(This was originally planned as a Pecha Kucha talk for #ACPA14. Due to a strong sense of responsibility to other areas of my life, I was unable to attend and have turned it into a blog post instead).
I love the hokey pokey. I love it because it’s message is so simple, but often overlooked — you are the sum of your parts. You are more than your right arm, your left foot. In the end, you put your whole self in, and that’s what matters. That’s how people get to know you and celebrate you. Or is it?
I started seeing a specialist in August for pain after I self-diagnosed myself using everyone’s favorite medical resource, the Internet. The doctor concurred with my self-diagnosis and began a fairly conservative course of treatments. At the beginning of each visit, he would ask me about my pain level.
And here’s where I’m disingenuous to myself, and to the process of healing — every single time he asked, I lied. I told him I was okay when, in reality, I frequently cried from the pain.
On a cold morning in January, he asked again just before starting another treatment, and, at last, I bravely told him the truth. He stopped what he was doing, sat with me, and talked about what options I had and how he could better proceed knowing exactly what was going on.
Later that night, I wrote in my private journal about it. There was such a positive result that I wondered why I’d been afraid to be honest. And, in the same vein, I wondered why we can’t be that honest about the different types of pain we’re in. Including emotional.
For a week in the fall, student affairs professionals were adamant that we would have better, richer conversation about mental health of professionals in our field. Following a tragic suicide of a residence life professional in Vermont, we committed to doing more, being better, and caring more universally for our colleagues.
But, like, most topics that rise to the surface of our social media feeds, the discussion fizzled and we moved on to whatever current event next grabbed our attention and our hearts. We continued through the motions and stopped seeing each other.
We don’t directly address our worry with the co-worker who is working too many hours. We don’t ask about the colleague who stops going to lunch with their peers and avoids social situations. We express concern for one another in gossipy conversations behind closed doors rather than caring confrontation. We are more likely to make an emboldened referral for a student we just met than we are for a friend who we see daily.
The stigma of mental health in the United States is alive and well while the mental health of student affairs professionals is not well. We work too many hours, we compare ourselves to others too freely, and we take on more than we can handle seeking experience for our next job or, worse, recognition that may never come.
As many as 15 million people seek psychotherapy or counseling in the United States each year. That number feels high, right? Except it’s not. It’s only five percent of the population of the United States. Five percent. Consider that only five percent of student affairs professional may be seeking therapy or counseling and contrast that with the high stress nature of the work we do. Now factor in that an estimated 26.2% of American adults have symptoms of mental illness. And still, only 5% seek treatment — 21% of people with symptoms let them go unaddressed for myriad of reasons include lack of access to resources, fear, and the prevailing stigma of mental health.
How can we take care of our students if we aren’t taking care of ourselves? How can we begin to heal until we are honest about the pain we are in?
Kristen Abell of University of Missouri Kansas City has regularly been a force in this charge, sharing her story of depression openly so that others may connect. And connect they do — people reach out to Kristen as a touchstone, a resource.
I know because I’m one of them.
I emailed Kristen from the floor of a bathroom in a hotel where I’d just had a panic attack at a conference, a panic attack so severe that I lost consciousness. Instead of asking for help from the people I was with, I reached out to someone 801 miles away because I knew what the ratio of support to judgment would be. I didn’t have to fear the stigma.
I am the sum of my parts, as are you. And for many of us, the sum of those parts includes a part of our story that people don’t seem to want to hear because it’s icky and unknown. I am a smart, witty, kind woman with a streak of snark and a gift for writing. I was also diagnosed with a panic disorder, depression, and anxiety in 2008.
I’m here to keep this conversation alive and moving, to bring it back to the table where it belongs.
Care for one another. Ask about changes in mood or behavior. Address directly – and kindly – your concerns. Offer your assistance. Ask how someone is and listen, really listen, to the answers — both what’s said and what’s not.
But don’t let this conversation stop. Be your authentic whole self — tell your story — and love others for the entirety of who they are too.
Because that is what it’s all about.