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Mental Health

How ‘Russian Doll’ Unpacks The Daily Pains Of An Anxiety Disorder

Netflix's latest smash has smart things to say about mental health.

In the Netflix Original Russian Doll, a 36-year-old woman (Nadia, played by co-writer Natasha Lyonne) is trapped in a time loop set around her birthday. Within her strange predicament, Nadia endures a multitudes of random and violent deaths: she’s hit by cars, falls down stairs, is blown up, and has heart attacks. Every time she dies the time loop resets to the same time and place, with Nadia staring herself down in the mirror of her friend’s bathroom. On the surface, it’s a familiar time loop narrative centered around the same central trope as Groundhog Day. But as the title suggests, Russian Doll has layers upon layers to unpack. And, for me at least, one of the most glaring ideas nestled within this Matryoshka of a show is it’s exploration of anxiety disorders.

As someone who has struggled with General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Panic Disorder since I was a child (with a few years worth of PTSDand Social Anxiety in my twenties, for good measure), I saw the familiar traits of the five main anxiety disorders at the core of the show. Chronic anxiety and panic have driven me to to live in a constant state of dread– as though death is as omnipresent and looming as it is in Russian Doll—and given me the sort of heart palpitations and shortness of breath that actually kill Nadia in the seventh episode.

Like Nadia’s fellow time loop victim Alan (Charlie Barnett), I’ve also been ruled by routine and compulsions, becoming so preoccupied with germs and contamination that I’ve spent hours cleaning and “correcting” the same spots. And I’ve spent days, if not entire years of my life, attempting to party my way out of PTSD and social anxiety symptoms just as Nadia does in episode two – only to discover imbibing a cocktail of temporarily feel-good substances serves only to exacerbate symptoms in the long term.

At their most chronic, an anxiety disorder can make you feel trapped within a pattern of feelings and behaviors as persistent, endless, and isolating as a time loop.

At their most chronic an anxiety disorder can make you feel trapped within a pattern of feelings and behaviors as persistent, endless, and isolating as a time loop. I don’t need to be dying over and over and reliving the same day to understand exactly what Nadia means when she tells her ex-boyfriend, “I don’t know how to convey … to anyone who really cares about me that I’m experiencing something truly terrifying. That I am f*cking scared, that I’m questioning my own sanity,” because in the penetrating fog of my worst anxiety, I’ve lived this. Anxiety disorders amplify your fears, dread, and traumas. They magnify the worst and most terrifying parts of your mind and can leave you barely capable of functioning. You’re trapped in a loop of negative thought patterns and behaviors and as a result, you relive the same struggle time and again, desperate to take back control of your life.

When we meet fellow time-looper Alan in episode three, it’s never outright stated that he has an anxiety disorder but all the clues are there that he’s struggling with mental health issues and a chronic case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Throughout his narrative arc, it’s clear that Alan has an obsessive desire for perfection and exactness. He even asks his cheating girlfriend, Beatrice: “Do you think it’s possible to correct your life?”—as though his misery and missteps are as easily fixable as the furniture he repeatedly adjusts in his home. But moving a cushion an inch to the left does about as little to give him control over his life as maintaining the same routine does.

Despite being stuck in a time-loop and repeating the same day over and over, he (at least initially) changes little about how he lives it. Instead, time and again, his day maintains the same order. He packs his bags for a romantic vacation he knows he won’t take, he goes to his girlfriend’s apartment despite knowing she’s about to break up with him, and he repeats the same affirmations to himself, stating “I am beautiful. I am loved and deserve love. I am in control.” Except, Alan is definitely not in control and no affirmation or obsessively implemented routine can change that.

At the peak of my own anxiety disorders I found myself repeating affirmations and maintaining rituals in a bid to prevent intrusive thoughts and the dread and panic of potentially not surviving the day. I had my routine perfected to the point that stepping out of those self–made rituals spelled certain doom and frantic panic for me. Maintaining the same habitual behaviors made me feel momentarily in control of my mind and life – but any deviation from them would push me closer towards chaos and what I believed was certain death. It’s like Alan tells Beatrice: “Routine is an incredible thing … We become what we repeatedly do.” If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, then Alan is slowly driving himself insane in the show. During the years I was ruled by my OCD, so was I.

Russian Doll is a show about breaking patterns – of time loops, destructive behaviors, addiction, and inherited trauma. But so are anxiety disorders.

At its core, Russian Doll is a show about breaking patterns – of time loops, destructive behaviors, addiction, and inherited trauma. But so are anxiety disorders. I found the only way out of my own heinous predicament was in actively breaking the patterns I found myself repeating on a daily basis and to accept help and intervention, just as Nadia and Alan do. Through Cognitive behavioral Therapy, I’ve learned to limit and control the distorted patterns of thinking that have ruled every anxiety disorder symptom I’ve ever suffered through.

I still occasionally find myself staring down the barrel of my own mortality – intrusively envisioning death in benign everyday objects like a staircase, a meal, or a bar cellar hatch wide open in the middle of the street  – but I’ve also rewired my brain into rejecting the fear and dread that looped through it for so long. Truthfully, none of us are in control of our lives – that’s a message Russian Doll makes clear. But we can, at least, take some control of our minds and the way in which we engage with the world around us. Life may not be possible to correct, but it’s definitely possible that anxiety disorders can be.

Essays Mental Health

What My Students Don’t Know About My Mental Health

Being a high school teacher is challenging enough before you add anxiety, depression, and ADD into the mix.

By 8 a.m., sweat has soaked through my shirt. I am overweight, so most people assume the sweat is because I am out of shape. The secondary students in my English Language Arts classes are particularly rude about it, pointing out the dark stains on my chest and underarms.

“Mr. Sweeney, why you sweatin’?” a student says in the underdeveloped vernacular of the poverty-stricken area our school serves in Richmond, Virginia. “You ain’t doin’ nothin’.”

A ruder student grins and shouts, “Mr. Sweeney, you sweat ‘cause you fat.”

Then they laugh. Always, they laugh.

The students’ assumptions about my sweat are only partly true–I am out of shape, after all–but there’s more to the sweat that I am afraid to tell them.

“I get hot when I’m working hard,” I reply. On rare occasions, when I’m feeling especially chipper, I may say something more combative, like: “Mature people sweat; you’ll find out one day.” This usually gets a laugh out of one or two students.

I forgive them. They’re just kids, after all. Most of them don’t see me as a person: they see me as their teacher.

Still, the remarks sting. Because I am a person: in particular, a person struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mild ADD. And while my sweating may draw attention to my weight issues, it’s not caused by it.

I sweat because it’s a side effect of Effexor, the go-to medication to treat anxiety. Ironic, really. It forms a perfect loop: the kids notice me sweating, they make comments about it, which makes me more depressed and anxious, which makes me need Effexor.

But, of course, I can’t tell anyone this.

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors, lest they think that my mental acuity has been somehow compromised. It hasn’t, but the stigma around mental health in education runs deep.

