Article Written and Interview by: Debbie Stokes
Did you know there are people suffering with depression, anxiety, OCD, biopolar disorder, and so many other types of mental illnesses who work and function in society everyday among you?
Many have been suffering for years, and as long as they take their meds, it’s possible you may not know they are suffering.
Then, lets consider what people are dealing with during the coronavirus pandemic. There are many suffering with a temporary breakdown, depression, or stress who are trying to find solace amidst so much confusion and uncertainty.
Parents are suffering.
Kids are suffering.
Frontline workers are suffering.
Employers and employees are suffering.
Fears are elevated.
People are dealing with deaths, job loss, and financial burdens.
Each one of these acts can send a person into a depressive state if they aren’t careful with their emotions. If you think about it, the coronavirus crisis has so many in a weakened state mentally.
With that being said, my special guest—Nicole Ferguson, is going to share her professional insight about coping with depression and mental illness.
Dr. Nicole M. (Robinson) Ferguson is a mental health advocate who creates learning environments to help everyday people overcome depression and anxiety, as a means of restoring, and sustaining joy and fulfillment. Having personally triumphed mental distress and dedicating her academic studies toward the experience, she is no stranger of being “sick and tired.” She earned a B.S. and an M.S. in Communication with an emphasis in Health Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. Then later received her Ph.D. in Health Communication from George Mason University, and also earned a certification in Integrative (Holistic) Mental Health from University of Central Florida. She is a proud volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Buffalo & Erie County.
3WV: Tell us a little about yourself growing up and some obstacles you’ve faced, and when you learned you were suffering with mental illness. Then, what made you want to share your story in a book and with the world?
Nicole: Growing up, I was an only child who enjoyed solitude. Often, I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I spent a lot of time reading and writing. I suffered from depression and anxiety as far back as I can remember, starting at about the age of eight. As an African American growing up in the early 90’s, I didn’t have the luxury of being depressed. I was told I needed a stronger backbone so I saw it more as a character flaw.
This caused me to retreat even more because I didn’t want to upset others. I saw how physical illness warranted sympathy, but mental illness was brushed under the rug. As a result, I didn’t find out my condition had a name until college. My grandparents along with my mother helped raise me, and I completely broke down after my grandmother passed away. It triggered a major depressive episode that lasted for years.
While away at college, I pushed myself to reach out to the counseling center where I was officially diagnosed. I was put on anti-depressants a short time after.
I wanted to share my story because as an advocate, I realized that so many people, especially people of color, share a similar story. They were afraid to speak up and lacked the support needed to receive help.
3WV: Mental illness is such a real issue and some people don’t seem to believe the full severity or impact on people until it’s too late – ex. when we hear about a suicide, mass shooting, or some self-destructive act. What do you think are some ways people can better prepare themselves to recognize and deal with mental health issues?
Nicole: Luckily, I think mental health has been pushed to the forefront over the last decade. As an educator, I believe conversations are necessary. I’m glad to see so many people are speaking up, as that is the only way to eradicate stigma. The biggest concern when it comes to recognizing severity is that people don’t talk about it. If it’s ignored daily, then it will only be highlighted during a time of crisis when it’s hard to dismiss. Even still, we are at a point where people discuss mental health immediately after these tragic events and retreat back to ignoring the issue.
Therefore, it’s important that people keep the conversation going. I also think it’s important that we make caring for our mental health (and our loved ones) a habit. Practicing preventative care is essential such as recognizing the warning signs and symptoms and encouraging treatment.
3WV: List some signs of mental illness for people to recognize in themselves or in their children to signal they may need to get help.
Nicole: The signs for types of mental illness differ by diagnosis and vary in severity, but for clinical depression some of the symptoms are:
- A feeling of sadness
- Feelings of gloom/doom
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Thoughts of suicide
For children, signs your child may be depressed could look a bit different. They may complain of physical symptoms, such as, stomach pain or headaches. They may also have trouble in school, and you may see this impact grades.
If you or a loved one exhibit these symptoms for two or more weeks and it interferes with daily living, then please seek professional help.
If someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, especially if they have a plan in place to harm themselves or others, then immediate medical assistance is necessary. You should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
You can also call crisis services or text a crisis counselor by sending a message to 741741. It’s completely free, 24/7 and confidential.
3WV: You suffer with depression and anxiety. What is the difference? And then, what are some triggers that ignite your bouts of these illnesses?
Nicole: Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety. In fact, these are called co-morbid conditions meaning they occur and need to be managed at the same time. So, my official diagnosis is clinical depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Many of the symptoms of depression can create anxiety—for instance, feelings of hopelessness can lead to anxiety about future events.
As someone living with anxiety, I can tell you that your natural flight or fight responses tend to get in the way of daily living. Your body is on heightened alert to the point where it may become hard to hold relationships, manage responsibilities, or even leave the house for work. As with depression, these symptoms vary in severity. For example, one person may have highly functional anxiety while showing up to work and handling everyday responsibilities. On the other hand, someone else may not be able to work due to debilitating anxiety attacks.
People have different triggers and part of effective therapy is recognizing those triggers and working around them. Some of my triggers for depression and anxiety are the same—stress or the feeling of being overwhelmed, and dwelling or navigating though uncertain times, such as grief or loss. Recently, I noticed that focusing on negative media news or TV shows can be a trigger during uncertain times. I love watching crime dramas but it isn’t as enjoyable if I’m already anxious or fearful. Therefore, I have to be mindful of what I consume. I tend to use humor to ease those tensions, which tends to lighten the mood for everyone around me.
