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Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health

5 Facts About Mental Illness You Should Know, from Someone Who’s Been There

October 11, 2018

Woman suffering from mental illness

I still remember the first odd sound of anxiety that whispered in my ear and sat in my gut. It was 1989, and I was a shy skinny girl living in a small town in Georgia. I was supposed to go to my friend’s house that night, and I had packed a puff-paint t-shirt and was already wearing my pink jellies. I was the epitome of 80’s style with my short curly hair and large, peach glasses! When she and her mom arrived to pick me up, the fear that I would learn to know so well took hold of my mind, and I knew I couldn’t leave. I don’t remember if I cried and begged not to go or if my parents just thought I wasn’t feeling well. Either way, I sat on my bed that night feeling guilty about letting Kathy down, sad to miss a sleepover but relieved that my stomach wasn’t tight anymore. I was safe in my home with my parents I had nothing to worry about. I would be ok; next time would be better.

The truth is, I wasn’t better the next time. Or the time after that. And soon I could hardly be in a different room from parents without melting into a full-blown panic attack. My parents had to pick me up from school I don’t know how many times, and I began to see a psychologist, which brought on another round of panic since my parents couldn’t go in the room with me. Eventually, I was sent to a mental hospital in Atlanta where I stayed for two months, only being sent home because insurance ran out. There were no “Go Fund Me’s” in those days, and no online support groups for my parents to help them wade through this mess. It took years of struggle, therapy sessions, and a lot of fear to get to where I could live a more normal life after that.

Things have changed so drastically for me since I was that scared, unhealthy little girl. I got a degree, started a business, got married and became a mom. And I’m not embarrassed to talk about my childhood mental illness the way I was for over 20 years. In college, I finally dared to open up to others about it, and what I found was a tremendous amount of support, and surprisingly others who had been through similar things. My voice still shook as I shared, but slowly I got used to telling people I was once in a mental hospital.

This past year I have taken my boldest step in openly sharing by starting this blog. Even though my anxiety is not nearly as extreme as it was as a child, I still struggle with it and am now on medication that helps keep it at bay. I see a therapist when life gets too overwhelming for me to handle, I participate in small groups, and do my best to live as healthy as possible. There are good days and bad, as well as good and bad seasons, but on the whole, I feel empowered to work on my mental health continually. I also feel more empowered than ever to share my story in hopes to spread knowledge about mental illness and help break the stigma that surrounds it. The following are five facts that I believe are imperative for people to know about mental illness so that they have the knowledge and power to help themselves or others who are struggling.

1. You Probably Know Someone With a Mental Illness

You probably know several people, possibly even family members. If you can’t think of anyone, remember that you may not know that they have a mental illness because they are too embarrassed to share their struggles. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime? Out of those 1 in 5, only 44% of those who are suffering actually receive treatment. There are many reasons for this, and some of the most common are from stigma, discrimination, and lack of resources. Many people do not receive care because they are embarrassed or ashamed. They also may not know where to turn for help or have access to the care that is needed. This is why it is so crucial for the stigma around mental illness to end. We need to work for better care and access for those who need it.

2. People Who Have A Mental Disorder Can’t Just Snap Out Of It

I remember people telling me many times that I should just get over my anxieties. Sometimes it was out of frustration from those who loved me and wanted to help but didn’t know how. Sometimes it was from people I hardly knew saying things like “What’s so bad about (insert irrational fear)? I just think about (insert something happy)?” as if I hadn’t tried doing that a million times before. I’ve had people say that with more prayer, and more trusting in God, that things would get better. Can you imagine the shame that was felt when those things didn’t work? Would you tell a nine-year-old child, sick in a hospital, that if they simply trusted God more, they would get better? I’ve even had people tell me that they didn’t believe certain mental disorders were real, that they were just made up to try to get more kids on medication. The fact is, most people who have a mental illness have tried everything they can think of on their own to get better. And they really, really, really wish they could just snap out of it. Mental illness is complex and caused by many factors including biology, genetics, and trauma and can not be treated with three clicks of your heals and a wish to go home.

Additional Information on Causes of Mental Illness.

