My Friend is Depressed. What Do I Do?

It’s not uncommon for friends and family of mine to come to me with questions about mental health, support, and services. Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask about how they can support someone with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Specifically, what do you do when you have a friend or family member who is really struggling and doesn’t know what to do. I hope to put together some ideas for folks who themselves are in the spiraling downwards stage of depression and link that here, so that you can pass it along if you’re worried about a friend, but in the meantime, how do you encourage someone to get help and support them in making healthy decisions when they can barely get out of bed?

Before I begin, these are suggestions. They are based on my experience of depression and what I found helpful. Everyone who deals with mental illness is different. If possible, ask your friend what would be helpful for them, and always check in to see if what you’re doing works for them. This one’s going to be a long one because I want to throw out a bunch of options for people to work with. You don’t have to try all of these things, but maybe try one a week.

So here are a few things you can do to support someone who’s in a nastybad place.

  1. Be Honest

One of the things that was very frustrating to me about being incredibly sick was the way that people would dance around the topic. Very few people said to me straight to my face “You have an eating disorder. I’m worried about you. I want you to be healthy. What can I do?” It’s refreshing when someone says what they mean. It doesn’t have to sound like an after school special either. Use the language you normally would use, whether that’s “Hey I see that the jerkbrains have you down right now,” or “You seem really unhappy lately.” Whatever you do, don’t try to manipulate the person into health or sneak your support in without making sure they want it. Even if they are sick, they’re an adult, and they deserve the loudest voice in their treatment.

2. Be Proactive

It’s very common for supportive family and friends to ask “how can I help?” This comes from a very understandable place. You want to be helpful, you’re not sure what they want or what you can do, so you ask. Unfortunately, one of the things that is most overwhelming about being incredibly depressed/anxious is that you often have NO idea what will help. So instead of asking a really wide open question like that, I’d recommend making specific suggestions. Something like “Would you like me to make you food? I can make a sandwich or a salad.” “Does it feel better to talk about it or be distracted?” “I’d like to come over and see how you are today. Is that ok?” Depression is exhausting and makes every decision feel impossible. Keep the decisions as small as possible: yes or no, this or that. Don’t wait for them to give you an idea of how to help, come up with one yourself.

As a sidenote, this is a great way to help someone with things you think would be good for them. From the outside, it’s easy to look at someone who’s seriously depressed and think that they should eat better, go outside, move their body, leave the house…the list goes on and on. That can be incredibly difficult to do when you’re depressed. So instead of simply telling them that they should, help them. Offer to make them a meal, suggest you take a walk together, ask them to meet up for coffee (you could even say you’ll pick them up and carpool together to decrease the barriers they face). If you can think of something that is getting in their way that you could do for them, do it. This might sound infantilizing, but it’s just like any other acute illness. They’re spending all their energy fighting: you’re giving them a little bit of space to breathe.

3. Be Willing to Be a Normal Friend

Sometimes it’s important for you to jump in to “supporting and helping” mode. But someone who is in a crisis level of depression is still a person and still has the need for connection on a basic human level. Sometimes they want to talk about normal things or act like any other friend: they want to see a movie, they want to make a joke, they want to laugh or smile. So if they seem up for it, it can be nice to do a normal friend activity and not bring up depression for at least a little bit. If it’s possible to distract them from the overwhelming pain, that is a huge gift you can give.

4. Do the Minutiae

Most of helping someone with depression isn’t listening to them late into the night or giving them a great speech that convinces them not to hurt themselves. Most of it is actually really boring. It’s sitting with someone while they call their doctor because otherwise they won’t make an appointment. It’s checking in to see if they’ve taken their meds. It’s doing a load of laundry for them so that they don’t feel too disgusting to leave the house. If you really want to be the supportive friend, you have to truly accept that not only are you seeing them at their most vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable too. You have to be willing to get messy and be bored and do unpleasant things. It’s worth it though.

