Lindsey is a New Orleans native living in Portland. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2014 and has since fought to get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness. She enjoys sewing for charity, cooking vegan food, and helping people. Lindsey can be reached through her LinkedIn at (LinkedIn.com/in/lindsey-stallings).
1. You’ve spoken openly about your struggles with mental illness. Could you please share your journey with us?
I’ve had recurring depression problems since childhood. It’s difficult to explain depression to someone that hasn’t experience it – for me, it feels like emptiness. It makes you feel unworthy of being loved by those who care about you. When in the moment, it’s extremely difficult to convince yourself that that isn’t true. The depression was compounded by frequent bullying in school. It was bad enough that after 4th grade, my parents pulled me from school, intending to homeschool me. Though I believe my parents had the best intentions, other familial issues got in the way and I went through the next eight years without any formal education. My depression problems would come and go, and I was frequently in therapy. Fortunately, I loved reading. I think that saved me. I receive my GED at 17 after taking a three-month prep course and was accepted into the philosophy program at Loyola. (I later transferred to University of New Orleans due to the cost of Loyola’s tuition.)
For a while, once I had started college, I was doing much better. I had made good friends, many of which were from the philosophy club at UNO, and was able to learn a lot about myself. Between junior and senior year, though, my symptoms began to return. I started to become depressed again. I assumed that it was the stress of trying to work and take a full credit load taking its toll on me. While I’m sure that was part of the issue, in retrospect, there was definitely something chemically imbalanced. Along with the depression, I was noticing myself becoming increasingly irritable, often without any cause. I was barely sleeping 2-3 hours a night. At the time, I tried to find a therapist that would understand what I was going through, but my choices were severely limited by my insurance.
Through all this, I still somehow made my way into law school. The stress of moving 3000 miles from New Orleans to Portland (in a sub-compact car with four animals) and beginning school at Lewis & Clark definitely didn’t help with the depression or the irritability. The irritability slowly increased in frequency and the depressive episodes began to turn to suicidal thoughts. I hid most of this from my friends and family because I wasn’t really sure how I could express this, and I didn’t want to worry anyone. I did, however, find a therapist that I really liked, and found a lot of support in. Even so, by my first semester of second year, things went drastically downhill. I had been on several unsuccessful medications as a child, and several more as an adult. Some of the medications even made me worse. I was on Medicaid at the time and finding a psychiatrist that takes Medicaid is exceedingly difficult, especially in Portland. The PCP who had been attempting to help prescribed a particularly notorious SSRI, which sent me spiraling into intensely suicidal depression (a paradoxical reaction I would later learn is common for bipolar and bipolar II people).
That semester included some of the worst periods of my life. My suicidal thoughts became really severe and the irritability and energy that went along with it became unmanageable. While the PCP kept throwing meds, hoping something would stick, I kept searching for a psychiatrist. Eventually I was able to get on the three-month waiting list for Lifeworks NW.
In the interim, I went to school counselors, several walk-in clinics, and continued to see my regular therapist as much as possible. After weeks of extensive googling, I noticed that these were all the symptoms of bipolar disorder type II. Finally, at the end of that semester, I got in to see a psychiatrist. Thankfully, she was willing to humor my diagnosis and prescribed for me a course of medications typically used for bipolar type II patients. Within just a few weeks, I started to feel normal. The suicidal thoughts faded, I was able to sleep, and I felt cheerful and optimistic again. This whole fight to get better finally felt like it was possible.
I wasn’t immediately “fixed” but I was on the right path. I felt better and everything felt more manageable. I continued to see a therapist for the following year. I improved to the point that she said there was no reason for me to continue therapy. I was ecstatic. I went through so much and at so many times it felt hopeless, but I made it. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones, though. Many people go through this process for years before they find the help they need.
2. What inspired you to discuss your mental health openly? What has the reaction been from others?
My personal experiences contributed a lot. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) was there as a support for me throughout the worst of my symptoms. If I hadn’t opened up to him about what I was experiencing, he couldn’t have helped me and I honestly believe I wouldn’t be here today if not for his support. Everyone needs a support system, but if you have mental health struggles, even more so. People need to know what is going on or they can’t know when to help, and people really do want to help.