3. Having a Mental Illness Does Not Mean You Are Weak

A huge misconception about mental illness is that it means you are weak. I have often found that those I know with a mental illness are some of the strongest people I know! Because of the stigma around mental illness, it can take a lot of courage and vulnerability to ask for help. It can take a lot of strength to even get out of bed sometimes. What can be easy for most people can require much more hope, faith, and power for those facing a mental disorder. We often hear about how strong and courageous people are when they are battling a physical illness. Those with physical ailments go to doctors, ask for help, and share with others what is going on with them without worry of being shamed for their sickness. However, in our culture, this same reaction is not typical for those battling mental illness. So many cultural factors can play into why mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness, or worse, not real. However, the bottom line is that this view has to change, and it can start with you. Be aware of how you discuss mental illness in your home, with your friends, and in your community. Be open about struggles you have and affirm and believe those who are struggling. Seek help when you need it. Not receiving proper treatment because of stigma, fear, and lies can have dire consequences, including death.

Read more about ways to help end the stigma with how you speak about mental illness.

4. 50% of All Lifetime Cases of Mental Illness Begin Before the Age of Fourteen

Not only that, there is on average an 8-10 year delay between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis! I am forever grateful that I was able to get treatment early and that my parents did their best in advocating for me. Our children need us to work on creating an environment where they can receive proper treatment long before this kind of delay occurs. Did you know that suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24? Did you know that 50% of students age 14 and older drop out of high school? Did you know that we can help make a healthier generation of kids through education, awareness, and resources for kids who have a mental illness? Let’s continue to spread awareness so that our kids have the best chance for a healthy life as possible.

You can find more information on helping your child with a mental health condition here.

5. Recovery is Possible, Never Give Up Hope

Amidst the troubling statistics surrounding mental health, I am happy to say there is good news. Recovery is possible, and we should never give up hope. What does recovery look like? It means that you can live a full life, make healthy choices, engage meaningfully with the world, and build relationships within a community. It can be a steep and winding road that includes many different aspects of care such as therapy, medication, and support groups. I think back to when my mind would not let me leave my parent’s side without dread and panic washing over me, and I see how far I’ve come. No offense mom, but I’m glad I was able to fly the nest! I wouldn’t mind a few fewer states between us though. I still think about what the man I grew up with told me, that I was the last person he had expected to do anything with their life, but his words have given me a different perspective over the years. We should never expect so little from those we know and love. Even when someone is at their worst and in the depths of despair, we should always have faith for a brighter future. Those fighting a mental disorder need people in their lives who believe in them and can carry some hope even if they can’t at the time.

If you or someone you love has a mental illness, or you suspect is suffering from one, NAMI is an incredible resource. They are a nonprofit and a leading voice on mental health. You will find referrals, support groups, and additional information on walking along with or through a mental illness.


NAMI Help Line: 800-950-6264

In a Crisis? Text NAMI to 741741

Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Faith, Mental Health

Why We Must Learn to Love Ourselves

October 2, 2018

I created this self-portrait several months ago and have been hesitant to share it for many reasons. I had been contemplating the idea of Imago Dei, or The Image of God for weeks. Imago Dei is a theological term that states that we are all made in the image of God. The implications of knowing this and genuinely believing it can be staggering and life-changing. To look into the eyes of someone who is different than you in every way possible, from beliefs and morals to appearance and class, and know that they reflect the image of God can turn how you see someone upside down.

As I reflected on this notion, I began to realize that for so long there was one person who I struggled with seeing God in the most. That person was me. From years of being raised and participating in a spiritual environment that considered sharing the love of God akin to convincing someone they were shameful, how I viewed myself was from an incredibly distorted lens. Rather than acknowledging, accepting, or moving forward from mistakes, or imperfections in my life, deep down I believed I was a mistake. My makeup was a mistake, my personality, my character, who I was made to be was a mistake. I was full of shame to my core.

I have spent the past 15 years slowly working my way out of this pit, through counseling, small groups, relearning what I believed about God, and a lot of self-reflection. I used to think that loving yourself was equal to self-centeredness, and often Christians bemoan the ideas of self-care or self-love and call it sinful. However, I now see these things as essential to begin to love anyone else. How can you see the worth and dignity of someone so different than you if you can’t even see it in yourself? How can you love a God and his creation if you see it as entirely flawed?

