According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions every year. Mental illnesses do not discriminate regardless of age, ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, etc. As such, it is imperative to create a society where we feel more comfortable talking about and helping each other through mental health setbacks, as well as supporting our loved ones who have mental illnesses.
As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression from a very young age, in addition to having C-PTSD due to traumatic health experiences, I fully understand how difficult it can be to live a harmonious life when your brain and body are creating a hostile inner environment.
One important way that we can figure out how to navigate life with mental illnesses is by channeling our energy through art of any kind. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing A.S. Minor, an Army veteran, spoken word poet, and mental health and mental illnesses advocate.
Read our interview below to learn about his amazing story of overcoming mental illness and helping others do the same through art and expression.
What is your background with mental health both personally and professionally?
I am a United States Army Veteran, and deal with issues from my time in service as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist. I also deal with mental health issues stemming from my childhood. After I got out of the service, I found myself in a very bad place that lasted a few years. I found performing, and doing mental health outreach through that, was immensely helpful in overcoming that bad place. I travel the country doing spoken word poetry performances on mental health awareness, both in an effort to educate the uninformed and to remind others that they're not alone in their mental illness.
How did you get into speaking publicly about mental health?
After I got out of the Army, I found myself in a dark and scary place. In the few years following my discharge, I was hospitalized a number of times. I was becoming increasingly reclusive, and someone close to me recommended a writing workshop that was free to veterans and concluded with a performance at the end. I immediately fell in love. I began doing open mics and poetry slams. I floated the idea of working together with the small group of veterans that had accumulated from that workshop, and they agreed; we called ourselves The Combat Hippies. We toured all over with our hour-long stage performance entitled "Conscience Under Fire" for a couple of years. We even went on to do a TedX Talk.
I realized, however, that due to the fact that we were all veterans, that the bulk of the crowds attended our events were from that demographic. Our message was aimed at bridging the gap between the veteran and civilian populations, but the very nature of our group was leaving a large part of the mental health community out, unintentionally, of course.
I ventured out on my own under the name A.S. Minor, and I began leaning more on my experiences with mental health in general, as opposed to just veteran mental health. As a solo artist I've traveled across the country, performing on stages, in VA hospitals, and in classrooms, all in the effort to bring awareness to mental health.
What is your opinion on the relationship between art (in any form) and mental health?
A good friend of mine always says, "The opposite of Depression is Expression." I find that alienation comes naturally to a lot of people with mental health issues. It just seems easier that way for many of us. So we try our best to keep our heads down and mind our own business. But the problem with that is our minds are the issue. Without any external releases, we sink further into our own thoughts, wherever they take us.
For me, I've always been a writer. I've written short stories, novels, essays, and poetry. It was my escape - to be able to put the words on the paper and out of my head. It was almost like having a conversation with a therapist, just written. But when I got off the stage the first handful of times and heard people tell me how my words saved their life, that's when I realized that many people have never found that, and so, like a volcano, they're forced by their own circumstances to hold all of that emotional lava inside.
For some people it eventually explodes out, but for others it simply burns them away from the inside. Art of any kind can often help to give that explosion a direction and a purpose, even if it's only to an audience of themselves. That's why I began doing poetry writing workshops after some of my performances, especially in schools.
How do art and mental health intersect in your life?
That's an interesting question, because many people confuse "mental health" and "mental illness," but they are not synonymous. Everyone has mental health, because we all have minds, while only a portion of us--though a growing amount--deal with mental health issues, AKA mental illness. So mental health and art run along the same track in my life. Art is what keeps me mentally healthy, and I use my experiences with mental illness nearly every day. For me, there is no distinction; I am a mental health awareness advocate above all else, so I do my best to integrate my talents and knowledge into everything I do.
How can others use art as a way to better their mental health?
I feel that many people put too much pressure on the abstract idea of artist. They think it's painting or writing or playing an instrument. I've always felt that we're ALL artists, but some people either haven't found their art-form or they don't realize that they have an artistic talent. Art is really just anything you enjoy creating, and it doesn't have to be creation from nothing. I've met some jigsaw puzzle artists who can take a 10,000 piece puzzle and put it together while having a conversation. I've met some garden artists who can look at a bunch of flowers and organize them into the most beautiful bouquets. And, I've met some mechanical artists who can diagnose an engine by listening to it for 10 seconds.
Art can be anything, if you're passionate about it. But the key is that we have to FIND that art-form. That means going to a cooking or dance class, or even joining a book club, because with the latter, there is even an art to reading and dissecting a book that many people dismiss.