5. Accept the Awkwardness

One of the more vulnerable things in life is letting another person see you when you are really struggling with your mental health. Imagine someone seeing you when you can’t seem to dress yourself, feed yourself, wash yourself, or do other basic tasks. It’s an experience that can be embarrassing. It’s easy to feel like a child. You are witnessing someone in this situation and they are fully aware that they’re asking for help with things that seem like second nature to you. So recognize that someone is showing you an incredibly vulnerable side of themselves. You may even want to let them know that you’re aware, and that it’s OK, that they can take as much or as little time as they need to do things, and that they can ask you for anything.

6. Validate

It’s easy to see someone who’s struggling and follow your first impulse to try to make them feel better, or tell them it will be ok. What often gets forgotten is that when you’re overwhelmed by depression and anxiety, it can seem like one half of your world isn’t real. There’s such a huge disconnect between your internal emotional experience and the behaviors you witness in the rest of the world. You can feel like you’re losing your grip on reality, or like you must be making things up. It helps a lot for someone to just say “those feelings are totally real. You are not making up how bad it is. You really are fighting a hard battle, and it seriously sucks, and I’m so sorry.”

No, it doesn’t fix anything, but it is incredibly validating to hear that other people believe you, see what you’re doing, and recognize your experience as real. It helps to bridge some of those gaps between internal experience and external reality. It can particularly help if there are negative things happening in someone’s life to point out “Hey, you are not making this up. You’ve been dealing with hard things and maybe your reaction is particularly strong, but it makes complete sense to struggle with this.”

7. Walk the walk

Take care of yourself. I know in many other places in this article I’ve recommended being willing to do anything. What I mean by that is not letting pride get in the way. However you have limits too. If possible, demonstrate healthy boundaries and good self care. Saying something like “I’d really like to help out, but I can’t do x night because it’s date night. Can I help you on y night instead?” If you’re having a chat with them, it’s good to mention things you’re doing to take care of yourself, e.g. “I saw my therapist the other day and we talked through x problem.” It helps to normalize the steps that you’re asking the other person to take, and it also helps them feel less lonely. They’re not especially broken and sick. Other people are working on the same things.

8. Be Willing to Be a Safe Place

This one might be a little bit controversial, but it’s something that I think we should talk openly about. I and many of my friends who have dealt with self harm and suicidality have an intense fear of someone calling 911 on us. Especially for people who are black, autistic, trans, or another vulnerable group, interacting with the police is something to be avoided at all costs because it is dangerous. If you have a friend who has told you that they do not want to go to the ER or interact with the police, please respect that. Work with them to find other ways to keep them safe. Drive them to the ER yourself to get them stitches. Forced hospitalization is not fun for anyone, and if we can avoid it that’s great.

As a side note, one of the things that was most stressful to me when I was self harming was managing other people’s emotions about my self harm. I know that seeing someone you love injuring themselves is AWFUL. It is terrifying and it is painful. Those feelings are real. However in the moment when the person has hurt themselves is not the appropriate time to have that conversation. That’s the time when you need to be calm, ask them if they need to be cleaned up, if they need stitches or a bandage, and hold them tight. I cannot express how big of a deal it was for me when I finally met someone who reacted to my self harm in a calm manner rather than with fear and anger. There is something so validating about a person who loves you accepting that you’ve done this and still communicating that they love you. Save the fear and anger for a less charged moment.

If you have any other suggestions, feel free to drop them in comments!

Resilience and Mental Illness

Content notice: eating disorders, suicidality, self harm

The last couple of months have been trying for me in ways that would be challenging even to the most even keeled and mentally healthy of human beings. Today, my mother told me to remember that I am resilient. I am holding up well.

I have lived through some fairly horrific things. So much so that when I think back on the worst times in my life, I feel completely disconnected from them. Someone else must have done them, because I do not understand how anyone could have done what I did. For some reason I’ve been thinking about college lately. At the time, I hardly thought that anything I did was impressive. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t start my own club or create an initiative, travel abroad, or do anything particularly outstanding, as far as I was aware.