My mental health challenges can often make my job more stressful. My principal wants me to appear organized and clean, but my ADD often leads to clutter. When I grade students’ essays, parents me to challenge them to succeed to greater heights, but my depression sometimes affects my mood while grading, making such efforts difficult. Students look to me for answers, but my anxiety causes me to sometimes make mistakes, like muddling my words or misspelling something on the blackboard.

“How you gonna teach us to write and you can’t spell?” a student says. In response, I tell the student that writing isn’t as much about spelling as it is about putting ideas across.

Mental acuity, communication: these are the most prized skills in education. Anxiety and depression may occasionally effect little things like spelling, but they do not impact my ability to communicate ideas or think critically.

As I’ve learned in therapy, life is a series of coping skills. My mental conditions are nothing to be ashamed about.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness. What one may call clutter, I like to call systemized chaos.  When students want advice, I can empathize to the best of my ability and be honest.

A plump young girl in glasses taps my shoulder.

“Mr. Sweeney, doesn’t it hurt your feelings when these other students call you fat?”

“It does hurt,” I admit.

“How do you deal with that?”

I have rehearsed the answer many times in my head. I’m almost excited that she asked.

“I remind myself that I have ideas and abilities that make me unique. And I work in a profession where I get to show off my intelligence and pass these valuable things on to others. That feels better than the hurt.”

She adjusts her glasses, and makes my day.

“Mr. Sweeney, it doesn’t matter if you sweat,” she says. “I like your class.”

Chronic Illness Diabetes Roundups

6 Songs About Chronic Illness From Pop Stars With Health Conditions

Illness is the great leveler. Just ask Missy Elliott, Lady Gaga, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, and TRACE, all of whom have written songs about the experience of being chronically ill.

When it comes to pop culture, the chronic illness experience isn’t always represented, but that might be about to change. Over the past few years, several high profile singer-songwriters and performers have revealed their own diagnoses with long-term conditions and disabilities, and they’ve begun to speak out on the topic, and even refer to it in their songs. Here, six musicians and the long-term conditions they live with.

Lyme Disease — “Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne 

If you’ve ever wondered why Avril Lavigne took such a long break from the music industry, the answer is simple. The singer contracted Lyme disease which forced her to retreat from the spotlight, and question whether or not she’d ever sing again. Speaking to Billboard in October 2018, Lavigne explained, “I was in bed for f***ing two years. It went undiagnosed for so long that I was kind of f***ed.” She even shared that, prior to her diagnosis, multiple doctors had made her feel “crazy” by not believing her symptoms—which is something that many people, and women especially, can relate to.

2018’s comeback single—“Head Above Water”—is about the moment that Lavigne “accepted that I was dying… like I was underwater and drowning, and I was trying to come up to gasp for air” (via Billboard). Lyrics such as “My life is what I’m fighting for,” and “I’m underneath the undertow” will be instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by a condition they didn’t ask for.

Fibromyalgia — “The Cure” by Lady Gaga

Back in September 2017, Lady Gaga was forced to cancel her European tour because of a fibromyalgia diagnosis. In a statement released at the time (via The Guardian), it was revealed that Gaga had made the difficult decision not to tour due to “severe physical pain that has impacted her ability to perform.” As anyone with fibromyalgia syndrome knows, the unpredictability of the condition means that patients can experience a variety of symptoms including extreme unexplained exhaustion, and severe muscle and body pain.

Released in April 2017, “The Cure” seemed to speak to the condition Lady Gaga had yet to reveal to her fans. Lyrics such as “If I can’t find the cure, I’ll fix you with my love,” and “If you say you’re okay, I’m gonna heal you anyway,” read like the comforting voice a chronically ill person might crave amid intense pain and discomfort out of their control. Gaga would return to the theme on the A Star Is Born soundtrack in 2018 with the track “Heal Me”.

Lupus — “Wolves” by Selena Gomez

Wild rumors suggested that Selena Gomez had absconded to rehab when, in fact, she was dealing with a lupus diagnosis she was yet to reveal to the world. Speaking to Billboard in October 2015, upon the release of her second solo album, the aptly-titled Revival, Gomez explained:” “I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about… I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea.’”

In September 2017, Gomez revealed she’d also undergone a kidney transplant due to complications relating to the chronic illness. And she’s frank about the fact that living with a chronic illness has exacerbated her mental health. Speaking to Harper’s BAZAAR in February 2018, Gomez explained, “I’ve had a lot of issues with depression and anxiety… and it’s not something I feel I’ll ever overcome.”

Upon its release in November 2017, many fans speculated that Gomez’s collaboration with Marshmello—“Wolves”—was about lupus, and it’s easy to see why as Gomez sings, “I’ve been down the darkest alleys. Saw the dark side of the moon.”

Anxiety — “Anxiety” by TRACE

Up-and-coming singer TRACE isn’t afraid to delve into what living with anxiety is really like—conjuring it as the perpetual lurking demon it truly is. On her latest single she warns that the condition is, “Creeping through the doors, and under all my sheets. I can never sleep. It worries me.” (Which, same tbh). In the music video, the condition is literally personified, and TRACE is relentlessly stalked by two largely silent, horror movie characters.

Detailing her anxiety for L’Officiel, TRACE writes, “one minute you’re enjoying a snack in front of the TV, and the next you’re in the shower, bawling, thinking about death. Personally, Anxiety takes me away from the present and puts me in a harmful future. It makes me worry about things I cannot control or things I might not understand.”

Graves’ Disease — “I’m Better” by Missy Elliott

In 2008, Missy Elliott was diagnosed with Graves’ disease—an autoimmune disorder that affects a person’s thyroid—after exhibiting some pretty serious symptoms including a dramatic weight loss, per Billboard. The rapper explained, “It causes hair loss, your eyes bulge. My blood pressure was always up from just overworking,” having revealed her diagnosis in a statement to ABC News in 2011.

Speaking at Essence’s Black Women in Music event at the start of 2018, Elliott said of her condition, “I was sick and I couldn’t even lift a pen. My nervous system had broken all the way down.” But Elliott’s health has been improving and, as collaborator Lamb raps on 2017’s “I’m Better”, “It’s another day, another chance. I wake up, I wanna dance. So as long as I got my friends, I’m better, I’m better, I’m better.”

Diabetes — “A Little Bit Longer” by Nick Jonas

When he was 13 years old, Nick Jonas was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and went on to write the song “A Little Bit Longer” about finding out he had the condition. With lyrics like “Waiting on a cure, but none of them are sure,” Jonas grapples with the lifelong condition and his need to medicate and keep it under control.

In 2008, Diabetes Control explained that Jonas diagnosis followed a plethora of unexpected symptoms including “mood swings, extreme thirst, frequent bathroom breaks, and sudden weight loss.” And in 2015, Jonas told Healthline that he uses an insulin pump to monitor and control his condition, and said, “yes, it has affected me creatively in the sense of how it’s shaped who I am as a person, and given me perspective.”

If you’d like to listen to these songs on Spotify, here’s a playlist containing all of them. If you know other songs about chronic illness, feel free to add them!

Disability Mental Health Roundups

5 TV Shows That Get Disability Right

From Stranger Things to Keeping Up With The Kardashians, here's five shows that refuse to look at chronic illness and disability through an able-bodied lens.