Throughout the years during my relearning, I had so many questions and doubts. I became fed up and hurt by others in a subset of Christian culture that became oppressive to me, but still held on to my faith. What ultimately kept me hanging on was seeing an open and unconditional love in the person of Jesus that I have not seen anywhere else. I also found a beautiful way to live, when taught from this base of unconditional love, through what is at the core of His teachings. What is at the core of his teachings? To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. It rolls off the tongue so easily, but to put into practice is so hard. Loving your neighbor, loving those who are different, loving your family, loving those that have done great harm. It can be incredibly hard. But we hardly talk about that last part, for many the most difficult part, the part where you love yourself. And to love others fully, and properly, you have to be able to do that. If you can’t see that you are worthy, that you are deserving, that you are made in the image of God and loved by Him, how can you find value and worth in others, especially others you don’t understand.

So I made this image. It is me, standing strong, and facing out into the world. This is me knowing that I am full of imperfections, that I’ve made mistakes, but I am loved, lovable, and worthy. This is the same person whose culture told her that she is disobeying God by having anxiety and worry. That she is not pretty. Not smart. Incapable. That she was the last person they had expected would do anything with her life. That she is too quiet and shy. That she is too opinionated and loud. That she is not good enough and never will be. This is the same woman that had to fight to be heard in her career as a photographer. That was shown she could never teach men about God because of her gender. That when she started to use her voice, her shakey timid voice, she received screams, letters, accusations, and worse, rejection from those she loved. Most of all, this is a woman who is learning to love herself.

For some people, loving themselves comes easy. So easy in fact that they only love themselves and no one else. However, for many of us, it takes work and patience and courage to learn to love ourselves. I see this particularly in women, this struggle to know and respect our value. Over and over again, women are told, through words, actions, and media that their bodies and voices are not respected in this world. Their bodies are too much, their words too much, their anger, their sadness, their hurt, TOO MUCH.

I looked at this photo today to remind me of who I am, and that who I am has value in the world. So often our world, our culture or even our family and friends share things or tell us things, that make us question our humanity. I often feel a sense of despair when I see how others are treated on social media, or by our government, or by the people I walk by on the street. I despair to see the hate that comes out with so many missing the fact that this person who they were taught to hate has the Imago Dei in her.

This despair, however, has built in me a desire to remind the women reading this that each of you has immense value and worth. If you are afraid of being who you were created to be or feel shame for who you are, know that you are loved fully and completely. That if you are afraid of being too much, remember that you are enough. That whether you are quiet, or loud, whether you are married or single, or passionate or even-keeled, you are made to be you. You don’t have to hide who you are. Your voice is essential, your body is important, you being here and a part of this crazy life is imperative.

I still struggle to see myself through a lens of love and probably always will. But I will continue to remind myself and others of the truth of our value no matter what the world says. Women, let us remember today our worth, no matter what others may say. No matter what our government says, or our abusers say, or unfortunately for many, what our churches say. If your worth and value and dignity are questioned, please know that you are listening to a lie.

I challenge you today to take an image of yourself, just for you. Don’t be afraid to stand firm and bold and be proud while you take it. Forget the naysayers and how awkward it can feel taking a self-portrait. Don’t think about the quality, this is just for you and you are in control. Look at your photo and try to see past what you consider your flaws. Look past the parts of you that you hate, that you want to change. Look beyond memories and shame that haunt you and see that there’s love and beauty there. Look at your image and say “I am made in the Image of God.” Those curves, that hair, that skin, that nose that you may hate. It is the image of God that resides in there. You are loved fully and completely. You are valuable. You are worthy. You are not a mistake.

*Let me know if you took an image of yourself today and how it made you feel, being in control. Leave a comment here or send me a message, I would love to hear from you.


Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health

The Silence of Depression and Anxiety

June 6, 2018

*This blog post has been updated to reflect the tragic death of Anthony Bourdain by suicide which occurred four days after the death of Kate Spade, who initially inspired me to write this piece.