In college, with little variation, I did not eat more than once every two days. There were periods (up to a month or so) during which I ate once a week, supplemented by coffee with milk. In the picture above, I hadn’t eaten in days. My body was remarkably resilient. I could feel it falling apart under me. I was weak and tired, and found my heart and lungs struggling. But every doctor told me that there was nothing wrong, my blood work was good, I could still run and swim and bike and climb. I kept going.

One summer, I took two classes over the course of a month and a half. I could count the number of times I ate during that time on one hand. I walked away with A’s. I don’t understand how I did it, and when I think back on the time, it feels like it must be someone else who did it. That was too much, too painful, too cruel. I could not have done those things. How did I do those things? How did my mind follow a single sentence, much less Kant and Aristotle, Nietszche and Mill? When it was happening, it hardly seemed extraordinary. But now? No one could survive that.

But I did survive. I put one foot in front of the other. I held down a job, and I took my classes, and I graduated, and years later, I finally started to eat again. I became healthy. I felt joy again. I felt like I was giving up, over and over again. My body kept moving but I felt no purpose. I’m not sure if that constitutes resilience. I know that I could not live through it again, even as I know that nothing I experience now could ever feel as awful as spending years of my life actively suicidal every moment of every day. Is it resilience if you only keep going because you know you can? Because you know you’ve been through worse? I don’t understand how I did it, but it is hard evidence that I can survive nearly anything.

I suppose it doesn’t matter why as long as you keep going. Your boss tells you your work isn’t quite up to par and it feels awful, but you keep going. You haven’t seen your friends in weeks and you know you should, but you just keep going. Is this resilience? Because if I’m honest, it feels awful.

I don’t particularly want to keep going anymore. I want to collapse on the couch and eat tubs of ice cream. I want to drink a bottle of wine in one sitting. I want to stop picking up my phone and disappear from work. Perhaps that’s the secret of resilience: knowing how to be miserable for days and weeks and months on end. Not knowing if it will end, but moving forward nonetheless. I’ve found that most traits that keep you healthy feel awful in the moment. I suppose mental health is no different.

So I guess that I will keep feeling hideous and broken. That’s how it’s supposed to feel right now. In a year or two years I will look back and wonder “how did I survive?” And then I will continue to live through the seemingly unlivable parts of life. It is mundane how much pain there is in a single life, even as living that pain is an experience that is full of awe and fear. I think on the enormity of living in starvation for years, and how simple it seemed at the time. How normal. The juxtoposition with how overwhelming this feels is stark. I can feel my feelings now. But I will hold on to the resilience I had when I was cold and sick and broken. It is one of the few lessons that my eating disorder has given me.

Just pick up one foot and put it in front of the other. Repeat.

 

My Work Is My Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago I started to realize that thanks to a large pile of external stressors, my mental health has been suffering this winter. Pretty normal. Even someone who didn’t have some vulnerabilities would probably be struggling right now. But as someone who does have vulnerabilities it became quite clear to me that for the next month or until things start to feel better, my job needs to be caring for my mental health.

I’ve heard people use that phrase before, but I don’t know that it’s always clear what it means. Particularly when you have an actual, literal job, and responsibilities, what does it mean to make your mental health a priority? Why do people choose the “job” or “work” metaphor when they’re talking about mental health? For people who haven’t been through the process of managing depression or anxiety before, the whole idea can be overwhelming, so I wanted to break down my process a little bit to show others how it can be manageable.

One of the main reasons I like the job metaphor is because it gives me a clear picture of how I can successfully approach being more mentally healthy. It’s easy to just say “I want to take care of myself” or “I want to deal with my depression”, but when you approach it like a job you recognize that you have to set concrete goals, that you have to work with other people to achieve those goals, that you break your goals down into steps, and that you might have to try a variety of different techniques to achieve the results you want.

