Friday, January 6, 2012

Get Help Early and Often

Last year, one of the Worcester Sharks committed suicide.  His name was Tom Cavanaugh and he was a local boy who came from a big hockey family in Rhode Island and played at Harvard.  After his death, his long struggle with mental illness came out in the open.  This was a huge shock for a lot of people, because Tom Cavanaugh was a uniformly charming, bright, sparkling person in public to most of us who had met him, be it in passing or more closely.  He seemed to genuinely enjoy his hockey community, and I think he probably did - but the reality of mental illness is that it is a rollercoaster: you can be doing something you love and have moments of real joy, but the next moment be dragged down into the murk.  This surprise, I think, speaks volumes of the way we think about mental illness.  We confuse putting a brave face on with being okay, and making it through the day with success or happiness.

I know this in part because I have struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, and whenever I tell people this, they are surprised.  I'm generally an upbeat person, particularly so in public, so the idea that I get depressed is surprising to people.  My depression is not crippling, as it can be for others, but it is still something I have to be aware of and seek treatment for at certain times.  I have been lucky enough to have truly supportive people in my life who have encouraged me and borne me up when I was having a rough time of it.

I don't think there's a person on this planet who wouldn't benefit from some talk therapy.  There is something so helpful in having a neutral audience who can make suggestions based on knowledge and experience.  I mentioned the surprise that people express when I mention my depression, and that's part of why a neutral audience is so important; a therapist is trained to keep their personal connection with you (should they develop one) out of it.  As I said above, I have amazing friends and family who have been supportive of me, but when I express my persistent anxiety that I am not smart, or not smart enough, most of those friends and family brush that off, often saying that I am the - or one of the - smartest people they know.  That's awesome to hear, obviously, and intellectually I know that I am plenty smart, but that doesn't mean I don't stress about it.  My anxiety is not rational.  A therapist can help me talk through that in a way that's difficult for friends to do, because...they're our friends!  Friends think their friends are awesome!  It's a rare friend who can step back enough to work through depression and anxiety with you without judgment or instability, and I'm not sure that should be a friend's responsibility.

I encourage everyone to consider talk therapy, whether they are momentarily stressed or persistently traumatized.  You should also go into therapy remembering that the first person you see might not be the right fit for you!  I've been to many therapists, and not all of them have been effective for me - some wanted me to write things down, some wanted to trace back problems to the root, some wanted to spend a ton of time on building a history, some just wanted to get some coping mechanisms in place.  Therapists are people, and you might not click with them, just like you might not click with some coworkers.  Keep trying.  Don't be afraid to ask if an initial consult is free.  Don't give up!  And remember: mental illness doesn't make you weak and it doesn't make you not awesome.  Some of us who suffer with it are doing exactly what they love, looking like everything is perfect.  Happiness and opportunity don't exempt you from mental illness, and mental illness doesn't have to bar you from happiness and opportunity.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for free 24/7 at (800) 273-TALK or go to their website for help.  If you are looking for mental health resources, check out SAMHSA's lookup on their website.  You can also look for local therapists through Psychology Today, your health insurance provider's website, or even sites like Yelp.  Don't be afraid - they're there for you.
Rest well, Tom.


  1. This is a great piece josie, obviously written from someone who can truly relate to this problem, not someone placating the inflicted populous with false, empty empathy. Good job.