I have to start by letting you know that I have never been formally diagnosed by any mental health professional. But then again, that’s probably part of the problem. Whether or not you have (or have ever had) a diagnosis is still such a major factor that “validates” mental illness, I can’t help but think that it’s a big part of what stymies growth in general mental-health awareness.
I think it’s a great idea to try to understand mental health more as a profession. A) We have a responsibility to recognize and support our patrons’ mental health in the services that we provide. B) We could probably do A better if we recognized and supported mental health amongst ourselves more; I don’t doubt that many LIS professionals face mental health issues that affect our work. So this post is going to be about a mental health issue that I face. What can I say, I’m self-centered. But I hope it helps people out there begin to see what the outward and inward experience of depression is like.
Right now, I’m doing just fine. When I’m not doing ok, I’m generally unable to write about my personal experiences for months on end. I also lose the ability and the will to express myself through any other means, like making music, cooking food, or even, y’know, finding clothing to wear to work. The first time someone ever asked me what that’s like, I told them that it’s like losing my entire birthright as a human being. What scares me every time I think about it is that when that’s happening to me, I feel nothing about it at all, even though it occurs to me that I should probably be worried or scared that I’ve lost something so integral to my self. But when I’m in the thick of it, I’m just too tired to care about anything enough to have feelings. Instead, I feign feeling responses to things; this is part of a precarious charade that I play at work whenever I’m having one of these episodes, to mask the fact that anything is wrong with me at all. I do usually manage to continue to work, but I face burnout far more frequently, accept obstacles to accomplishing important work more easily, and generally procrastinate much less productively.
As far as I can tell, what I experience is episodes of depression that recur every few years; they’re not generally affected by seasonal change, and they last anywhere between 2 months to 8 months. The first episode lasted more than a year, probably because I didn’t know how to manage it yet. Why haven’t I received any medical care or psychotherapy, you ask? Well, first I didn’t have insurance. Then, my school insurance didn’t cover mental health care. Later, when I got insurance through Obamacare, it still required me to pay more for a specialist visit than I could actually afford, and therapy coverage was capped at 10 visits. Eventually, I decided to ask my primary care for a reference to a psychiatrist anyway; my primary care told me that because I wasn’t undergoing an episode right then, a referral would do nothing. (Just for the record, that makes no sense to me; when I’m undergoing an episode, I’m never in the frame of mind to drag myself to go see any kind of doctor whatsoever, much less a new one whom I’ve never seen before.) That particular doctor also told me that my symptoms might indicate nothing more than a vitamin deficiency from my vegetarianism, and put me on a vitamin regimen. A vitamin regimen, like I’d zoomed backward to the 19th century and needed smelling salts for my feminine fits of the vapors. I decided to say nothing more about it, and shortly after that, I got a job offer with health benefits. Which was great! … except for the 4 panic attacks that I had in the relocation process, one of which was triggered by taking the vitamins. And that pretty much takes us up to now; I still haven’t used my newly-acquired medical benefits to find a mental health professional (or even a new primary care) because finding one that fits your needs takes research and time, and for now, all my free time is for self-care and professional/social network building.
Last week, a friend of mine, who is a public librarian, posted a call to other librarians for recommendations on coping-related resources on schizophrenia. Seeing that not an awful lot of people had responded, I popped in there and said “DSM?” I meant it as a potential suggestion, but I also meant that I don’t know if the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders could be qualified as a universally helpful resource for understanding a mental illness that you or your loved one is learning to manage. It has been helpful for me, and for several of my friends, but not everybody copes the ways we do. And lo, my public librarian friend gently but pointedly responded that DSM doesn’t suit the needs that he was thinking of.
In retrospect, I understand that. I can imagine that, if I had never known depression myself when my mother was diagnosed with it 2 years ago, reading the DSM 5 entries on depressive disorders would be no help. I wouldn’t understand the diagnosis better, or become better able to accept that my mother’s depression is something to cope with and manage as a family, not necessarily something that we can expect to “get better,” like a cold. And that’s just plain old depression, which tons of people go through at least once in their lifetimes. What if she had been schizophrenic instead, facing deeper stigma and misunderstanding? As it turns out, I have lots of librarian friends who know where the coping resources for mental health issues are; but would I be able to overcome my social fears enough to ask them for help?