The Hardest Help to Ask For

by Ellen Nordahl on May 5, 2010

A few weeks ago, the weekly #u30pro Twitter chat dealt with how to ask for help at work.  I doled out my two cents on the subject without a moment’s hesitation – I’ve never had a problem going to others for their advice when it comes to tackling issues of a non-personal nature.  Since that discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of asking for help…not in the workplace, but in our every day lives.

It’s hard to believe it now, but I completely lost my sense of self during part of my last two years of college.  Feeling largely apathetic, I existed in a constant state of low-grade melancholy.  I retreated from the company of those who had been my closest friends and lost interest in the activities that had been my passions outside of school.  At one point,  I couldn’t even manage to sit down and read a book without feeling restless and distracted.  I did only what I had to do to succeed in school, and my social life went from thriving to virtually non-existent.

My family has a strong history of depression. Though the warning signs seemed obvious, I refused to acknowledge that it could be the culprit; I blamed it on stress, on disliking the alcohol-centric social environment at the UW, on the pressures of school…anything but *gasp* a mental illness.

A 2008 study by the American College Health Association found that 1 in 3 undergraduates had felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” at least once during the previous year.  By the time they reach age 24, 1 in 4 young adults will have experienced a depressive episode.  According to a 2005 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, “depression during this critical period may increase the likelihood of substance abuse, impair work and relationship function, and negatively influence an individual’s subsequent development,” but “fewer than 20% of young adults with depression receive high-quality care.”

After months of existing as a mere shell of a human being, I knew I needed to ask for help.  I saw my doctor and discussed the changes in my affect.  He recommended that I see a therapist and consider taking an antidepressant (an idea I had previously been strongly opposed to).  I was tired of feeling so empty, and set up an appointment with a counselor through the university.  I came to terms with the fact that I truly needed some outside support; unfortunately, the same doesn’t hold true for many other young people.  In a study of nearly 11,000 16 to 29 year-olds who had positive screening results for depression, 26% stated they refused to accept the diagnosis.  The reasons for refusal?  Many disagreed with the idea that medications are effective in treating depression, while others admitted they would be embarrassed if their friends found out.

After a several weeks of therapy, self-reflection, and a low dose of an anti-depressant, I began emerging from the tunnel.  I started to reconnect with my friends and explained what I had been going through, and contrary to what I had been so convinced of, not a single one judged me or treated me any differently.  They simply said they had missed the “old Ellen” and were glad I had done what I needed to do.

They now know that if they’re ever struggling or need someone to talk to, they can rely on me.  I’ve been there, and I wouldn’t wish for anyone to tackle depression feeling alone and ashamed.

I’ve seen far too many 20-somethings try to drown their sorrows in a bottle of Grey Goose or a case of Beast Light…those who insist “everything is fine” but inevitably end up in tears after closing time is called.  While books like Prozac Nation stigmatize the use of antidepressants and claim we’re turning into a horde of pharmaceutically-numbed zombies, getting help for depression isn’t as simple as having a prescription filled.

Battling depression requires a willingness to acknowledge that you can’t continue to go on the way you have been.  Coming to terms with that, and realizing that it’s not a flaw or a poor reflection of you as a human being, is much easier said that done.  It simply is what it is; you do what you need to do to get back to the life you deserve to be living.

If you’re struggling with depression and you’re still in school, check out your university’s counseling services.  For those of you in the work force, see if your employer offers an Employee Assistance Programs that can provide some direction.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist; if anything, it speaks volumes about your determination to acknowledge your personal demons and banish them.  For some, it may be as simple as figuring out what triggers the onset of a depressive episode and developing some coping strategies (e.g., exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, etc.).  If you opt for medication as part of your treatment, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  You’re not alone. Don’t look to pills as a quick-fix – remember that they’re part of the process of getting well.

While we demand frank discussions about reproductive and sexual health, we largely ignore depression and the like because they hit too close to home.  It’s shameful that we’re perfectly comfortable discussing the anatomical features of Lady Gaga but would rather eat lead paint chips than acknowledge any kind of personal mental health issue.

