As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Beth Anne Katz. Beth Anne Katz has been struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder since 2008. In 2016, she founded Katzbe Fights Depression, an advocacy movement dedicated to destroying the mental health stigma. Her work focuses on opening the conversation around mental illness, spreading mental health information, and creating community through support and humor. In 2018 her work was recognized by the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Outside of her advocacy work, Beth Anne is a program manager at Microsoft based in California. In 2014 she graduated with degrees in Electrical & Computer Engineering and Hispanic Studies from Carnegie Mellon University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 17, due to a series of personal circumstances, I was plagued by what I would later find out was a severe depression diagnosis. When my family found out that I ideating suicide, I was forced into therapy. While everyone’s intentions were sincere, I felt betrayed; I had never wanted therapy, I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with me, and I never wanted to be labelled as dependent, weak, vulnerable, or unstable. I resultingly learned to stifle my symptoms and smile my way through therapy sessions to convince everyone, including myself, that I was fine.
But I wasn’t fine. No amount of hiding made my persistent symptoms go away: an eating disorder, hypersomnia, being convinced I was worthless, ruminating on past wrongs, and the familiarity of suicidal thoughts lingering in the back of my mind. The repressed symptoms consistently scratched their way to the surface, no matter how hard I fought to control them. This cascaded into more self-destructive spirals: damaged relationships, a weight rollercoaster, and the inability to explain myself when my behavior was influenced by my untreated depression.
These patterns persisted until I had a revelation. I realized that my intention in keeping my diagnosis a secret was to protect myself from prejudice, from labels, and from people treating me differently. In reality, though, keeping my diagnosis a secret was hurting more than it was helping. Consequently in 2016, in the hopes of improving my quality of life, I publicly revealed that I was battling depression and starting psychiatric medication.
After sharing my diagnosis and full-heartedly treating my depression, things did start improving — my ruminations became less severe, I got my eating disorder under control, the quality of my personal relationships improved. But this series of changes also had a countereffect: seeing these improvements made me resentful of the years I spent delaying help because I was too afraid to admit I had a problem. Because of this, I decided to dedicate myself to lessening the stigma and all barriers people have to getting proper mental health treatment. This purpose is why I founded and continue to lead my anti-stigma movement, Katzbe Fights Depression.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
There are several disjoint reasons the mental health stigma persists. People don’t inherently understand mental illness and accordingly don’t know how to empathize with it. This leads the general population to fill in the gaps with the representations they see in media and the explanations they put together themselves, often with misinformation. This way of piecing together a narrative causes flawed understanding of mental illness. First, mental illness is often demonized in media, with sufferers disproportionately portrayed as violent. This causes people to disingenuously associate mental illness with danger.
Second, the non-mentally ill population has trouble empathizing with mental illness. Mental illnesses are invisible, many without tangible physical symptoms; it’s very hard to understand what it means to be persistently sad and tired without obvious reason or to see suicide as a solution when you’ve never experienced those feelings first-hand and don’t have a mechanism to perceive it in other people.
Third, non-mentally ill people often only observe mental illness in its most serious states and overlook less severe symptoms, meaning that people exaggeratedly see the most progressed versions of mental illness and don’t understand that there is a whole spectrum of severity. If you only understand mental illness as its most intense symptoms, it may be hard to understand someone who is showing a much less severe instance of a mental illness.
All of this comes together to contribute to a perception of mental illness much different than its reality. That gap between expectation and reality creates a disparity between sufferers and non-sufferers, the consequences of which include a lack of accurate information in non-sufferers and the feeling of needing to defend their symptoms for sufferers, making people more likely to want to keep their diagnosis a secret. The persistence of that gap is the key to why the stigma remains.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
The main way I am fighting the stigma is to lead by example — I am incredibly outspoken about my diagnosis and life with a mental illness. My advocacy first started when I posted to YouTube about my experience with mental illness. My videos include Day One: Today I Start Antidepressants, and What Computer Engineering Taught me About Depression. After I saw how supportive people were when they knew my story, I opened up to my employer, Microsoft, about my experience with mental illness at work. With each step in my advocacy journey, increasingly more people turned to me to share their own experiences or to ask for advice. I saw first-hand how much people were hurting because they didn’t know where to turn for help. This added more impetus to my advocacy work and continues to drive me.