What is one piece of advice you have for someone struggling with their mental health?
The biggest piece of advice that I give people is to hang on. That sounds cliche, but it's the most important thing someone can do for their mental health, whether they have issues or not. That's why meditation is so influential in much of the world. Life is an ever-turning wheel, and that means we WILL pass this spot.
Someone told me that they're only hanging on because their family needs them. I said, "Good! That's fine." Even if it's an external reason that keeps them here, that's great, because as long as you're alive there's always a chance to change something. And small changes can yield big results over time. Then, one day you'll be able to look back and say, "I can't believe I survived THAT!"
Anything else you'd like to include that my questions didn't tap into?
I am available for booking through my website and representation. I have been as low mentally as someone can get, and I love to share my story to help others know that they are not alone.
Throughout my six-year health journey, my relationship with food has changed time and time again. I started out eating the typical American diet full of dairy, gluten, processed foods, meat, sugar, and unhealthy snacks. Given that I'm 100% Italian, I was raised to eat foods (e.g., dairy and gluten) that would now cause my stomach to bloat to the point where it'd look like I was pregnant with triplets.
Although I didn't recognize how much food affected me until I got sick, looking back, I have never had the best relationship with food. In high school, I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (well, your bowels would be irritable too if you were constantly wolfing down fried and lactose-laden foods all the time lol), had a lot of stomach pain, and was gassier than a hot air balloon. I'm sure my diet also played a role in how horrible my mental disturbances were during high school and college. Unfortunately, I didn't know any better to change my diet, but thankfully, things are better now.
These days, I use food as a healing modality because I'd rather not consume things that make me feel and look like doodoo, putting it scientifically ;) At times, people see how I eat and many give me praise, but most don't know the full story of what led me to where I'm at today. More often than not, people have general questions for me that would take too long to answer verbally, so I wanted to put together a Yoolie-themed FAQ for those interested in learning more about my journey.
This post will be a little lengthy, so feel free to skip around and read the questions and answers that pique your interest :)
When did your relationship with food start changing and why?
In 2012 I had a copper intrauterine device called the Paragard placed inside of me. Within months, my physical and mental health deteriorated due to copper toxicity. I went to see a new doctor and he suggested that we test me for celiac disease (I don't have it, just a very strong inflammatory response to gluten), while also recommending that I try cutting back on dairy and processed foods.
I had gained a lot of weight at this time, my face looked like a swollen tomato, and I was constantly in pain, so I figured I could give up bread and cut back on dairy at the very least and see what would happen. Thankfully, the doctor's advice paid off and I slowly but surely started feeling better.
What different "diets" have you tried?
I have tried A LOT of the diets out there, and some have helped me and others have made things worse. I started out going gluten free, as I mentioned above, and then I cut out dairy completely. From there, I removed processed foods, and shortly thereafter went paleo. Then, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's, which is an autoimmune disorder, so I started eating autoimmune paleo (AIP).
Unfortunately, AIP recipes include a lot of high-histamine foods, which negatively affected my health, so I focused on eating low histamine. Unfortunately, I started reacting to a lot more foods so my diet was literally anything I didn't react to aka roughly ten things. Now, I am vegan, and have been slowly reintroducing food over time.
What is your diet like now and why?
I currently eat vegan and am still gluten free. I try to eat whole food vegan as much as possible, meaning that I eat produce and try not to buy packaged products (except for those lovely bagged plantain chips I love so much <3). To be honest, I was one of those people who thought they would never go vegan. I thought I would always be hungry without meat in my diet. I thought that my health would get worse without it because of a lack of nutrients. But after some convincing from one of my health mentors, I decided to take the plunge, and I am SO thankful I did.
I've found that animal products + me = a HUGE NOPE. I just couldn't digest meat well and I was always bloated. It made my Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) symptoms flare. I could feel the food just hanging out in my gut. My cystic acne wouldn't heal when those buggers popped up. And once I learned how meat can putrefy in your gut and intestines as it's being broken down I got over my fear of not being able to "live" without meat pretty quickly.
I had already removed dairy years ago, but continuing to not eat it means I'm not ingesting the antibiotics and hormones that are pumped into dairy cows. Dairy is also mucus-forming, which creates an environment in your body that doesn't lend itself to healing. Now, I try to focus on astringent foods as much as possible. Plus, you know, there's that whole thing of not eating our furry friends and other animals <3
What have been your motivations for continuing to mix up your diet?
