- Diagnosis/Area of Expertise: Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, Anorexia
- Focus: Medication, Healthcare Utilization, Guilt, Apathy, Stigma, Education
- Resources Used: Research, CBT, Mindfulness, Exercise, Support Network
I'm Shaina - science nerd, pseudo-vegetarian, ultimate frisbee enthusiast, and aspiring mental health care provider. The latter wasn’t even on my radar until 2012, when in the span of a few months I moved across the country to a city that was reeling from a recent mass shooting at a local movie theater, jumped out the window of my apartment to escape from a deadly arson, learned that my sister had been institutionalized 2,000 miles away in critical condition, and mourned 26 friends and neighbors who were murdered at the elementary school in my hometown. The common thread? Mental illness. Witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of this epidemic has provided me with perspective and compassion, and has shifted the focus of my studies to psychopharmacology. I hope to pay it forward by using my experiences and training to help others struggling with mental illness and work together to erase the stigma.
What are your diagnoses? How do you feel about them?
PTSD, depression, and insomnia feel like diagnoses that belong to someone else- probably because I felt like a different person then. Now that I've "come out the other side" and can reflect on my time in the darkness, it's time to take ownership. No more feeling embarrassed or ashamed, weak or inadequate- I need to use my experience to help pay it forward, and the first step is acknowledging it and sharing my story.
Have you ever experienced stigma?
My most memorable experiences with stigma are those I gained secondhand. My best friend has been struggling with severe anxiety, OCD, and a life-threatening eating disorder for several years now. When she was the sickest, any trip out in public was a nightmare. Wherever we went we were met with stares and hushed comments. Family, friends, even strangers would look at those of us in her life as irresponsible, uncaring, and blind to what was happening before of us. In reality, we spent every waking moment in agony because of how helpless we felt, more and more with each failed attempt at outpatient, inpatient, and residential treatment programs. The stigmatization was incredibly damaging, not only in derailing my friend’s recovery and eroding her confidence, but also in compounding and perpetuating the guilt we felt as her caretakers, leaving us less able to be at our best in supporting her.
How has your life been affected by your illness?
It was a period of time that I'll never be able to get back. I lacked motivation. My work ethic disappeared. I was antisocial. It was like being trapped in deep hole that I didn’t have the energy or will to climb out of, so I just stayed there and let the darkness consume me. I was missed out on important life events that were happening around me, not because I wasn’t physically present but because I wasn’t there emotionally. My time in the hole coincided with one of my closest friends finding her future husband. In the span of nearly 2 years, she had fallen in love for the first time. From my perspective it seemed like an instant. It is one of my biggest regrets from a time in my life when I was so caught up in my own world and my own problems that I wasn’t there to support her and share in her joy.
When did you realize what you were experiencing wasn't typical?
When I stopped caring about things that used to be important to me, like doing well in school. At the time I thought I was gaining perspective, the insight to realize that in the grand scheme of things, studying and grades didn’t really matter. But while this is true, it's dangerous to lose motivation and stop contributing as a productive member of society. We need goals and responsibilities to stay focused and grounded, and at some point I had lost that.
Early on, why didn't you seek help?
I spent a lot of time comparing my situation to that of my best friend. She was in the hospital, fighting for her life because her mental illness wouldn’t allow her to eat. My problems seemed so insignificant relative to hers. What I came to realize, however, was that I couldn’t be there for her if I didn’t take care of myself. I had to spend time on my health in order to be the best ally and supporter for her.
What type of reactions are not easy for you to hear? What reactions do you appreciate when sharing that you live with a mental illness?
I try not to get too caught up in the vernacular. It doesn’t bother me much to hear "crazy" or "OCD" being thrown around as casual descriptors because 99% of the time I know it's not coming from a place of malice, just ignorance. It's more disheartening to hear stories of those who actually know someone with a severe mental illness and choose to gossip or spread details of their private life. I appreciate compassion, respect, and support for those who are struggling. This is the time when they need us the most! Even if you can't understand what they're going through, I think that saying something like, "That must be hard, I'm here if you need me" can make all the difference.
What do you wish people would understand in regards to mental health/illness?
The worst feeling of all is that of being ostracized. That is what the stigma of mental illness does, and it is incredibly detrimental to advancing our cause. What we need to do is shift the optics so that treating and maintaining mental health is viewed equal in value and convention to treating and maintaining physical health. Public perception of routine mental health care as being just that, “routine,” is critical to reducing stigma and tackling this epidemic.
What treatment or coping skills are most effective for you?
Keeping busy, surrounding myself with positive people, and trying to steer clear of pervasive alarmist media coverage of every single violent event that occurs in the world. Instead of gawking at gruesome pictures from the latest mass shooting and throwing up our hands in a sense of learned helplessness, let's do something productive to try to stop the next one!
What are a few goals regarding your mental health?
1) Practice mindfulness, being present in the moment and appreciative of everything I have. 2) Don't get discouraged by things happening in the world around me, but use them as motivation to be kinder to everyone I meet and work harder to make a difference in the lives of people that I have the ability to help. 3) Never forget my experience and use it to become a more compassionate person.
What does progress look like to you?
Not moving on but moving forward. Incorporating our past experiences into everything we do. Instead of letting those experiences stop us from reaching our goals, using them to inform our future decision-making and further the causes we believe in so strongly.