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The Assignment That Deeply Triggered Me as Someone With a Mental Illness

When I was a senior in college, graduating in the spring with a bachelor’s of science in biobehavioral health and a minor in psychology, in order to graduate I needed to take a class on the ethics of health care. We spent the first month or so of the semester learning about ethical theory and the types of ethical dilemmas. Just last week we began our discussion of ethics in end of life care. We had a guest speaker discuss her work as an end of life doula how she believed it was an honor to share the last moments of life with strangers. We were then told to review to articles posted online and then write a position paper arguing our side of the ethical dilemma.

I sat in my campus’s student center and opened the links, thinking I could quickly write the short two pages for the assignment and not have to worry about it over the weekend. The title of the assignment was “The right to die legislation and mental illness” and included two articles discussing the debate in Canada on whether the right to physician assisted death should be extended to people with mental illness. My breath caught, my mind froze. I had a deeply personal as well as a delayed academic/professional reaction to this topic.

As someone who struggles with mental illnesses including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety and reactive depression, I was triggered emotionally and burst into tears in the middle of a heavily populated area of campus. I felt my professor was asking me, “Do you believe you should have the right to kill yourself?” After a summer of deep depression, weekly cognitive behavioral therapy and trying psychiatric medicine for the first time, I could not bear to think about this assignment. I had spent time feeling life was not always worth it and that I didn’t want to live in such a deep depression. Being asked whether I believed someone with mental illness should have the right to physician assisted death was deeply triggering.

One of my root obsessions that drives my OCD is the fear that if I do not do things perfectly and things start to go south in terms of my mental health I will enter deep depression. And if I start feeling depressed because things are going south, than I will get to the point where I won’t want to live. And what if it is so bad that I contemplate killing myself? Oh, the anxiety that is revealed in all those thoughts could have me panicking for hours, days, weeks, months. I could feel my emotions rising and bubbling over as I quickly reached for my phone and called my boyfriend. After my phone call cut out because of bad service, I wiped my tears, packed up my stuff and darted out of the student center. In my reactive state, I marched to my professor’s office in hopes to catch her and declare that I was unable to do this assignment because it was psychologically triggering. Looking back, I was lucky she wasn’t there.

So I did the only thing I could think of to do that would actually be helpful: I asked for help. I called my therapist hiding behind a building on campus. When she answered I called her name questioningly to make sure it was her and she said, “Yeah, I’m here.” Those words instantly put me at ease, as I felt taken care of and safe. With tears streaming down my face, I explained the scenario and we discussed the thoughts and anxiety that were coming up. We contemplated how I was reacting and should take a step back from the assignment for two days before deciding how I would respond to the difficult situation. Despite my terror of the assignment, a thought in the back of my mind reminded of all the exposure therapy I had done that summer. Therapy that taught me to face the things that increase my anxiety, to sit and lean into the discomfort, to not let my anxiety stop me from living my life. So I resolved to use this as an opportunity to practice tolerance and to work on mental flexibility.

I spent the next two days reflecting on my emotional reaction while getting some space from the assignment itself. As Sunday evening rolled around, I prepared myself to spend the evening crying and writing the paper. Believe it or not, I did not shed one tear while writing my position paper, not one.

As someone who aspires to work in social work in a health care setting, I decided to take an academic and professional approach. I argued my case to extend the right to die with a physician’s assistance to those who struggle with mental illness. I explained that mental illness causes chronic exhaustion and psychological torment and, in some cases, debilitating physical pain. I argued that mental illness is as important and valid of an illness as any physical illness. Not allowing individuals with mental illness to have the same health care choices is demeaning and belittles their illness and them as decision-making individuals. Taking away that right given to all others would be in essence taking away their autonomy of choice. However, I did acknowledge that at some degrees of severity of mental illness, it is important for psychiatrists, therapists, social workers and case managers to evaluate the individual. This decision should not be made by law, but by clinicians trained to understand and help people with these illnesses. These people are not lesser than, they just need extra guidance, extra help. This concept can be extended to this right to die. They are not less deserving of the right to die, but they do require extra guidance. Individuals with mental illness should have the legal right to die just as any other person should.

I timidly walked into class the day we were supposed to peer edit our position papers. I silently handed my paper to my peer editor. After reviewing each other’s papers, she told me that I made great points and that I had actually changed her position on the topic. I walked out of class that day proud that I had conquered another anxiety milestone, that I had looked my anxiety in the face and refused to let it decide how I live my life. I am beyond grateful for the support of my mental health care team for helping me face mental illness every day and get my life back. Here’s to recovery.

Getty image via Doucefleur

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