To be honest, to start it had to do with vanity. I am a tiny Italian woman. I am not meant to be carrying an extra 30-40 pounds, and it isn't healthy for me to do so either. So, at first it was weight loss, and then I realized a lot of the foods I were eating were inadvertently causing horrible cystic acne breakouts, which also motivated me to eat better.
Over time, I also started taking the advice of different healthcare practitioners I trusted, including a nutritionist.
What have you learned about your relationship with food?
Point blank, food used to be a drug for me. I'd use sugar for a boost of energy. I'd use carbs and dairy to comfort me when I was sad. If I needed to be happy I'd down chocolate. I was addicted to the way that food made me feel without realizing it. I wasn't using food as a means to survive but to gorge myself and dull the emotions and thoughts that I wasn't ready to deal with.
Of course, I believe you can use food to celebrate and to indulge but moderation is key ;)
What is your relationship with food now?
I view food as medicine, and recognize that sometimes that does mean emotional comfort. But more often than not, I map out my daily food plan to ensure that I am eating things that are promoting detoxification of all the lovely toxins I have in my body instead of either creating more or trapping them in mucus. Overall, I try to use food to sustain. I don't eat until I'm so full that I feel like I'm going to explode anymore, although of course that happens from time to time.
Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to my relationship with food, as I'm sure most of us can say. Since I started reacting to so many foods over the years to the point where I was eating less than 10 things, I began to fear food. I didn't want to reintroduce anything for fear of getting a horrible cystic acne breakout or a bloated belly attack that would leave me in pain. I still fear food, but I'm working on overcoming it.
I also had a lot of OCD surrounding food - it had to be prepared by me; I had to control every facet of my food. And, I definitely still have a lot of issues with orthorexia, which is defined as "an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy." I still have some work to do, but overall, my diet is MUCH better than when I started this journey in 2012.
So, how do you do it?
I get this question A LOT. Like, if I was paid a dollar for every time someone asked me this I would be rich for sure. Anyway! Here are my answers:
What is your advice for people just starting out with wanting to change their diet?
What is your advice for people who have hit a diet roadblock?
Well, if you made it to the bottom of this post I greatly appreciate it and thank you for reading my musings! Food is an integral part of our lives in so many contexts, but on the whole, we as a human race (at least in America) do not use food as medicine as much as we should.
It certainly isn't easy to make changes to move away from the Standard American Diet (I'm sorry, but it's pretty ironic to me that the acronym for it is SAD lolol), but it so worth it, I promise!
As yet another year comes to an end, many of us feel compelled to use the start of 2019 to reflect on how 2018 went. If we achieved set resolutions, it can feel positive or negative, depending on how you frame it. Although I no longer set resolutions like I used to when I was younger, I understand the appeal and the motivation behind the practice.
Resolutions help you start off the new year on track, achieve goals that have been looming over your head, or maybe even “force” you to try something new. Unfortunately, oftentimes resolutions come with feeling bad about ourselves if we don’t achieve them, which can then deter you from pursuing that goal or change in the first place.
With that in mind, let me introduce a different concept that may help you create a guiding force throughout the year without the pressure of hitting a bunch of benchmarks (note: if resolutions work for you, keep it up - no need to fix what isn’t broken!).
One of my cousins approached me shortly after the New Year last year and shared her “Word of the Year” concept. Each year, her and a bunch of her friends each pick one word that they want to focus on for the year. She asked me if I’d like to participate, and if so, what would my word be. Surprisingly (I tend to mull this type of stuff over), I immediately had the word ‘patience’ pop into my head and I determined that’s what I would practice for the next year.
Before I further explain the benefits of doing this versus resolutions, or just in general, I’d like to share my “Word of the Year” experience with you all so you have a better idea of how it might play out in your lives or what you might want to change if you decide to participate.
What I like so much about this practice is that it you can really focus on something more abstract, yet meaningful. I suppose I could have said that “I resolve to be more patient” as my resolution, but that wouldn’t grab me as much as framing it in my head as “This year, my word, my life, and my growth will be centered around patience.”
I decided to choose patience because I am anything BUT patient: anxious, Type A, want things immediately, lack patience for others, etc. I am a nightmare in the patience department. As a result, my mental health truly suffers, as do some of my closer interpersonal relationships. I also know that in order to be happy in this life it is helpful to be mindful and practice mindfulness when it comes to the present moment. If I’m so busy being impatient and wanting to get to the next item on my list or the next accolade or whatever “next” there is, I’m in complete opposition of being mindful, and by extension, happy.