Today I run a Facebook page called Katzbe Fights Depression where I share relevant memes and articles with over 2,000 followers. Those online comforts used to personally support me when I secretly investigated mental illness before I accepted my diagnosis; now I share them with others who might find solace in them. Research also suggests that sharing dark but humorous mental illness-related content may be beneficial to sufferers. In addition, I host an online support group where sufferers and allies can openly share advice and find solidarity with others in similar situations. In 2018 my work was recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
To continue this work, I have numerous next steps planned that I’m excited to see come to fruition. I’m looking to sign up for a mental health first aid course. I’m investigating formally turning Katzbe Fights Depression into a legal non-profit organization. I’m also working on a mental health documentary series to help educate on and normalize the perception of mental illness. I’m incredibly excited to see where this work will lead.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
My advocacy efforts grew organically. When I was ready to tell my story, YouTube was a natural place to go. I posted a video there about my decision to start antidepressants, as YouTube made it easy to say my message once for all to see. With that tactic, I couldn’t back out, and I didn’t need to muster courage for each person I wanted to tell (minus the few I told individually before sharing broadly). When people started reaching out to me saying they were inspired by my courage or wanting to share their story with me or asking me for help, I decided to take my efforts one step further. I set up the Katzbe Fights Depression Facebook page to share all the content I’d been reading and saving for my own mental health education to wider audiences. With each new step I found a more engaged audience, and each time I identified a natural progression that would take my advocacy further. Today the effort continues in the same way — I keep sharing the content I find, I keep sharing my experience, and I keep asking myself what is the next thing I can do to help people more.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
If you’re suffering from mental illness and want to discuss it, I encourage you to be open about that conversation. If you’re on the fence about discussing it but think being open about your diagnosis may improve your quality of life, I again urge you to deeply consider whether that’s the right action for you. In my experience, embracing my diagnosis lifted an enormous weight off of my shoulders. It may do that for you too. That said, there is unfortunately still prejudice against mental illness; sometimes sharing your experience doesn’t work out well. You must be as prepared as possible in case you aren’t met with kindness.
If you’d like to be even more proactive and help others by sharing your experiences, many non-profits offer events to share your story. The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Seattle, for example, hosts an event called Ending the Silence, where mental illness survivors can share their story with different audiences to help people realize they’re not alone. Just speaking about your experience brings so much goodness to the mentally ill community and their allies.
If you’re not personally affected by mental illness but still want to help, one way to start is to take a mental health first aid course to understand how to recognize and support someone in crisis. You can also consider volunteering at a suicide hotline or other associated organization to assist the mentally ill community. Emphatically, the easiest and most effective way to be an ally is to listen wholeheartedly and offer non-judgmental support to anyone who comes forward with their story, either broadly or to you personally.
For society, a great way to start is to donate. Some effective organizations to support are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Another free way to help is to support relevant mental health initiatives and supporters on your ballot.
For government, a crucial first step is to support comprehensive, accessible health care. Insurance companies should be mandated to have mental health care of equal quality to physical health care. Often, mental health care is not covered by insurance policies at all. For myself, even with competitive insurance, I was paying over $100 per session for therapy. That cost, accrued weekly, is inaccessible for a large part of the population. That shouldn’t be the case.
