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Op-Ed: I see you, like myself, fearing the stigma of mental illness…

Posted by on Sunday, September 29, 2019 in Life in the MSTP.

by Anonymous Vanderbilt MSTP Student

I see you, sitting in that waiting chair, pretending to read that magazine or that email on your phone. Perfectly aware of my presence, and yet making all efforts not to acknowledge it. I mean why would you? We are both in the counseling center here, which means we are both here to seek help for mental health issues. It might not be full-blown major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety. After all, acknowledging my presence here might confirm — that you might be cracking at the seams, that the pressure of this really rigorous program is getting to you, that you are “weak…” I wish I could tell you, I feel exactly the same way, and how proud I am of both of us for seeking help.

I see you, struggling with your classes, wondering if you will ever fit in. I mean here you are, barely a year into the program, and you have already needed professional help. Did you ever think you were capable of the rigors of the training of a physician-scientist? The admissions committee really screwed up this time, didn’t they? They ate up your pretense and admitted you. What if someone finds out? That you are a “mistake…”. I wish I could tell you I was in your shoes once, and that it will be okay, and I am glad you sought help sooner than I did.

I see you, finished with your PhD, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, someone I really look up to and share ice-cream with. Someone I think of as invincible, and here you are – as human as I am. Maybe that’s why you are not seeing me, but seeing around me, and not smiling when we catch each others’ eye, because you think all my impressions of your greatness are destroyed. After all, you are here because some circumstance got to you and killed your drive. What if someone else finds out? That you are “incompetent….”. I wish I could share how much I worry about the same things if someone younger than me in the program saw me here. And how proud I am of both of us for recognizing our humanity: we are not perfect, and we can’t do everything.

Why would you make eye-contact with me? Acknowledging me would mean someone else just saw your weakness. You might not have been the same person you were before, but at least people respected you. Why would they look up to you now? By making eye-contact with me, you just let the cat out of the bag — you are not what you have fooled people into believing. But, I want you to know, I feel the burden of the stigma around mental health too. But I am grateful to see you here, because your existence here tells me it is okay to feel this way. I am sending you so many hugs, as we sit here in this waiting room, not meeting each other’s gaze.

I wish, I wish so much, I could talk to you about seeking help. I mean I talked to you about how hard Brain, Behavior and Movement was. I commiserated with you on surgical night calls. We laughed at instability of transitions. We slaved over pre-doctoral fellowships together. Then why can’t I talk to you about this? Why is this an experience we cannot share? Just because we are here and I might be getting medications to help me get out of bed in the morning? This happens every time. Every time I go into the counseling center, I see another person from my program, but while the person might be different, the process is all the same. Avoiding each other’s gaze, pretending we don’t know each other. I just want you to know, that while you are scared, just as I am, at people finding out our “truth,” I am rooting for you, and I respect you even more, because you show me I am not alone in this. I just wish I could say it to you in person, instead of behind this curtain of anonymity. But as long as the monster of stigma behind mental health continues to thrive, I might not be able to. Because just like you, I don’t want to jeopardize any opportunity of my future, whether that fear be real or imagined. Maybe one day, we will sit together and reminisce about seeing each other in the waiting room of the counseling center, because that day, it will be okay to talk about not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly, of mental health and wellbeing… 

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If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health here is an excellent list of resources for mental health and wellness at Vanderbilt and within Nashville that was created by Thao Le (G2) for the Vanderbilt Medical School Wellness Committee.

If you have ideas to share with the Vanderbilt MSTP regarding programming around mental health or reducing the stigma, you may anonymously share your ideas in this google form.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt MSTP or Vanderbilt University Medical Center.