Tragically, within the past four days, we have lost two great creatives to suicide. Kate Spade, an icon in the fashion world, and Anthony Bourdain, a storyteller, chef, and inspiration around the world. I wrote the following during a bout of anxiety about what can happen to me and others when we are in the middle of our illness.

There are times I fall silent. The silence ripples throughout my life. My friends hear from me less, I miss social outings, and my world becomes small and inward. The silence also happens on social media, in my business, and in my heart. Silence doesn’t say much, and because of this it is a wearisome place to be and is hard for those I’m in a relationship with. The only person I consistently and honestly share this time with is with my husband Peter, and I am so thankful for his open heart and support. Today I will share a little bit about this silence that can be interpreted in so many ways. It can be seen as being flakey, uninterested, contentment, and snobbery. However, it is typically from mental illness taking hold, and the outward silence is caused by how loud things are inside.

My anxiety can pop up at any time, caused by an emotional reaction to something stressful, or it can randomly wake me up in the middle of the night while my heart starts pounding out of nowhere. I feel it physically in my chest and my stomach, often with waves of nausea that stress me out even more. I feel it in my head as my worry runs away from me and I start to live in the what may happen as opposed to the what is happening with all the love and light around me. If I have to miss something, Peter will often tell people I am feeling sick. Which I am, but a virus or an infection does not cause it. My mind does.

I do not enjoy talking or writing about the specifics of my illness even after thirty years of learning not to be ashamed. Feelings of shame come rushing in when I’m in the middle of not doing well. My illness can get old and be tiring for those around me. I miss out on a lot because of it and friendships can more easily fade because of this. There are no rules, and there is no guessing when my anxiety might pop up. Depression, which I suffer from as well, has a similar pattern, with waves that go up and down never being sure when it is going to crash.

Last night, after a beautiful and productive day, after an inspiring and encouraging week, the tightness in my chest settled in again. As I type, I want to be silent, and I don’t want to share. However, I know that I need to. I know there are others out there that have days, weeks, months and years who are overcome with sadness and worry along with the guilt of being silent. I know there are others who have friends and loved ones who they are frustrated with and hurt by, and then feel guilty because they know their companions can’t help it. To our loved ones, keep showing up. Keep letting us know you are there for us. Keep calling and texting even if you know it may be another “no” to your invite. Keep letting us know we are loved. Ask us if we are ok. There are some of you who have been ignored and shut out by a friend, and you don’t know why. Maybe this silent, invisible illness is why. For everyone who loves someone with a mental illness, keep pursuing us. Since the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I have seen many people share encouraging those who are suffering to reach out. This is incredible difficult and often impossible for someone who is sick to do. Check in on us, let us know you still love us and can’t wait till you can hang out with us again. Show up our houses to see if we are ok. Please do not disappear. To everyone out there affected by mental illness, you are not only, you are loved, and there is hope for brighter days.

Do you want to help a loved one who is contemplating suicide and don’t know where to go? Do you need help? Are you in a crisis?  Visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and call 1-800-273-8255.


Whitney Leigh Carlson

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Mental Health

The False Narrative on Mental Illness and Gun Violence

February 17, 2018


school shooting


I began this blog just a few days ago on February 14, 2018, to start sharing my story of a lifetime struggle with mental illness. That same day, just a few hours after I posted, reports began to pour in of another horrific mass murder that took place in a Florida school where 17 people were shot to death with an assault rifle. Like most people who heard of the tragedy, I began to grieve the lives lost and questioned what kind of world we live in. These were beautiful lives, taken and destroyed by a cowardly act of another. They were coaches, and teachers, and children. My God, CHILDREN, murdered in school!!!! I think about the parents who sent their teenagers off that morning never knowing the tragedy that would take them away. The parents who still remember what it was like to hold them as babies, and smell their sweet skin, and talk about dinosaurs, and fairies. They experienced their joy, heartache, and dreams of the future as they grew. Now their future is taken away. My heart breaks for them, and like so many others I want to do something so that this never happens again! Then that night, along with all the other parents in the US who would say goodbye to their kids as they left for school the following day, I fearfully wondered if my son could be next.