For me, it helps to have something like a “workplan” so that I can know what concrete actions I’m taking and what I hope to get from those actions. For example I’m currently trying to decrease my stress and anxiety. To break that down, I have brainstormed with my therapist things that have helped in the past (being more social, working less, doing mindfulness exercises, being more physically active) and set goals for each of them (see friends 3x a week, do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, go climbing 3x a week etc.). In a few weeks I can see how I’m doing at those tasks and if each task is helping.

I also find that when I think of it as a job, it becomes a priority. I write it on my to do list each day (and then I have to do it), which helps me to reprioritize, as well as remember to check in regularly and see what’s working and what isn’t. For me personally, including things on my written to do lists keeps it at the forefront of my mind because I am seeing it regularly. That to me is what it means when my mental health is my job: no matter what else I’m doing, my well being is always in my brain. I’m at work? Cool, I’m also doing deep breathing regularly. Out with friends? Great! Make sure you’re also eating enough and venting when you need to. No matter what else is happening, self care is taking priority. If something isn’t serving your long term well being, stop doing it.

Of course there are times where it becomes difficult to know if it’s helping or not. For example I am stressed due to a bunch of big expenses coming up. I’m worried about money. In order to deal with that stress I have been taking on more freelance work to build up a better savings account. Of course taking on more freelance work means that I have less down time and less time with friends, more work to do, and less flexibility in my life and schedule, leaving me with higher levels of stress. Which is more important right now…the money stress or the immediate scheduling stress? For me it’s easier to think of it as a business trade off: which will earn company Olivia more Joy in the long run? Can we outsource any of this work? In this case, it helped me realize I needed to talk to my fiance and family and see if there were alternatives to Olivia just dealing with it, which it turns out there are.

The metaphor might not work for everyone, and this might not be what everyone thinks of when they say “my mental health is my job right now.” But I find that it’s an appropriate metaphor because it restructures the way I approach things, and it makes me more serious about the real amounts of work it takes to take care of myself.

Do you have a different metaphor that works when you need to prioritize mental health? What helps you kick self care into high gear?

 

2017 Was a Year of Mourning

It’s the new year! Hey 2017. Good to see you.

I have a lot of friends who are not fans of 2016. I agree with them on many fronts about the dumpster fire of the last year. 2016 was objectively one of the hardest years I have ever had on a personal level. There was simply too much happening. Some of it was amazing, but some of it was truly horrible, and I cannot really process it all. For some people, 2016 was awful because of the election and celebrity deaths and large, communal events, things that didn’t appear to affect them personally but which they’ve reacted to anyway. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what it’s like to have group experience that affect your perception of the world and the people around you.

I have seen some people shitting all over the idea that someone should be sad at the deaths of celebrities or at the election of Trump. These things don’t make an immediate impact. Other celebrities will die. Trump isn’t even president yet. 2017 will be worse. Just wait until their policies get enacted. Don’t complain, act! That’s not the RIGHT way to react to horrible things. 

I am not inclined to be particularly forgiving to anyone telling another person how to feel, but in this case, I think that naysayers have missed a major part of WHY others are reacting in the ways that they are and so I am particularly annoyed. One of the most common refrains that I’ve heard amounts to “get over it. It will just get worse so you need to toughen up and figure out how to deal with it.”

I have news for those naysayers: this communal outcry? The complaining, the jokes, the GIFs of a dumpster fire? That IS us getting used to it. It’s called grief and it’s a process, and 2016 was a year that was all about realizing that loss and cruelty are a part of our lives, then grieving for the reality we thought we knew. Grief happens in all kinds of ways. It’s not always rational, it’s not always clear, but it is necessary emotional work, and it will take time. People have to feel these emotions before they can move on to creating positive change.

I particularly want to focus on a brand of criticism that I’ve found frustrating and harmful. After Trump’s election a lot of people had a lot of feelings. Many people acted on those feelings in ways that made themselves feel more safe, or because they wanted to feel sure they would have birth control/be married/be able to get citizenship/whatever else they were worried about before Trump could make any changes. I have friends who moved up their wedding dates, people who invested in long term birth control, acquaintances who suddenly started volunteering and giving money at high levels. People are making changes. To some, this might appear rash. Trump isn’t going to take away marriage equality tomorrow, why are you having your wedding right now?