When it comes to representations of disability and chronic illness in popular culture, it’s easy to be frustrated. Anyone that knows me will attest that I often lament the lack of realistic depictions of disability on TV, which is all too glaringly obvious when you spend the majority of your life propped up in bed with your laptop, like me. (I could probably get up: I just choose Netflix).

Any disabled or sick person will tell you that seeing an inaccurate depiction of the condition they’re toxically glued to for the rest of their life hurts. For instance, I found ballet show Flesh & Bone gripping until one of the dancers discovered she had MS, and her diagnosis was as hamfisted as a Joss Whedon rewrite.

But all is not lost. There are shows that are getting accurate representation right. These television shows refused to be lazy, and instead dared to get disability right… in some cases, even daring to cast disabled actors in disabled roles (Eddie Redmayne, take a seat).

If you want to support the change you’d like to see in television, here are five television shows that get disability right.

Breaking Bad

A man with cerebral palsy talks to a bald man in glasses in a living room with plaid curtains in the background.

RJ Mitte as Walt Junior in Breaking Bad.

RJ Mitte’s depiction of drug lord Walter White’s son remains one of the strongest examples of a disabled actor being cast in a role which doesn’t focus on his disability. That’s important, because the part could’ve so easily gone to an able-bodied, Mickey Mouse Club reject. Living with cerebral palsy in real life, Mitte’s character had the condition, but it didn’t have him. Walter White Jr. was never defined by his disability, and is basic proof that just as Shonda Rhimes employs colorblind casting on all of her shows, an actor’s physical or mental impairments shouldn’t limit their chance to audition for any part. Plus, Walter’s dad, as a person with cancer who’s undergoing aggressive therapies, is a literal disabled badass, and I invite you to fight me.

American Horror Story

Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome, is one of the core cast members of American Horror Story.

Actor Sarah Paulson recently said of American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy (via Variety): “His unfaltering commitment to telling the stories of women is noteworthy. This is a man who wants to tell the stories of women over 40.” And the same is true when it comes to casting disabled actors in unexpected roles. One such disabled actor is Jamie Brewer, a woman with Down Syndrome who’s played clairvoyant witches, cult members, and creepy dolls, and continues to recur on the series even now. Plus, Inside Edition recently called Brewer the “First Woman With Down Syndrome to Star in Off-Broadway Play,” and if that’s true, it’s no mean feat that the prolific performer is blazing a trail and hopefully, instigating a major change.

You’re the Worst

Gretchen Cutler of You’re The Worst struggled with depression.

Gretchen Cutler could’ve been a cookie cutter anti-rom-com heroine, breezing through her character arc on too much booze, sex, and witty repartee. Instead, when You’re the Worst returned for a second season, Gretchen revealed herself to have the sort of show-stopping depression that ends lives, and destroys relationships. For anyone familiar with clinical depression, breakout sitcom You’re the Worst became agonizing to watch because its representation was so damn close. When viewed next to fellow character Edgar Quintero’s PTSD, You’re the Worst significantly defined itself as the sitcom that wouldn’t sugarcoat mental health even for a second.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

Kim Kardashian struggled with anxiety on Keeping Up With The Kardashians after being robbed at gun point.

Love them or hate them, the Kardashians are honest when it comes to the truly negative and difficult-to-handle aspects of life. And when Kim Kardashian West was robbed at gunpoint in Paris in 2016, she developed a serious case of anxiety as a result, and viewers were given glimpses of her agonizing reality with the disabling condition. And despite mainly being off-camera these days, Rob Kardashian’s diagnosis with diabetes punctuated his own reality series, Rob & Chyna. Whether or not you agree with the Kardashian brother’s approach to handling his chronic condition, his denial and refusal to face up to the realities of the illness were endlessly relatable for any of us who have ever struggled to come to terms with our own diagnoses.

Stranger Things

Gaten Matarazzo of the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things.

Gaten Matarazzo finally got his big break when the creators of Stranger Things decided to write the actor’s disability—cleidocranial dysplasia, a condition which affects the development of a person’s bones and teethinto the script. In a recent interview, Matarazzo revealed that he’d lost out on several auditions in the past, “Because they couldn’t write in a disability into the show because they had already written the script” (via HuffPost). However, as the casting process for Stranger Things proves, there’s literally zero reason that any role should be defined as able-bodied in the character description. It just shouldn’t, and doesn’t need to, happen anymore.

What These Shows All Get Right

These shows might all be majorly different in content and tone, but they’re linked by the fact that they’re not framed through an able-bodied lens. Instead, each depiction, regardless of genre, explores the highs, lows, and mundane details of disability, chronic illness, or mental health. Even more important is the fact that actual, real life, bonafide disabled people were cast in roles that were rewritten completely or simply created for them. Rather than farming out these roles to able-bodied actors, casting directors, creators, and show-runners took the time to consider disability. And in the cases of Matarazzo, Brewer, and Mitte, character arcs were altered for the better thanks to the actors portraying them.

These shows might all be majorly different in content and tone, but they’re linked by the fact that they’re not framed through an able-bodied lens.

Whether there’s strictly a “right” way to handle disability in the arts is questionable, but thanks to the growing number of crucially truthful roles for disabled and sick performers, the television landscape is getting more and more relatable. For instance, the first show by and starring Maysoon Zayid, co-founder of New York’s Arab-American Comedy Festival, is called Can-Can and is currently being developed at ABC. The autobiographical sitcom will (per Variety) follow a “Muslim woman who has Cerebral Palsy (Zayid), as she struggles to find love, the right career, and discover who she is separate of her opinionated Muslim parents,” which sounds super promising, and a little overdue.

It’s time that the stories of chronically ill and disabled human beings weren’t erased, glossed over, or summarized in a “case of the week” episode on a generic medical show. Sick people are tired as it is without having to fend off another inaccurate, depressing, or infuriating depiction of their well-worn diagnosis. And thanks to the television shows above, that’s slowly starting to change.

Advice Explainers Mental Health

How To Go To Therapy

Think you don't need therapy? Think again: therapy is for everyone. But there's a right way to do it, and a wrong way.

A lot of people think therapy is only for people who have psychological problems.

Let’s put that stigma to rest. Everyone can benefit from therapy. It’s like going to the gym: going to therapy helps you live a happier, healthier, and more productive life, even if it seems like a drag at the start.


“The biggest misconception about therapy is that you need to have a problem or that there is something wrong with you in order for you to go,” explains Justyna Wawrzonek,  a licensed social worker at the West Hartford Holistic Counseling Center in Connecticut. “That is not what therapy is about. Therapy is basically learning to come home to yourself and be as close to yourself as you can be.”

So even if you think you don’t need a therapist, you should consider making an appointment to see one. It’s an investment into your own wellness every bit as important as eating right, exercising, or the myriad other things people do to improve their quality of life.

But how do you start? How do you find a therapist? And how do you make the most of it?