Mental health care should not be a privilege for the wealthy. Today it is. Mental health care should never be a reason to go into poverty. Today it is. People shouldn’t go untreated because they don’t have resources. Today people do. Addressing the lack of accessible care is the most critical thing the government can do.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- If I feel an episode of depression setting in, I do a mental run down of issues I know contribute to my depression. The list includes checking if I’ve slept enough and if I’ve eaten. If I find out I haven’t met a need that’s a regular cause of my depressive episodes, I do my best to address it immediately. This lessens the severity of episodes and sometimes prevents episodes altogether.
- An essential part of my mental health care is creating and nourishing a personal support circle. When I feel myself going into a depressive state, I grab my phone and lean on people who will talk over what’s bothering me. Finding that circle can relieve immense amounts of burden in managing your diagnosis; it has for me. At the risk of self-promotion, if you don’t have a circle, the Katzbe Fights Depression Support Group is open and welcome to anyone who needs a safe place to talk.
- I read and learn as much as I can about depression. Understanding depression helps remind me that this is a medical condition and not something I have direct control over. Additionally, it sometimes exposes me to hopeful articles about upcoming treatments and different strategies I haven’t tried that could help improve my diagnosis. I outline some of my favorite sources in the following question.
- If it’s available to you, taking mental health days can be critical in managing a diagnosis. For me, if I didn’t sleep because of my diagnosis and know I won’t make it through a full work day, I take a sick day or half a day then work from home. If I’m feeling depressed enough that I have trouble getting out of bed, I take time to regain the energy to bring myself fully to work. That said, there is immense privilege in being able to take a mental health day from work. If that option is available to you, I encourage you to use it when needed. If it’s not, that’s another reason to get involved in mental health advocacy.
- If there are repetitive tasks that you struggle with when depressed, try to identify a characteristic of those tasks that could decrease the energy needed to complete them. For example, when depressed, I struggle with showering. I realized that one of the biggest issues for me is detangling my hair. On days I feel low on energy, I use a shower cap and don’t wash my hair. Cleaning my body without cleaning my hair is bounds better than not showering at all. When you’re depressed, those seemingly small tasks are enormous victories. Setting yourself up for success is a strong way to lessen the toll depression takes.
- Finally, perhaps the most important strategy is to learn to find compassion for yourself. It’s so easy to beat yourself up about how you behave when you’re depressed — how you can’t do tasks that are usually unspeakably simple, like taking a shower or doing the dishes, how you push people away who are being only nice to you, how you can’t start or can’t stop eating. Learning to take a step back and say that you’re facing a genuine medical condition and your condition impacts the things you’re struggling with keeps you grounded and reduces the pressure we all place on ourselves. Remember that what you’re facing is hard, the challenges you’re seeing are real, and it’s okay to forgive yourself if you waver or fail.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I have so many resources I turn to for mental health content.
One of my favorite news outlets is The Atlantic. They have so much quality mental health-related content. Some great examples are Suicide Memes May Actually Be Therapeutic, Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, and When Meth Was An Antidepressant. One great (but also scary) thing about today’s technology is that as you read more and more content related to a certain subject, more of it will be suggested. That means that the more mental health news and articles you read, the more you’ll find. This has led me to some awesome content.
There are also some excellent TED, TEDx, and TED-Ed talks for mental health inspiration. I love Jessica Gimeno’s How To Get Stuff Done When You’re Depressed. I’ve also watched Depression, The Secret We Share multiple times.
Finally, I adore finding memes and similar content that is often riddled with dark humor but irresistibly relatable. There are great (and sometimes terrible) people and pages I follow on Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook. Humans of New York often has people who talk openly about their mental health. Anxiety is a mix of real and funny content that is so understandable for people with mental illness. I also love I post memes to combat the onslaught of mental health issues I’ve acquired. Please note that some of the humor in these places is very dark. I’m the type of person that finds comradery in laughing at discomfort, but it’s not for everyone. Again acknowledging the potential self-promotion of my proceeding comment, I try to post all relevant content I find to Katzbe Fights Depression on Facebook. If you’re interested in what I’m reading, you can find it all there.