Changing Mental Health, One Hashtag at a Time

I didn’t wait for rock bottom. I decided to dig my heels in and stop falling.”

When people think of social media, they automatically think a few things – viral posts, scathing celebrity/political gossip, and funny animal videos/gifs. A lesser-known community of people are those who participate in games on Twitter, known as hashtag games. There are tons of hosts and games, seemingly around the clock, mostly managed by Hashtag Roundup. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda, host of the hashtag game #mandasheadgames on Hashtag Roundup.

This game, which she started in 2015, was inspired by the hashtag game she hosted, #theworstpartofdepressionis. “The response I got was incredible,” Amanda said. She explained when hosting that game, she hadn’t expected a response like that, and it prompted the creation of both a new tag game and a partnership – #mandasheadgames with Hashtag Roundup.

Over the past couple years, the game has evolved into something incredibly powerful – a platform for people to start a dialogue on the issues dealt with on a daily basis by someone struggling with mental illness.

Amanda herself has an incredible story. She was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and dealt with a horrible tragedy not long after that, losing her father to suicide at the age of 10. For years, she was miserable and angry. She didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. Finally, after 3 suicide attempts, she found the strength to seek help and was prescribed Prozac.

“When I first got on it [Prozac], it kind of blew my mind. I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. It was so eye-opening and amazing that I just wanted to tell everybody. I went 30 years thinking there was no hope.”

Our Biggest Contributors to Stigma
When asked what she thought the biggest contributor to stigma today, she responded it was really the notion of perpetuating the mindset of “it’s never going to get better”. A lot of people who struggle and have sought help, either with medication or therapy (and sometimes both) have had really negative experiences that have set them back even further. I, myself, have had those experiences with both medications and therapy. It gets to the point where you kind of ask yourself ‘Wow, can ANYTHING help me at this point?’

This mindset, while sometimes unavoidable, is one of the reasons stigma is still so strong because people tend to share their bad experiences more than their good ones. While talking with Amanda, she mentioned a lot of people seem to want something like an opiate that will have more of an immediate impact on their mental health. The thing it’s important to understand about treating mental illness is that it’s a process – things don’t change immediately. Most antidepressants, for example, could take 4 to 6 weeks to take full effect. It doesn’t help, though, that some people tend to experience positive effects sooner than others.

If you’re one of many who takes about the average time or longer to respond to a medication, you’re not flawed and you’re definitely not doing anything wrong. Our bodies are so incredibly complex, even down to our genes (different genes turning on and off again and creating different proteins at different times), and there is no exact science. It’s a worthwhile trip to take to find what works best for your health – both physical and mental.

When starting a new medication, keep these in mind:

  • Keep your doctor involved
    Your doctor will prescribe you medication they think will ultimately benefit you, based on your medical history and current life circumstances. That’s not to say all doctors are always right, because this part of medicine is not just a science. It’s trial and error.
  • Be honest with yourself
    You know your body and your mind better than anyone else. You’re the only one who will know truly how a medication is impacting you. Pay attention. If you’re forgetful, like me, try other methods (like writing it down).
  • Be patient
    Understand healing from or dealing with anything is a process. It does take time. Be patient with your body.
  • Keep a dialogue going
    Just because you’re seeking treatment doesn’t mean you should stop talking. Talk to your loved ones, your religious leaders, people you trust. Participate in games like #mandasheadgames. Find your community. It will make this journey so much more rewarding than you can even imagine.

More of a Buzzword than an Issue?
Another infamous contributor to stigma is the politicizing of mental health. “It’s become more of a buzzword instead of an issue,” Amanda said. The issue with discussing mental health politically is multi-faceted because the true issues of mental health are never addressed. A lot of people make satirical statements about it, like, as Amanda’s heard, “liberalism is a mental disorder”. When used as a tool for gun reform, it’s often used to deflect. She explained the key thing people need to understand is that mental health is not something that can be regulated.

I asked Amanda if she thought participating in tags (like #mandasheadgames) were a good way to spread awareness and start a dialogue about mental health. “Absolutely,” she responded. “Any way you talk about it helps.” She mentioned sites like Twitter are powerful platforms in that, with one simple tweet/hashtag, you can reach anybody in the world. This is a fantastic way to find your community, especially when you may not feel up to actually talking to people (I’m all too familiar with this one).

