*Names were changed to protect anonymity
As someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety, Catherine's mental health journey began unexpectedly: with a car accident in 2017.
Though Catherine emerged physically unscathed, the incident changed her in a different way. She became scared of driving. Then flying. Then it snowballed into a multitude of other fears until she felt anxious to just go outside.
“It sounds so irrational thinking back to it, but I think when you’re in that mode, when you’re in that mindset, it’s just like… that’s what it is for you,” Catherine said. “And it’s hard to get out of it.”
She found herself constantly feeling anxious. Sometimes, she would have trouble eating—the “restlessness” churning within her made it hard to keep down food. Often, it would culminate in her throwing up.
Her anxiety worsened with her transition into a new middle school. There was an overwhelming list of things she suddenly had to balance: adjusting to the new homework;
making friends; getting used to a different environment.
“I was very anxious about all of that—and it kind of just led to depression,” she said.
Catherine's journey with mental health has been a bit “unique,” as she put it, because she struggled with her mental health at a younger age. Having knowledge about the topic early on enabled her to help others; as she saw her friends struggle, she could understand and communicate with them when others couldn’t.
“Obviously, I wish I didn’t have to go through those things,” she said. “But at the same time, it has made me a better person, which is kind of a silver lining.”
As she saw others struggle, she felt the need to do just what she had done for her friends: try her best to help out. Because she could relate to a lot of what they were going through, it felt natural for her.
Some things, like two pieces of a puzzle, just... click. It was like that for Catherine with SafeSpace. As she approached high school, everything clicked into place. She reached out and applied.
“It sounds cheesy, but I’ve always wanted to help people, and in terms of mental health, that seems like the best way to do that because I had been struggling with it and I’ve seen other people struggle,” she said.
Catherine's whole family is very open around mental health, something she is deeply grateful for. Her two sisters both struggled with their mental health at a similar time as Catherine did and were “really understanding”; her mom was always there to be her confidant; her dog was the perfect furry ball of emotional support.
“I know that a lot of parents invalidate their children [for their mental health] and are like, ‘oh, you’re lazy, you’re doing this for attention,’” Catherine said. “But [my mom] is really not like that. She’s been able to get me the help I need, and that’s been such a great thing because it has allowed me to get better.”
Being with her family in quarantine, Catherine felt confident in her mental health. The once omnipresent stress from school had dissipated: with online school still cloaked in novelty and the summer of 2020 fast approaching, work levels fell close to an all-time low. Instead of feeling flooded by waves of lockdown boredom, Catherine relished in the newfound stretches of time, practicing self-care such as exercise.
“I was really just able to do the things that I wanted to do,” she said. “I wasn’t weighed down by school or stress, and I didn’t have any of the social pressures because I didn’t feel comfortable with going out and being with people early on in the pandemic.”
Catherine felt that she was doing “super well” in those early stages of the pandemic. But as summer bled into autumn and a new school year began, the novelty of remote learning wore off. School looked just like it had before: piles of work towering higher and higher; extracurricular commitments quickly dominating schedules. Catherine was swamped. There was homework. There were grades. There was debate. There were mountains of more things to do.
In trying to keep pace, Catherine had to sacrifice her sleep. Bathed in the blue glare of her computer screen, she started doing late-night homework sprints, the clock steadily ticking forward to morning. 11 p.m… 12 a.m… 1 a.m… 2 a.m…
By November, she became “super sleep-deprived.”
“I think after a while I was just... mentally tired,” she said. “And that’s when my depression kind of resurfaced, because at the time I wasn’t really taking medication.”
During the winter of 2021, things worsened. Not only did her to-do lists seem endless, but she simply couldn’t get through the items.
“It was hard to finish homework because I was just so mentally exhausted,” she said.
Her depression deepened with no promise of getting better, and the support system that Catherine had once leaned on didn’t give her what she needed. She went to therapy, but around April, she recognized that she needed a higher level of care. Though it came out of one of the most difficult times in her life, that realization is when Catherine truly felt proud of herself. She committed to an intensive outpatient program: an eight-week program focused on building skills to manage depression.
“It’s very long—I don’t finish until tomorrow. And I was just proud of myself for committing and saying, ‘okay, I’ll do this,’ and for getting the help I needed,” she said.
The outpatient program was like another puzzle piece: it fit what she needed. She found it “super helpful,” and has since been inspired to bring resources like that to places which don’t have access to those kinds of treatments.
Right now, she’s doing just that. Her goal is to weave Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills into her middle school curriculum so that others don’t have to go through what she went through. DBT skills are part of what she learned in the program, and fall under categories including mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Distress tolerance skills, for example, help to manage crisis situations such as a panic attack.
Catherine seeks to change the order of when people learn these skills.
“It shouldn’t be that you learn these skills after you have a crisis, you should learn them before,” she said, “so that when a crisis comes up, you know how to deal with it.” Through integrating these skills into her middle school curriculum, kids will be able to learn them before they get to high school.
Catherine constantly searches for ways that what she has learned on her own mental health journey can help others. Another of her latest projects is to combat the trope of parents calling kids “lazy” or “attention-seekers” when they open up about difficulties with their mental health, which traces back to her family’s role in her personal journey. She considers herself “super lucky” because her mom never fit that mold, and is working to ensure that other people can have that same experience.
Catherine noticed a problem. In all the mental health presentations she had been doing, her audience was tied together by a common thread: they were parents who were already willing to learn about mental health.
The audience she wants to target, though, is the parents who aren’t willing to learn yet. To find that audience, Catherine searches for unexpected opportunities. Sometimes, the opportunity comes along in the form of a larger event; other times, she scouts for crevices and cracks that she can nestle her way into to reach a broader group.
“What I’m trying to do is sneak my way into a parent night, or just somewhere where we can do a presentation to parents and kind of force them into listening, because we need the people that aren’t willing to learn to learn about mental health,” she said.
Catherine is someone who’s more on the extrovert spectrum—she loves sharing with others, and she’s not daunted by tasks that might make some palms sweat. She thrives in debate; she feels comfortable sneaking into parent nights to get her message across; she’s open and candid in sharing her story. And ultimately, she hopes that can help others, whether extrovert, introvert, or anything in between.
“I’m someone who’s generally very open, but I also understand how difficult it can be to speak out,” she said. “So I just hope that me talking about [my mental health] can help other people feel more empowered to speak up about their own experiences.”
More people sharing, she believes, is key to clearing away the taboo clouding mental health.