According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness and other conditions: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, Roxanne Vasquez explains how her medical training in the field of psychiatry complicates her view of her own depression and anxiety.
It’s strange, sometimes.
Our ability to empathize is such an incredibly human quality. It implies a connection made from common experiences, and the comfort that emanates from these connections can be quite salvaging. Empathy is therapeutic.
I am a physician in training in the field of psychiatry; I have depression and anxiety.
If you are not familiar with psychiatry, it is a branch of medicine that integrates neuroscience, pharmacology, and psychology. We care for individuals who suffer from mental illness, or pathology of the mind. In the same way that your primary care provider or specialist manages your hypertension or diabetes, we treat illnesses such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, and addiction. Every physician has various tools in their kit and algorithms designed and utilized with purpose to give patients the best care possible.
Psychiatry has an added layer of complexity. Often, algorithms go out the window. It is difficult to find a mode of treatment for a patient that actually works the first or second time around and nearly impossible to ever land on the perfect therapeutic match for each person. Not because our medications and procedures don’t work, but the effects can be vastly different from one individual to the next.
Just as sex and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) unfairly carry around a taboo scarlet letter, mental illness seems to face the same stigmas that lead to prejudice. We are a growing field that needs nurturing to thrive just as much as the next guy.
So back to my first thought.
Sometimes it’s strange. Suppose I’m anxious and frustrated from trying different medications with the help of my own psychiatrist. Then, a patient comes to me in clinic with similar apprehensions. It would be heartening to comfortably say, “I know exactly how you feel because I’m going through this too.” It would also be nice to know that if I shared such honest sentiments, my professional role would not be compromised in my admitting I’m flawed. I am human.
As a professional, the pressure to be a role model is always there, which is probably healthy accountability. As a physician, there is an added pressure to be physically well for our patients, and as a physician in mental health, pressure to be mentally well.
It is difficult to expose our most judged inner states to others. It is more uncomfortable, even painful, to objectively reflect upon ourselves with kindness. To avoid the criticism we so compulsively inflict.
At least, that’s how I feel. This bothers me given the career path I’ve chosen. For all the aforementioned, it bothers me. Why the added standards?
I am currently a psychiatrist in training; I have depression and anxiety.
Some days are better than others. At home, it might be easier to get up in the morning without dreading the day because the anvil atop my head is a little less colossal. In the hospital, compassion’s tender flames might burn more intensely knowing the connection I’ve made with a patient is only made true by how similar our experiences were in bringing us to that moment. Other days, empathy feels like a curse, our emotional resemblance painfully real and triggering.
To be honest, I’m still figuring it out. Thanks to inspirations such as Brené Brown and my closest friends, the dynamics of my inner and outer spheres are much more manageable. Vulnerability and acceptance—the absolute two best practices I’ve embraced wholeheartedly.