At a recent Unity in Diversity forum on mental health, students and teachers explored mental illness at ASL and beyond. First, the group came up with a list of mental illnesses most prominent in the ASL community, such as depression, eating disorders, and ADHD. For each illness, attendees were to use the whiteboards to respond to four prompts for each illness: symptoms, assumptions/stereotypes, media portrayals, and questions. Following the meeting, I met with the HS counselor, Ms. Oliver, to get the answers to the questions posed by people at the meeting.
What is the brain chemistry behind depression?
There are so many different theories around mental health in general, but what we do know is that factors like genetics, socioeconomic status, racism and poverty combine to make up a huge part of your mental health. We don't always know if one person’s depression is biological or even if it’s caused by one thing in particular, but the important thing for people to know is that depression is treatable and it needs to be treated by a professional; it’s not something that you can will away.
How can I help someone whom I suspect may be going through depression?
Listen to them, friends just want you to listen, they don't want you to solve the problem. They just want you to stay their friend because they probably realize that you can't fix their situation. Listen to them, but make sure that you're setting up boundaries. If they have a serious problem, they need to talk to a professional about it and not use you as their therapist. If someone you know does attend therapy, encourage them to take their therapy seriously, and if they tell you something that seems really important, encourage them to tell their therapist about it. Often times people tell friends these things to test it out and see what someone else says or to see whom they really trust, but they need to address them with a professional. Also, take care of yourself, and maybe talk to someone yourself. It can be really draining to have a friend who is going through depression.
Do external factors (e.g. jobs, climate, season) play a role, or can drugs really “fix” it?
Medications really do work for some people, but there’s no one way to [deal with] depression; sometimes medications don't work for people. External factors, however, 100% contribute to depression. People’s life situations and the way they were raised, for example, play into depression. Also, to answer a part of the first question, season can most definitely play a role in depression; Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subset of depression in which the onset of a depressive episode coincides with a regular time of year and in which full remissions occur at another time of year.
What is body dysmorphia and who has it?
Body dysmorphic disorder is a disorder in which one believes that one’s body is flawed to the point where those thoughts become intrusive, body dysmorphia affects many people. There was a study done a while ago with young women who were shown a picture of their own bodies in minimal attire and were made to wear goggles that they were supposed to adjust until they looked as big as they thought they were through the lenses of the goggles. These women ended up completely over- and under-representing themselves; nobody ever got it exactly right. Also, Body Dysmorphia is classified under the anxiety disorders, not under the eating disorders.
What are some symptoms of eating disorders?
Some of the signs of eating disorders are suddenly starting to count calories, exercising to burn calories, sudden vegetarianism, excessive running, hiding food, and hoarding food. Symptoms vary depending on the particular diagnosis.
When do body dysmorphia or eating disorders become issues beyond a general self-deprecating attitude?
Any mental health disorder must affect one of the core areas of functioning: Personal (hygiene, sleep, health, thoughts and feelings), Social (family, friends) and Occupational (School, workplace). However, the thoughts and patterns associated with disordered eating can be problems regardless of whether or not an eating disorder can be formally diagnosed. Some of us engage in disordered eating, but not everyone has an eating disorder. For example, some people view dieting as an eating disorder, as it is aligned with many of the aforementioned signs of eating disorders (e.g. counting calories, excessive exercising).
To what degree is behaviour as a result of eating disorders attributed to conscious decision versus involuntary action elicited strictly by the disorder?
It doesn't really matter, in a sense, because something can consume you even if you feel that it’s involuntary. Involuntary means things like breathing and blinking and heartbeats, whereas an eating disorder is actually a very thoughtful thing. There’s a lot of time and effort put into it. It’s like an addiction; sometimes people with eating disorders know they're not supposed to be doing what they're doing, even when they're in treatment, but it’s so hard not to do it. If a person is suffering it is important to show them compassion and help them in any way we can.
How can I enter a conversation with someone about body dysmorphia or eating disorders?
It can be hard to have these conversations, because people really don't want to talk about it. But first of all, people with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorders are seeing themselves through a particular type of lens that isn't allowing them to see the reality of their bodies. Your best bet would be to encourage them to tell an adult about it, because anything you say about their body or their eating is going to be met with some type of defense, generally. You are not going to be able to talk someone out of having an eating disorder.
Dominant beliefs around food, body image, and weight contribute to eating disorders. You should challenge these beliefs every single time something negative is brought up, and you should watch the way in which you talk about food and the way in which you talk about your body and other people’s bodies, especially around younger people. These negative patterns can be contagious, so if you have a friend who is experiencing disordered eating, you should talk to someone about it yourself.
Are eating disorders common, or is there something about ASL?
They're very common. There’s nothing about this school that makes them more common. In fact, it’s not really cool anymore to talk about wanting to be skinny or not liking the body that you're in because that’s not what young empowered women do anymore, so people, especially girls, will find a new way to talk about their bodies. They do it under the guise of “health,” but what they actually want is to be thin. It’s the equating of health and thinness that is one of the problems here.
How does one know when to get help about anxiety?
You should always ask someone about it, even if you’re just wondering, even if you just have a question or are having a bad day. People are often worried about going to seek help for a variety of reasons: 1) they won’t be understood 2) they're nervous about talking to a stranger 3) They are worried if they start talking about it, they'll open up the “floodgates” 4) They will be a burden to others. This is not the case. Mental health professionals are there to help and they will be understanding of you, even if you don't have a diagnosable disorder, anxiety is a part of living and you might be able to get help on a small scale.
Written by: Angie Kukielski and Ms. Oliver
Edited by: Julia Leland