Science Corner: My Mental Health Story

(Photo by Wokandapix)

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing something about mental health for almost a year now, but always found some excuse not to. “It’s not the right time.” “What I have to say is insignificant.” And so on. All of those reasons may still ring true. Nevertheless, I find myself at a point where this post feels necessary. Plus, November is when advocates for mental health and suicide prevention make a push for awareness. (I appreciate that designated awareness days/weeks/months can feel manufactured and thus insincere, but one person’s contrivance is another’s intentionality.)

Here is my story. Around a year ago, I discovered that reading certain articles or comments, or participating in certain conversations, could almost instantly induce butterflies in my stomach, an agitated mental state, and sometimes a racing heart. One evening this experience escalated to include tightness in my left arm and a pronounced fear of dying not helped by the fact that some of my symptoms resembled those of a heart attack. I saw a doctor after that incident and discovered I was having anxiety attacks. Just having a name for what I was going through (and being assured it wasn’t life-threatening) was of some help. I was able to find some techniques for managing anxiety that helped, including breathing techniques and getting more exercise.

Then at the Christmas Eve service at church of all places I had another episode that lasted on and off for the next 24 hours to the point where I felt I needed to go to the ED on Christmas night (so festive). They prescribed a sedative to help address the immediate symptoms, and my doctor agreed to let me try a milder sedative in the form of the over-the-counter allergy medicine I took most of the year but usually skipped in the winter because my allergies are seasonal. Since then, I have not had an incident that severe, although I occasionally experience milder symptoms. I should add that the sedative effect of my allergy medicine is very mild and it’s entirely possible whatever benefit I get from it is entirely a placebo effect, or that the association is completely coincidental.

Given how long it has taken me to share any of this with nearly anyone, it should not surprise you that my natural inclination is to downplay my experience, especially relative to the mental health challenges faced by others. But I don’t want to diminish the experience of anyone else such that they feel they don’t need to get help. After all, I have benefited from supportive healthcare, so I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone else from getting the same help by making them think their situation isn’t a big enough deal to warrant it. Who can say what my story would be if I hadn’t gotten help?

(This seems like a good place to mention that we are currently in an open enrollment period for individual health insurance plans, if you need one.)

Because of my experience, I also want to encourage familiarity with mental health resources. After Christmas Eve, I wanted to see if there was an underlying cause to treat. I reached out to someone who I thought should be able to connect me with local counseling resources. I described the situation and made a very specific request for help. I was disappointed to get an expression of sympathy, but no actual response to or even acknowledgment of my request. Maybe they figured I was just as capable of Googling as they were.

In any event, if you find yourself in need of support or someone comes to you with a similar request, I think it’s worth reiterating that there are national resources available if you’re not familiar with local options:

Talking to someone is helpful in and of itself. I was surprised at the places my mind went during these incidents, and just as surprised at how saying something out loud helped break the spiral. (If you want a sense of what that is like, I highly recommend the recent comic Green Lanterns #15; you can see the most relevant page here as part of an interview with the author about his experience.)

I don’t have a great resolution to this story. I’m not sure that it is resolved. Physical health is a lifelong pursuit; it stands to reason that mental health would be too. And there is reason to think that pursuit has become more challenging in the current environment. Teenagers are experiencing more mental health symptoms, possibly related to increased social media use. A career in academia is a risk factor, given the increasing uncertainty of employment prospects and the time demands — making the current blog series on time management all the more vital. Chances are, you or someone you know is going to need some kind of help with mental health at some point.

And with advice about time management in mind, I should probably wrap this up. If you have a story to share or resources you have found helpful, I’d be happy to hear about them in the comments.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Joel Hughes commented on November 30, 2017 Reply

    Panic attacks are very common. Also, 40% of all college students have a mental health problem if you combine depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. I’m sorry you did not get a solid referral when you asked.

    A great book on the topic is:
    Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic Paperback – February 1, 2005 by Reneau Z. Peurifoy

    Email me back-channel if you want to talk about it.

      Andy Walsh commented on December 4, 2017 Reply

      Joel – Thanks for the book recommendation and the offer to chat. I will give that book a look.

      I knew mental health was a big concern on campus, but I don’t think I realized it was that prevalent. Tom Grosh shared this article published by InterVarsity a couple of years ago:
      Hopefully that is an indication that campus ministries are helping to support those students.

    Kristen O commented on December 1, 2017 Reply


    Thank you for posting. I too have struggled with anxiety and, more recently, panic attacks. Deciding to get help was difficult but it was a relief when I finally did. I appreciate your honesty and sharing your story. It gives me more hope of a brighter future.


    Kristen O.

      Andy Walsh commented on December 4, 2017 Reply

      Kristen – Thanks for sharing. I am glad you are feeling hopeful and optimistic; that’s powerful in and of itself. I pray that you reach that brighter future soon.

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