Mental Health Treatment – Does It Belong In School?

There’s no question that teenagers, with their emotional and mental lives in flux; and especially teenagers in today’s world, complete with global pandemics, mass shootings, and social media; are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. They also have more self-awareness of these issues and resources to help than in the past. So it’s no surprise that teenagers are becoming some of the strongest advocates for their own mental health. I LOVE the fact that these teens in rural Killingly, Connecticut, are drawing awareness to the crisis of mental health and fighting for a mental health clinic in their school, a resource that is becoming increasingly common.

The pushback from parents is that mental health treatment doesn’t belong in schools. Therapists, parents fear, may engage in dialogue with their kids about controversial topics like abortion or birth control, which they feel should lie strictly within the domain of the family. Parents also fear the influence of the therapist’s advice on their kids’ impressionistic minds, and the fact that their kids can see the therapist for up to six sessions without parental approval.

Like many arguments, I can actually see this one from both angles. It does seem a little invasive to have a stranger talk to your kids about emotions and sensitive topics. On the other hand, as some of the teen advocates point out, treating mental health like it’s a taboo topic that doesn’t belong in the school is reinforcing stigma and silence. Talking about mental health issues and diagnoses frankly with others helps normalize it and foster connection and healing.

Does mental health treatment belong in a school? The answer is tricky and elusive. One could make the argument that mental health is always present in school anyway. An in-school mental health clinic might work as early intervention to prevent students from suffering in silence and eventually ending up in a worse situation such as a lengthy hospital stay. But where do the boundaries of authority and privacy lie?

Mission Statement Changing – What Is A Mental Illness?

I had an interesting discussion I put out on social media to see if the collective brain had any insight. I’ve now had a couple of directors ask me if we consider autism a mental illness. The answer our original jury came back with is that while it may not be classified as a mental illness per se, it is so entwined with mental health that we would consider the films. However, it’s a really tricky question to answer whether autism is a mental illness, and seems to spark some intense debate in either direction.

A lot of folks point out that autism is generally classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder. That was my initial feeling as well, I guess the idea being that it was something hard-wired and always expressing itself, whereas a mental illness was comprised of symptoms that could be triggered by genetics or brain chemistry or environment or all of the above. But you know what, despite a passion for mental health advocacy, I don’t have formal training in either psychiatry or psychology, so I feel completely unqualified to make a judgment call either way. I am simultaneously terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes regarding a sensitive issue. 

The one constant that everyone could seem to agree with is that autism is a mental *disorder* and can certainly be, and usually is, about mental health. Our original mission statement had “disorder of the mind” as part of it. It seems to me that autism certainly falls under the larger umbrella of “a film festival about mental health.” I don’t like the idea of slapping labels and categories on things, and I honestly don’t know that I would have considered it unless someone had asked me point-blank if we consider autism a mental illness. We have screened films about ADHD, which is also classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, as well as films where a diagnosis is vague or undefined. We’ve shown films about a specific moment in time where someone is paralyzed with anxiety or depression without even necessarily having a clear diagnosis or any at all. What all of the films had in common is that they were about mental health in some way or another–mental health being broadly defined by the CDC as our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being.”

The mission statement we first came up with was this: 

“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival highlighting works that portray a realistic depiction of mental illness. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with these chronic psychiatric conditions. We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives on mental illness, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.

We define “mental illness” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any psychiatric diagnosis, emotional disorder, addiction, or other disorder of the mind.”

I can see now how this is limiting and exclusive in some ways. Also, I know that there are some people who dislike the label “mental illness.” So I decided to make the title of the festival (which I still like) more of a play on “mental fitness”–some people have already interpreted it that way, and I honestly like that interpretation much better.

I pieced together a new mission statement I hope is a little more open and inclusive:

“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival showcasing films about mental health. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with a chronic mental health disorder or those who have experienced a mental health issue. 

We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.

We define “mental health” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any issue related to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, or our overall mental fitness.”

