Op-ed: Taking steps toward improving mental health

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 3:46pm

When I was a junior at the University of Michigan, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life. At the time, I was on spring break from a semester abroad in Scotland, midway through a long-planned trip through Spain, France and Italy. It was, in theory, the highlight of my semester. But symptoms that I had begun to experience back at school in Ann Arbor had gotten worse. And on this trip they boiled over, culminating in a moment in Florence when I became convinced I was dying, which sent my heart racing and my mind whirring out of control. That moment was followed by aftershocks in the following weeks, including one day back in Scotland where I asked my dorm administrator to call an ambulance because I thought I was having a heart attack. The EMTs arrived and determined that I was fine, which added a big dose of embarrassment to my distress.

I share this story now as a 34 year-old who only recently started taking my mental health seriously. Despite flare-ups of anxiety and depression in my twenties, I spent the decade after college burying myself in my work as a journalist and teacher and ignoring these issues when they arose. It took another crisis in 2017 — a case of burnout and depression that left me unable to work for weeks — to really wake me up. I’ve since spent a lot of time taking better care of myself, and also writing about mental health topics, including anxietydepressionburnouttherapy, toxic masculinity and suicide. The brain is now one of my beats, as a journalist.

Part of this journey has involved realizing just how much the college-aged me could have benefited from the knowledge I have now. If I had a time machine, I might send it back to Bursley or the Brown Jug or the Big House, circa the mid 2000s, to whisper a few words in my own ear, and save myself a lot of future misery. Alas, I can’t do that. But I can write something for The Daily, and perhaps be a bit of help to you.

The first thing I would share with the younger me— and to you, my fellow Wolverines — is the simple message that you are not alone. As a  reporter on mental health, I’ve learned that anxiety disorders affect some 40 million adults in the U.S. and that, worldwide, so many people struggle with depression that the World Health Organization calls it the world’s leading cause of disability. While mental health struggles can feel intensely isolating, that feeling is an illusion. This is a huge part of being human, and there is much solace to be found in remembering that, and hearing other people’s stories.

I would also add that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of about struggling with your mental health. You wouldn’t be down on yourself for getting the flu or pulling a muscle during a pickup basketball game, because neither of those things would mean you’re a bad or a weak person. And the same idea applies to your brain. Having anxiety or depression means that you’re someone with a human body that is prone to occasionally malfunction. It also means that we live in a world with countless mental health-aggravating triggers, from social media to climate change to racism to mass shootings to dating apps to political chaos and so much more.

If your mind is telling you that there is something to be ashamed of because of a mental health issue, that is a symptom of the issues themselves — or perhaps an outgrowth of our culture’s pervasive and totally unnecessary stigma. Confronting that stigma in yourself and others is a huge step toward becoming a mental health-literate and overall good person.

College, for me, was the first time when mental health symptoms really started to affect my quality of life. And if you’re experiencing similar turbulence, the good news is that there is help for you. There are support groups, medications, therapists, self-help books, TED Talks, mindfulness apps — the list goes on. Everyone’s mental health regimen is going to look a bit different, according to their schedule and needs and budget. And it may take you some time to figure out what works best for you. I’m still tweaking mine, years after first seeking help.

But the basic fact is you are surrounded by time-tested, research-backed, highly-accessible (and fully anonymous) ways for you to feel better.  The University of Michigan isn’t just an athletic and academic powerhouse; it’s also a major center for mental health treatment. At University Health Service’s online hub for mental health, you’ll find links to all kinds of options and resources, including the office of Counseling and Psychological Serviceswellness coaching, the MiTalk and Campus Mind Works databases and info about on-campus counseling. Taking steps to invest in your own mental wellbeing in college will place you so far ahead of the game here at school, and in the post-college “real world.” Plenty of people go their whole lives without doing this, and it’s something I wish I’d done years sooner.

There is a quote I like from the pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” After my experiences in the last couple years, I now look back at college (and many years after) as a time when my life was significantly steered by fears and insecurities and depressive spells and unacknowledged pain from my childhood and adolescence. The choice to finally meet these issues head-on and start unpacking that unconscious was a way of taking more control over my own life.

Far from being an admission of weakness, addressing my mental health in recent years has been one of the biggest sources of strength and growth and wisdom and authenticity and happiness in my life. I go to therapy every two weeks. I’ve cut down on drinking. I take more frequent breaks from work. I’ve cultivated new hobbies and self-care practices, and taken countless other large and small measures. In the process, I’ve become a better teacher, a better journalist, a better friend and a better member of my family and community. I’m simply a better version of me. (Note that “better” isn’t “perfect.” I still have bad days, and weeks, and even months, and that is OK).

I hold the University of Michigan professors in the highest regard. And yet, while you’re in Ann Arbor, the work you do in a therapist’s office, or support group, or mindfulness practice, or any other mental wellness-focused space, is just as important as anything you’ll learn in a classroom. After all, your college education is only as useful as the health of the mind that holds it.

Philip Eil is a 2007 graduate from the University of Michigan.