It’s true that in the sense of practical action, some of people’s behaviors aren’t necessary. People probably don’t need to worry about their healthcare disappearing the moment Trump gets sworn in, or about their marriages being annulled in a few weeks. Some of these behaviors might even be a little bit irrational in the strictest sense. I don’t really want to get in to a discussion of “how scared should people be”, because honestly it doesn’t even matter. These actions are serving a very important purpose that is completely separate from their existence as political actions.

People are doing things because they are sad and afraid. A world that they thought had existed is gone. They are mourning the loss of that world and the illusion of safety it had provided. Sometimes, when you are mourning, it is perfectly reasonable to do things just to make yourself feel better. You get to act irrationally, especially if it’s not hurting anyone and it makes you feel safer. You get to focus on yourself for a little bit.

When you understand people’s behaviors not necessarily as calculated political action but rather as personal grief, it makes a lot more sense, and hopefully can give us all a lot more patience with each other. Maybe things will stay as awful in 2017 as they felt in 2016. That’s certainly a possibility. But what I doubt will stay the same is the way people are behaving. Human beings require time to adjust to change, particularly unpleasant and difficult changes. 2016 was a year of realization for many people: the world is not what I thought it was. People are not who I thought they were. Death is a regular part of my life. Suffering cannot always be avoided.

2016 was a year of mourning those realizations and the loss of some hope and security that came from not believing those things. As we move into 2017, I hope we can start to grow from mourning to action. But I also want to recognize the people who are still coping, or still struggling to cope. Emotions move at their own pace. People feel and understand emotions differently from each other. None of us should be heaping shame and guilt on each other for the feelings we have about 2016.

I want to publicly witness your mourning. I want you to know that it’s ok. I want you to know that the fear and grief make sense. I want you to know that you aren’t alone. I want to recognize that there are moments in which communities collectively see and understand change, and that this isn’t just the same as usual, and maybe this is our new normal, but we take time to adjust to normal. It’s ok to feel like 2016 was a big and important year. Recognize those feelings. It’s the only way to move forward, and the only way to truly adjust to the world as it is. There’s no call for shaming each other.

You Can’t Always See Anxiety

I want to give you all a glimpse behind the curtain of anxiety for a brief minute. Maybe this is stupid and you all already know it, but I feel as if the outside face that I present to people makes me look way more together than I am.
 
So you all know that I’m getting married, and you all know that I’m a pretty hyper organized person. Basically everyone I have spoken to about my wedding has been nothing but compliments on how far ahead I am in terms of planning and organization. People have told me over and over that they are impressed with the way I’m working ahead and doing so much DIY far in advance, how good I’m being at keeping everyone up to date and making lovely spreadsheets and lists and staying right on schedule in terms of what needs to get done.
 
And I smile and say thank you and “Oh I really hope so”. Because what I can’t say in the moment is “this is all just a coping mechanism.” Underneath the very competent exterior, I am regularly feeling so anxious and overwhelmed that I’m giving myself headaches and nausea. I am having trouble being social because I’m so nervous that I’m behind. I regularly will just start crying at Jacob that everything is wrong and I don’t know how to fix it because there’s no way I’m going to finish everything on time and the wedding will be a disaster.
 
If you knew me in college you knew I was typically a week ahead on any work. Everyone always acted as if this must mean I didn’t feel any stress over deadlines. This could not be further from the truth. I was SO terrified of deadlines that i had to work that far in advance. I felt all the stress of pulling all nighters and working straight up to the deadline, but weeks in advance, because if I wasn’t ahead I was behind. That is how I feel about my wedding. Every day I wake up and feel short of breath and tight in my chest, and I look over my to do lists again and again and see that I’m doing perfectly fine and wonder what am I missing? What haven’t I done? What is slipping through the cracks? And then I find something that needs to get done and I panic and wonder how it’s ever going to get finished on time and do it all right this instant, but the feeling of “this is too much I will never finish it” lingers and lingers, and every time I find another to do it builds on every other lingering certainty that I will never finish in time.
 