How to Find a Therapist

First things first. Before you begin the search for a therapist, check with your insurance company.  If you choose to work with a therapist in-network, your insurance company may only cover a certain amount of sessions per year. If you select a therapist who is out-of-network, it is essential to understand your deductible as well as what can and cannot be submitted for out-of-network reimbursement.

Your insurance company’s list of eligible therapists can be overwhelming, so review their specialties. As an adult, you can cross off any therapist that specializes in children or adolescents. Depending on your age, you can either seek out or cross off those who serve geriatric patients. If you are confident that you do not suffer from a specific condition—such as an eating disorder, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression—you can eliminate those specialists as well. However, it’s important to recognize that while you think you understand why you are seeking therapy, once in therapy you may discover there is a different reason entirely.

It’s important to recognize that while you think you understand why you are seeking therapy, once in therapy you may discover there is a different reason entirely.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, ask your primary care provider for recommendations. You can also check with friends and family if you feel comfortable. Next, rule out deterrents such as location, cost, or lack of appointment flexibility. Then set up initial interviews and ask a series of questions about their approach. This will help you determine if the therapist seems genuine and empathic, if they listen well, and if they ask good questions. During this interview, pay attention to how you two interact: some patients, for example, prefer their therapists to be blunt, while others want their therapists to be more affirming.

What to Expect from Therapy

“In an ongoing therapeutic relationship, you will develop a stronger bond with a therapist,” explains Brian Cassmassi, an adult psychiatrist. “You may not become best friends, but there is definitely a friendlier and easy rapport. Plus, it’s a lot easier to talk about what happened with your days and for the therapist to recall things that may have happened in your past that can clarify a current situation.”

As you become more comfortable with your therapist and continue to learn about yourself, you will develop a growing awareness of the patterns in your life, and how these patterns influence the way you feel and behave. This is what therapy is ultimately about: to gain a deeper understanding of the way everything in your life ties it together.

“Therapy should be challenging and hard—that’s when you know that you are growing.”

“You are the expert of your life,” Wawrzonek explains. “You know where you need to go, what you need to do, and what you want out of life. But you may not know exactly how to get there. It’s the therapist’s job to walk along with the client and help them sort through all the different roadblocks. It is not the therapist’s job to take the client’s hand and lead them somewhere. The client is always in the driver’s seat, and the therapist is using their best judgment as to what may be helpful for their client.”

“Therapy should be challenging and hard—that’s when you know that you are growing,” Wawrzonek continues. “But it also has to have a component of feeling safe, nurturing, and supportive. Without it being hard, safe and supportive, there is something that is missing. All of those components are important.”

What Not to Do in Therapy

Believe it or not, self-sabotage can be common in therapy.

Some of these examples of self-sabotage are obvious. It should go without saying that if you are chronically late or miss the majority of your appointments, you aren’t getting the full benefits of therapy.

But keeping secrets and not being totally honest will also sabotage your therapeutic goals. If your therapist isn’t working with the truth, it’s hard for them to understand what is happening in your life. Therapists aren’t there to judge you or your actions, regardless of their personal beliefs, so don’t be afraid to share.

Your therapist can’t change the world, but they can help you to change yourself.

“If there is a topic that is way too sensitive for you to discuss with your therapist at the moment, but you know it’s important, it may be helpful just to say, ‘there was this rape that happened when I was a teenager, but don’t touch that right now,’” Cassmassi recommends. “During a later session, if you say you were uncomfortable with your boss touching you a certain way last night, the therapist may ask if you want to talk about the rape now or if you still want to talk about your boss.”

Playing the blame game is just as bad. Instead of blaming others for a problem, your therapy should focus on the things you can control. Your therapist can’t change the world, but they can help you to change yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid To Switch Therapists

It’s common to develop a strong connection with your therapist over the years.  Because of this, it may be hard to recognize and accept that you are no longer progressing with your therapist. But if therapy has become a weekly obligation and you are no longer growing, then it may be time for a change.

Remember, therapy is for you, and you should always put yourself first in this relationship. When it is time for a switch, don’t worry about how the therapist will handle the news.

“By the time that somebody is a practicing therapist or psychiatrist, they have gone through thousands of hours of supervision and training,” Cassmassi explains. “While you may think you will hurt our feelings if you leave us, that has been hammered out of us from our training. We are usually well-trained to adapt, and you aren’t going to completely break our hearts if you want to switch.”

Remember: Therapy Is For Everyone

When people haven’t gone to therapy before, they tend to believe it’s only something you do when something is “wrong” with you. But there’s nothing wrong at all with wanting to gain a better understanding of your world, and the tools that therapy teaches us to use—like mindfulness, or coping skills–have broad applications in everything from your career to your love life. .

“One of the things I often hear is, ‘why didn’t someone tell me this in elementary school so that I had this defense skill in my repertoire when I became an adult?’” Cassmassi recalls. “When people finally go to therapy as an adult, they feel like they wish they had at least known a simple trick to help them get through their teenage years. Patients also say, ‘I wish I had that under my belt when I was going through all of this. Maybe those skills would have helped me with some of the minor things, and I would have felt slightly less anxious.’”

“The most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself.”

And, it provides a safe place for you to learn and grow under the guidance of a professional who has your best interest in mind.

“The most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself,” says Wawrzonek. “And when we can nurture and foster and grow and have a healthy relationship with ourselves, that is going to mirror every other relationship that we have in the world: work, family, and friends. The deeper you get to be yourself, be okay with yourself, accept yourself, love yourself, and be your own best friend, that greatly benefits every area of your life.”

Mental Health Profiles

President Of The Drowning Girls Club

With her popular series of designs symbolizing issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, tattoo artist Fidjit is helping people like her struggling with their mental health.

On the underside of her chin, tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle has the words “I don’t scare easy” inked in bold black letters. While most of the tattoos that cover her arms and legs reference things like loved ones, childhood memories and favorite films, her neck piece touches on another major part of her life: the debilitating phobia she’s struggled with since she was 8 years old.

The now 28-year-old artist, who only tattoos in black ink in a process known as blackwork, began her first tattoo apprenticeship at the age of 19, right at the tail end of an awful two-year period where her phobia was so intense she couldn’t leave the house due to intense panic attacks.

“It was very difficult in the very beginning,” she says, “There were a lot of times I would make excuses for not going in, leave suddenly, or just feel terrible the whole day while at work.” After the first year, things began to improve, which she credits in large part to hypnotherapy, and she became used to having to wait out feelings of panic and dealing with them after she left the studio.

Tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle.

Today she’s based in Southend, England and frequently works in studios in London and abroad, having attracted a large following who often identify with the personal and feminist themes found in her work.

In talking about her own mental health, Fidjit points out that while she has Tourette’s, which is a neurological condition, it comes with a number of comorbid conditions like OCD, OCB and PTSD. She also experiences difficulty in social situations, sensitivity to sensory overload, dissociation and mixed personality problems.

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life.”

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life,” she says, describing her flash sheets (pre-drawn images that anyone can ask to have tattooed) as a visual diary. “I don’t have any interest in just drawing pieces that have nothing to do with my brain or me personally. I’m lucky in that a lot of my clients are on the same wavelength, so they’ve specifically picked me because something I’ve done has spoken to them in a certain way.”