When it comes to understanding the reasons people tend not to reach out or seek help for anything mental health related, we talked a lot about control. No one wants to feel out of control, especially in today’s society. We’re constantly scrutinized about everything we have control over – what we eat, what we wear, what we say, what we tweet (and more). So when mental health is mentioned, it’s unsurprising there’s judgment. It’s like stating you have control over everything else – why not this?

“It’s like telling a blind person ‘If you want to see, just open your eyes!”, Amanda told me. And it’s entirely true.

One thing she said during this interview really stuck with me.

This incredibly powerful statement is truly telling of the inner strengths we all have, whether or not we acknowledge them.

“I didn’t wait for rock bottom. I decided to dig my heels in and stop falling.”

She believes this is one of the many reasons those affected tend not to reach out. While there are multitudes of resources at the press of a key/the tap of a screen, many people often use them as a last-ditch effort. See some common reasons explained below:

The “Rock Bottom” Mentality
I’ve been guilty of this myself. You think, ‘Well if it gets worse, I’ll talk to someone.’. You talk yourself out of asking for help because you really don’t think anyone will take you seriously, or that you’re just seeking attention, or even that others have had it way worse (insert many, many other excuses). And it’s true. There’s always someone who will have it worse than you. That is no reason you shouldn’t be able to get the help you deserve as a human being.

Mental illness inherently causes those affected not to want to seek treatment.
This is where loved ones come in. Common mental illnesses, such as depression, will most likely cause a person to not want to ask for help, even when it’s really bad. If someone you know struggles with depression, keep that dialogue open. Make sure they know you’re someone they can trust and who will take them seriously. Be their advocate when they feel they have no one.

Amanda’s advice for those who ask for help is to learn about what you’re going through and what it does to your body. That’s one of the main reasons I started this blog. The internet, as Amanda so accurately explained, is an ever-present source in our lives. The wealth of information at our fingertips is nothing short of amazing.

That being said, I know how hard it is to look up things like depression and read about what it is and how it affects you. Sometimes the sites are hard to find, and they don’t always provide accurate information (while the sites that are accurate read more like a textbook than anything else).

We both agree information about mental health should be easily accessible and understandable to the average person. If there’s any mental health topic you’d like more information on, please do not hesitate to email me! I want to share what you want to know.

I want to close today by creating our very own Mental Health Bill of Rights. This doesn’t just apply to folks in the United States either – this is for literally every person in the world.

MH Bill of Rights

If you need to ask for help, but you’re unsure, scared, or don’t feel safe doing so, please reach out to me. All conversations received through my blog remain entirely confidential.

If you’re on Twitter, please join Amanda, myself, Hashtag Roundup, and many others every Sunday at 9pm PST for #mandasheadgames. Also, follow @shutupamanda and @hashtagroundup for fun around the clock! Have a wonderful week ahead, everyone!

Why It’s Not “All in Your Head”

“It’s all in your head.” 

You’ve heard this said before of depression and other mental illnesses. I want to start this post out by stating I, myself, the owner of a mental health blog, used to stand behind this statement before I was educated on the difference between normal sadness and actual depression.

Depression is not “all in your head” as most would have you believe, though your brain does have a significant impact on your vulnerability and reaction to events/genetic pre-dispositions that leave a person susceptible to depression. Continue reading

What’s Your Story Going to Be?

Death comes as a reminder. It grabs us and shakes us. Opens our eyes and our focus is changed – shifted, revised. 
– Chris Evans, Playing it Cool (2014)

I’m writing today with a bit of a heavy heart, in honor of my grandma. As some of you may know, I moved back home to be her full-time caregiver as she struggled with end-of-life dementia and congestive heart failure. She passed peacefully on May 7, 2018, surrounded by loved ones. She made an incredible impact on so many people throughout her life, and I feel greatly honored to have been a part of it as her “bonus” grandchild for the last 12 years.

About a month before she passed, she said something profound to me that really made me think. She looked me in the eyes and told me “Everyone writes a story with their life. What’s your story going to be?”

My… my story? What does that mean?

We live under this insane impression that our lives are just happening to us, and we have pretty much no control over them.