No amount of rationality dispels the continued anxiety from every project that has to be done and even the ones that are already finished (am I sure they’re complete? Are they ALL THE WAY complete or do they still have things to be done? What if they need to be changed?). In my mind I am carrying every single task that it takes to put on a wedding ALL THE TIME.
 
THAT is why I’m so far ahead on everything. If I let a single ball drop, the panic comes crashing in. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m weeks ahead on my to do list, I can put it all down for a minute and relax. I can accept that it will all get done on time. Maybe if I finish it all a week or two weeks before the actual wedding I’ll have time to calm the fuck down and actually enjoy my time.
 
But when you look at me and think that I’m really competent and have everything under control, what you miss is that the reason I hold so tightly to everything is because it feels like a mass of chaos that I’m barely grasping at all. THAT is what anxiety is.
Note: this was cross posted from my Facebook because it seemed like it needed to be a blog post.

The Holidays: Now With Bonus Political Stress!

I hate the holidays. I know, I’m a Grinch, but eating disorders don’t get along well with Thanksgiving, and social anxiety is not a fan of large gatherings with people you only see once or twice a year. Any kind of chronic physical or mental illness makes holidays seriously challenging, which is truly a giant pile of butts because I love my family and I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time prepping for seeing them and recuperating afterwards. This post is in fact late because of stress induced sickness from a very long Thanksgiving. But better late than never, and I’m glad I spent the time taking care of myself.

I know I’m not the only one out there who despite loving their family and friends finds the excessive social nature of the holidays overwhelming and exhausting, and who is more tense than usual thanks to the heightened political climate this year. So with that in mind, here is a guide to not talking about things you don’t want to talk about. Because socializing is hard and it’s even harder if your family is made up of Trump supporters and you have social anxiety.

My first and biggest recommendation is to decide ahead of time what your boundaries are. Once you know how much you’re willing to discuss or tolerate, you can create plans to deal with the situations you foresee. Are you willing to talk about politics at all? Are there specific people you will talk about politics with, but not others? Do you have a limit to how much you’re willing to talk politics? Is it too stressful to even hear others talk about politics? Answer these questions and try to plan for any problem situations you can foresee.

One of the most important skills you can work on is escaping conversations you really don’t want to be in. This is useful no matter what your boundaries are. You can use it to get away from a problem person before the conversation turns sour, to get out of a conversation with someone you normally like who has turned to obnoxious topics, or when you’re just feeling overwhelmed. One option is to enlist someone you trust for help. Let them know you might need to get away for a little bit, and text when you need a hand. They can come in and say they need your help with something. Other alternatives include telling your conversational partner you need to use the restroom, or getting a refill on your drink. Practice a couple of get away lines before you go. It might seem ridiculous, but it helps to have something at your fingertips.

Escaping a conversation is a good way to deal with a situation if you don’t want to talk to someone anymore or if there is somewhere else you can go hang out. But what if everyone is engaged in the obnoxious conversation, or this is the cousin you never see and would really like to catch up with? Well you’re also allowed to set boundaries with your family members. This can be one of the more challenging things to try because it is more direct than simply quietly escaping. Start by naming what the people are doing, then identify how it makes you feel. For example “You’re talking a lot about politics and I feel really uncomfortable with that topic.” Then you state your boundary: “Please stop talking about politics with me.” If the person accepts the boundary and moves on, great! If they do not, you have to introduce some kind of consequence. “I asked you to stop talking about politics and you didn’t. If you keep talking about this, I’m going to go in the other room.” You may have to scale the consequence. If everyone in the house will not stop doing something that you have asked them repeatedly not to do, it is OK to leave. You don’t have to do it in a big huff, but simply inform people “I’ve asked people not to do x, and people continue to do x. I’m going to leave now because my boundaries are not being respected.”

