Sleep Is For The Strong

There was a thoughtful documentary in the festival last year made by a MIT graduate about the link between academic stress and mental health. I quite admired the young filmmaker Sahar Hakim-Hashemi because she not only had to open up about her own mental health to make the film, but she also had to risk reaching out to other students about their experiences as well, and maybe even risk being critical of the prestigious MIT culture. Unsurprisingly, once Sahar opened up the dialogue, she found several other students had experiences similar to her own. The MIT culture of obsessive studying and working, for many students, created an environment of social isolation, poor dietary and sleeping habits, and competitiveness for academic achievement as self-worth that led many to spiral into depression and suicidal thoughts. Many of them gave candid interviews, some anonymously, about how their time at MIT stressed or severed personal relationships and jeopardized both their physical and mental health, and how reflecting afterward they realized it was just a school and just grades.

I could relate to the documentary on a personal level as a middle-aged student navigating law school at a glacial pace. I put so much pressure on myself and stress myself out so much during finals, to the fact where I do get obsessive for a couple of weeks and neglect my health and social life—well, maybe more than I already do. Law school encourages this culture as well as it’s not uncommon for a timed three or four-hour final exam to be worth 100 percent of your grade and therefore a test representing everything you’ve learned over the course of a semester, so it certainly feels like the stakes are high when studying for that test. I probably feel added pressure from the fact that my employer reimburses me based on grades, so a grade can be not only a matter of pride but a potential savings of thousands of dollars for me. Needless to say, I become a ball of nerves during the two-week reading period before the exam (well again, maybe more than I already am).

I therefore experience some of the same stressors discussed in Sleep Is For The Strong. I know most students feel the way I do, or most serious ones. One of my colleagues confided in me once “I can’t let myself get the way I did last semester at finals, I made myself crazy.” Like students at MIT, I love school and love the work, the challenge of it and feeling productive. Certainly living alone through the pandemic I was so grateful for my studies and looked forward to burying myself in casebooks. And every semester once my finals are finished and in the rearview mirror a bit, I barely remember them or their specifics, despite spending so many frantic hours studying and researching for them. I think it’s common for academic achievement and anxiety to go hand in hand. But in the end, it’s just school and it’s just grades, not the real world.

The Importance of Mental Health Days

Exhausted, overwhelmed, extremely emotional. Those are all things I have felt lately as I have been pushing myself, probably too hard, in several directions while at the same time fending off a depressive episode. So thankfully I get to take a mental health day from posting this week, since we have a guest blogger posting about mental health days!

Guest blogger JM brings us a different voice and makes an astute observation in the line “Our current culture emphasizes labor and productivity, often at the expense of our energy and even happiness.” This is a perceptive piece about the importance of re-charging our emotional batteries and also, of music (which has been proven by science to be deeply linked to mood and memory). It even includes a playlist, most of which I am unfamiliar with, so will have to check it out.

I’m definitely interested in hearing from different voices and perspectives and having some more guest bloggers. E-mail me at if you’re interested.

JM writes:

“When I was in high school, my mom let me and my brother have “mental health days” to take time off from school when we needed it. This meant that if we were feeling stressed, overworked, or overwhelmed one day, we could declare a mental health day and stay home – no questions asked. My mom trusted us to not abuse the system, and that allowed us the freedom to listen to our bodies and minds and take breaks when we really needed them.

I never had to fake being sick to get out of having to go to school when I needed a break, and for that I’m grateful. It turns out that going to school or work for eight hours a day, five times a week, every week, can sometimes be exhausting. Who knew?

Everyone needs mental health days once in a while. Some people may need them more frequently than others. Our current culture emphasizes labor and productivity, often at the expense of our energy and even happiness. We can even feel guilty for wanting to take time off or needing a break, even though we’re not machines and need time to rest and recharge.

The important thing is to try to look out for your mental health just as you would for your physical health. In fact, mental health and physical health usually go hand in hand. When you’re tired and have low energy, your mood suffers. When your mood suffers, you become tired and have low energy. So next time someone says “it’s all in your head,” feel free to set the record straight.

One thing I find very soothing is to listen to my favorite music when I’m having a rough day. Now, this is by no means a cure, but it is certainly a comfort. I have an entire playlist on Spotify featuring my favorite songs – 500 of them. I love songs that make me want to dance and sing along, songs that feel like a hug, songs that remind me of memories with my friends. Like the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” And we all know that poets are always right.