One popular image that still strikes a chord with many of her clients first appeared three years ago in a flash sheet inspired by the suicides of female authors. Adapted from a painting Fidjit had made based on the death of Virginia Woolf, the drawing shows the top of a woman’s head peeking over stylized waves.

One of Fidjit’s blackwork tattoos, which often symbolize mental health issues.

Since then over 1,000 people have gotten variations of the tattoo, members of what she now calls “The Drowning Girls Club.” She says that while some versions are sarcastic or have light-hearted additions like party hats, many clients get them for reasons related to their mental illness or the struggle of keeping their heads above water. Whether people ask for the original drawing or add personalized details, she loves that the image has resonated with so many and that a community has formed around it. “I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have,” she says.

Recently she’s found herself working on a new series of custom tattoos based on mental health. Like with the drowning girls series, it began with a flash sheet, but this time with drawings inspired by her own experiences with dissociation, panic attacks and an eating disorder.

“One person got one of the pieces done and I wrote what it was about [on Instagram] and then someone asked me to do a custom piece about dissociative disorder,” she explains. After posting that second tattoo and a brief description online, more and more requests came pouring in from people wanting to have their own conditions turned into tattoos.

“I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have.”

The tattoos, often framed with radiating lines that almost vibrate around the central figure, give viewers a sense of the full-body sensations that accompany many mental conditions. A tattoo depicting panic attacks, for example, recreates a feeling of claustrophobia as seven detached hands reach at a floating head, the character’s distressed face half in shadows as lines emanate along their profile.

“There’s obviously so many different reasons why people get them, but I think there’s an ownership element,” she muses, talking about how people often place their trust in her when coming up with a design but the process is still a collaboration and conversation about how they personally picture their condition.

Capturing often overwhelming experiences in simple visuals, each piece is a unique window into how a specific person experiences and understands their own mental health. Just as putting a name or diagnosis to a condition can be validating, so can creating a representation of your relationship to it.

There are over a thousand variations in the Drowning Girls Club series.

She says that for many, “It makes them feel more in power of something that’s maybe hindered their life in a certain way, because when it’s invisible and kind of floating about it seems a bit harder to take control of. If you have a visual representation you can look at it and remember that’s what it is. It’s just that. I think sometimes it’s quite a nice reminder that is just one part of you and it’s not something that necessarily that needs to rule you.”

“It’s odd, because it’s just a tattoo, but it really does help,” she adds, reflecting on her own piece. “Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control, that I’ve got power over it.”

Having the invisible made visible can other benefits as well. She knows of people who’ve gotten these tattoos partially as a conversation starter, a visual way of announcing and explaining their condition or simply showing that they aren’t ashamed.

“Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control.”

Fidjit’s own openness about her experiences on Instagram is one reason for her major following, which she credits to changing trends in the tattooing industry. Whether it’s the movies they love or the social movements they support, she says social media has made it easier for people to seek out artists they identify with. “I think clients are really interested in the person behind the work and their lifestyle more than their actual work sometimes,” she observes.

Her own posts about things like an abusive ex-partner and the experience of having her rapist acquitted, along with participating in fundraisers for rape crisis and domestic violence charities, has helped her attract customers with similar stories who know her studio is a safe space, even if they might not want to specifically talk about their experiences.

Fidjit’s tattoos help people struggling with mental health issues remember that they are not alone.

Fidjit says that the greatest difficulty her conditions present in terms of tattooing are often social interactions, since talking is often a major part of the job but she can find making normal conversation difficult and doesn’t always know how she’s coming across. That doesn’t stop her from offering a sympathetic ear or calling out abuses she sees in the tattooing industry.

“I’m happy to tell anybody who to avoid – I’ve had tattoos on my body from people who are abusive and it’s a horrible feeling because it’s this thing on your body from a horrible person. I hate that feeling, and I hate other people to have that feeling.”

Because while a tattoo might just be an image on skin, the story of how that image got there can mean everything.

Essays Mental Health

My Long-Leggity Beastie, Anxiety

A helpful therapist and a high-school spelling bee taught me to finally confront the monster that was haunting my life.

As a junior in high school, I qualified for the regional spelling bee. The contest was going to be held at a nearby high school which I had never visited. My parents, who both had work obligations that afternoon, explained to me where the high school was located. Having only recently got my driver’s license, I assured them that I would be fine on my own.

But on the day of the contest, I was nervous. My heart was beating fast as I fired up my ancient station wagon and joined the stream of traffic heading down the parkway. Unsure of my route, my eyes darted around looking for street signs. Finally, I saw a sign that read “High School” and quickly turned down the residential street, relieved to have found my destination.

But when I inquired at the front office about the spelling bee, the secretary seemed confused. She got on the phone and made one call, then another. She shook her head. Hanging up the phone, she gave me the bad news.

I had come to the wrong school.

Heart pounding, I hopped back in my car. I drove to the correct high school in a blur, and ran into the auditorium, only to arrive as the last word was being read aloud.

I stood there, frozen, with tears streaming down my face as I realized I had missed my chance. As the audience cheered and clapped for the spellers, I broke into sobs, and hurried back to my car where I could cry in private.

I felt devastated about missing the spelling bee, although to family and friends, I laughed the whole thing off, turning it into a story about my poor sense of direction. Privately, I ruminated about how upset the whole thing had made me.

Up until then, I had been undecided about what to do after graduating high school: go to art school, to fulfill a lifelong dream of studying design? Or pursue a traditional liberal arts education, where I could indulge my love of reading and writing?

Now, I thought, I had uncovered a truth about myself that I couldn’t ignore. I concluded I was so upset because I cared about words and language so much. In my mind, this meant I needed to follow my deeper passion.

So I gave up on art school and focused on English. I looked for the words that would make this story about myself true.

But the truth I uncovered that day was actually something completely different, although I didn’t realize it at first. This was a narrative shaped, not by my passions, but by the anxiety that has been running like a dark undercurrent throughout my life.

It was not until many years later, when seated on my therapist’s couch, that I saw it for what it was, and truly understood how I had been carried along by this current of anxiety for most of my life.

The therapy session was about something completely unrelated. But in discussing how I had reacted to a certain situation, my therapist made an observation that shook me to my core.

I mentioned something about anxiety being an influence on my reaction, and she smiled, her eyes fixed to mine. “Honey,” she said with a kind smile, “anxiety has been the single most powerful driving force in your life.”

“Honey,” she said with a kind smile, “anxiety has been the single most powerful driving force in your life.”

The conversation shifted after that, and I barely remember what was said next. When our session was over, I responded mechanically to her warm and loving hug, and raced out of her office, my mind buzzing.

The single most powerful driving force in my life? What about my intellect, my curiosity, my passions? My hands were shaking as I fumbled in my bag for my car keys and made the short drive back to work. I wasn’t ready to let this information in. If I tugged on the thread my therapist had just pointed out to me, what would it unravel? So I tucked it away and tried not to think about it.