I think at first I was also a little attached to the idea of showing that people who live with conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or who have experienced suicidal ideation or attempts, are people you encounter in everyday life. I wanted to eliminate stereotypes about who was “crazy” or dangerous or lazy or scary. However, the second statement is actually more reflective of our catalog. I like the idea of people who *don’t* live with a chronic mental health condition seeing themselves reflected back to them as well. I like the idea of the audience seeing that mental health could be anything from being hospitalized for depression or a suicide attempt to being so anxious before a date or job interview you become paralyzed and unable to leave your apartment to being too depressed to buy wrapping paper for a friend’s birthday gift. I think these everyday moments are also important for helping people realize that mental health is not necessarily about being crazy or unstable–it’s simply about our mental fitness, or our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It would be judgmental and arbitrary to draw a line based on the  nature, degree, or diagnosis of mental health—and hopefully this statement is more reflective of that.

I think it’s important to always be questioning yourself and trying to grow, especially when it comes to such a sensitive and important topic. It’s also important to take in feedback and be open to dialogue. Diagnoses and medication and therapy techniques are always evolving, but the one constant regarding brain health is it will always be about our mental “fitness” or wellness and finding that balance. It can be stigmatized in any form and if people became aware of and open about their own anxiety and depression early intervention may be possible before it spirals into a more serious problem, and they may realize talking about our mental health is just as important as talking about our physical health and should be just as commonly accepted. 

It Gets Better: Recovering Social Ties After Mania

If I had to write an “It Gets Better” manual for recovering from bipolar mania, and maybe someday I should, I would write a chapter called “You Can Rebuild Your Relationships.” Sometimes coming down from a months-long manic episode is just like coming down from a months-long drunk (and sometimes you were drunk most of the time, too). Have you ever had one of those nights where you got blackout drunk at an office party and woke up the next day thinking, My God, what did I say or do? Coming down from mania is like that, but kind of like with everything in your life. Yeah, it’s intense.

I was convinced that I had lost everyone and everything forever. I wish someone had told me that wasn’t the case. I won’t recite the platitude that everyone who matters in your life will come back to you, because that’s just not true. Most of the people who understand, will. That was what my bipolar co-worker who came out to me after I returned to work actually said to me: “Do they understand bipolar disorder?” The understanding doesn’t give you a get out of jail free card for having been an asshole. If someone either has personal experience with or an understanding of bipolar disorder, however, what it does is give you a statistically greater likelihood that they can separate your actions from you. They’ll have a better understanding that you were hijacked by your brain chemistry and not really in the driver’s seat most of the time, and that understanding will go a long way toward empathy and forgiveness.

As for all the people who matter, people have a right to be traumatized by, well, trauma. Good people and close friends may still be hurt and hesitant to be a part of your social sphere again. You may have to earn trust over time, or it may never come back. That’s just the sad and messy nature of life and mental illness. It can be hard to accept that we’re accountable for our actions, even if we didn’t intend or even were barely aware of them at the time. However, if you had told me when I was at my lowest that at least 50 percent of my loved ones would end up coming around (and it ended up being much more than that eventually) I would have been heartened. I don’t know that people’s memories are short, but they’re malleable. For some people, I think just being around me as me again was enough to remind them of the things they liked about me, and the shitty things I had done in the past began to fade as we made new memories together. Over time people were better able to separate me from actions that sprang from my symptoms. I once had a friend tell me, true love and affection may fade but it rarely dies completely. There was still a spark there I was able to rekindle. 

I would hazard to give you the hope many, if not most, of those relationships can be rebuilt. I won’t lie, some I was never quite able to, or some I did for a time and then they died out again, mainly due to my own guilt and trauma. I would even hazard to guess most people WANT to rebuild those relationships with you. They missed you. I had a few friends tell me they mostly were so worried about me because I wasn’t myself, and it was a relief to see me as myself again. They like YOU, and when you show them you’re YOU again, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with that love and affection they have for you. 

The Pysch Ward–When To Go?

I had mentioned I was hospitalized for mental illness in May 2018. I feel odd saying that I’m proud that was my last hospitalization, and that I hope it’s my last. I’ve heard people say things along those lines and while I feel that way to a certain extent, I don’t want to take the hospital off the table as an option. I don’t know what my future holds, and I may need it again. I also don’t want to denigrate it for anyone who needs it.