That being said, I understand lots of things that happen in life are out of our control. It’s inevitable, really. From natural disasters, diseases, or traumatic experiences to simply bad decisions (I’m extremely familiar with the latter). While you can’t necessarily stop those things from happening to you (unless we’re talking about bad decisions – please learn from and prevent them whenever possible), you can control how they’re going to affect you. How they’re going to change/impact your story – negatively, positively, or even both.

I suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, and PTSD. I’m a survivor of both child and early adulthood trauma, abuse and neglect. The list goes on and on and on and on. I feel like I’m constantly making bad decision after bad decision and not even realizing that until it’s too late. I feel completely and utterly behind where I “should be” at this point in my life. To the naked eye, I’m honestly a disaster. I’m unstable. I’m medicated. I’m unpredictable. I’m broken. I’m impulsive. I’m irresponsible. I’m crazy.

But here’s the AMAZING thing about all of that. This is my journey. These are my experiences. And this is my story. Every unpredictable, broken, and crazy piece of it. It’s mine in its entirety and it is beautiful.

Whatever you’re going through, whoever you’re dealing with, no matter how flawed you feel you are, you and your story are both amazing and completely yours! The things that have happened in your life do not define you. Other peoples’ opinions of you – their labels – don’t define you. Stigma does not define you. Hell, your medical diagnosis does not define you.

You are the author of your life. You are the author of your own story.

So, the question I have for you today is this: What’s your story going to be?

 

 

Beyond the Media: PTSD in Survivors of Mass Shootings

In the wake of all of the seemingly endless and horrific shootings that have occurred lately in the world, I wanted to start by talking about PTSD in survivors of mass shootings. The National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) defines it as a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.

PTSD can be very debilitating to live with, and any victim of trauma can be affected by it. PTSD contrasts other disorders because it is strictly trauma-based. War veterans and victims of sexual assault are very likely to experience PTSD symptoms; however, the lesser talked about demographic (once the media quiets down) is survivors of mass shootings. Let’s talk about the basics of PTSD for a minute.

Symptoms of PTSD aren’t necessarily consistent and will vary per person. Some people experience symptoms directly after the event/experience, some have symptoms that come and go, and some have symptoms that don’t present themselves for months or even years after the trauma. The four main symptoms of PTSD are as follows:

Reliving the event
Memories of a traumatic event can present themselves at any time, with or without warning. Some symptoms associated with this include nightmares, flashbacks (feeling like you’re going through the event again), and triggers like certain sounds, sights, and smells (i.e. a car backfiring, news reports).

Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
You may avoid people or situations that remind you of the event, even sometimes going as far as to try not to think or talk about it.

Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
The way you think about yourself and others may change as a result of the trauma. For example, this may cause you to:

  • Not have positive or loving feelings toward people
  • Avoid relationships
  • Forget parts of or all of the event
  • Have extreme trust issues, like thinking no one is to be trusted

Feeling keyed up (also known as hyperarousal)
You may feel jittery, on edge, always alert and/or on the lookout for danger. This may cause you to be easily startled, have trouble sleeping, have trouble concentrating, or always want your back facing a wall when in a public place.

If you are experiencing these symptoms for 4 weeks or more, find they’re disrupting your work and personal life, or cause you great distress, you may have PTSD. It is possible to get professional help to manage/deal with the symptoms by seeing your doctor or a psychologist.

This is not, under any circumstances, a political post, and I will not comment on gun reform/control. I just know, based on the wide number of people impacted by these shootings, this is something that needs to be talked about. When innocent people are witness to or injured by mass shootings, is there enough support out there for them? Local agencies like

In my research, I’ve found a couple amazing resources:

The Rebels Project, whose mission statement states they seek to embrace, support, and connect survivors of mass tragedy and trauma by creating a safe environment to share unique resources, experiences, and provide education surrounding the varying effects of mass trauma.

The Red Cross also offers a free Disaster Distress Hotline that can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

If you know of any other resources available to survivors of mass shootings, please let me know, and I’ll update my post accordingly.

I have a personal tie with mass shooting survivors, as I was witness to a shooting in my workplace a few years back, and was only a few feet from the shooters. Now, it still seems logical for people to at least mildly understand people who were witness to and/or injured in an event like this would be traumatized. But for some of that, the trauma is lasting. In my case, in particular, PTSD didn’t rear its ugly head until 5 years down the road, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.