As the debates online began to arise about what could, if anything, be done, a familiar term kept popping up right beside calls for stricter gun laws, better parenting, and people saying there was nothing to be done. From news articles to government officials who don’t want to discuss gun control to people who do want change to gun laws, the term “mental illness” or “mentally disturbed” kept coming up. Calls for mental health reform and an overhaul of our mental health system are pouring all over the internet, from across party lines. The truth is, we need changes to our mental health system. We need more access to health care and more support for those who suffer. Many with mental health conditions are still struggling to get adequate coverage, and the stigma that surrounds mental health keeps so many from reaching out and getting help. There are also gun restrictions that should be put in place to restrict certain individuals with severe mental illness from buying guns. However, while these restrictions can be a small part of a solution, it fails because it only affects the very small percentage (less than 5%!) of gun violence. Likewise, it can have devasting effects on those whose psychological health is suffering. Calling for mental health reform only when a mass shooting happens increases the stigma surrounding mental illness and does not address the much more significant risk factors of someone becoming violent.

On that horrible Wednesday when people began to blame mental illness as the reason for the deaths, in the back of my mind personal fears and shame started to pop up. I was one them. I was in that category of people with mental illness that we should be afraid of shooting up schools. I had just put it out into the world that I struggled with mental health, and now many of our leaders were blaming what happened on a sickness that I had. For me, it was a fleeting thought, only because I have worked through the shame and fear I used to have with admitting my struggles. I know that sometimes it can be a cause of violence, but also know that it is very rare. But I can promise you that there are many more people out there, nonviolent people, who are now even more determined to hide who they are out of fear of what others will think of them. There are people out there who are now more unlikely to get help because they believe, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m not like that guy who just murdered 17 people!!!! There are also people who are not going to get help because they don’t want their guns taken away from them if they are diagnosed with mental illness.

Here are some facts about mental illness and violence that need to be widely known here in the United States. They need to be understood so that we can work on solutions that are effective in preventing our children from being murdered. These facts need to be known to fight the stigma surrounded mental illness so that more people will get help when they need and so that we can have a healthy society all around. They need to be known so that when we send our kids to school in the morning, we don’t have to fear for their safety.

Did you know that overall those with mental illness only account for 1% homicides by guns? 

Did you know that those with serious mental illness are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than the overall U.S. population?

Did you know that People with mental illness are far more likely to harm THEMSELVES through gun violence (suicide) than harm others?

Did you know that the most prominent predictors of a mass shooting are domestic violence, substance abuse, and being male, not mental illness?

So what can we learn from all this? That most people with serious mental illness are never violent. There “are small subgroups of persons with serious mental illness are at increased risk of violence during certain high-risk periods, such as during a first-episode of psychosis and the period surrounding inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.” However, these instances are rare. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year. That is roughly 43.8 million people! These people, myself included, need better health care, more understanding, and to live in a society where they are unashamed to ask for help and speak up when they need it.

We also need to switch the narrative when discussing preventing gun violence to solutions that are effective and will be able to save our children. We need to focus on facts and look at other nations that have done better in this fight. We need to listen to the parents of the children who have died, and the victims that have survived. I do not have a simple answer, but I do know that we have to do something. So let’s make sure what we are doing will keep our children from being murdered in school! There are three organizations that I follow that are doing the hard and necessary work to prevent gun violence in school, and I encourage to support them. Sandy Hook Promise is a national non-profit started by families who lost loved ones in the horrendous school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Everytown is formed by Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities, and at the heart of it is Moms Demand Action. Americans For Responsible Solutions was created by Gabby Giffords after she was critically injured while meeting with constituents in her hometown of Tucson. Read their stories, support their campaigns, and donate so that we will not have to live in fear.

To the victims of the shooting in Florida, I am so sorry I didn’t do more before now. To the grieving teachers, coaches, children and all of their loved ones. I grieve with you. I am so incredibly sorry that your beloveds were taken away. We will not forget them.

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
Scott Beigel, 35
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Aaron Feis, 37
Jaime Guttenberg, 14
Chris Hixon, 49
Luke Hoyer, 15
Cara Loughran, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alaina Petty, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Helena Ramsay, 17
Alex Schachter, 14
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Peter Wang, 15

With love,

Whitney Leigh Carlson