My first trip to a psych ward was in 2012, during a rough divorce that I never thought would happen. Stressors built up and finally became too much for me to handle when I moved into my own apartment, and I took to alcohol and pills, finally blacking out. I was surprised to come to in a psych ward, and I am very ashamed that I relapsed shortly thereafter (though I later learned that’s common) and ended up there again. After I got out that time, though, I was determined that I had put that shameful history behind me. I hit the road back to work, moved again to a much better apartment with a roommate that was much more affordable for me, and even unexpectedly started dating again. I made some new friends and things seemed to be on such an upward swing. I surely felt my psych ward visits were a thing of the past, and though I even mentioned them as a disclaimer while dating, it was as more of a relic, something I’d had the strength to bounce back from.

Enter 2015, mania, and the introduction into my life of my bipolar disorder diagnosis, something completely unknown to me or diagnosed even during my first visit to a psych ward. I was 35 when I first experienced mania, which is somewhat older to be diagnosed, and looking back I wonder if some of my earlier mood swings and depressive episodes were undetected indicators. I always felt like I felt my emotions more strongly and irrationally than a lot of people did, which is perhaps why I initially ended up in a psych ward for a life experience more stable people could handle. Let’s just say the psych ward became my familiar friend again around the time of my bipolar diagnosis. I actually don’t recall how many times I was hospitalized because it kind of became a blur. Again, I learned that this is not uncommon with this condition. Thank the Lord I had good health insurance and FMLA. 

I’ve read and heard about people wondering if and when they should check themselves into a psych ward. I even found myself Googling it a couple of times. I once read somewhere that you’d better be pretty sure if you’re going to a psych ward you’re not taking away a bed away from someone who needs it. And yes, the psych ward can be very expensive, even with insurance. But I’d say? Err on the side of caution. If you are feeling actively suicidal, you should go to the psych ward. They’ll keep you safe. If your case isn’t too extreme, they’ll be the judge of that, and probably let you go in a day or two. But I once had a wise psychiatrist who said you can’t put a price tag on your life.

I think most people would agree, going to a psych ward sucks. You have to wear those awful hospital gowns and have routine blood draws and routine, often bad meals and there’s not much to do (I think Maria Bamford made a joke about all the puzzles that are infuriatingly missing a piece or two). You have to take your medicine with a Dixie cup like a baby while a nurse watches. Probably most irritating to me, a night owl, is that it’s lights out and quiet time around 10 p.m. and they try to shuffle you awake (often with blood draws) around 7 a.m. They take away almost anything you would want as a safety hazard except for paper books and journals. But you know what? Maybe you need it.

I heard another friend say that as much as it sucks, she always looked forward to going to the psych ward, because she knew she was going to get better. I came to feel the same way during that terrible time. Granted, a lot of times it was due to the simple reason that I wasn’t caring for myself very well, and the hospital makes sure you eat, take your medicine, and get some sleep. Sometimes that can be just enough to set you on the right track again, and maybe a re-adjustment in your meds helps do it, too. Maybe I went to the psych ward a couple times more than I needed to. Why make such an unpleasant decision? Because you know you’ll be safe. There are people watching and caring for you. If you are in a position where you worry you may not be safe, then honestly, I think you should err on the side of being in a psych ward if you can.

To address a sticky issue, I do realize checking yourself into a psych ward is a privilege not everyone has. But some people end up there anyway. Sadly, some people end up in jail when they should be in a psych ward instead. If there is any way feasible, the psych ward is the better option. Sometimes when your body gets very sick and it’s an emergency, you need to go to the hospital. When it’s the same situation with your brain, sometimes you need the mental hospital.

Once again, now that I’ve been stabilized and out of hospitals since May 2018 when my bipolar depression came to a head, I’d like to say all those things I originally said in 2012. Oh yeah, there was that time I stayed in a psych ward, but I overcame it. Those days are over. But again, I’d like to leave the psych ward on the table as an option. Granted, it’s one I hope I don’t end up needing again, but if I do, I’ll sure be grateful it’s there, and I won’t see it as a sign of weakness to check in. 

Do You Believe In Body Memory?