Anxiety, like other mental disorders, is an imaginative and skillful liar. One of the greatest tricks it plays is its ability to hide in plain sight, to camouflage itself as something benign. For so many years, my anxiety was the snarling wolf waiting in disguise, while all I could do was wonder: “What long teeth you have!”

As a child, my anxiety hid among an array of typical childhood fears, like the alien hiding among Gertie’s stuffed animals in the movie E.T.. Hanging on the wall in my grandmother’s sewing room was a needlepoint sampler of the old prayer, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us,” complete with an image of a green, dragon-like beastie. I was terrified of that sampler; terrified of the idea of “things that go bump in the night,” terrified of E.T., or any sinister creature from any movie or TV show I ever watched. I sat in terror through the movie Gremlins as a child while my family laughed at its campy horror, then I lay awake for hours imagining that the long-limbed creatures from the film were going to crawl up from under my bed and devour me.

In high school, my anxiety was free-floating and sporadic, but it hid so well there too. My friends and I would commiserate about being “so stressed” or “totally freaking out” over endless late-night cups of coffee at Denny’s, as we attempted to juggle pre-calculus homework, play practice and debate tournaments. In college, everyone complained about having “so much work,” yet it seemed like a point of pride for each of us to be the busiest, the most burdened, the most stressed.

What I didn’t say to anyone at college was that when I was “so stressed” about my homework, I locked myself in my room and stayed awake for 24 hours until I had all my assignments done. I didn’t mention that when I had been “freaking out” the day before, I had been sitting under my desk crying uncontrollably for an hour, and I didn’t even really know why. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell about myself.

Anxiety shouts, it screams, it will do anything to get your attention, and it can be hard to ignore.

Our brains love stories so much that they will make them up, stringing together unrelated events to construct a narrative where none exists. For a long time, it seemed my brain loved only the stories that flattered it; the stories that fit my idea of the person I thought I was.

And my brain is very, very good at telling stories. Stories were at once the shield for my anxiety to hide behind and also its most fearsome weapon. Anxiety has told me that something terrible is about to happen so many times that you would think I would have known it was crying wolf. Somewhere inside me, there was always a small voice saying, “This isn’t right.” But it got drowned out so easily. Anxiety shouts, it screams, it will do anything to get your attention, and it can be hard to ignore.

Accepting my therapist’s statement about the impact of anxiety on my life has meant re-writing my entire story. Looking back over my life with this newfound knowledge has been like opening up a beloved book, only to find that the characters are unfamiliar, the storyline changed, like my own private Mandela Effect.

But her statement also gave me permission to keep listening to that small voice inside me — to hear what stories it can tell. And I have learned that it is wise, and kind, and true — all the things my anxiety is not.

Anxiety pretends to be a soothsayer, reading signs and portents in everyday objects. It is why I laugh when people tell me to “trust my gut” or “use your instincts,” because anxiety rules these parts of me, and it is not to be trusted.

I laugh when people tell me to “trust my gut” or “use your instincts,” because anxiety rules these parts of me, and it is not to be trusted.

Anxiety is what tells me that someone has broken into my house and murdered my loved ones. It tells me that the shape on the side of the road is going to be a dead body. It tells me that ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-leggity beasties lurk in the shadows.

It’s so easy for everything to get drowned out by the nonstop gibbering of these fantastical yarns. But I am learning how to tune out the noise, like voices in a busy restaurant, and listen instead to what this new, small voice has to say.

It’s not always that simple or that easy. Sometimes the lies of anxiety are too cunning, sometimes its voice can’t be drowned out. Sometimes the threat of the wolf at the door feels much too real. But I am learning, after all these years, to tell the difference between fact and fiction, and to choose very carefully which stories I hear.

Essays Mental Health

How Performing In ‘The Vagina Monologues’ Helped Me Confront My Depression

I may have agoraphobia, depression, and anxiety.... but thanks to my experience acting, the world is now my stage.

At 40, I found myself on a local University community theater’s makeshift stage in Birmingham, Alabama, performing on stage for the first time in my life.

The audience was only 100 people, but to me, it felt like thousands. I was on stage, making my acting debut as the ‘The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could’, a southern black lady who falls in love with a woman from a homeless shelter, in an adaptation of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

Salaam Green

Standing on the stage in stilettos and pink lingerie, my voice started shaking. For the first 10 seconds, the words wouldn’t come out. In panic, I looked at my stage manager, but she just nodded, as if to say: You got this.

Within seconds, I gained my footing. Once I got used to being in front of so many people in sexy clothing, playing a role totally opposite the quiet, reserved person I am in everyday life, a sense of power came over me.

For the first time, maybe in my life, I felt confident and free.

I guess I’ve always felt “crazy” or different. As a black woman, there’s a staunch stigma–more so than for Caucasians–associated with being depressed. It made me introverted and prone to panic attacks.

As a black woman, there’s a staunch stigma–more so than for Caucasians–associated with being depressed. It made me introverted and prone to panic attacks.

In elementary school, I would get so nervous before class, sometimes I couldn’t hold my bowels; I wouldn’t eat all day, just in case it happened in front of my peers. So from a young age, living with social anxiety was my normal: a normal which isolated me from other people my age, and drove me inwards.

Never eat in the cafeteria, miss the bus so you don’t have to sit next to strangers, sit in the back of class where you’ll be unnoticed. Vanish, become invisible, retreat into the abyss of depression and anxiety.

Eventually, I grew so depressed and agoraphobic that I became afraid to leave my home. I ballooned to 337 pounds, only standing up from my couch to go to work or buy fast food. When I wasn’t at work, I was on my red couch, eating fast food. Eventually, when going to see a doctor for a serious sinus infection, he told me he suspect edI had agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of open or crowded spaces.


Outside of being called “crazy,” I’d never really had a name for my condition. But now I did. As I read about the symptoms of agoraphobia at home, I realized that the diagnosis fit me like a glove. A spirit of resilience rose within me: I decided, then and there, not to let agoraphobia and depression define my life.

A spirit of resilience rose within me: I decided, then and there, not to let agoraphobia and depression define my life.

A year and 180 lost pounds later, I saw a flyer for the Vagina Monologues auditions.

I had just divorced my husband, who had told me, as he left, that I would never be anything but “crazy” and no one would ever be my friend. Like my agoraphobia diagnosis, it galvanized me. Shedding tears of resolve, I vowed I wouldn’t let him be right, and I would have friends. Chasing my childhood dream of being a writer, I joined a group in Birmingham called Women Writing for a Change. Soon, I had formed a bond with the five women in the group, who accepted me for who I was, and held me to account.It was to my writing group that I first mentioned my whim to audition for The Vagina Monologues. They were wildly encouraging.

Soon, I found myself huddled in a room at the University of Alabama with 25 other women, all auditioning for the same play. When I was first called in, I almost forgot to breathe when I read my first line: “My vagina is a shell, a tulip, and a destiny. I am arriving as I am beginning to leave. My vagina, my vagina, me”. I thought of my first love—a tall basketball player I met in high school—as I read the short piece. Afterward, the set manager thanked me, and said that my name would be posted on a Facebook account if I got the part.

