantly because they feel happy and want to share it. It is impossible to paint a picture of depression because no one picture could accurately encompass every experience.
  5. He/she just wanted attention. Suicide is not something to trivialize, and that is what this statement does. I hear this a lot in response to people who use means with lower lethality for a suicide attempt. This phenomena stems from the stigma I have been talking about. When we teach people that they are weak or lesser than if they seek help for mental illness, it becomes difficult to say “I need help” or “I am depressed/thinking about hurting myself.” When you feel you can’t express your pain in a healthy or productive way, it comes out by other means. Are the individuals in these cases seeking attention? Technically yes, in that they desperately want and need help that they do not know how to seek. There are much easier ways to get attention. That is not what suicide is about, and it is insensitive and stigmatizing to claim otherwise.
  6. “Genie, you’re free.” This quote has been circulating Twitter these past few days, and it has been bothering me. I need to explain why this quote makes me so angry. Sure, it’s poetic and will probably get you some attention for posting it. But let’s take a minute to really think about what this statement implies. Essentially this quote is stating that, because he is dead, Robin Williams is now cured of his mental illness. After a celebrity dies by suicide, the suicide rate goes up for a short while. That is something that we are already at risk for right now. The implication that death is freeing is a dangerous one. Imagine you have been struggling with suicidality. You hear that Robin Williams, a world-famous actor, has killed himself. You then see a huge outpouring of emotion from his fans saying that he is now “free.” Suddenly that tweet sounds like an argument in favor of ending your life. I stated in my last blog post that asking someone if they have had suicidal thoughts will not trigger this way of thinking, and that is true. However, saying to a friend, “I’m worried about you. Have you had thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself?” is hugely different from asserting that suicide is somehow a cure for mental illness, and when it comes down to it, that is what this quote is saying. Please stop romanticizing this tragedy. If you shared this tweet, please take it down. It is dangerous and needs to stop.

Education is the only way we can fight against the stigma surrounding mental illness. Don’t wait for someone you know to be effective. Spread this information now and maybe fewer people will have to suffer this way.

RIP Robin Williams

I’m taking a break from my typical format to talk about the passing of a phenomenal actor and a huge part of my childhood. Normally I am relatively unaffected by celebrities’ deaths, but this one hit me in a way I was not expecting. Robin Williams’s history of mental illness is not news to the public, something he had been struggling with for a long time. No one knows for certain what was going through his mind during his last hours.

The reports we the public are being given are suggesting that Mr. Williams took his own life. This makes his death even more upsetting, knowing that he found himself in such a hopeless place that he felt he had no other options. This brings up a much larger issue surrounding how mental illness is addressed in this country. There exists a culture in the United States where it is difficult to seek help for depression. We tend to promote the mentality that depression is an emotion rather than the illness that it is, that a “strong person” can “snap out of it” if they really want to. This is not the case. A comparison that I like to give my clients is to replace mental illness with cancer. No one would ask a cancer patient, “Have you ever tried not having cancer?”

Luckily, unlike cancer, most mental illness is responsive to appropriate treatment. However, even those who are fortunate enough to have the resources available to them for treatment are faced with a huge stigma. Inaccurate media portrayals of mental illness and an overall dismissive social attitude has potential clients asking themselves, “What kind of person goes to therapy? Am I that kind of person?” Or more specifically, “Am I crazy?” (There is a massive controversy within the field of psychology surrounding the term crazy. I am trying to stay focused  and will not address this in depth right now.)

Fear of judgement and stigma can prevent people from reaching out. If you have any suspicion that someone close to you might be suffering, do not wait for them to ask for help. In several of my graduate classes we discussed a fear of “planting the seed” by asking clients if they are having thoughts of suicide. Research has shown that, if someone has not considered suicide, they will not suddenly have ideations if someone asks. The power of suggestion is just not that strong. But if they are having these thoughts, there is a good chance that they will open up about it if asked. The APA provides this great article for talking to someone about an emotional crisis.

However, you do not have to wait until a crisis emerges to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. Make it clear that you are willing to listen if something comes up. Correct people when they make false and stigmatizing statements about mental illness. This comic perfectly illustrates the ridiculous nature of those kinds of claims. Recovery is possible, but not if we beat down everyone who seeks help. Be the change, and maybe others will not have to die.

Finally, if you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. The number for the National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and they are available 24/7 and can provide you with support and resources in your area. Program it into your speed dial so that you don’t even have to think about it before making the call. You might not see it right now, but it will get better.

My condolences to Mr. Williams’s family and loved ones during this tragic time.

“Our job is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death.” ~ Robin Williams in Patch Adams

So You Forgot To Write A Post This Week

In the midst of preparing for my big move, I did not have time to write my promised post on internship interviews. Also I forgot today was Thursday. But I promised you a weekly blog, and a weekly blog you shall get, so instead here is a list of the 12 funniest things my students said this past semester. Some are unintelligent, and others are just hilarious. I tried to get them as close to word-for-word as I could, but a few are paraphrased due to my Old Woman Memory. Pick your favorite. (For the record, I love my students.)

