What I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self About Mental Health
My younger self was a mess. I mean, she was also a lot of fun. Very organized. Very funny. I was a full-time actor at a young age so I had a ton of practice balancing many demands at once and tolerating a lot of uncertainty. Younger me loved music and poetry and French existential philosophy. See? She was so fun!
But. She was also a bit of a mess. We didn’t talk about mental illness when I was younger. Terms like “manic depressive” and “depression” were whispered with a sense of secrecy and shame if ever anyone mentioned them. We just didn’t talk about mental illness or tools for emotional health.
While this cultural hush over a topic that affects millions of people all over the world has gotten a bit better, mental health resources have remained unavailable to the populations that need them most, and mental health as a topic is still shoved into the corners of our collective social consciousness. We talk about it more, but still not enough. And not in the ways that I think would benefit the most people. We all struggle — parenting, relationships, loss, grief and the tools to live the lives we want aren’t always clearly understood.
My podcast “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown” seeks to change that. We’re creating safety and normalcy around mental health and sharing our own journeys to build our emotional management toolset. We are hoping that by talking openly, we can get more people to talk openly. As my partner in mental health crime, Jonathan Cohen, and I continue to grow our audience and talk honestly and openly with guests with compelling stories and perspectives, I think often of the younger me. And I ask questions and seek answers that I wish my younger self could hear.
The Mighty’s No Shame community is a safe space to talk about the things that tend to make make us feel bad about ourselves. No topic is too taboo.
Here are the main messages I hope my podcast — and my public presence in talking about mental health — can get across to anyone like my younger self.
1. Get help. If you broke your leg, you’d go to the hospital. You would rehabilitate that leg. You would do exercises. Take medication when appropriate. Go to check-ups. Mental health is no different. It needs the assistance and guidance of a professional. Shame keeps us from getting help. There is nothing to be ashamed about. You are human and you are struggling. Get help.
2. Do the work. So many well-meaning people told me of my struggles, “It’ll be OK!” “Stay positive! Smile more! Chin up!” or “It’s not that bad.” These things made me feel even more alone and isolated and “crazy.” Here’s the low down: It can get better. But it takes some work. There’s no magic here. You have to put in the footwork. That means pushing fear aside and doing the work presented to you. If a therapist tells you to do writing assignments, do them. If you are told to make a lifestyle change, be open to it. Have faith things can get better, and they get better when you put in the work.
3. It’s not always a straight path. Mental health for many of us is a lifelong commitment to not giving up and to doing the work. But progress isn’t always linear. You may feel better for a bit and then feel crummy again. You likely will have ups and downs. This is normal. The notion that mental health is a linear process by which you do something and get better and never have that problem again sounds great on paper, but it’s not typically the experience of those of us who have been in the trenches. Lose the idea that you’re on a straight path and don’t stress about it. This path is going to wind all around. That’s what it does. Stay in the middle of the path and you won’t fall off the edge. Do not give up.
4. Nothing is forever. Well, some things are. My love for dark chocolate is forever. But everything else? Not so much. The fear we have that all mental health challenges are terminal is only partly logical. We may live with the challenges of our diagnoses forever, but we get to keep evolving and growing and working hard to thrive. Sometimes, we may need medication to help us move from one mental frame into another. Medication isn’t always forever. You may get support from a medication and then go off it. It happens a lot. The judgment you may have about “people who take medication” is likely based on cultural judgments surrounding people painted as weak, out of control and unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This old thinking is just that: old. You may have times in your life when therapy three times a week is helpful (guilty as charged!); other times, once a week may do the trick. Sometimes you have to check in with your psychiatrist for medication management and it feels like you’ll always be paying all of this money all the time. Everything shifts with time. Don’t get hung up on outcomes.
5. Don’t trust your mind. Well, don’t trust it all of the time. Having a mental illness, or even intense emotions, means our minds can play tricks on us and on reality. Catastrophic thinking — “I’ll never figure this out!” — is your mind being ruled by fear. “I’m a mess and no one will ever love me.” Fear. “I’m such a mess and no one is as messed up as I am.” Also fear. I suggest you borrow my faith in you right now. You will figure it out. Set fear aside. Your mind is trying to make sense of a lot of pain and confusion; don’t trust it when it tells you that you can’t get better.
Younger selves out there: we hear you. we see you. I hope I can do my part to help you set aside your fear and increase your faith in yourself and the possibility of change and growth.
I’ve done it. I’m still doing it. You can do it, too.
Images provided by Mayim Bialik