The following is my recounting of the shooting to which I was a witness in 2012. I did provide a trigger warning just in case, as it is a sensitive topic that even triggered me to write about.

TRIGGER WARNING: Retelling of Experience in Active Shooter Environment

The morning following the Las Vegas shooting, I woke up earlier than normal, and instead of laying in bed and pushing snooze another 12 times, I got up. I’m not sure why this morning was different. I got ready for work and got a cup of coffee, and something in me told me to turn on the morning news. I hardly ever watch the news anymore, because more often than not it’s one heartbreaking story after another about the madness and cruelty of humankind or the biased political agenda of whatever news network is airing stories of the most recent scandals. Other than the weather (which is usually less than accurate) and the occasional heroic tale of an everyday person beating cancer or rescuing a child from a tragic situation, it’s all negative.

Regardless, there I sat, with the remote in my hand and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels until I saw a local news network and put it on. Immediately, my screen was filled with images and videos of what would turn out to be the most deadly mass shooting the United States had seen yet. My heart dropped into my stomach. I watched as live footage of the shooting from different cell phones was played, and survivors were being interviewed by reporters, all of which were understandably visibly shaken and terrified. Recounting what would most likely be the most traumatic thing they’d ever experience.

As I sat watching this and sipping my coffee, I was in a daze, waiting for it to be over, but knowing it wouldn’t anytime soon. This story would be the focus of every news network in the nation for weeks – months, maybe. Reluctantly, I turned off the TV and went to work as normal.

The next few days passed in a blur. I went to work, came home, watched the news, and went to bed. Then woke up and watched the news again. Each day my heart broke more as new information about the shooting was revealed. A few days into this pattern, I started wondering why in the world this was impacting me so heavily. Yes, it is a tragedy, and I should be feeling shocked, heartbroken, and enraged for both the survivors and those who lost their lives at the hand of a mentally unstable person with a powerful weapon.

And then it hit me. It was like in those cartoons I watched as a kid when a character randomly realized something and a lightbulb appeared above its head, lit up, although (of course) there was no source of power for the bulb itself. I suppose, in a way, it’s a metaphor, because your brain is the source of power for the bulb and it’s powered by thoughts coming together after everything being muddled for a period of time.

On January 27, 2012, one day before my birthday, I was working at our local mall when an active shooter situation occurred. Suddenly, my reaction to the most recent shooting makes sense. I thought, Is this PTSD? It can’t be. That was… so long ago.

Then I started questioning my own memory of what happened. Are you sure that really even happened? What if your brain is just looking for a way to reconcile this horrific event and its created this fictional tragedy so you’re now the victim? I started to get uncomfortable with the flowing thoughts, and so I pulled out my computer and started doing some research. I entered very simple search terms in Google and the results came up quicker than I’d hoped.

Two wounded in Visalia Mall shooting; suspects captured

Trial underway in Visalia Mall shooting

Men given life sentence for Visalia Mall shooting

It did happen. I wasn’t imagining things. As soon as I saw those titles, I was flung violently back to January 27, 2012. A day before my 20th birthday.

I had began working at JC Penney in May of 2010. On this day, a Friday, I was scheduled to work. Most of the time when I took my lunch breaks I’d leave the store and get food at the mall’s food court, which was adjacent to JC Penney. Today, though, I was shopping. I was in the women’s department, which is right next to the entrance to the mall. I came across my coworker, Paloma, who was still working, but we started talking. I was shopping, she was cleaning and we just chatted. A few minutes into our conversation, I heard a few short pops. I paused, then looked at Paloma, whose expression showed she heard them too.

I knew the store was undergoing some construction for one reason or another, but I thought they’d finished. ‘Who’d be using a nail gun right now?’ I thought to myself. All of these thoughts, though seemingly calculated and inquisitive, took place over just a few seconds. In my mind seemed like minutes. I’m not sure if I said any of that out loud to Paloma or not. I don’t think I ever had the chance.

By the time I looked back over at Paloma, her face was unreadable. Out of my peripheral, I saw movement – quick movement – that wasn’t there before. People pass leisurely through our store typically, unless they’re stealing something, and even then sometimes they’re leisurely about it. My head whipped to the right, toward the aisle that was connected to the mall’s entrance just a few feet away. What I saw then is when everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Crowds of shoppers were flooding into the store, unorganized, panicked, in uneven clumps. You couldn’t tell if anyone was shopping in groups or by themselves, it was so unorganized. The panic in the air was almost palpable.