If you want to read on about my experience with the word "patience," you'll have to head on over to the lovely Rachel L. Macon's website, where the full article is hosted :)
Check it out and let me know what you think!
It's been a hot minute since I've written in my blog, and for that I apologize! Between focusing on my health, work, a gnarly bout of seasonal depression, and life in general, my motivation to write disappeared, unfortunately. Thankfully, I'm finding extra mental energy to dedicate toward writing again, and this is a blog post I have been wanting to write for quite some time.
Grief is defined as "deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death." Of course, there are other types of grief (read: divorce, best friends parting ways, losing a home, etc.), but this post will focus on grief associated with someone's passing.
While we can logically understand the circle of life and that everyone will pass, when it is someone we love or know or had some sort of attachment to it can be very difficult to process and sit with grief and its corresponding negative emotions.
Last April, I unfortunately lost my uncle to a long battle with his health. The experience was a difficult one for my family, of course, and being one of the empaths in our crew, I found myself trying to work through my emotions surrounding my uncle's death as well as emotions I was absorbing from others.
It is oftentimes challenging enough to wade through my *very* strong emotions in situations like these, so adding energy and emotions from others to the mix can create a very tumultuous environment in my head and heart. Thankfully, I have an awesome therapist and I also have learned coping mechanisms along the way to help me in these moments.
With that being said, here are some strategies I use to work through my own grief and avoid overly absorbing emotions and energy from others.
It Is Okay To Lean Into Your Feelings
Unfortunately, we (United States peeps) seem to live in a society where repressing emotions is valued over letting your feelings fly free. Now, I'm not advocating for running around like a banshee screaming and crying (although sometimes ya just gotta get that energy out... no judgement here) and wallowing in the darkest corners of your mind for hours on end, but when you lose someone you love you need to process your emotions.
Yet, first, you may need to acknowledge that it is okay to feel how you're feeling. It is okay to be sad, upset, depressed, angry, or whatever else is coursing through you. Grief looks different for everyone, so don't judge yourself for how you're feeling. Give yourself time and space - maybe even carve out a specific time of day if you need to - to sit and listen to what your emotions are telling you.
Give Yourself Time To Process
There is no need to race through the grieving process. You don't necessarily want to get stuck there and live in that space for the rest of your life, but rushing through processing emotions after someone passes is a recipe for suppressed feelings to crop up later in life. As long as you're doing what you think is right to take care of yourself, take however long you need to translate how you're feeling.
As an empath, processing emotions can be tiring and tug at your heart strings more than the average person. I suggest creating a safe space where you can be alone (unless if you have someone who you feel comfortable enough around in these moments) to process. If you're like me, audible movie-style sobs will be a regular occurrence, so having an environment where you can let it all out is key.
Take A Timeout If You Need To
In relation to the last point, you don't want to focus so much on processing your emotions that you forget to take care of yourself in other aspects of your life. Grief can bring about stress and may even trigger PTSD in some, so it's especially important to be in tune with your nervous system and mental health so that you don't bottom out.
Ways that I practice self-care in these moments include doing yoga and meditation, taking a bath, going on a long walk out in nature, listening to music (empaths are really affected by music, so you may want to avoid sad music during this step), treating myself to a guilty pleasure (hello, entire jar of sunflower butter ^_^), or whatever else you know will make you feel happy and relaxed.
Speak With A Therapist
In my ideal world, everyone would see a therapist. We all have things we need to work on in terms of character development and working through false beliefs. But, between the stigmatization, lack of motivation to better oneself, and most frustrating, roadblocks set forth by our healthcare system, not everyone can or will see a therapist.
If you already work with a therapist, talk with them about what you're going through in an upcoming session. They are there to listen and help you work through these feelings in a safe manner. If you don't see a therapist and have the means to do so, perhaps see if a friend or loved one can provide you with a recommendation, or take to Google and look up practitioners in your area. If you are unable to work with a therapist, you may want to join a grief forum online or lean on friends and family during your difficult time. No one should have to deal with grief all alone.
There Is No Timeline That Is Right Or Wrong
I somewhat alluded to this up above in saying "give yourself time to process," and this just takes that one step further: everyone is different and there is no formula for when you should be "over" your grief. To be honest, I think grief is something that stays with us for life, we just figure out how to live with it. For instance, just the other day I was overcome with emotions that shook me to my core in relation to my grandfather not being alive, and he passed away ten years ago.