Do you believe in body memory—the idea that our bodies can subconsciously remember and recall a traumatic event, even if we don’t? Many people think there is no strong evidence to support the theory that our memories are stored on a cellular level. However, believers in the phenomenon often point to the fact that our body is deeply connected to our brain in mysterious ways not entirely understood. Everyone probably has had an experience where they pick up something they haven’t done for years, one of the prime examples being riding a bicycle or playing an instrument, and some kind of muscle memory kicks in so it comes back to you even though you couldn’t sit there and think about how to do it. Muscle memory is a different concept, but still demonstrative of the way your body can remember what your brain forgets.

I’ve just recovered from a bad physical illness, it’s finally sunny and gorgeous and sunny outside in Chicago, I am on school break and finally have a chance to tackle some projects and catch up with some people, I have been doing some painting, and I also just got a little unexpected cash infusion in the form of a school refund. In fact, there are multiple reasons for me to be happy. So why do I feel kind of….bad? Not intensely bad, just a little sadness in the back of my brain, like something’s wrong even though there’s nothing specific I can really point to.

Pondering over it some more, I remembered this is pretty much exactly the time, four years ago, that my bipolar depression finally spiraled out of my control after a couple of years of trying to treat and contain it. This led to a break in reality, suicidal impulses and ideation, and hospitalization. A believer in body memory might say that I was recalling this event on a subconscious level in the back of my mind even if it set me on the road to recovery and I’m maintaining a much more stable existence now. There may have, in fact, actually been triggers in the sudden and almost complete shift in the weather and the mood swing initiated by my illness, where I was also confined to bed most of the time. The illness caused me to miss a couple of social events, something I was routinely doing due to my overwhelming depression in May 2018. So there are even aggravating factors that could have potentially stirred up that latent body memory other than the mere fact of seasonal timing. 

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I don’t feel especially bad right now, and especially nowhere near as bad as I felt then (which is good). I just feel like—there’s something there. Kind of a shadow looming in the back of my mind. If you do accept the science of body memory, it seems somewhat discouraging because it is deep and difficult to control. However, much like other conditions we have little to no control over, many people believe we can “talk back” to body memory. Once we become aware that it is the source of our stress or trauma, we can work to separate it from our current mood and what is happening now. Perhaps most importantly, we can remind our bodies that the traumatic event is over. It’s a memory of something in our past that we survived and are recovering from, and in that sense body memory can actually become a source of strength. 

The Benefits of Nature on Mental Health–For The Privileged

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook, which is a great think piece.

A new environmental science field that has been exploring nature’s impact on psychology, and publishing highly influential studies whose findings have been gaining traction in popular literature, has been revealed to have a huge diversity problem. How big? Over 95 percent of the studies occurred in high-income Western nations, and the participants were overwhelmingly white. How can these findings then reasonably support universal scientific claims?

Of course, one of the interesting things about posting articles on social media these days is eliciting interaction, and several people chimed in. Is part of this a problem of access—the fact that more privileged can afford to “get away from it all”? Or a dearth or diversity in the field of research itself? One commenter related her experience working in a nature preserve that occasionally had kids from low-income inner-city neighborhoods bused. These kids, she said, would often be terrified they were going to encounter poisonous bugs and snakes or wild animals, having little experience of nature aside from seeing birds and animals on TV.

In this case, it seems the researchers just chose to be non-inclusive. This raises the question of how many studies, including those that may have a global impact on mental health, only apply to a select part of the population, and how we can change that. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of films in the festival, and how much they have to say about how mental health is perceived and stigmatized within different cultures. I often find the perspectives both specific and somehow also universal in a way.

The problem is these study results can’t really make any broad scientific claims if they only apply to a narrow subset of humanity. They would draw far more credibility if their reach was expanded, but more importantly, their implications would be more vast and meaningful in their scope and application. The quote that really struck me was this one from Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment: “This field has great potential to address urgent issues—from the global mental health crisis to sustainability efforts worldwide—but to do so, we must better reflect the diversity of world’s populations, cultures and values.” 

I don’t always think of it that way, but there is a global mental health crisis. It’s one of the top killers every year and a great part of that has to do with cultural stigma and access. This field research provides one big example of why we need to be inclusive.