Mental health is our generation’s elephant in the room.  It’s time we stop ignoring it.

  • Kelly Cuene

    Ellen, thanks for sharing your experiences regarding a topic that is often difficult to discuss. I think this elephant in the room spans generations but you are right in that many young adults and college students struggle with it. As a university staff member working in student services, it is something I hear about and see all too often and I'm glad someone is willing to speak up. Though I work in career services and deal with seemingly unrelated job search advice and interviewing tips, mental health issues manifest themselves in all sorts of career-related decisions. At times I can sense there is more going on with a student than they are able to express. I hope they see this post and it helps them gather the courage to reach out to someone they trust on campus or in their personal life, whether it is an advisor, an RA or a friend.

    • EllenNordahl

      I can attest to the fact that the stresses and rollercoaster ride of the job search were definitely exacerbated by my depression. Perhaps career services could have some kind of information guide/help-tips for coping with stresses of finding a career, and include some “red flags” or warning signs that students should seek outside help from the counseling services to help them cope? I think acknowledging that it is a problem within the student body might sway some students to seek the help/resources they need.

  • LostInCheeseland

    Depression is also in our family and I have suffered from it at various points in my life. I'm thankful that I was never ashamed to seek counsel and I'm glad that you did as well. It can destroy an otherwise blossoming life.

    • EllenNordahl

      Thank you for sharing, Lindsey. Writing this post wasn't the easiest thing in the world for me, but watching other people refuse to seek help or acknowledge their problem is ultimately much more difficult than deciding to share my own struggles.

  • Grace Boyle

    You're right, it is the elephant in the room. However, I don't think it is only our generation. It's a social stigma for many generations and thinking about the Boomers where the 50's, 60's and 70's showed therapy as a “luxury” or something you didn't need they encouraged pulling yourself up from your bootstraps or rather, turn to religion.

    It seems as though our generation may be the most sensitive to it, simply because of our tender age. My mother is a therapist (life coach, parenting, relationships) for over 20 years so I've always been attuned to listening to myself, speaking with someone, objective opinion and getting help, when I've needed it. Last year was one of the hardest years of my life – I saw a Psychologist as well and it was the best thing I did in that hardest year of my life. It expedited healing, helped me move forward and made me feel safe and secure.

    Ellen, this is so very brave of you to write. I love this post and re-read it a couple times. It's beautiful. I love love love your writing :) Please don't stop.

    • EllenNordahl

      Thank you for sharing your own decision to proactively seek counsel during a difficult time in your life. Having a supportive family makes such a tremendous difference when deciding to acknowledge that you need help. While the whole “chin up/suck it up/deal with it” attitude does seem to be the norm in older generations, I think we've seen time and time again that problems don't go away simply because you refuse to pay attention to them.

      And, I have to agree with you that finding a great therapist/psychologist can truly expedite the recovery process and provides a wonderful sense of security.

      I can't tell you how much I appreciate your willingness (and the willingness of Lindsey and Sam) to share your own experiences – I feel like one of the most powerful elements of a mental illness is its ability to make its sufferers feel isolated and as though no one else can relate to them.

  • sameve

    Oh wow, can I relate to this post! I want to say thank you for writing about this. It's not an easy subject to tackle. I have battled anxiety on and off for a number of years, but I was so nervous about saying something about it and being told it was nothing that I just kept pushing it to the back of my mind. Go figure, it kept coming back, and I finally got the courage to talk to a doctor a few years ago. I'm on medicine now and it helps SO much, but I've also done a lot to re-train my mind. Medicine helps, but medicine alone won't solve all of your problems.

    Speaking of medicine, I was on another medicine for four years because my doctors decided I needed it without doing any real medical testing. It got to the point where I was pretty dependent on it, and yet my body had gotten used to it and it wasn't as effective anymore. When I started seeing a new doctor, she was appalled that these doctors had kept just handing me prescriptions for this medicine. Thankfully, I don't take it anymore, but can you imagine if I hadn't switched doctors? Medical professionals should not be looking for the easy way out if it's not the right solution.

