When I had my daughter in June 2018, I fell into a well of post-partum depression. I never had suicidal thoughts or a desire to hurt my baby, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. I was exhausted all the time. I felt listless. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t feeling happy; it was like looking at life through a veil. It was at my daughter’s four-month appointment that, during a routine post-partum depression quiz, her pediatrician asked me to go to my personal doctor to discuss getting help. While I did do that, it took me more than a year to accept that I needed help. I was grumpy, irritable and disconnected from my husband and my family. I didn’t want to have any interaction with anyone, and my work completely consumed all my energy.
Despite going to marriage counseling for months (which was the best thing we’ve ever done for our marriage), with a counselor regularly telling me I needed individual therapy, I couldn’t go. I was afraid to go. I was afraid that my individual therapist would tell me to try new things or tell me things that I already knew. I had a major fear that I would appear weak. The huge chip on my shoulder had me thinking, I should be able to figure this out and handle this on my own. And while I did slowly get a little better over the months, both because of marital counseling and my own personal reading, it wasn’t enough.
Finally, in October 2019, after an extremely difficult therapy session with my husband, I went to my doctor. I got help with medication and supplements, but it took me another month to take the plunge and call a therapist. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
My primary issue stems from a deep fear of failure. And from that fear, anxiety can overtake me. I replay scenarios in my life over and over, whether I’m preparing for an upcoming interaction or reliving a previous one. There are certain things, like when I perceive criticism, that can send me into a downward spiral of mental self-flagellation. Usually, that internal punishment is undeserved, and often based on nothing more than a passing comment rather than a real need to change. My anxiety over being perfect can spiral into depression, and so, my anxiety and depression are intertwined. I’ve also realized that my anxiety is not directly tied to post-partum depression. As such, getting a handle on it is paramount to my success as a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister and coworker.
It has been this journey of emerging back into the sunlight that opened my eyes to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Why did I feel so strongly that I didn’t need help? There are probably a myriad of reasons: it wasn’t talked about often in my church or home life; the people I was exposed to were in mental health facilities or needing 24-hour care; messages of healthy living spoke negatively about the need for medications; and more. Because of my experience, my viewpoint has changed drastically, and I have a burden on my heart to normalize mental health issues. I don’t want anyone else to be afraid to get help.
What Made a Difference
I’d like to share a few things that have been making a difference for me. First, I had to recognize that I am only human, and as a human, I can only do so much. I move forward in faith regularly, but I can also get stuck and feel completely ill-prepared for what is being asked of me. This is my struggle, day in, day out, regardless of whether COVID-19 is happening. It’s taken me months of counseling to be OK with who I am and what I can do — and I believe I will struggle with that my entire life.
Second, struggling with mental health issues is not “failing.” While I sometimes wish I had gotten help sooner, I needed that time to accept what I perceived as a “failing,” and acknowledge the help of a stranger. It was hard, but I need to accept that I needed help to get out of the maze.
Sometimes we can’t make it on our own. During my journey, my pastor shared his own experience of struggle with mental health issues in a raw, emotional sermon. While I wasn’t willing to accept my mental health status at that point, that moment of vulnerability has stuck with me. The idea that my spiritual leader was willing to acknowledge his humanity, and not just acknowledge it, but stand boldly before it and face it head on — it’s inspiring. That was the beginning of the end of my inaccurate views of mental health. Being scared — or feeling like a failure if you give in — is OK. It’s OK to feel that way, but don’t let that stop you. Be brave! Take the step anyway.
Third, no one can tell me what I should do or how I should feel. My counselor has challenged me to remove the word “should” from my vocabulary. Should can be a dangerous word. It creates expectations that, especially when we create them ourselves, are often unrealistic. I am learning to give myself space to acknowledge my own self-talk. If I use the word should, why did I use that word? If I hear someone else use the word should, I ask them kindly why we should do something.