Without further ado, here are some of the songs on my “feel good” playlist that I’d highly recommend you listen to on your next mental health day:

1. “Tongue Tied” by Grouplove

This is my all-time favorite upbeat song. It reminds me of summer, which may be because it’s also on my summer playlist. This is one of the only songs I never skip.

2. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears for Fears

This one’s a classic. It’s a great song to listen to in the car with the windows rolled down. You know those songs that make you feel like you’re in a music video when you listen to them? This is one of them.

3. “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers

It may be a little overplayed and repetitive, but I could never get tired of this song. It’s a great song to sing along to in the shower (or anywhere, really).

4. “A Kiss” by THE DRIVER ERA

Here’s a song by my favorite band that always makes me want to get up and dance. I’d also recommend THE DRIVER ERA’s entire discography, because again, it is my favorite band.

5. “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane

This is a slower song, and I tend not to like slower songs, but this one is an exception. The lyrics are very melancholy and sweet, making it the perfect song to sing your heart out to.

6. “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs

My mom loves this song, and so do I. It’s very comforting to listen to, and it’s an ‘80s song, so it’s right up my alley.

7. “Face Down In The Gutter Of Your Love” by Dent May

This is a song that always reminds me of my best friend. It’s our song. It often gets stuck in my head right after I listen to it, and so sometimes I find myself humming the tune without even realizing it.

8. “I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme)” by John Rzeznik

This one comes from a scene from my favorite movie of all time, Treasure Planet, that may or may not make me cry every time I watch it. Seriously, though, it’s a beautiful movie, and this is a beautiful song.”

The Benefits of Crying

I can see lately why April is the cruelest month—it’s been consistently grey and chilly here in Chicago, refusing to be spring; I’ve been isolated and stressed because of my finals; and maybe because of that and for other reasons I’ve found myself feeling a lot of strong emotions and having a lot of traumatic memories. Yes, it’s always good to re-direct your thoughts. But is it good sometimes to just experience them–let them wash over you, and let yourself cry? I’ve heard some therapists say so.

“Tears Teacher” was a short film that I think was a bit of a sleeper in the fest a couple of years ago, about the tears teacher Hidefumi Yoshida and the Japanese art of “crying therapy.” He helps people break down societal stigma about crying, get in touch with their tears, and truly grieve for painful experiences—as a sort of catharsis and release.

I’ve heard people say there’s no good in crying and moping around, but I figure there must be some biological point to crying. Some have theorized it used to be a way of asking for help. But what about crying alone? I feel sometimes you just need to let it out—at least if you’re as moody as me. I wish I could say I always feel better when I did, but I definitely do sometimes, and sometimes I honestly can’t help it.

There surely is a point where you can wallow in self-pity and sometimes I do tow the line there. I know Yoshida focused on time periods and as silly as it sounds for something that is supposed to be an unrestrained emotional act, timing crying isn’t a bad idea–much like meditation and other forms of therapy. It’s easy to get lost in crying.

Why Are People Acting So Weird?

Have you noticed that people are acting, *well*…..weird lately? And not in a charming, quirky outsider sense of the word, but more like angry, antisocial, and irrational? If so, you’re not wrong and you’re not alone.

Olga Khazan, the author of this article for The Atlantic, offers a few theories as to why. Mostly they have to do with stressors created by the pandemic, including some of the sharpest political divides we’ve ever had and, most fascinating to me, the idea of anomie, what Emile Durkeim called a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness–“We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings.”

We all know that people can struggle with their mental health regardless of whether or not they have a chronic mental illness. I’m guessing due to social isolation, loss, and shifting societal norms more people have struggled with their mental health than in a long time, and that they will probably continue to do so in ways that have yet to emerge. The article does touch upon mental illness, but oddly enough, mostly to say that mental illness can’t really explain this phenomenon. Though psychiatric service was cut because of the pandemic, people with a mental illness are not typically violent or dangerous (something I have often heard emphasized). I think the focus of this article is how we’re changing socially overall.