– “Is the final exam mandatory?”
– “Does this youtube video count as an empirical article?”
– (After distributing a study guide that I had announced contained all of the questions that will be on the midterm) “When will you be sending out the answer sheet to the study guide?”
– “Positive reinforcement is when a subject is presented with a stimulating stimulus that leads to an increase in the behavior.”
– “Negative reinforcement is when someone does a desired behavior poorly but you want them to keep trying so you give them good feedback anyway. An example is when a child plays softball poorly and the coach tells them they did a good job so they will keep trying.”
– “I know you said the final is take-home, but will you not be present on the day of the exam?”
– (2 hours after turning in mid terms, at the start of Spring Break) “When will our grades be available?”
– (In an essay on the topic of how fear serves as a motivator) “In the 2012 election between Obama and Mittromney…” (Mitt Romney was consistently spelled Mittromney throughout the paper. The student thought this was his last name.)
– “My presentation today focuses on why people find racism funny.”
– “Fear appeals are built upon fear.”
– “…for example, reacting to a nonexistent threat, such as a dog that is really a bush is not as dangerous as the other way around…”
– “I don’t think humans are innately evil. Even the most horrible murdering dictator was probably nice to puppies or something.”

So It’s Your Birthday

Hello adoring fans! Today is my birthday, so I am taking a break from the barrage of information about internship (and the community breaths a collective sigh of relief). After all, self-care is huge when you are applying for internship. It is a hugely stressful process, and so keeping up with things you enjoy is key. So in the spirit of self-care and my birthday, here are some pictures of my cats. Have a great weekend everyone! (Photo credits to my awesome roommate.)

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Armani giving me kisses 🙂

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I call this one “Draw Me Like One Of Your French Girls”

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Biiiiig yawn.

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Finnegan’s bathtime.

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Armani looking…what’s the word the kids are using?…”derpy”

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Finn’s reaction when he found out we were out of kitty treats.

So You’ve Decided To Turn Off Your Phone

Earlier this week I found myself spending 24 hours in a town that had no cell reception. Completely by accident I turned off my phone and was unreachable by the outside world. In the moment it felt wonderful, not having to worry if I would hear it ring as my partner and I explored rural South Dakota. When I got back to “reality” I had missed 2 urgent emails and an important phone call, in the middle of spring break. A time when it is generally understood that people are less technologically available.

When you are in graduate school (and in several dozen other lines of work), there is no disconnecting from the real world without consequences. I’ve discussed the Self Care Paradox before – we are encouraged to take time for ourselves, but heaven forbid you are not prompt in getting back to someone. We have all read the hundreds of blogs and articles about this generation’s addiction on technology and addiction to email, smart phones, text messaging, et cetera. But can you really call it an addiction if it becomes a necessity in order to function in your environment? Is wearing clothing in public also an addiction?

While undergoing Phase II of the internship process, I responded to an email about an interview two hours after it was delivered to my inbox. I was told that only one interview spot remained, which conflicted with my schedule. Fortunately, I was able to make the time work through some creative juggling of responsibilities, but had I been more technologically dependent the ordeal could have been avoided. Another time, I received an email offering me a position proctoring an exam (income I badly needed at the time). I responded within an hour and was told that the job was given to someone else because I had taken too long to get back to them.

By attempting to maintain balance in my own life, I lose out on potential income and arguably cause myself even more stress by having to compensate for being “less dedicated” than my peers who have constant access to their email accounts. I would love to routinely “shut down” technologically, but at what cost? Many people do have this luxury, so maybe several instances of this so-called technology addiction is simply a misunderstanding of those of us who may be penalized for not being constantly available.

National No Internet Day is coming up. Will you shut down? If you do, what will you miss?

So You’ve Decided To Adopt A Pet

I am an animal person, especially furry animals that can cuddle you back. Research has shown that people who have pets are happier, healthier, and live longer, but that only justifies my already-existing obsession. During my junior and senior years in college, my roommates and I discussed – with varying degrees of seriousness – adopting a kitten. Unfortunately, pets were not allowed in our on-campus apartment, and we did not want to risk the fines, not to mention what would happen to the cat if we were caught.

As I was preparing to start graduate school, my first order of business (just after determining my financial aid eligibility) was adopting a cat of my own. I only viewed apartments that were pet-friendly and frequented petfinder.com for kittens that needed homes. I even had an appointment to meet with a vet about the last kitten in a found litter scheduled before I had begun the drive to my new home. Aside from wanting to do what I could for homeless animals (I’ll post another week about my decision to volunteer with the Humane Society), I felt that bringing a cat into my home would help manage my graduate school-related stress. Animals have always been a source of comfort to me, and none is more comforting than the pet that greets you at the door every day when you return home. That is how I decided to adopt Armani.

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My third day in Connecticut, I welcomed Armani into my apartment. It was a wonderful decision. I am now the proud caretaker of two cats, as my partner and I decided to adopt from the Humane Society together last year. I will share more about that in another post. Over the last three and a half years, he went from over-sized kitten to thirteen-and-a-half pounds of love. He is unbelievably playful but still curls up at my feet every night. The point is, Armani has gotten me through my program because, no matter how stressful my day is, he is always there to greet me when I come through the door (and about half the time he is watching for me from the window when I drive up).

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I have watched Armani grow up, and even though he can be a jerk sometimes (I once had to go to practicum with a scratch on my face because he aggressively decided that cuddle time was over), he is MY kitty and I love him! Nothing makes you forget that your dissertation chair just destroyed your most recent draft like seeing how high your giant tuxedo cat can jump for a catnip ball. For the record, he can go about seven feet straight up. I will try to get a video of it, because it is amazing.

My pets are my biggest form of self-care because they love me no matter what. If I’m running myself too hard, Armani will choose the perfect moment to fall asleep on my lap for an hour, and I have to slow down while he uses me as a human cat bed. Cats are zen, and they bring their humans into their zen. Good kitty!

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