 

You can practice these skills ahead of time. Role playing might seem silly, but I have done role playing for setting boundaries and it turns out it helps to have said the words out loud before you try to use them in context. It can also help remind you of your limits so that you stick to them. You may also want to set a reminder somewhere so that you don’t forget to take care of yourself: that could be a close family member who checks in, an alarm that goes off partway through the party so that you check in with yourself, or a note in your pocket. Just make sure that once you get into the social situation, you don’t forget all the planning and work you did ahead of time.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, you cannot get through the holidays if you only focus on the obvious things like gatherings and family time that might be stressful. This month set goals to sleep enough, eat well, and move your body on a regular basis. When you are physically taken care of, your emotional baseline is simply more stable. If you have anxiety or some other illness that makes holiday times hard, you probably know your coping skills. You know the things you can do that will make you feel better about yourself. Focus on those this month. The more you can keep your overall stress level low, the better you will be able to handle each individual instance of stress.

Good luck and I hope all of my fellow socially anxious folks actually have some fun this holiday season! You deserve it.

Why I’m Unsettled By The Surge of Interest in the Anoka State Mental Hospital

There has been a fair amount of talk recently in my neck of the woods about the Anoka State Mental Hospital. This place is touted as the most haunted place in the state, and for some reason it’s become a bit of a fad recently to want to explore the tunnels beneath the hospital, spend the night, or go urban exploring in some other fashion.

I’ve heard people giggling on the radio about how fun and scary it would be, or how they’d like to freak out their friends by going there. And to be honest it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and a little afraid.

You see the reason that this mental hospital is considered haunted is because of the treatment of the patients. Treatments for mental illness in the 60s and 70s were fairly harsh, and there’s good evidence that excess medication was used on most patients, along with restraints and electrotherapy (today’s electrotherapy is much different from the very painful electrotherapy of the past). There is a reputation of poor treatment and restraint in this particular institution. Even today some diagnoses still come with “treatments” like restraints, sedating medications, or being committed against your will.

So with that in mind, it concerns me that this very recent and in some cases still ongoing history is seen as some kind of fun sideshow. A recent Washington Post article commented on this same trend in many haunted houses and Halloween attractions, pointing out that making “insane asylum” attractions positions mentally ill people as dangerous and scary. It minimizes the actual struggle of being mentally ill by making it into entertainment, and in many cases can scare people away from treatment by portraying mental hospitals or other treatment facilities as scary and dangerous.

I see many of the same problems with visiting actual mental hospitals as a form of entertainment.

Whether you are visiting because you think the ghosts of patients are scary or because you want to be titillated by the barbaric treatment devices that are supposedly still littered around the grounds, you are actively contributing to stigma and turning pain into entertainment. If you’re visiting because mental patients make scary ghosts, congrats, you are contributing to the impression that mental patients are scary, violent, and dangerous. If it’s the place itself, then you are part of the reason individuals with mental illness are afraid to get treatment: it’s perceived as scary or abusive. We cannot ignore or forget that past treatments were abusive, but the solution is not to go look at them for fun. It’s to advocate for change and high standards today.

It is dehumanizing to mentally ill people to treat the actual site of their abuse as a fun place to visit. Of course there are people who want to visit with different intentions, but most of the talk I’ve heard has been that it would be enjoyable. Perhaps the hospital did not include the barbaric tortures that some people want to imagine, but there is no doubt that many people suffered and were abused in this location, in the name of treatment. That is not a fun story.

In this case it deeply concerns me because we still live in a society where treatment can be abusive to mentally ill people, where mentally ill people are incarcerated at incredibly high rates, where violence is blamed on mentally ill people…all of these problems are diminished or in some ways excused by the kinds of narratives that come out of “scary haunted insane asylum”. They all tie back to the stigma that says mental illness is dangerous and violent, that people with mental illnesses are not fully human but are a spectacle, that we must do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe from these people and to keep them safe from themselves. Further, it contributes to the stigma against getting help.

My mind is not a Halloween sideshow. People who want to go enjoy the spectacle of a scary insane asylum: stop. Please.