Ending the stigma surrounding mental illness

When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis. Twelve days later, I underwent surgery to remove most of my large intestine. I woke up from surgery having lost most of my colon (and gained an ileostomy), a month of my sophomore year, and a lot of self-confidence. My mental health was in shambles. 

I have never felt more alone and hopeless than I did during those 26 days I was hospitalized after my diagnosis. So many questions lingered in my teenage brain: When will I be able to go to school? Will people be able to see my ostomy? Are people talking about me and where I’ve been? Will any of these meds work, or will I always just be in pain? On top of everything else, I was battling with the realization that I would never be 100% healthy again. That’s enough to push even the happiest person over the edge. 

I did not want to accept my “new normal,” and I spiraled into a depression. I began to experience bouts of intense anxiety. My mind was flooded with thoughts of worse case scenarios, my heart heavy as I mourned the loss of my old life. 

I knew that I needed to reach out for help when I began to have passive thoughts of death. I was not suicidal in the way that most people think. Most of the time, I did not want to die. I had plans for my future, and I didn’t have plans for my death. But some days, when I was feeling my darkest, my mind would wander and contemplate what it would be like to die. Would it really be that bad? That was when my heart started screaming for help. I was drowning, and I needed saving. 

I told my gastroenterologist that I had been feeling anxious and depressed. She validated my feelings; she told me that a lot of people who are newly diagnosed experience similar emotions. I already felt a little bit better after telling someone how I was feeling.

My GI prescribed me a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which is just a fancy name for an antidepressant. The change in me was astronomical. After only a few days on medication, I began feeling more like my old self. I was lucky. A lot of people have to try multiple different medications before finding one that works. 

Fast forward to today, and I am a happy, (kind of) healthy college junior and a member of the Foundation’s National Council of College Leaders (NCCL). I’d be lying if I said that my mental health is perfect now, that I don’t have bad days. I’m human. Some days are really good, and some days are really bad. But through it all, I have the most amazing support system of friends, family, foundation pals, and doctors who are there to pull me out of the dark times. 

As for the future of my mental health, I’m taking it day-by-day. When the world opens back up, I plan to schedule a visit with one of my university’s counselors. I think that I could really benefit from talking to someone who is confidential and unbiased, and I look forward to learning more about myself. 

For the last couple of years, I have been open about my mental health to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness. We all have mental health, and we should all take care of ourselves, physically and emotionally. Have hope, stay strong, and ask for help when you need it. It will get better. 

If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please do not hesitate to reach out for help by calling 911, going to the closest emergency room, or calling the suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE.

Anna Gordon is an IBD patient from Missouri and a member of the Foundation's National Council of College Leaders (NCCL).