Mental Health in an Online Industry

*forgive me if this article bounces around a bit – I’m writing as I’m thinking and very passionate today!*

So I just finished listening to the latest three episodes of Unfinished Business, which mention a lot on mental health. Both Paul Boag and Andrew Clarke have talked frequently about their fights with depression. I’ve always found it interesting that our industry seems to have a huge concentration of people with mental health issues. I wonder if it’s because we don’t have to interact as much with people (face to face) as other industries? Because we can be anonymous behind a computer screen? Because we can work from home and avoid the office culture? I know these items were certainly something that I myself was unconsciously attracted to.

I don’t suffer from depression (most of the time), but what I have is something just as serious and important. I suffer from a severe case of anxiety disorder (I really, really hate that word “disorder”). It began about four years ago when I moved out to the country and  it got so bad over the next few months, that I was completely unable to leave my home. I was frightened and seriously depressed about being, what I thought at the time, stuck at home for forever.

My anxiety has definitely affected me in other ways. I’m a traveler, adventurer, a learner and a seer, and being afraid to leave the house definitely put a damper on this. It was also hard for me to not worry about everything and I would imagine the worst possible scenarios always happening. I went from being a bubbly, happy optimist, to a sour-pussed pessimist. I stopped trusting people and begin lashing out, thinking that people were talking behind my back or secretly making fun of me. I began to get a bit jealous when others got more recognition than me, or even more conference speaking invites because I couldn’t do these things without panicking and dropping out. This caused serious problems later on with significant others, as well as losing some important friendships in our industry because I was argumentative and a bit of a hard head. (I’m really, really sorry Aral, Laura and Geri – I miss you guys)

Many people can easily understand depression, but anxiety, because it manifests in a million different ways, is harder to explain to others who haven’t felt the crippling panic attacks and the sheer life-threatening fear one has when faced with one of their triggers. Much of my anxiety stemmed from traveling in the car and the fact that I was scared that my IBS (another half mental/half tummy issue) would act up and I would get sick in the car. It also came from the fact that my first husband in my early twenties got very, very, very angry and upset if I made us turn around halfway to our destination and go home. Even though I left that unhappy relationship, I took the fear of upsetting the person with me. Which is why I was fine driving on my own, but I would panic going a mile away from home in the car with someone else.

I finally got fed up with being stuck at home and decided I would *force* myself to go out every day, and drive farther and farther away each day, stopping when I couldn’t take the panic anymore. I was finally able to go about 30 minutes from my house, where I could see a psychiatrist. I was desperate at this time. My brain was sick and it needed help. I went on Lexapro and had some CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) sessions and was able to move to London for a year, until a devastating divorce brought me back to Nashville.  Last year, I had bought Taylor Swift (stop laughing!) tickets for me and my mum, and I ended up leaving my mum at the concert only 2 songs in because I was panicking. The concert was sold out and the seats were way, way, high up and gravity kept wanting to pull me down. I couldn’t stop panicking and left. That was my turning point where I decided it was time to stop allowing this to ruin my life. While I definitely still have issues being in the car and traveling, I refuse to let it stop me anymore.  I’m finally getting better.

Today I’m taking a free psych course thanks to Future Learn, and trying to apply it to my own life. I’ve tweeted about my issues only once or twice, and was amazed by the outpouring of support from followers, and the fact that they have similar issues as well. Mental health has become the issue I cling to, the one I want to support more than anything else and to help others dealing with the same. I was never able to understand the gender issues in our industry, because I myself have never experienced it – whether because I chose to ignore it, or because I’ve always been a strong-willed person that enjoys barreling through conflict (yes, even my anxiety). But mental health is something I can understand, because *I* deal with it every day.

I’m very happy about hearing others speak out about their issues, and I want it to become something that’s as unembarassing to talk about as other health problems. I know the web, despite its issues, is an industry that’s a lot more open, honest and friendlier than others. I see this when friends and family talk about their careers in banking, human resources, accounting or government work. I don’t think any other career has the support system we do, and it’s time to start using it more. For those who are strong enough to stop the trolls for others who aren’t. For it to be ok to say “hey I’m just a bit sad today, I need a day off”. For people not to have to worry about losing jobs or clients because they have “issues”. Some of the best artists and thinkers of the world had “issues”, too. We all have issues – and I want to be one of the first to say you can talk to me. My door (err, email) is always open. I’m overly open and not afraid to say much (which is why I’m always in trouble…sorry!).

My best pieces of advice for dealing with mental health issues? 1) Find someone else who’s dealing with the same and talk to them. It’s an incredible feeling when you realize you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. 2) Find a hobby that you can take with you. For me, it’s my knitting. It stops the panic thoughts and it calms my mind. It’s now also running as well, but to a lesser extent. 3) Get help. You can’t always fix things on your own, and there’s no shame in getting help. You wouldn’t feel shameful going to a doctor for a broken leg or cancer, right? Mental health issues are no different.

It’s up to us to change the stigma.