Two days later, I got word I’d gotten the part. 16 women out of 25 made it. Apparently, I nailed the audition.

The night of the performance, I found myself huddling again in a crowded public restroom with these same 15 women. As I nervously prepared myself, I wondered if even a single one of my-costars could have guessed that a year earlier, I’d weighed nearly twice as much, and had been so anxious, I couldn’t even leave my house.

I wondered if even a single one of my-costars could have guessed that a year earlier, I’d weighed nearly twice as much, and had been so anxious, I couldn’t even leave my house.

Like I nailed the audition, I nailed the performance, drawing gasps from the audience as I went off-script with sexy moves and overtures. The part I’d been given—Playing a confident, body positive, queer black woman—was the polar opposite of the part I played in life, and how most of my friends and even family saw me. But I drew strength from it. I realized that if a role like this—in which a black woman goes on stage and proudly owns her sexuality–could become mainstream enough to be in a well-known play like The Vagina Monologues, then maybe, too, the stigma around mental illness could be lifted in the African-American community, and people like me could be more accepted.

Post-Monologues, I still suffer daily from the symptoms of depression and agoraphobia. There are days when I sit for thirty minutes in my car, sweating anxiously, afraid to go to work to face my day. But having proven that I can go on stage has served as a hopeful beacon to me. There remains a stigma of being an African American southern woman who suffers from depression and a fear of going outside, but reclaiming my voice and expressing myself, through acting and writing, has put me on a healing.

I may be recovering from agoraphobia, but the world is now my stage.

Mental Health Profiles

The Adopted Artist With Her Head In The Clouds

Anxiety, depression, and the nature of memory intertwine in Andrea Joyce Heimer's unforgettable paintings.

Like many young artists, Andrea Joyce Heimer spent her early twenties stuck in an office job that she didn’t like while she tried to find her creative voice. Unable to afford art school, she was determined to teach herself to paint in a photorealistic manner — the only style she thought could convey the adolescent memories she wanted to depict. But no matter how many instructional books she bought or how hard she tried, she couldn’t master perspective. Eventually, she quit out of frustration.

Andrea Heimer.

Around the same time, Heimer, who had been struggling with anxiety and depression since high school, fell into one of her deepest depressions. She couldn’t get herself out of the house for weeks. “It was like I just hit a wall,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to off myself unless I figure out something to keep me busy.’”

Still surrounded by art supplies, Heimer decided pick up a brush again. This time, however, she wasn’t going to worry about what the painting looked like. She told herself, “I’m just going to do it how it comes out. I’m going to return to childhood where I just draw for the fun of it.”

She ended up painting four pieces. The paintings were all flat, with no shading and the perspective was skewed. But there was something appealing about them. With encouragement from her husband, she reached out to some folk art galleries and received a positive response from the first place she contacted. She was still stuck in a depressive loop, but that positive reply gave her just enough of “a little oomph” to make another painting and then another. Slowly but surely, that momentum built on itself, eventually pulling her out of her dark hole.

Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane

Today, Heimer is a full-time artist, splitting her time between an MFA program in New Hampshire and her home in Washington. Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane. Objects and characters that might otherwise be hidden are brought into view, unveiling the mystery and violence hidden just below the surface of suburban neighborhoods. The effect is akin to Grandma Moses meets David Lynch. In her acrylic world, ordinary rites of passage collide with mystical rituals: cult members argue over wallpaper choices, giant wolves suckle teenage boys, and a devoted husband drinks his wife’s bathwater. At the same time, kids get bowl cuts in the living room, bad boys hang out at the baseball diamond “being dangerous and irresistible,” and girls cultivate crushes that are mythical in scope.

Often only 16 inches by 20 inches, or smaller, her paintings reward viewers who pause for a closer look. Minute patterns on wallpaper and clothing reveal themselves to be cowboys and Indians, thunderstorms and rainbows, or a starry cosmos of planets and comets. These repeated patterns are therapeutic for Heimer. Even when the painting doesn’t aesthetically need the patterning, Heimer needs it. “For someone who has tendencies to overthink things, it’s such a relief to go do something repetitive,” she says. “It’s that meditative process of drawing the same tiny design over and over and over again–you can lose yourself completely for two hours just doing that.” To paint these details, she leans close to the canvas, keeping her face only an inch away from the surface. “I’m sure that’s terrible for my spine,” she says. “But it’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it. I miss that when it’s not there.”

It’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it.

Heimer began developing a keen eye for detail early on. When she was in third grade, her parents pulled her aside after dinner and told her that she was adopted. Visibly uncomfortable, they kept the conversation short, and didn’t discuss it again. Determined to never be surprised like that again, she became a studious observer of life in her hometown of Great Falls, Montana.

“You’re going along, you have this normal life … and then all of a sudden you find out that your parents aren’t who you think they are,” explains Heimer. “Then that opens a door. You’re like, ‘Okay, well what else isn’t what it seems?’’’

Great Falls sits on the northern Great Plains, surrounded by vast stretches of open prairie. “You can literally find the edge of town and go stand there. There’s nothing beyond it, which is an unnerving thing,” says Heimer. The neighborhood she grew up in, however, felt like a typical suburb. She lived a couple blocks away from her elementary school. There was a park across the street from their house and beyond that a golf course.

Heimer would spend hours riding her bike past the houses, coming up with narratives about the lives inside. “I don’t know if there’s some underlying perversion in me, or something. Maybe it’s a normal tendency. You ride the same route and you start noticing the same people and you wonder, ‘Are their lives like my life?’”

Heimer at work in her studio.

As a goth teenager, she’d go to music shows and sit in the parking lot because she was more interested in listening to people’s conversations than the bands inside. “I would sit in my car a lot with the window down pretending to read a book or something, but really I was listening to the people who were standing next to my car talking,” she says. “Saying it now, I’m like, ‘God, what a weirdo. Just go talk to somebody like a normal person.’”

All those years of listening have turned into a wealth of stories to draw upon — and led to conversations that Heimer could never have predicted as a teen. “The paintings are almost like — this is going to sound so stupid — but I feel like each one has its own personality or its own magnetic force,” she says. “I feel like they’re little people trying to help me along.”

I feel like each [painting] has its own personality or its own magnetic force… like they’re little people trying to help me along.

The lively, diary-like revelations in her paintings seems to help others open up as well. “I don’t know if it’s because a lot of them are very embarrassing, but you would not believe the things that people tell me at openings,” she says. “After a two-minute conversation, they’ll confess something really deep or embarrassing or touching. I wasn’t expecting those interactions, and they make me feel good in a way that nothing else does.”

Heimer has found that these moments of connection give her a sense of buoyancy that helps counteract the weight depression. She is pursuing her MFA in part so that she can teach part-time and make interacting with others a more regular occurrence. “I realized that I was spending eight hours a day alone in the studio painting. That’s not healthy either,” she says. “I totally love being around art students. It’s another magical thing, being around other people who are making things and learning.”