We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings. ~~Emile Durkeim

Racial Disparities In Mental Health

I’ve been literally down the rabbit hole this last weekend working on a final research paper I have for a class I’m taking on human rights, race, and mass incarceration. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but it is truly one of the most fascinating and eye-opening classes I’ve ever taken in my life. I keep realizing despite having read The New Jim Crow, the book the class uses as its main text, years ago, I’m still really ignorant about a lot of aspects of the history of racism that have led us to where we are now. I always will be.

The little alarm clock in my mind that’s been buried under clicking on the footnotes to footnotes suddenly gave me a push notification that I promised myself I’d post to Mental Filmness weekly on Mental Health Mondays and I was like, oh no, what do I write about, and then I remembered my final paper is actually on race, mass incarceration, and mental health (of course) because that’s my thing now.

My professor often emphasizes that the construct of biological race has historically been used as a scientific tool to explain and defend racial inferiority, and that is sadly omnipresent in a cultural history of psychiatry. This article on the historical roots of racial disparities in the mental health system traces a clear evolutionary path of this construct from slavery to the present day.

The historical context begins with some very specific disturbing details. The American physician Samuel Cartwright, who invented the disorder “drapetomania,” or the mental illness causing slaves to run away, suggested the removal of their big toes as a remedy. Dr. Cartwright also described a disorder called “dysaethesia aethiopica,” which was characterized by skin lesions and caused laziness, “rascality,” or disrespect. I had read somewhere that black men are five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than their white counterparts, and this article explains one historical reason for that: during the Civil Rights Movement, schizophrenia became branded as a violent disease characterized by rage and aggression such as that displayed by black activist groups like the Black Panthers. These stereotypes of black angry men still carry over today.

It’s sad to think for those of us who feel we suffer with an invisible mental disability, and wish some people would understand how “real” it feels, it seems there has always been a history of doctors and scientists inventing mental disorders as a tool of racial oppression.

World Bipolar Day – One Day Late

I can’t believe I somehow missed this because I of all people should have been all over this. March 30th, yesterday, is apparently World Bipolar Day, which was also Van Gogh’s birthday. BP Hope is a great online magazine and community that helped me when I received my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, mainly because of insightful posts I so relate to like the one below.

These are really my top three things I wish people knew about bipolar disorder, too.

#1 Bipolar disorder symptoms aren’t equally split between mania & depression. This, 100 percent. In fact, from my experience and understanding it’s common for most people to spend the majority of their time depressed. Mania burns bright but especially full-blown mania tends to be short-lived—my episode of a few months was actually on the longer side. That energy just can’t be sustained too long before it burns out. And as the author says, while mania can feel amazing and fun and brilliant, it’s also dangerous and risky and sometimes scary. Some people try to go off their meds to feel manic again, and sometimes I feel tempted, but I think what a lot of people realize is it’s not worth the destruction and the crash of devastating and sometimes suicidal depression.

#2 Treatments for bipolar disorder take time to work. Again, preach it. This author says his treatment took about four years, and come to think of it, mine did, too. My big episode and diagnosis were in 2015 and I don’t think I felt like I actually had a handle on it until around 2019. And even then, that “handle” sometimes feels tenuous. I was frustrated and disappointed in myself but for some people it takes even longer, years and years. It’s often a multi-pronged approach of diet and exercise and meds and lifestyle and sleep and stress management that can be exhausting to figure out and maintain, and it also has to continue to be re-evaluated. It takes hard work and I’ve recently come to realize through great advocates and publications like this that taking that long is totally normal (well, as normal as anything with BP is). “Bipolar disorder is a serious illness with a 15% death rate. Its symptoms aren’t colorful personality traits. It only makes sense that something this serious would take a significant amount of time to recover from.”

#3 Not everyone with bipolar disorder is the same. I feel like everyone with a mental illness knows or should know this. Just because you have depression or anxiety doesn’t mean you understand what someone else’s is like. Our experiences are all so different. I was intrigued watching the film Inside The Rain portraying someone rapid cycling through moods in a mixed state–something completely foreign to me. Yet blaring music in a bathtub at 3 a.m. totally rang true.