Maybe there was screaming. I’m not sure. I can’t remember hearing anything after the gunshots. It’s like adrenaline took over because the flood of people surging through our store was looking for the nearest exit, “every-man-for-themselves” style. 

Paloma and I looked back at each other and I had a realization – those pops I heard were gunshots. They sounded like a nail gun probably because the shooter had a silencer or the acoustics of the mall made the sound of the shots echo in a strange way.

The look we shared was one of mutual understanding – we needed to run, and we needed to run now. We turned on our heels and bolted further into the store to the nearest exit through the men’s department. Neither of us ever agreed we’d stay with each other, but we did. Once out of the store, we ran into the parking lot and hid behind a car, out of sight of the store.

I remember we talked, but I don’t remember what was said. I also remember a woman drove into the parking lot and turned down the aisle where we were hiding. She saw us and our I’m sure panic ridden faces and slowed down. As soon as she rolled down her window, I said something to the effect of ‘You don’t want to go in there right now, we just heard a ton of gunshots’ but I can’t even remember that clearly. She was filled with a visible myriad of emotion, thanked us, and hastily drove out of the parking lot.

We were probably only hiding behind that car for about 3 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I looked at Paloma, and I told her my boyfriend’s parents’ house was just a few minutes walk down the road so we could go there. But then, somehow, the logic part of my brain kicked in, and I said to her ‘You know what.. we’re going to have to go back inside. The managers are going to be doing a headcount and they’ll be looking for us.’

I could tell by her reaction that is the last thing she wanted to do, and I was on the same page. We slowly and reluctantly walked back to the entrance to the store and stayed right by that exit once inside the Men’s Department. Everything continued to pass in a blur. I picked out that none of our staff had been injured, but some people have, and the suspects were on the loose. The only other thing I heard is that they were closing the store early and we were all free to go.

Now, my story is one of few that are mostly unheard of, and there were injuries, but no tradgedies. Regardless, feelings of terror and helplessness were still similar. I actually had completely forgotten about the events of that day until I saw the footage of the Las Vegas shooting. Once my symptoms started occurring, I was experiencing intense anxiety over every little thing and constantly looking over my shoulder. Some people in my condo association set off fireworks one night and I went into fight or flight mode. I would jump practically through the roof anytime anyone approached me from behind. There’s much more, but those were the main symptoms that prompted me to seek help from a psychologist. That was the best thing I could have done for myself. Since everyone copes with trauma in different ways, I had to (still have to) find ways that work for me, which sometimes includes altering what I already do for myself in the way of self-care.

It’s just one example of many that the way PTSD symptoms are displayed cannot be measured except by the severity and frequency of when they occur. To this day, I still deal with symptoms of PTSD that I have yet to learn to manage. I’m incredibly thankful for the friends, family, and professionals who have helped me through my experience.

 

Friends and Family of Mass Shooting Survivors

If you know someone who is a survivor of a mass shooting, please be cognizant of what you say to them. Be aware of mental health first aid. Understand that just because the traumatic event is over does not under any circumstances mean the trauma is. Many survivors of mass shootings watch others, even their friends and family members, get injured or killed because of these shootings. They themselves may have suffered injuries as well.

ALGEE-1024x562

There are also many free courses online for providing assistance to people you know who have gone through traumatic events like this, such as this site.

I just want survivors of mass shootings (or shootings in general) to know:

  1. I see you
  2. I hear you
  3. I understand (to the best ability I can) what you’re going through on an ongoing basis

Please do not ignore symptoms of PTSD. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms, but are scared or unsure, try talking with someone you trust first. But most importantly, please know you are not alone. If the resources I listed above won’t work for you, or you need help finding a hotline or doctor/psychologist/counselor near you, please contact me and I’ll gladly help you find something in your area.

Also, remember a lot of self-care is necessary to manage PTSD symptoms. A great article on to read is 5 Self Care Tips for Abuse and Trauma Survivors. This site is a domestic violence site primarily, but their self-care tips apply to trauma survivors in general.

Love, understanding, empathy, and compassion go a long way in the process of dealing with PTSD. We can’t change the actions of the people around us, sadly, but we can, as survivors, get through these times together. You are never, ever alone.