Like most people, I was raised believing that talking about mental health was inappropriate.
Much of my family have undiagnosed mental illnesses, and those that have been diagnosed forgo treatment or medicine (with the exception of my great aunt, my sister and I). While this has been frustrating to me because of all the ways it’s negatively impacted my own beliefs and health, I can sympathize with my family. It’s their inability to see past the stigma that accompanies having or talking about a mental illness that has made it impossible for my family to gather the courage to seek help for their bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-partum depression, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse. Talking about it just didn’t feel like an option.
Having lived through many of the repercussions this stigma can create (reflected in my abusive father and my family’s ignorance regarding my own diagnosis until recently), I have so much gratitude for my friend, Sammy Nickalls’ contribution to the conversation surrounding mental health. Last year, Nickalls (who also writes and edits for Esquire) started the #TalkingAboutIt hashtag on Twitter to help promote more conversation about mental health, helping others like her see that they’re not alone in their fight.
The hashtag is one I’ve been personally very active and invested in, as I share my challenging feelings and realizations only to be met with support and encouragement from the positive community Nickalls fosters. And as many of us know, there’s nothing more healing than talking about what we’re going through to folks who understand. I spoke with her about what inspired her to start #TalkingAboutIt, how we can begin to dismantle the mental health stigma and how social media needs to change towards a more mental health-posi perspective.
HelloFlo: How was #TalkingAboutIt born?
Sammy Nickalls: I’ve always had anxiety, but in the fall and winter of 2015, it started to get so bad that everything felt terrifying. My anxiety took a depressive turn. Even the smallest of tasks — like getting out of bed or taking a shower, for example — seemed pointless because there were just so many things I had to do, so why bother doing any of them? It felt like I was paralyzed.
I was spending a ton of time in bed, feeling absolutely awful…yet I was keeping it a secret from my followers and most of my friends because I was so afraid of being judged as weak or overly dramatic. That is, until December of 2015, when I saw a friend tweeting about being in bed with a cold. It was a tweet that we’ve all sent — a part joking, part complaining tweet about laying in bed all day sick with a runny nose.
Just then, it suddenly occurred to me that keeping quiet was just contributing to the stigma, especially as a privileged person whose family and work life would allow me to be open and vulnerable. I resolved to talk about my mental health the same way as my friend was about her cold.
HF: For those who don’t know, what kinds of things can people talk about using the hashtag?
SN: The hashtag is open to anyone who wants to share literally anything about their mental health–whether they’re having a good mental health day, or they want to share their self care routine, or they just had a panic attack. I’ve seen people use the hashtag to talk about a loved one they’ve lost, or an eating disorder, or an upcoming job assignment they’re really anxious about. Mental health ties into everything in life, so there’s really no limits.
HF: What communities or resources did you use previously to start/engage with conversations about mental health? Were they effective?
SN: I hadn’t really engaged in a lot of communities about mental health because it hadn’t occurred to me that I can, if I’m being honest.
HF: How has the stigma against mental health impacted you negatively in the past?
SN: I want to emphasize that I am very privileged in that I have a very understanding family and work for a very accepting and open company, but the stigma is pervasive and has still affected me. It affects me every time I feel nerves about taking my anxiety medication in public, or when someone gives me a weird look when I mention therapy. I’ve lost friends because they’ve thought I was too dramatic when I was having a panic attack. It’s everywhere, and the only way we can make it go away is by talking about it until we’re blue in the face so that we can all acknowledge that we all have mental health we have to maintain.
HF: How has #TalkingAboutIt helped you personally?
SN: There’s been countless times when #TalkingAboutIt has made me feel less alone after an anxiety attack or during a deeply depressive day. It’s become such an amazing community that rushes to lift each other up and reminds you to take care of yourself. #TalkingAboutIt has made it so that I’m never, ever alone, and I’ll be forever thankful for it.
HF: I love that there’s now #TalkingAboutIt Twitter chats! Do you think you’ll continue to host them & do you think they’ve been helpful?
SN: I certainly plan on continuing them! Timing can be a little tricky so I’m working it out, but I love the chats and have received some great feedback, so I’d love to keep ’em going. I think they’ve been really helpful in terms of getting the hashtag into the public eye, which widens the community and makes it easier for users to feel supported and loved.
HF: What kind of issues do you hope to shed light on using the hashtag?
SN: I think one of the biggest things the hashtag could do, in an ideal world, is make social media a healthier place. I know I’ve certainly looked at Twitter or Facebook or Instagram and felt immensely lonely and anxious when I saw all my friend’s curated highlights of their lives all in a row. But if we can share the darker parts of our lives as well, I think social media could help us all feel a little less alone, all while giving us a place to get feedback and support during difficult mental health days.
HF: I know #TalkingAboutIt also launched a website this year in addition to starting the Twitter chats. Do you have any other plans or aspirations for #TalkingAboutIt for the next year?
SN: Oh gosh, I have no idea yet, but stay tuned 🙂
You can follow on Sammy on Twitter here.