I will just add one of my own. Mental Filmness actually screened an animated short called Goodnight Mr. Vincent Van Gogh last year. However, the film didn’t focus on what was likely Van Gogh’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder, but on its link to his suicide. According to stats from the National Library of Medicine, 20 to 60 percent of people living with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at some point in their lives. While it’s become more commonly accepted in society today that mental illness is as “real” as physical illness in its presentation of symptoms and suffering, one sticky and still controversial point is that death by suicide can be the result of a mental illness just as surely as a more natural death can be the result of a physical illness. That is what Goodnight Mr. Vincent Van Gogh, which is worth seeking out, is about.

World Bipolar Day Is Celebrated On March 30th, Van Gogh’s Birthday

Voices & Visions

I’ve always had trouble taking in aural information. I lose focus pretty easily during lectures and audiobooks, no matter how interesting I find the material. So I guess it comes as a surprise that I enjoy podcasts, even if I have trouble listening to them sometimes. The podcasts I used to listen to regularly were about music and movies and it wasn’t a big deal if I tuned in and out at times. But it has only been within the last year that I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in a podcast. While nervous at first, I was surprised how easily it came to me to talk for a couple of hours about films I loved and how quickly the time passed, and the new revelations and insights I discovered that you get from good conversations.

Both of my podcast appearances were on the fiercely intelligent and knowledgeable Jim Laczkowski’s podcast the Director’s Club, which has some renown in the world of movie buffs. The program explores in-depth the work of one director and its themes and threads, very much in the spirit of the auteur theory. If you are interested in that kind of thing I very much recommend the episode we just recorded on the work of Todd Haynes. Not only was Todd Haynes one of the more talented indie directors of the nineties who was way ahead of his time in sensitively exploring issues like environmental illness and sexual repression, but we chat a bit about Mental Filmness and some of our favorite films about mental health in the beginning.

I hope you give a listen and enjoy, and listen to the other episodes if you like it. They’re a lot of nerdy fun for deep dives into the work of different directors. (My other appearance was on an episode about Chantal Akerman).

Generational Trauma: Is It In Your Genes?

The phenomenon of “generational trauma” was explored in the powerful documentary “I’m Good Bro: Unmasking Black Male Depression,” screened during Mental Filmness 2020 (inaugural virtual festival—guess why?). Generational trauma refers to trauma that has been passed down through generations of families that stems from a devastating historical experience like surviving slavery or genocide. Some of the most recent research on generational trauma demonstrates that not only is it very much a real phenomenon, it may run even deeper than we think. Newer studies on epigenetics suggest trauma may actually be able to work its way into your very genes.

How does this work? This BBC article explains the science in a (sort of) accessible way. “Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.”

There are also some much more technically complex studies published in medical journals you can find on the Internet on this phenomenon if you’re good at decoding that kind of thing. The bottom line is, there seems to be some legit science supporting it.

This is still a fairly new science, which means, as the article says, it is generating a lot of heated debate. The implications of these early findings are pretty profound. We may pass down trauma on a completely biological level, which means our heirs may physically react in ways that are beyond their control and very consciousness. The descendants of Holocaust survivors, slaves, and PoWs may all be prone to heightened psychological distress—including symptoms like panic, mistrust, insomnia and nightmares, and hypervigilance—without even having experienced the original source of trauma.

So not only are you likely to inherit generational trauma through your home environment and your parents’ behaviors, whether conscious or not, but you might possibly be born with it already latent in your very genetic makeup. I guess an optimistic way to look at it is the more we recognize generational trauma as a valid and perhaps even ingrained genetic problem the more we are prepared to acknowledge it and treat it. I know people with generational trauma would most likely want their experience and their trauma validated and acknowledged.

What To Say To Someone With Depression

I’ll admit it, I’ve had to learn some hard lessons with my depression, and one was how not to be an energy vampire who depression-bombed people with my problems. That can be exhausting for the listener, and repeating those sad, self-defeating thoughts over and over can sometimes lead to wallowing in them.

That being said…you really need to reach out to a loved one during serious depressive episodes sometimes. One example of such a time is if you’re feeling so depressed you have self-harming thoughts. Ultimately, if you have serious persistent depression you should really be connected to a professional. However, it’s sometimes so comforting to talk to a loved one who can build you up when you’re feeling down, so it may be helpful to identify a couple of people in your life who can serve as a “lifeline”–preferably someone who understands both depression and you.