Say What You Mean: What We Talk About When We Talk About Mental Illness

There’s a great scene in the film Inside The Rain where the unforgettable character Ben Glass, who chooses to define his bipolar disorder as “recklessly extravagant,” is eager to blend in with his college classmates the first day. They’re doing that classic around the circle introduction when one of the classmates, describing his double major, says “I guess you could say I’m bipolar in terms of my interests.” When it’s Ben’s turn he responds with “I’m actually, literally, bipolar,” with a little bit of pointiness. I guess his classmate’s statement would be an example of what you’d call an unintentional microaggression in the way it minimizes a serious illness by using it as a frivolous descriptor. It is really hard to avoid these kinds of statements all the time, unless it is called out as hurtful as it was in this scene, and then it’s kind of hard to forget.

Damon Smith points out in the documentary Mental As Everything that when people say things like “I’m so OCD about my closet” it doesn’t even make grammatical sense, because what they’re really saying is “I’m so obsessive compulsive disorder about organizing my closet.” Being overly meticulous and organized is not necessarily “OCD” either. In another great short film about the subject, Stepping Out, the main character confesses, when her date sees her aligning her silverware, “I have OCD. But not the cleaning kind, my apartment is a mess.” The filmmaker said they’d always wanted to see that kind of OCD character, which reflected their own illness, on the screen, and not the stereotypical one. It’s important to realize not only that an Internet quiz about sorting colors cannot diagnose you with OCD, but that everyone with OCD experiences it differently. For many people being clean isn’t even a part of it, while needing to do an activity a certain number of times or in the right order is essential to completing a task or even for keeping bad things from happening.

Most people don’t like being pigeonholed or labeled. Some people prefer to say that they live with a mental illness, or that they live with bipolar disorder, instead of simply saying “I’m bipolar,” finding that reductive. It’s difficult to get everything right all the time when addressing sensitive topics, but when I hear a preference for language usage from a marginalized community I try to listen, and especially to the reasons why that language is used, which helps it stick for me. When I first started hearing the term “died by suicide” and heard advocates for suicide prevention say that it helps strip the stigma of what many consider a shameful act from the term, that made a lot of sense to me and I’ve tried to use that language ever since. Even if it could mean a potential difference in sparing someone hurt through a change that is easy to make and becomes second nature after awhile, the less hurtful choice seems like the way to go.

Here is a surprisingly catchy song about OCD that Damon Smith wrote and performed which was featured in Mental As Everything. This is a good example of a film that addressed the topic of mental illness with a good dose of humor and quirkiness. I still get this one stuck in my head sometimes.

May = Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why is there a Mental Health Awareness Month? To draw attention to mental health and mental illness, which is all too often an invisible, stigmatized illness. It needs to be seen and understood. We need to share stories to foster empathy so we realize we are not alone in our struggles and that there is hope in recovery.

Why doesn’t Mental Filmness take place in the month of May? That’s a good question. The weather is warmer, there’s a whole month to work with, there’s less competition with horror movie stuff. That may be a possibility for expansion in the future. The short and simple answer for why Mental Filmness always takes place around October 10th, World Mental Health Day, is timing. The festival was founded in January and that gave us plenty of time to screen and curate films before October rolled around. It has sort of been rooted in that time loop ever since. Plus, October 10th is the same every year and easy to remember: just look for us then.

However, May is a whole month of celebrating just what our mission does. I seem to get this question every year: Why Mental Filmness?

Well, there’s a personal answer, and a more global answer, to that. To some of the filmmakers who have asked me, I’ve told them, because I’m just like you. I want to share a story with the world and make it feel less alone. My story is that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in mid-2015 and though it helped me make sense of the senseless things that were happening to me, it was also a tough road to recovery, and I know my life will never be the same because I’ll be living with it. Of course, that is only one part of my story, and it doesn’t define me. For the film part, I’ve always loved films and even went to film school back in the day. What I have always loved most about great films is they connect me to a lived experience I would not have understood otherwise, and they help me live with a character for enough time to perceive the world differently. So it seemed like a natural fit.

