Mind On Fire
by Claire Tetro
What it took to defuse the blaze within my own brain and how the stigmatization of mental illness continues to spark the fire.
I’m sitting on the bathroom floor. The bright fluorescent lights shine down on me, reflecting off of my tears. A group of girls surround me. I can’t see them, and I can’t remember who they are. They attempt to calm me through their soothing voices and positive words, “It’s OK Claire, just breathe. Just keep breathing.” Those three words are the words that I hear every time it happens. A panic attack. This is the fifth one of the week and it’s Wednesday. Freshman girls walk into the bathroom, staring until they are shut out by the door slamming into them as my friends attempt to keep this private. People shouldn’t see me like this; it’s embarrassing. My whole body is shaking as I wipe my tears. Snot stains my sleeves. I collapse further into the floor, hugging myself into a ball, attempting to provide myself comfort. The floor is cold, but my brain is on fire. This is mental illness. This is me.
My story isn’t one that is plastered across billboards or streamed throughout the media, yet it is one that is unfolding behind hundreds of closed doors. Instead it is a story that is told in the background. A story of a girl fighting an internal battle. A story of a mind on fire.
It began when I was in 7th grade. I thought it was nothing more than sadness, a pubescent teen struggling with boy crushes and girl drama. At times it felt like the end of the world, but I didn’t think too much of it. I thought it was normal. After all, it was something that was never talked about. I remember the first time I admitted to my friends what had been going on in my mind. I explained to them how it felt like my mind was on fire. Not a slow burn, but a blaze. One that would destroy anything in its wake, one that was destroying any sense of hope left in my mind.
The burning came in waves and it wasn’t until years later, my junior year, that I realized something was seriously wrong. It took months and constant sadness. The problem was, I had no desire to acquire treatment. I didn’t think it was necessary. Little did I know, I needed it and I’m not alone.
It happened at a regular check-up with my pediatrician when she began asking me questions. I knew something was wrong. The room was tense, and my heart was pounding. “How long has the sadness been lasting, three days, three weeks?”
I counted down the months. “It started in November, so five months.” The questions continued. “How is your motivation and energy?”
I reflected on the past few weeks. I had missed multiple days of school, I was constantly skipping class or showing up late, and I was spending hours in my coach’s classroom instead of in my actual classes. “I find it really hard to get the motivation or energy to do anything,” I explained.
“Do you have anything to look forward to?” my doctor asked.
I looked from my mother to my doctor, contemplating my answer as I had a big family vacation coming up and I didn’t want to upset my mother. “No,” I responded. My mother sighed, sadness filling her eyes, and the wave overcame me, igniting the blaze. Crying, I looked into my doctor’s eyes. She then explained to me that what I was experiencing was not sadness but depression. I laughed out of discomfort, for this information did not surprise me. I knew my diagnosis long before the words were uttered out of her mouth. Those three words— “You have depression”—would change my life forever. Ever since that day, I have been living an internal battle with the enemy being myself.
The next year entailed psychologist, psychiatrist, nutritionist and doctor appointments. I felt as if I was constantly in counseling, explaining why my world came crashing down and why there was no hope left for me. I knew of friends who were experiencing the same thing, but the thing about mental illness is people don’t talk about it. It is overlooked; it is shamed. People claim it’s not real, it’s for attention, it’s not hard to be happy, it’s dramatic, it’s weak. It’s stigmatized.
The problem is, stigma remains a complicated concept to understand, yet it affects the vast majority of individuals with mental illness and there is not much being done about it. Elaine Brohan, a co-author for a study conducted by BMC Health Services Research explains stigma, “The classic starting point for defining the stigma of mental illness is Goffman’s ‘an attribute that is deeply discrediting’. The recognition of the attribute leads to this stigmatized person to be ‘reduced… from a whole and usual person to a tainted or discounted one.’” Stigma is, therefore, a relationship between an individual and their stereotypes and attributes. Socially and culturally embedded into society, stigma is formulated through interactions. Patrick W. Corrigan, a member of the Illinois Institute of Technology and a co-author of a study explains, stigma is a very hard concept to understand, as it is developed through contact and interactions with people of various experiences. Similarly, as Bernice Pescosolido, an author for the Journal of Health and Social Behavior explains, “Stigma is fundamentally a social phenomenon rooted in social relationships and shaped by the culture and structure of society.” Not only is stigma a social phenomenon that affects society as a whole, but it proved to have detrimental effects on my mind. Ignition to the flame.
