October 25, 2019

BETTEZ | There’s No Shame in Talking About Mental Health

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Warning: The following content contains sensitive material about mental health, depression, anxiety and suicide.

I’ll come right out and say it — I go to therapy here at Cornell, and I’ve gone to some form of therapy for years before. I’m not ashamed of that, and you shouldn’t be either when saying the same. Unless you live under a rock, you know that Cornell’s administration has been hard at work to enact new policies for mental health services on campus to improve the mental health of its students. But what has surprised me is the relative silence I actually hear between students about it. As much as we can push the administration to help us out in terms of mental health, we need to help each other and ourselves from the inside — by talking about it. The stigma against speaking out about mental health is incredibly nuanced — it particularly affects students who are low-income, foreign-born or people of color.

Shame is a powerful thing. It kills. The recent, high-profile suicide of the K-pop star Sulli demonstrates the fatal consequences of it. She was found dead in her home just a few weeks ago after years of cyberbullying and criticism for speaking out against many taboo issues, including her longtime struggle with a panic disorder and social phobia, especially in a country where it is so rare for celebrities to open up about their mental health. She was 25 years old.

But that’s not to say that shame can’t be overcome, or used in a productive way. Monica Lewinsky of the now-infamous Clinton-Lewinsky scandal made a return to the public spotlight in 2015 with a TED talk titled, “The Price of Shame.” Now 46 years old, she’s a public activist against cyberbullying, with which she’s intimately familiar ever since she gained overnight infamy at the age of 24. After staying silent for a decade, she returned to spread a powerful message about shame, and the excruciating ordeal she faced. The humiliation nearly led her to take her own life. When speaking out against cyberbullying, she quotes researcher Brené Brown: “Shame can’t survive empathy.” She goes on to say:

I’ve seen some very dark days in my life. It was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference. The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen.

When I was 17, before I even got my acceptance letter to Cornell, I nearly lost a battle with depression and anxiety that had encompassed my entire adolescence. I saw my own struggles with mental health as a sign of personal failure. I broke myself trying to maintain an outside image of an honors student, varsity athlete and perfect daughter. Telling anyone about my struggles with mental health was the most cutting and vulnerable thing I could possibly do, to the point that any time I tried to tell even my closest friends I would physically shake. I used to sometimes cry alone in my room while studying for my exams because I was so deeply ashamed of any sign that my facade was cracking.

What saved me was my friends and family. That night, I called one of my best friends and she came rushing to my house without hesitation. My parents came. And in the years since, my high school friends and I still check in with each other. In the years since, I’ve learned to reach out to others when I need help. I’m incredibly grateful to my friends here, who are always willing to listen to me talk about anything from my therapy appointments to any and all of my minor daily inconveniences. Despite the much higher pressure environment of Cornell than my small-town high school, I’ve never come close to the mental state I was in during high school. And although I’m still nervous to publish an article about it, I’m not, and never will be, ashamed to speak about it, because I’ve learned my lesson.

No one should have to learn to speak about their mental health issues the way that I did. The new mental health initiatives brought forward by Cornell make it easier than ever to get a therapy appointment. The mental health resources offered by Cornell Health are substantial. Go to therapy, get medication, take advantage of any and every resource you want. But don’t forget our best resource is each other. We need to normalize talking about our mental health struggles to allow everyone to get the help they need without embarrassment. Tell others about your struggles and the help you’re getting, and listen when they tell you. Because we all know the consequences of shame and silence.

Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected]. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.