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What I Mean When I Say I'm Having a 'Mental Breakdown'

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I haven’t been on my recovery journey long, but that’s not to say I haven’t been struggling for a while. I can remember my first suicidal thought back in seventh grade like it was yesterday, even though that was over six years ago. I can remember my first panic attack, my first depressive episode, my first binge and purge, my first, well, everything as it relates to my mental health challenges. But the most recent “first” of mine, and perhaps the scariest and most life-altering, was my first “mental breakdown.”

It was two months ago, and I was about a week away from heading to Washington D.C. to go through orientation at my dream college. After struggling for so many years with everything and none of my coping mechanism seeming to work anymore (this included both healthy and unhealthy coping skills), I finally broke. I basically stopped getting out of bed, I stopped eating and I was ready to die. I had given up, even with the next new journey of my life just two months away. I saw no point anymore and I hit the lowest of the lows. I distinctly remember one day, when no one was home, I held my cell phone in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other, and I asked myself: Which is it? Am I going to call and get help or am I going to through with this already? I genuinely went back and forth, sometimes choosing to go through with one, but then being hesitant and stopping. Thankfully, I chose to text my pastor who I met with the next day, and later I was admitted to a mental health hospital.

Now I could go into all the details of my nine days there, or what recovery has been like, but those are stories for another day. Right now, I’m writing this after experiencing, not my first case of microaggression, but the first time I really took notice of it. I was sitting in the common area of my dorm and there were several other kids there talking about nothing important enough for me to pay attention. But my ears perked up when I heard a strange phase:

“I’ve had like four mental breakdowns a day since being here.”

They then went into great detail about how the stress of their classes (which we’ve only been in for one week, but I digress) caused them to cry while sitting at their laptops or made them feel stressed. This is what they equated with a “mental breakdown.” Another friend later told me about how after her first Arabic class she had a “mental breakdown” and decided to drop it because it was too hard.

All I could think was, “How lucky we would all be if that was the worst a mental breakdown ever got, being stressed about homework or crying once or twice over a test.”

I wasn’t offended, but I was confused. Is that really what people thought that was? Is that what high school and college age students think a “mental breakdown” is? In my experience, they don’t compare. There is a big difference between not wanting to get up for an 8 a.m. lecture because you’re tired and not getting out of bed for days because “what’s the point, right?” There’s a difference between wanting to give up on school because it’s hard and wanting to give up on life because you think it would be easier for everyone else. There’s a difference between being stressed about a paper and having a panic attack so bad you physically feel like you‘re being suffocated under the weight of your life. There is a big difference between what people seem to think a “mental breakdown” is, and what it actually is. And yet, many intelligent people seem to throw the term around as if its just something everyone goes through every day.

Now some of these things aren’t signs of a “mental breakdown,” but are symptoms of mental illnesses that I, and others, live with everyday. But the “mental breakdown” occurs when they all happen at once, full blast, and my only solution in my head was to close up shop, turn off the lights and say goodbye forever. To put the plan together, to get all the materials ready, to write the note, to try a few times. I believe that is a “mental breakdown” — not stressed over a test. A breakdown isn’t something that should get thrown around. Your “breakdown” may have ruined your night, but my “breakdown” almost ended my life. There is a difference.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Unsplash photo via Ian Espinosa

Originally published: October 6, 2017
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