I also still get this one a lot: “A whole festival devoted to films on mental health? Isn’t that too depressing?” I’ll admit, at times it can be a little emotional. But there’s as many ways to address mental health as there are nuanced facets of it. As a friend of mine said when I was first pondering it, mental health could be anything from a breakdown leading to a hospital stay to wrapping your friend’s birthday present in newspaper because you didn’t have the energy to go buy wrapping paper. There have been funny films about OCD and depression and even comedies about suicide. There have been some amazing, life-affirming true stories: a world-class conductor who lost his career due to a public manic episode who then started the world’s first orchestra composed of musicians with mental illness; a teenager who shot herself in attempt to end her life, paralyzed herself but lived through it, and found a second lease on life as a passionate advocate for suicide prevention; two artists who fell in love in one of the nation’s most notorious asylums and waited for years, visiting each other on day passes, to build a stable life for themselves on the other side. There have been depictions of mental illness as common as intending to attend a party and making out maps and routes and timetables only to not be able to leave the couch, to being talked down from schizophrenic episodes envisioning mind control by the police. These stories inspire me and give me hope.

However, it would be a lie to say that all stories of mental illness end in hope and recovery. They do not, and that is the very reason why these stories need to be told. And there have been stories that address how to cope with a suicide loss, with a broken mental health care infrastructure that has no easy solutions, with what happens when mental illness strains or breaks relationships or needs treatment. Though sad, these stories make me feel comforted. Even the ones without happy endings give me a window into someone else’s pain that feels relatable or a way to express grief. They make me feel like I’m not alone.

For all of these reasons Mental Filmness has been a great gift to me, and I hope to others as well. As with Mental Health Awareness Month, the first step to acknowledging these feelings and issues is awareness.

Making Peace With Peace

I can’t nap anymore. I don’t remember if I ever actually could, but I can’t now. Just on a primal level, my body knows it’s supposed to be awake, and it twitches and spasms me awake. And on a deeper, subconscious level, disturbing images flash through my brain. They aren’t just externalized monsters and demons, either—these are specific traumatic thoughts and memories that my brain probably usually likes to process when I’m asleep, but there’s nowhere for them to go when I’m half-awake. 

Someone once asked if my aversion to naps had anything to do with the amount of time I spent confined to bed when I was depressed. I really think they were on to something with that. Being in bed too much when I shouldn’t be, when I’m not actually sleeping, now has a bad connotation for me. It makes me feel like I’m not in control and that I’m about to let my emotions take over, even if I’m really just giving in to a biological response to being really exhausted.

The past few days I’ve had a really bad cold and have been forced to spend a lot of time in bed due to fatigue. I felt so fatigued that sometimes I found myself having a hard time even paying attention to the TV shows I was trying to binge-watch, and I had to just give in to my worst nightmare and lay there with my eyes closed and nothing to keep me company but my thoughts, which are often my worst enemy.

I’ve never been very good at either cognitive behavioral therapy techniques or meditation. It’s always been super hard for me to re-direct my automatic negative thoughts or to challenge them. I’ve also never been much of an outdoorsy person, so picturing a babbling brook or sunset has never been a great help to me. What I can do to some extent, and what I try to do when falling asleep, is visualize the good. When a traumatic memory surfaces, I try my best to counter it by visualizing something good that happened to me. I try to picture every smell or color in that scene, from the flavor of gelato I was eating in the park with a friend to the way the sunlight slanted down when we were sitting together to the clothes we were wearing. I’ll think that for all the things I’ve done to hurt people, I’ve done other things to help them, and that is just the messy nature of being human for most people. It’s not always successful, but it’s the technique that’s worked the best for me personally, and like most techniques of this sort it’s become easier to do with practice.

Another factor in my beridden sickness is I’m just coming off my finals, which is the time period where I obsessively study and just let everything else go, including household chores, thinking I’ll do them all when it’s over. Now is the “over.” So I’m also lying in my bed piled with dirty laundry, and my sink is loaded with dirty dishes when I go to try to wash some silverware to eat. This completes the set design for recreating one of my depression-motivated days in bed. 

It didn’t feel great. I had to keep reminding myself, as a few of my friends did, that I had to give myself a break because I was sick. And it occurred to me, maybe I needed to give that other version of myself a break for having a hard time getting out of bed for depression—a different form of sickness. A friend of mine also recently sent me a Megan Devine quote about grief: “Some things cannot be fixed; they can only be carried.” We all have things that must be carried, and, sadly, we can’t always out-work or out-run them. Sometimes we just have to sit still with them and let them be. 


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.