    “There's absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist.” I couldn't agree more. When my parents got separated a couple of years ago, my mom really wanted me to see someone. It was (and still is) a really complicated and difficult situation that weighs heavily on me, especially as an only child. And yet, I was adamantly opposed to seeing a therapist. I didn't think it would help. Boy was I wrong. I finally agreed to try it out, and even made my mom come with me on the first day. It took me a while to feel comfortable unloading my baggage, but once I did, I felt a lot better. So, yes. Mental health is our generation's elephant in the room. But, it doesn't have to be. Thank you so much for reminding us of that !

    • EllenNordahl

      I love your comment about retraining your mind – my therapist pointed out that a lot of the feelings we experience are experienced that way because of the patterns that have formed in our brain over time; a key component of combating feelings of anxiety/depression is to literally work to rewire our thought patterns.

      I think an important part of any medical treatment is not being afraid to be an advocate for yourself and ask questions. I'm thankful that you found a doctor who didn't accept something just because it was the way you'd been treated in the past. Finding a doctor (and a therapist) who truly hold your best interests at heart is crucial in getting to the core of mental health issues.

      My mom and I have gone to several therapy sessions together (my parents divorced when I was 16, and it wasn't pretty). Having a third party there to mediate while you unload baggage/talk through your emotions is incredibly relieving because it creates a safe space for you to say what you truly feel. Even though their divorce happened 8 years ago, I was still amazed by the issues we were able to finally lay to rest after airing them during counseling.

      And, lastly, thank you for the lovely shout-out on Twitter :)

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  • Steve Woodruff

    Ellen, I fought depression in vain for decades – from childhood into my 40's. The dark clouds were a daily companion, yet the stigma of admitting that I had a problem (and the fact that I was so used to it that I couldn't conceive of a better reality) kept me from admitting that I had a problem. The solution was, in fact, an adjustment of brain chemistry – a pill. After two days on an anti-depressant, I woke up happy and at peace for the first time in my adult life – and now it has been 7 years of new life. Thank you for taking the reins and talking about this openly – many others, perhaps, can be spared from having years of their lives robbed by this darkness…

    • EllenNordahl

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Steve. I think the stigma surrounding depression is almost as difficult to battle as the depression itself. I'm so glad you were able to find the help you needed to live free from the darkness.

  • Carlee Mallard

    I love how open and honest you are in this post. I, too, went through a low-period my last semester in college. Being a psychology major perhaps I was more self-aware of what I was going through and came to a quick realization that I needed to contact someone at our on-campus student counseling office. I ended up joining a group of 6 other girls every week for a group counseling session to support each other in what we were going through. It was more difficult telling me peers about my problems than talking one-on-one to a therapist who “couldn't judge me”, but it was so worth it. Not only did they give me the support I needed, but I learned how to open up to complete strangers and learned how to be compassionate and empathetic for another's situation.

    Flash forward 1 year. I've graduated. Moved to another city and back again. I have my first full-time permanent job. I just moved in with my “best friend” (at the time), and we're living the life. I notice that my friend is going through a rough time dealing with a new job in a new city, a boyfriend living in foreign country, and the death of another close friend. I knew the signs and I offered my help. I told her it was OK to seek help, but her pride took over her mind and she refused to acknowledge that she even had a problem. I remember her defensive response and I remember knowing that things between us might never be the same.

    The point of this story, I think, is that people need to know how to ask for help on their own. People need to know about the warning signs and know that they're by no means alone. Too many people are afraid to let anyone think they're not perfect at all times. And as much as I was trying to help, I think I ended up causing more harm than good.

    Thanks for bringing the elephant to the table, Ellen.

    • EllenNordahl

      I admire you so much for seeking out help, and joining a group with other young women. I think it's amazing that you were not only able to get past your low point, but used it as an opportunity to learn how to trust and open up to new people. I'm sorry that your friend wasn't more receptive to your efforts to get her to seek help; I hope that she will realize how much she is missing out on by continuing to try to pretend everything is just dandy.

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