When I began to develop panic disorder in my late teens, it took me a few years to get help. First, it was difficult to even understand what was going on. I’d heard of panic attacks, but I pictured someone rapidly hyperventilating into a paper bag and acting nervous and twitchy.
My panic attacks were much more private than that: I felt absolutely terrified, my heart would race, and my gut would turn itself inside out. But to all outward appearances, I was just daydreaming or lost in my own little world during a panic attack.
Understanding Our Own Mental Health
Emotions were discussed pretty openly in my household, and my single mom was good about letting us express our feelings without shame. But I didn’t really know how to categorize or vocalize the panic attacks and general anxiety I was feeling. At the time — over 20 years ago — openness about mental health wasn’t as common as it is now. You didn’t see celebrities writing Instagram posts about their depression, anxiety, or anything else. The stigma was much stronger.
Once I told my mother what was going on, she didn’t hesitate to help me find a therapist. I didn’t feel many reservations about seeing a psychotherapist either, once I was finally able to vocalize that I was having a problem. I remember my mother saying that when she was growing up, going to therapy was considered absolutely shameful. “You only went to therapy if you were ‘crazy’ or something like that,” she said.
Getting Help, Then and Now
She noted how much times had changed since she was a kid in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then — it was the late 1990s at the time — everyone seemed to have a therapist. Among a certain population of Americans (we were NYC-area Jews), it was just something you did. You had a dry cleaners you liked, a butcher you trusted, and your very own psychoanalyst. Oh, and most insurance companies easily covered therapy back then, so it felt accessible and easy.
I am happy to say that in the past 20 or so years since then, the stigma surrounding mental health has lifted even more. When I was younger, going to therapy wasn’t such a big deal, but talking about your mental was still something you kept under wraps for the most part. Not only that, most of us weren’t that well educated about mental health conditions.
Sure, we probably got that cursory mental health lesson in health class, where you learned what a few of the most well-known mental health conditions were called, but you assumed that if they were “disorders,” and they were probably experienced by “other people.”
And suicide — which was and still is a major risk factor for teenagers — well, that was barely spoken of, or completely glossed over. Maybe, if you were lucky, you were given the number for the suicide prevention hotline.
Mental Health Today
Nowadays, the tide seems to have turned in a major way. As a mom of two boys, one of whom is fast approaching the teen years, I have to say that I am happy and relieved to see how much more open and honest people are becoming about mental health.
For example, according to The Matters of the Mind, an online survey conducted by American University journalism students about how millennials view mental health, 7 out of 10 respondents said they’d feel comfortable seeking counseling, 85% feel that having a friend or colleague who has a mental health condition isn’t a big deal, and 6 out of 10 said they would feel comfortable dating or living with someone who battled a mental health challenge.
A survey conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and two other partnering organizations yielded similar results. College-aged adults had a more accepting understanding of mental health than older adults. Not only that, but they viewed seeking help for mental health disorders as a sign of strength — a wonderful and important development indeed.
Access to Care is Still a Barrier
However, both surveys found that the millennial generation found access to mental health services sorely lacking, which is disappointing, to say the least.
“We’re seeing a shift in the stigma of mental health in emerging adults, but until we can improve access to mental health care, it is unlikely that this generation will receive the support and care for a long-term change in mental well-being,” Anne Marie Albano, psychologist, professor at Columbia University, and ADAA member said. “Changes in our health care system have made it possible for them to get services and establish a new tenor for how future generations view mental health care. We must act to ensure this care is delivered.”
Yes, this is seriously depressing, not to mention anxiety-producing. The state of health care is in dire need of reform, and wish I didn’t have to spend my nights worrying how my children are going to afford basic health and mental health care once they leave the nest.
Breaking Stigma Benefits Every Generation
Still, I think it’s a really good thing that kids feel more comfortable talking about mental health, and that so many stigmas — both from my mother’s generation and my own — appear to be dissolving. This coming generation definitely has some major things to be stressed about (hello, global warming, racial inequality, and rampant school shootings).
But if they feel comfortable talking about it, and loving and accepting one another throughout it all, I think we are all going to be a lot better off.