“I don’t want to be super dramatic and be like, ‘It’s given me something to live for,’” says Heimer of her art. “The pace and the momentum of it, I think, help. I still have medication. I do all the stuff that I’m supposed to. But there’s something about that forward momentum. It doesn’t have to come from a painting career. It can be anything that you care about that propels you forward.”

Mental Health The Good Fight

Ghana’s Purple People

In Ghana, where mental health issues are widely misunderstood, a homespun support group helps people suffering from anxiety and depression.

Ceiling fans, planes flying above her hostel and anxiety over school work used to send Sandister Tei into a state of panic and shakiness.

When she went to a local doctor in her home country Ghana to try find out why she was having strange thoughts and these physical reactions to them, she was told she had malaria–a common disease caused by mosquito bites in this West African country.

At 19, she knew this diagnosis was wrong. She knew what malaria felt like, but didn’t see the connection to her current state.

Sandister Tei was 19 when she started suffering from anxiety attacks. She was diagnosed with malaria instead.

“Being nervous and panicking about things, I didn’t think malaria could do that to me.”

So, she did her own research on Google and happened upon the word “serotonin,” telling her that what was going on was more likely to do with a chemical imbalance.

It got her thinking about how she was as a child, she often suffered  fatigue and would worry a lot. People would accuse her of being lazy, or that she kept to herself too much. Her school work suffered as did her self-esteem. Thanks to Google, she had some light thrown on her situation.

“I did more and more reading and realized this thing is not as exclusive: there are others out there,” Tei, now 30, and an online journalist for one of Ghana’s top media houses, recalls.

Journalism Leads To A Proper Diagnosis

She found ways to try and cope and deal with her mental health problems, but it affected her university life. She was studying geography at the University of Ghana when she started working towards a career in journalism, kicking it off with the student rags and local newspapers.

She then started blogging, and posting on Facebook, which lead her to wanting to work in online journalism.

“Being nervous and panicking about things, I didn’t think malaria could do that to me.”

Tei sought out opportunities to learn more about online journalism, with her eyes set on studying outside Ghana, as she did not see any courses within the country that had this focus.

In 2013, Tei landed a scholarship to do her masters in journalism at Cardiff University in Wales.

It was in Wales that she went to another doctor and was properly diagnosed with depression.

That diagnosis and the treatment turned her life around, her grades improved as did her energy levels. It got her thinking about the years she suffered in Ghana, because no one was able to tell her what was going on with her health.

“If I had someone to tell me to go to the hospital to get this drug, maybe I would not have suffered this much needlessly for like ten years. So that is when I thought I should be able to tell people about this, to help somebody. I am not going to administer drugs, but tell them you might want to go to hospital because there is medicine for your problems.”

When she came back to Ghana in 2015, she felt it was only people who knew about mental illness that would speak about it.

There wasn’t too much education available on mental health. “It wasn’t a national conversation,” she found.

This is something the experts echo. In 2016, Executive Director of the Mental Health Authority, Dr. Akwasi Osei, told local media mental health care in Ghana needed critical attention. He said  Ghana’s doctor-patient ratio in the mental health sector stands at 1:1.7 million as compared to 1:1 million in Nigeria and 1:50,000 in Kenya. He quoted a report that suggested  41 percent of the population, predominantly women, suffered from mental distress and depression.

41 percent of Ghana’s population, predominantly women, suffer from mental distress and depression.

In late 2016,  nurses from the Accra Psychiatric Hospital went on strike to highlight how dangerously underfunded the facility was. It is often in the news for not having the means to feed and medicate its patients. In the capital Accra, it is hard not to notice the number of mentally unstable people left to fend for themselves on the streets.

With this context, Tei decided to start a mental health support group in Accra.

Ghana’s Purple People

A friend organized a free space for her to hold the meetings, and she named the group Purple People – an affirmative name for an affirmative group.

“When you are depressed, anxious or when you are in a very bad mood, people say you are feeling blue. Purple has some blue in it, and the color purple is linked to royalty, well-being, affluence, goodwill. A lot of positive things. I think that even though we are ‘blue people’ we have the potential to crossover to the purple space.”

There are about a dozen members, they can meet each week, whoever feels like meeting, can do so.

Tei Sandister founded Purple People as a way to help raise awareness of mental health in Ghana.

Tei keeps contact with the members in a private Facebook group, and then has a public page to post articles on mental health and to advertise the group meetings if people want to join.

Purple People seek to listen to each other on common experiences, share and shed light on coping strategies to help each other while also encouraging members to seek professional help.

Since she advertises the group through social media and a blogger email list, she has found most of the members are professionals in Ghana, aged 27 to about 36. There are health care workers, an entrepreneur, software engineer, an environmentalist and Tei is a journalist.

While the group members are well-educated, living in Accra, eventually Tei wants to be able to target those in this country who might not have the same access to information.

“With Purple People, all of us can speak English and all of that but at a certain time I will focus more on people who can not speak English or even access Google, or don’t have the internet.”

She plans to try spread the message of her group in one of Ghana’s local dialects–Akan, through local radio stations in the future.

With the current formation of Purple People, she says, people don’t just connect in the weekly meetings. 

“There have been times people will write there [in the Facebook group] they are feeling really bad and need help – can someone get to them. I don’t want to call it a hot line, but eventually it became something like that.”

When this happens, members will rally and get the person the help they need.

Despite starting the group, Tei also uses it to learn more about her own issues.

Last year, amid work-related problems, she started developing intense anxiety.

She turned to the group for some pointers on what was going on and how she can help manage it.

“I set up a group but ended up going back to the group and asking ‘I know some of you have panic attacks already how is this thing like’?”

In Ghana, if a person seeks treatment for depression, they are likely to be taken to a hospital or a church group.

Another member of the group held a session for those who wanted to learn more about anxiety and shared coping mechanisms.

However, Tei is quick to point out that the group does not try, or seek to treat people, but instead helps them finds ways to get treatment, or deal with issues.

They support each other to go to the hospital to get professional help.

Tei explains that in Ghana, if a person seeks treatment, or someone seeks it on their behalf they are likely to be taken to a hospital, or a church group. Ghana does not have the General Practitioner (GP) system many western countries have.

In cases where someone might be aggressive, Tei notes they might be checked into a psychiatric  hospital, though depending on who is trying to help them, they might end up at a church, under the belief that prayers will fix them.

It was Google that helped her realize her racing head wasn’t malaria, and it was through the internet she brought Purple People together. And with her whole work being about being online, this extends to the little free time she has as well. Tei is involved with the Wikipedia community, where she edits Wikipedia Ghana. She is a co-founder of the Wikipedia Ghana community, and one of its representatives.

A Changing Direction

While she had to search hard to identify what was going on with her 11 years ago, Tei says there is a lot more mental health awareness and advocacy in Ghana now. Those who feel like they are lost in the dark luckily have more avenues to turn to.

Those who feel like they are lost in the dark luckily have more avenues to turn to.

“I have turned on the radio a few times and heard people talking about mental heath, and I have read a few articles here and there of people talking about depression.

“I have sat in meetings where people have come out and said ‘Hey I am depressed, have anxiety or am panicking’,” Tei says.

“I get the impression people are becoming more aware and speaking up.”