That being said, do not beat yourself up if someone else has "moved on" from their grief seemingly faster than you. In addition, don't feel bad if someone else is taking longer than you are to move through these emotions. Everyone is different - there is no right or wrong. My main piece of advice for my fellow empaths is to make sure that you aren't constantly living in a space of sadness and sorrow if possible, because that will certainly burn you out and make daily life difficult to navigate through.
Create Boundaries & Protect Yourself From Others' Grief
Now, this strategy isn't meant to come from a place of malice or to isolate oneself from others. It is a skill that has taken me quite some time to develop, and I am still working on it and probably always will be. Boundaries are difficult for empaths to create and they do not come naturally to us.
We want to take the pain away from our loved ones in moments like these and we want to fix whatever is wrong. While this is an altruistic trait to possess, it can create a lot of issues for all parties involved if lines are crossed or too much energy is spent trying to help others.
In the situation with my uncle, I was involved in the wake and the funeral and interacted with so many of his loved ones. While these interactions were all respectful and from a place of love for my uncle, they were still draining. Yet, I told myself in my head that I would open up to others and put out that energy to be there for my family and to honor my uncle.
Conversely, in situations where someone passes and you may not want to open yourself up to everyone and everything, developing boundaries are important. But how do you do that?
Grief certainly isn't easy to work through and it is a difficult emotion to sit with. If you have any strategies that have helped you work through grief please share in the comments! If you're an empath, I'd love to hear how you've worked to create healthy boundaries in your life too
If you conducted a Google search and typed in “mental illness” and “college students” (which is what I did before outlining this article) you’ll find a plethora of articles talking about the mental health crisis facing today’s college students. According to an American College Health Association survey, 61% of students reported they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year, and roughly 40% said they experienced depression over the past year that made it difficult to function. This mental health crisis may only continue to worsen, as many job fields require employees to have a bachelor’s or even a higher degree to be considered for a job, putting extra pressure on today’s students to succeed.
Although college campuses try their best to provide on-campus resources to help students manage their mental illnesses and how they intersect with their studies, there is still work to be done. As someone who has had mental illnesses since a young age (and has a couple of degrees and a graduate certificate under her belt), I’d like to share how mental illnesses can make pursuing an education challenging as well what helped me live more harmoniously with my mental illnesses during my time as a student.
Education and Anxiety
My anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most debilitating ways it affects me as a student is that I’m constantly trying to fight off being a perfectionist. It makes me procrastinate due to the fear of not knocking an assignment out of the park, I can mull over the tiniest of details for way too long, and I end up stressing myself out when it comes to studying for tests because I need to get an A.
These qualities exist in people without anxiety, I’m sure, but the reason the strive for perfectionism can be worse with anxiety is due to the constant negative self-talk if you aren’t the straight A, perfect student. So, if you do end up not getting a perfect score or stumble through a presentation, anxiety brain can take over and make you feel horrible about yourself.
Speaking of presentations, public speaking is usually difficult to do when you have anxiety (I guess it’s a good thing I pursued an education in communication and taught public speaking, right? :)) My anxiety causes unignorable physical sensations when faced with a public speaking engagement: racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, difficulty breathing, etc. There have even been times where I worked myself up so much before and during a speech that I became dizzy. Anxiety can also cause us to create worst-case scenarios in our heads surrounding public speaking, which in turn can cause the physical symptoms to crop up.
Lastly, if your brain resembles a hamster constantly running on a wheel, it can make it difficult to focus and grasp readings and other class material. In turn, this usually means that it takes an individual with anxiety more time to fully understand course concepts.
Education and Depression
I’m sure it goes without saying, but depression sucks the life out of you and can cause a clear lack of motivation. Yet, sometimes people who have never experienced depression have a hard time understanding this, perhaps thinking that depression is just laziness, which is not the case. Something as easy as making notecards to study from or reading the last 10 pages of a chapter can seem like a monumental task, and maintaining the energy to get through assignments even when you are able to start them can be difficult.
In addition, you may get a case of the scumbag brain, as I like to call it. My depression sometimes manifests in telling me not to bother trying my hardest because I’m not good enough anyway. Usually, I can fend off these thoughts, but sometimes they wear me down and I start to believe them, which doesn’t create a good mental atmosphere for producing anything of high-quality.
Want to check out the rest of this article and read up on the resources, strategies, and tips that helped me better navigate higher education with mental illnesses? Then you'll have to head on over to my dear friend Rachel's website, Rachel L. Macon, where this post was originally featured.