This also includes a shifting of my perspective. Challenges in my life are not negative. They are opportunities to learn something new or experience something different. And now my vocabulary includes the word opportunity rather than challenge. I find myself reframing my coworkers and family members when they use negative words regarding a situation: “Hey, I know this is tough, but it’s just an opportunity to do…[insert your words here.]” This has been a huge help in my life, and it’s a simple exercise in brain retraining that I can do myself — and I can also help others.
How We [Will] Respond
As a human resources director working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I am concerned about how we (Adventists) will respond as people struggle with those very things as a result of COVID-19.
We are seeing some truly beautiful answers to accomplishing ministry since the COVID-19 shut down. In Minnesota, we have seen a huge increase in the number of churches creating AdventistGiving accounts to allow for online giving. We’ve seen churches and pastors create live stream services on Sabbath, both as a “community square” experience and a one-way broadcast. We’ve seen early morning prayer chains and appropriately social-distanced literature provision.
But how are we providing care that targets our mental and emotional health? Working from home for the past four weeks has been a struggle for me, and I’m an introvert. Things will likely get harder as this pandemic continues.
Mental health, in both the church and the world at large, has historically been a taboo topic. For years, many people struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more either didn’t admit they had the issue or were considered odd or even hospitalized for years. According to SHRM.com, mental health expenses rose more than 10 percent each year over a five-year period, compared to only a 5 percent increase in all other medical costs. Nearly one in five, or 20 percent, of adults in the United States experience some form of mental illness each year. Depression rates, from 2012 to 2018, rose 18 percent overall. And because it has been a taboo topic in years past, most people feel uncomfortable talking about it.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 32 percent of baby boomers are uncomfortable talking about mental health issues, compared to 62 percent of millennials. While this is a significant shift in willingness to talk about it and get treatment, this doesn’t represent the millions of people who are reluctant to talk about their mental health as well.[i]
As an HR director, I feel compelled to provide ideas for tools and resources. With options for telehealth, employee assistance programs, and mental health professionals offering video conferencing — especially during this time — we have an opportunity to connect with medical professionals in new and interesting ways. Help is more accessible than it has ever been, and while for some, not going in person is difficult, it’s better than not going at all. For employees of the Adventist Church, reach out to your local HR director for information, or call the number on your insurance card to get help with accessing telehealth or mental health professionals.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please consider getting help. You do not have to feel this way. You can get help and find a way forward. I want to assure you: this is going to turn out OK! It is OK to be human. It is OK to get help. You are not alone.
If you know someone who is struggling with mental health issues, consider how you can help them. Mental health issues can manifest in various ways, but generally, there is a change in emotions, behavior, and/or communication.
It’s OK for you to ask them if they’re feeling OK. Keep the question open ended. Give them an opportunity to think it through before answering. If they brush you off, it’s acceptable to share examples of how you perceive they have changed lately (concrete examples only, please). If they open up to you, let them talk. Don’t immediately try to fix it. Offer love and kindness. And, eventually, ask them if they have thought about getting help.
If the person is open to getting help, my suggestion is to offer to help them find resources to accomplish that — but don’t push. If the person is not ready, pushing may prevent them from ever going. This will take some perception on your part. But don’t give up! I finally realized, after many months, that I needed help — because of my husband’s openness. Getting that help was the best decision I’ve ever made, and thanks to my wonderful husband’s love and support, I’m where I am today: feeling like myself again for the first time in years.
Remember: you are not alone. COVID-19 is the big, bad wolf of 2020, and he’s knocking on our door. But God is stronger than any big, bad wolf, or brick house, or struggle with eating disorders or depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or any other mental health issue. Use the resources available to you — get help!
And know that God will protect us and help us as we live our lives, through COVID-19, through natural disasters, through whatever may come, until He comes to take us home.
— Savannah B. Carlson, SHRM-CP, is director of human resources, and assistant director of communications/office manager for the Minnesota Conference Association of Seventh-day Adventists.