First Steps To Destigmatizing Mental Health

I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed a panic attack.

We weren’t jumping out of an air plane or running from a serial killer, we were driving. There was no threat or impending doom awaiting, there was just traffic on the road. This family member always had problems with driving for long amounts of time but this ride was only 20 minutes- what’s the big deal? They started sobbing and hyperventilating. “We are only 5 minutes away” I told them. It all seemed a bit dramatic.

An argument ensued. I did not understand whatsoever why they were crying over traffic. I was embarrassed when they dropped me off to school, watching teachers giving us puzzled glances. We never talked about this incident afterwards, nor did I really want to initiate the conversation. In my mind, the entire situation was just too bizarre. I just wanted to forget it happened. That’s how I dealt with this person’s anxiety issues, just dusted them under the rug. Everything was simply more comfortable that way.

A few years later, I learned I’m not immune to these issues either. At a sleepover during junior year of high school, I jolted awake in pitch darkness. I felt trapped with no way out of the blackness around me, feeling severely claustrophobic. Instinctively, I started screaming with four other girls sleeping next to me. I grabbed onto the leg of the one closest to me and demanded to her “Get me out of here! I need to get out of here!”. I then got up and sprinted to the basement door. I felt like the darkness was blocking my airways until I found the door knob and ran out. Once I calmed down, I immediately felt ashamed and, once again, embarrassed. For the next year, this episode became a joke I’d laugh about among my friends. Another panic attack dusted under the rug.

Four years later, now in college, and I finally told my high school best friend what happened. I told them about the panic attack and how I had to seek professional help to cope with my anxiety. They then opened up to me. They told me about their mental health issues- issues that they had been hiding throughout college. It was like an epiphany. I could finally relate to them on a deeper level. We’ve known each other for seven years, and now we finally truly understood and accepted one another. All the walls built around our mental health problems crumbled down, and it was absolutely liberating.

Imagine if we all spoke about our mental health issues instead of hiding them inside or hiding them behind laughs. Imagine if we took the initiative and asked how people were truly feeling after we witness someone lose control of themselves. What if we simply offered them our acceptance and support? The road to destigmatizing mental health is a complicated one, but I believe these first few steps can forge a new path.