I became really proactive about communication after one of my best friends killed himself in March of 2016. He was one of my best friends and I didn’t even have a clue what he was going through. He hadn’t spoken to most of his friends for quite a while. The last time I had talked to him was in November or December of the previous year. It was a five-hour long call, but our calls were always like that. I hadn’t called him in a while because I thought we could catch up like we always did, and I wanted to make sure I had the time for our call. Now, I’ll never get another call from him. I really wish I would have gotten another call. I wish I had known what he was going through. I would have been on the next flight to Louisiana and I know his other friends would have done the same.
Speaking up isn’t just about the personal struggles though, it’s also about creating an environment where other people feel safe to speak up. I want to clarify here that it is no one’s duty to speak up, that’s a personal choice that has to be made by every individual, but since I’ve begun speaking out I’ve had several friends come to me now with their mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts. More friends that I would never have known were having these thoughts. I think I’ve been able to help. Sometimes people just want someone to listen, and to not feel alone.
The reaction to my candidness on my mental health struggles has been mixed. I truly believe that I have been able to help some people, even if that sometimes means just being there to listen and understand, but I’ve received my fair share of judgment as well.
I think the most hurtful were the complaints that I shouldn’t have relied so heavily on my husband for support. That I was solely responsible for doing what needed to be done to stay alive. Pull myself up by my own bootstraps. Just stop being sad.
I’ve also had some people tell me that I shouldn’t be on medication. This is one of my biggest struggles. People that haven’t experienced mental health problems can’t fully understand them. “Go for a run and you will feel better” or “just think happy thoughts, you’ve got to want to change!” People with mental health problems often need medication in the same way as someone with diabetes needs insulin. They shouldn’t have to face judgment for needing a lifesaving medication.
3. How did you overcome the societal stigma associated with speaking out about mental illnesses?
I think that is a work in progress. I try not to get hurt when people judge me for my openness. The thought that helps me the most is that the people who judge me likely haven’t had to face the illness that I, and others, have had to. For that, I am really glad. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and if that means it is hard for them to relate, I’ll take it.
Hopefully one day I won’t feel the need to speak out about mental illness anymore, maybe soon. Maybe one day we’ll be able to seek treatment with no more stigma than a person seeing a doctor for the flu. I’ll continue to speak out about mental health issues until then.
4. What change are you hoping to create in the world for those suffering from mental illness?
I want them to not be scared to speak up when they need help. I want the understanding of mental health to be as common as an understanding of any other condition. I want mental health care to be more accessible so that people can get the medications they need.
We are still at a point where many people face massive repercussions for speaking out. Lawyers, for example, can face months of delay in their bar admission process while the board of bar examiners investigates, and can be compelled to turn over the entirety of their medical records for scrutiny. Of course none of this happens until after you have gone through school and passed the bar exam, because casually making a person wait six-months to become employable isn’t their problem to deal with.
This has resulted in a culture of hiding your illnesses and suffering in silence. There’s nothing to report to the board if you never get a diagnosis. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide in the legal profession is out of control. The board of bar examiners thinks it is protecting clients by screening mental illness with a fine tooth comb, and instead they cause lawyers who need aid to refuse to seek it.
5. If the readers of this interview can take one action to help those suffering from mental illness, what would it be?
Be open, communicate.
Make it known that you are there if anyone wants to talk.
The issue is a little too complex to pack into one act or statement, but I think that making it feel normal and safe to talk about mental illness is the doorway to everything else. That doesn’t always mean you have to say something, and you don’t always have to have a helpful answer. It is helpful just to be there to listen when someone needs support. If you can and want to do more, try to be there in person if they are open to it. Maybe do something small for them. Bake them some cookies, offer to watch a movie with them. It helped me so much when my friends took the time to not only make time to listen to me, but to hang out as well.
Breaking the rules and picking a second act, I’d also suggest doing a little reading and self-education on mental illnesses. An ASIST (applied suicide intervention skills training, google it) workshop is a great place to start, but there’s a lot of information out there on the internet already.