My name is Carter, and I’m a junior. Now, at first glance, you may think, “oh great, it’s a stereotypical Hopkins student, what makes him think he’s different?”
My difference is my brain. I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Panic Disorder. All of these, except for OCD, are classified as anxiety disorders.
I want to start off by dispelling a myth that goes something along the lines of this: “people with anxiety just worry too much. If they just stopped worrying then maybe they’d get better.”
The biggest problem with this myth is that it dismisses the reality of what an anxiety disorder actually is. An anxiety disorder causes intense, persistent fear or worry over non-threatening situations. Because of this, the fear can be hard to rationalize. A healthy person could take a quick look around the room to put to rest any fear of danger. Yet, to me, this quick scan doesn’t mean a thing. I may know for a fact that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but the fear remains regardless.
For me personally, the worst disorder is the panic disorder. Panic disorder causes panic attacks, which are a sudden surge of intense fear with no legitimate cause. They sometimes are triggered by a certain fear, but can also occur out of nowhere. Even after the episode is over, it can leave you shaken and worrying for up to a few days afterwards.
Regarding this and the myth I mentioned earlier, I’d like to share a couple of stories. The first one should hopefully shed some light into what anxiety feels like.
The return to school after summer generally is met by anxiety by many students. But my anxiety disorder blows this all out of proportion. This fall, upon returning to school, I was met by a wave of anxiety that extended into every aspect of my life, not just school. I was unable to focus on homework. At night I couldn’t fall asleep. I would be laughing at a joke at one moment, and the next moment I would suddenly be worried over nothing in particular. I constantly felt like my life was in danger.
My next story is from scout camp a couple years ago. I was there for a week with my troop, and one night, I woke up with one of the worst panic attacks I’ve ever had. It had to have been around one in the morning. I was sitting in bed, completely immobilized by fear, waiting.
When a truck passed by the highway nearby, my brain, in an attempt to explain the noise, blamed it on aliens. And so for the next hour, despite the irrationality of it, I was frozen by the fear of something I knew was entirely improbable. Because of my OCD, I couldn’t shake the thought from my mind.
Luckily, the panic attack eventually wore me out enough to fall asleep, but I was still a bit shaken in the morning. I told my best friend in the troop about it, because he’s always been very helpful in keeping me calm. But another troop member overheard the conversation. And the teasing began.
I know that, had he understood how my panic disorder works, he would have acted very differently than he did. He’s the type of kind-hearted soul that would cry if you stepped on a spider. But to him, this fear seemed completely irrational and he couldn’t imagine that I was serious.
When I told him about my anxiety disorder and how it prevents rational fear, I could see his heart shatter as he realized that he had been mean to someone, and the flood of apologies commenced.
I don’t blame him for his actions; rather, I blame society’s lack of understanding.
Now, according to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental illness affects about 20% of the population. So why then is it never brought up?
I find that there is a large stigma in society toward mental illness. People are afraid to talk about it because they don’t understand it. I encourage you all here, students and adults, to talk to someone you know, if they are willing, about the challenges they face as a result of a mental illness. If they aren’t willing, use other resources like books and websites to find out more about how you can help those around you. Never try to pressure them into talking about their challenges, because it can be a very difficult thing to open up about.
Now, everyone’s experience with mental illness is different even if they have the same disorder, so if you know someone who suffers from a mental illness, find out from them how you can best help. If they say that simply leaving them alone is the best answer, then please respect it.
The great thing is that mental illness isn’t untreatable. Therapy is very effective in reprogramming the brain to think more rationally, and has helped me through my struggle with PTSD.
I hope that through educating ourselves, we can create an environment where people can feel safe to discuss the challenges they’re facing. We’ve got a long road ahead if we wish to remove this stigma, but I know how accepting and understanding this student body is, and I know you all will be willing to listen to the stories of your classmates.
If you’d like to learn more about mental health, there will be a discussion H block on this Thursday, in the Weissman Room on the 2nd floor of Heath. I’d encourage everyone to attend! If you can’t make it, or would like to do some research on your own, there will be an email sent out after assembly with some links to websites that discuss and explain mental health and mental illnesses. If you’d like to sign up for a Real Talk, the email will also include a signup link.