My entire junior year I was constantly urged to repress my thoughts and to simply move on and get over it. Maintaining my image as a varsity dancer and a leader in the school, I was under constant pressure by my peers and people would often mistake me for a liar. People didn’t understand that friends, popularity, and being on a varsity dance team didn’t always lead to happiness. People would constantly assume I was asking for attention when they noticed the cuts on my arm or my suicidal tendencies. “I want to die” was not just a saying to me, but a wish I hoped to fulfill. No one seemed to understand the difference between a joke and a wish. I was told I wasn’t sick, I was told I was making it up, I was told I had an image to maintain. Of course, there were some who understood or could help, but the vast majority of individuals I encountered simply could not understand my mental illness. Teachers would treat me differently, school counselors, police officers, principals. Not only was I treated differently as a result of my illness, but I did not receive adequate care. The Lancet, a medical science journal, explains this phenomenon perfectly, as there are many factors that attribute to poor mental health care, from lack of accessibility to health care services to the overshadowing of diagnosis as a result of previous mental health care conditions and the prejudice from practitioners that results from the dehumanizing effects of stigma. I was treated as an outcast, and I was left alone searching for understanding.
It wasn’t until the last day of my junior year in high school that it all became too much. I drove home, locked myself in my bedroom and did whatever I could to defuse the blaze. I called my mom in tears and she rushed home from work, banging on the door, urging me to stay awake. I assured her I just needed to sleep.
“Mom, please! I just need to rest, it wasn’t that many, I’m fine. Don’t call an ambulance.”
“How many did you take?” she asked, grabbing the bottle from the floor.
“Only a couple,” I told her as my eyes began to close and the words slurred out of my mouth. She began to get aggressive, “Claire Lynn, either you’re coming with me or I’m calling an ambulance. Get out of bed. We’re going to the hospital.” After hours of pleading she dragged me out of my room, holding me up as I stumbled down the stairs and took me to the hospital where I was admitted for an intentional overdose. In the weeks following my overdose, I would be admitted to a psychiatric facility in which all of my rights as a human being would be stripped from me. I would be treated as a constant threat and my identity would be lost somewhere in that building.
My decision and my time in the hospital not only changed my perspective on life but made me more aware of the stigma surrounding mental illness. What I had done was not viewed as something people should work to prevent, but an irrational decision and an exaggeration of my emotions. I was treated as though I did not have an illness or a diagnosable condition. Rather, my illness was overlooked as an irrelevant obstacle to many. Neil Seeman, a chief executive of the RIWI Corporation and a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, illustrates the consequences of stigmatization, “Stigma increases mental distress and leads to shame, avoidance of treatment, social isolation, and, consequently, a deterioration in health.” I was not just fighting an internal battle, but I was fighting the battle that stigma creates. It wasn’t until years after my release from the psychiatric facility and recovery that I fully realized the extent of my internal battles. If I had been taught to understand the extent of my illness when I was first diagnosed, my life could have turned out very differently. I may not still be struggling with an internal battle and a mind on fire, but because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, I was left to fight my own battles.
Today the flames have become a steady burn, and the waves come in as tides, brushing along the sand rather than crashing into the shoreline. My battle is just one of many that is fought every day. Andrew Do claims, in America, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in every 25 individuals is struggling with a form of mental illness. Similarly, San Diego County released a press release stating, “According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults experiences a mental health disorder during any given year.” If awareness is brought to the issue, people like me may be spared from life altering experiences for ones that are more informative and peaceful.
As treating mental health can be a very controversial and challenging task, first stigma must be addressed. Keon West, a member of the Oxford Department of Experimental Psychology explains, by initiating positive contact and cooperation with these individuals, prejudice and stigma associated with mental illness will be limited to at least some degree. As stigma is socially constructed, reducing stigma will begin once society acknowledges the issue rather than ignoring it. Again, Pescosolido elaborates on the idea, “As Goffman (1963) reminded us early on, stigma is fundamentally a social phenomenon rooted in social relationships and shaped by the culture and structure of society. If stigma emanates from social relationships, the solution to understanding and changing must similarly be embedded in changing social relationships and the structures that shape them.” Reducing stigma will begin once society acknowledges the issue rather than ignoring it. By understanding the effects of stigmatization and how it impacts the lack of mental health care treatment, reform can be achieved. According to a report put out by San Diego County, studies show that it is estimated that almost 80 percent of all individuals struggling with a mental health conditions can lead productive lives if they receive adequate treatment. It is not just something that I or we can get over, but something that requires help and something that must be understood so that the battle is no longer fought alone, and the fire can finally be put out, for good.
Brohan, E., Slade, M., Clement, S., & Thornicroft, G. (2010). Experiences of mental illness
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Seeman, N. (2015). Use data to challenge mental-health stigma. Nature, 528(7582), 309.
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