First, We Open Up on Mental Health. Then What?

by Jen Tribbet
Also Featured on All Things Considered

First, We Open Up on Mental Health. Then What?

by Jen Tribbet
Also Featured on All Things Considered
11.13.19
When 25-year-old Jen Tribbet was hospitalized, they shared the experience on their Instagram Story. "I’ve never had a filter and I didn’t see this as a reason to get one," they said. (Photo: Marquise Carr)
11.13.19

Have you ever been listening to a song and thought “Wow, this singer really speaks to me?” 

Well, one day last spring, I was walking to the supermarket in the pouring rain and thought a singer was literally speaking to me. As in, addressing me directly. 

The song was Kelela’s “Turn to Dust.” When she sang, “Everything is problematic I’m trying my best,” I thought: “Exactly.” 

At first, it was comforting, having Kelela right there with me as my mind raced. But many hours with no sleep later, I found myself stranded in Berkeley, convinced that my simulation was glitching. I texted my brother, and he took me to the hospital. My friend Ra Imhotep came to visit. 

“I see you kind of laying in the bed in your hospital gown, like you were talking slow but the thoughts were moving fast, if that makes sense,” is how Ra remembers the scene.  

A doctor called it a manic episode and said I’d be okay. So naturally, I went onto Instagram and posted about my situation. I’ve never had a filter and I didn’t see this as a reason to get one, because I just didn’t see what was happening as shameful. I’m 25. My millennial and Gen Z friends share about our mental health struggles all the time, to get support and affirmation from one another. 

When I asked Ra if she knew anyone else who talks about their mental health on social media, she practically laughed in my face.

“Do I know anybody?” she asked incredulously. “Like, you want names and profiles, or just in general? Yeah, I feel like honestly, so many.” 

A better question might have been, do we know anyone who doesn’t. All over social media, you’ll see the memes and tags: #TalkingAboutIt, #YouOkSis, #MentalHealthWarrior. 

Example of a meme shared on social media. (Courtesy: Jen Tribbet)

All this openness can be a good thing, if you ask 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Juliette Palermo, except: “The issue with sharing too many memes about mental illness is that you’re kind of making fun of an issue without talking about the serious aspects of the issue too.”

Juliette says she’s dealt with depression and anxiety since she was a teenager. She might not be posting memes about her mental health, but she is sharing her experience very publically, on a website she created with a friend called Yikes? magazine. The site’s tagline is “We are very anxious.”

She and her friend Bridget meet up at cafes to brainstorm story ideas. At a recent editorial meeting this fall, for example, they came up with the idea to write about what it’s like to say good-bye to your therapist when you’re ending treatment. It’s something both writers have gone through, so they know how complicated and relatable that process can be. 

Juliette was lucky. She got an off-campus therapist after her school counseling center told her they do short-term therapy. With one in three college freshmen reporting symptoms consistent with mental illness, campus services across the country are feeling the strain.

Over at UCLA, wait-times for students at the counseling center have grown.

“It’s like the 405 in Los Angeles, where it doesn’t matter how many lanes you put in, it keeps filling up, and it feels hopeless, and it feels like we don’t know what else to do in order to meet the need,” said Saeromi Kim, who’s the assistant director of UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services. 

Kim said students can wait up to three weeks or even a month between sessions. While they can find support online, Kim has found that when students keep posting about mental health struggles but can’t access actual treatment, peers will often burn out and become less responsive.

And even with more students sharing their mental health stories, Kim still hears from young people who worry about what disclosing their diagnoses could mean for their relationships and future opportunities.

Remember Juliette, the Yikes? magazine co-founder? She’s in the process of applying to grad schools.

“Does a competitive grad school want to deal with me, you know? Like what kind of liability do I pose to them if I am openly expressing that I’m mentally ill?” Juliette is asking herself, as she goes through her application process.

It’s against the Americans with Disabilities Act to discriminate based on mental illness, UCLA’s Kim reminded me, but she said it’s valid for students to worry. You can’t control how people judge what you share.

And yet, here I am, speaking my truth. 

Kim wanted to make sure I’d thought it through, so she asked me: “Why do you want to share this story?”

Basically, this is my actual life, is what I told her. I’ve been through some things. I’m over some things. And I’m still working through some things. At this point, I live with it. It’s mine to share. 

Kim told me she hoped this part would go into my story. 

I made sure it did. 

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