You’ve probably heard that there are some things you shouldn’t say to people who are depressed—like “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” While these statements are well-intentioned, they reinforce the harmful stereotype that mental illness is a moral failing or a character flaw that you can simply will your way out of. It’s similarly unhelpful to suggest that the person grappling with depression doesn’t appreciate the good things in their life or that others have things much worse. The very nature of chemical depression is that it doesn’t discriminate–as we’ve seen in the news it afflicts the rich and famous, the creative and talented, public figures adored by thousands, as well as the working class or people experiencing homelessness. It exists despite our life circumstances or our belief in it.

So what *is* appropriate to say to someone who is depressed? A lot of people simply want to be listened to or heard, and to know there’s someone who cares about them. They generally would like their feelings validated–for instance, by hearing something like “you’re going through a lot right now” or “that must feel really painful” instead of hearing that they’re overblowing things or thinking too negatively. Empathy usually helps, like saying “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time,” or “I’ve been thinking about you.” A gently worded suggestion asking if they’ve thought about seeing a therapist or doctor might help, too.

Based on my own experience over-taxing people I think it’s a good idea to refer someone to a professional or say something like “I feel really bad for you and I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I’m not feeling well myself and need to take a break” or “I think I need to recharge my emotional batteries to talk about this,” if it becomes too overwhelming—in fact, I’ve had people say those things to me, and though I felt a little bad I was never offended, I mostly just hoped I hadn’t drained them too much.

Talking about depression is necessary sometimes because even if you talk to a doctor, someone close to you may understand you and your specific problems more intimately. It’s also necessary because if we only ever talk to doctors in confidence about depression, we’ll never break the stigma, help people realize depression affects those from all walks of life, and help people realize there is no shame in talking about it and seeking help.

I’ve seen a lot of charts like this online, and again there’s no “one size fits all” approach. However, you can see at a glance the difference between the columns: statements to say emphasize concern, empathy, and suggestions for professional help, while statements on the right are indicative of judgment, minimizing problems, and a lack of attempt to practice understanding and awareness. As an “invisible” illness, it can be difficult for our society to really see and understand depression. And they never will if they cannot listen to someone else’s experience and imagine what it’s like.

What to say/what not to say to someone who is depressed.

Sometimes Life’s A Bitch, And Then You Keep Living

I just re-watched one of my favorite TV series, Bojack Horseman. I love this show because it has so many important things to say about mental illness and addiction, and it’s still somehow hilarious, you might even say, silly. At the end, after all his self-destructive behaviors have finally caught up to him, the main character says to his old estranged friend while they sit on a rooftop, “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you die, huh?” and she responds with “Sometimes life’s a bitch, and then you keep living.” Within the context of this show, the statement sounds somewhat ominous—the main character has to keep living with all the trauma he’s both received and inflicted. He’s not done yet. Still, as he gazes out at the stars, he says he’s grateful to be alive.

I had an old therapist who I worked with for years who knew my cynical mind well. Whenever I mused about suicide, she would never say “things will get better” (because there’s no guarantee of that) or “things happen for a reason” (because they don’t). Instead, she would tell me if I tried suicide, I’d probably end up living, but things would be worse or harder for me. Statistically, she’s right—there are so many stories of suicide survivors who caused permanent damage to their brain or body, before even considering the psychological trauma they caused to themselves or their loved ones that they had to live with for the rest of their lives.

That’s precisely why I admired Emma Benoit, the inspiring young subject of last year’s powerful documentary “My Ascension,” so much. That is exactly what happened to her—she attempted to end her life by shooting herself, but she ended up living, paralyzed and in a wheelchair. However, Emma was so grateful for her second chance at life, and ended up working hard on both her mental and physical recovery. She also became a passionate mental health advocate for young people like her who suffered from depression and anxiety, but felt they had no outlet or safe space to express it, not wanting to scare their family or friends. Emma kept on living, and was grateful for her life where she knew others who didn’t get that second chance.

You often hear suicide survivors say the same thing Emma said she felt in her last moments—that she didn’t want to die. You also often hear the familiar saying, they didn’t want to die, they just wanted the pain to stop. That’s another thing my therapist used to say—the life force is strong. It’s very common for people to call 9-11, friends, or family during or after an attempt. That “life instinct” kicks in.

Sometimes life’s a bitch, and then you keep living.