People who suffer from mental illness are not “antisocial” or “sad” stereotypes. And there is no one face of mental illness — it could affect a friend, a parent, or even yourself.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, MTV News wants to know: What does mental illness look like to you? What do you wish people knew? How did you, your friends, or your loved ones get through tough times? Share your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s #changetheconversation.
Ever since I saw High School Musical 3 eight years ago, I've been obsessed with giving a commencement speech. I've thought extensively about what advice I could give my peers — how my words might bring beauty to the end of an era and lead the people I love into the start of a new age. While sitting in that movie theater, I vowed that when I graduated high school, I would stand tall in my evergreen cap and gown and give a speech that would even surpass J.K. Rowling's Ivy League addresses.
That dream seemed shattered, however, when I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder midway through my sophomore year. Beginning in the spring semester, I'd struggled to do even the most basic tasks. Things like breathing, focusing on schoolwork, getting out of bed in the morning, and finding the bright side of life had become unfathomable to me. I got through that semester by choking down dry Cheerios and a Xanax every morning.
That summer I worked tirelessly to unearth the strength to move forward. I have since built coping skills and reached out to administrators and counselors at my school for help. My knowledge of loss, vulnerability, and loneliness drove me to pursue advocacy, creating the Joy Is Genius campaign to help teenagers manage stress, anxiety, mental illness, and life during high school. I want to support my peers who are also struggling, and I refuse to allow my words and ideas to be stifled by ignorance, illness, or fear.
And I still want to give that commencement speech.
Part of learning how to manage my illness, however, has been evaluating every situation and deciding whether or not the potential stress it will cause — the physical and emotional toll it will take on me — is worth its potential positive outcome. I like to think that every opportunity is worth my best effort, but, as I've written about elsewhere, mental illness often thinks otherwise. And the painfully disappointing truth is that giving a commencement speech would probably cause me too much anxiety and stress to be healthy.
But I refuse to sell myself or my aspirations out to some asshole panic disorder. It's not like me to give in to my mental illness, but it also isn't like me to endure unnecessary stress. So I have found a happy medium: I am going to give my commencement address here, without standing at a literal microphone.
So hello, Class of 2016, parents, teachers, friends, loved ones, and, if you're reading from the comfort of your own home, adorable pets! I am privileged to stand before you today — wherever you may be in the universe or in your headspace — as a success story. Each and every one of us is.
My high school experience wasn't great. There's no need to sugarcoat it: I'm glad high school is over. I had trouble making friends, I was disappointed by many hurdles I faced with administrators, and I endured far too much stress, sadness, and worry to categorize this period as the "greatest time of my life." My anxiety disorder often shouted over the mere whisper of my internal strength and pride.
But I did not need to be happy, overjoyed, or, quite honestly, fully sane, to learn from these four years. We’ve all been told since day one that high school prepares us for the "real world" — which apparently involves paying bills, knowing everything, and making sacrifices to help others.
And high school does teach us how to exist in the real world. We pay our way through show choir, activity boosters, and school lunches. We try to be the best versions of ourselves while also worrying about taking care of others. We work in groups and scream about being a part of Wildcat Nation at every athletic event. We learn how to be social and to act as contributing members of society.
To be fair, I still haven't figured it all out. But here are some of the truths I've discovered along the way.
1. Life is hard. Over the course of your life, you might fight anything from panic attacks to depression to the hardest chemistry course of your life. You may witness death and oppression and experience outrage. You might even crack your phone screen on these god-forsaken tile floors. But the key is, it will all be worth it because you will learn who you are and will become stronger because of it.
2. Love will find you. Whether it’s the traditional Hallmark card kind of love, the love of your golden retriever, friends who stick by your side through every up and down, or the love and passion you nurture within yourself — all love is good love, and you’ll know when it is true.
3. Seize the day. You are in control of finding and taking your own opportunities.
4. Watch The Ellen Show. She told me if I said that, I’d get a free pair of underwear. (Not really, but can someone send her this?)
5. Be vocal. Say what you’re feeling: Tell your hair stylist you don’t like your layers that way and tell the flight attendant you’d rather have two bags of pretzels. Ask questions and be curious — it's the only way to get what you want.
6. Go vote. You’re an American citizen and you have the right.
7. Ask for help. It can be embarrassing, but get over yourself and recognize that you don't know everything.
8. Thank your parents and teachers. Respect your elders and return the love and care of whoever has shared it with you all these years.
9. Constant happiness, success, or social standing don't matter as much as being genuine, alive, and kind. Discovering my inner potential and doing the work it takes to get there has been the first step in my own beautiful, joyful journey.
10. Take risks. Wear the statement necklace. Make the pass. Raise your hand when no one else does. Ride the mechanical bull. Dance when everyone is watching. And make sure you're watching, too.
11. Find the strength to tell someone, "I care about you, but you're on your own. And I say that because I care about you."
I'm still learning to do all of these things. In second grade, I learned the meaning of the word "empathy," and ever since then I have been trying to live my life in line with this concept. I've realized that living with empathy, love, and compassion means letting go and allowing yourself, as well as others, to have their own experiences. You cannot fill anyone else's bucket without filling your own first. That's exactly what I'm trying to do — and I hope you will, too.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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