3WV: Explain what happens when you go through bouts. Give us an example of one of your episodes.
Nicole: My depressive episodes vary in severity. Thankfully, since recognizing my triggers and staying on top of therapy and medication, I have been able to manage well. My episodes usually last about a week or so. I must note that I have treatment resistant depression, so I had to come to understand that although I receive therapy and medication, I will still deal with some level of depression.
Usually, I can incorporate things to help me get through minor bouts, such as: prayer, meditation, music, opening up to loved ones, getting adequate rest, or changing/adjusting medication if needed. However, if I have a major bout, it’s usually about a week where I can’t get out of bed. I tend to feel extremely sad and fatigued. I may have suicidal thoughts as well. If I’m lucky, I will be able to get up to shower and eat. I tend to shut down so I will isolate myself from friends and family. I’ve had periods where I was unable to go to work because I didn’t even have the energy to get dressed and make the commute. I’ve found that working from home provides me the flexibility to maneuver around my episodes.
3WV: What do you want people to understand about a person who may be dealing with depression and anxiety?
Nicole: One of the things I want people to understand is that no one asks to be sick. Just like someone with diabetes can’t always control their sugar levels, those with mental illness can’t control their illness. Some can hide or downplay certain symptoms, but it can be a life-threatening condition. I don’t believe that people wake up wanting to be depressed or manic. It’s a condition we learn to live with just like someone with cancer or heart disease.
So, the patience and support that is given to those with physical conditions should be extended to those suffering with mental illness. Believe me, we tend to be more frustrated with ourselves than you are with us. As you are helping us care for ourselves, please know that we are trying.
3WV: How can people help someone suffering with the illnesses?
Nicole: I focused my dissertation research on communicating mental illness. I found that most people living with a mental health condition wanted the same help as others living with a physical health condition. Everyone wanted to be supported, understood and accepted without judgment.
These are some ways people can help:
- Being an advocate is a huge step towards helping someone who is dealing with a mental illness.
- Educate yourself on their condition so that you can offer assistance, if necessary.
- Encourage them to seek therapy or support groups by providing contacts in your area.
- Remind them to take their medication, if necessary.
- Be a listening ear when they are hurting.
People want to know their loved ones care and that they aren’t a burden. We tend to be hard on ourselves, so just knowing someone is in our corner means a great deal. I believe taking these steps goes a long way and can save a life.
3WV: Is depression and anxiety easily diagnosed? Can they be classified as a disability?
Nicole: Depression tends to be the most common mental illness. It impacts millions, but unfortunately, due to stigma people don’t reach out for help or support. Therefore, there are plenty of people who are struggling through life with undiagnosed depression. In that regard, it isn’t as easy to diagnose if one is hiding their pain. I would say depression/anxiety are treatable if one seeks professional help.
Many people don’t know that depression/anxiety and other mental illnesses can be classified as a disability, as it can prevent you from managing daily responsibilities such as working, attending school, or managing your household. However, many people don’t like to look at it as a disability, especially when you can thrive while living with mental illness. There are many people with depression who have careers and families—your level of functionality depends on your condition, severity, and treatment.
3WV: How has being diagnosed with depression and anxiety impacted or changed your life? Do people look at and treat you differently when they find out you suffer with mental illness? If so, how do you deal with people treating you different?
Nicole: Honestly, it has made me realize that even your struggles can become your greatest strength. I use to think I was weak because of my illness, but I realized that it brought out the fighter in me. I’ve been able to help and inspire thousands of people who are living with or have a loved one with a mental illness that all the other nonsense is background noise.
As with most things that don’t matter, I’ve learned to ignore the naysayers. I’ve found I’m a more compassionate person and I think different about societal issues. As my mom would say, “Most people don’t understand until they have been in your shoes.” Yet, to be able to say that I’ve found the beauty in my imperfections is a miracle within itself.
As I age, I’ve become more comfortable in my skin. I spent so much of my life hiding in the shadows that I’ve become refreshed and bold. I tend to inspire because I speak out regardless of stigma and I don’t care what people think. If people treat me different because of an illness, then I realized those weren’t my people. I’ve learned to speak without fear. I’ve learned that it’s not always necessary to explain myself. Those who know me, see me as a loving and caring person. Those who don’t know me, shortchange themselves.
My depression caused me to be a people pleaser most of my life and it was utterly exhausting. I thought I had to be silent if they had to “put up with my depression.” However, believe me, people who are determined not to like you will find other reasons. If it’s not because you are depressed, it will be something else they can latch onto instead. You can say a hundred great things, and they will chime in on the one negative thing they can find.
Needless to say, I’ve found in my many years of advocacy that more people have mental health issues than they would care to admit. Some people are just better at hiding those issues. So, the very same people putting in their two cents, more than likely, also need therapy. If you look at it that way, it’s hard to take things personally. I’m no different than the person who hasn’t been officially diagnosed because they are afraid to get help. As my mom would say, “Everyone has issues and everyone needs help at some point in their lives.”
3WV: You wrote a book about ways to find joy and thrive while living with mental illness. What is the name of it, and then, how is it possible to find joy and thrive through mental illness? What is joy and why is it important to experience it in our lives?
Nicole: My book is called Unstoppable Joy: The Art of Finding Hope, Healing and Happiness by Dr. Nicole Robinson (Ferguson). It’s available through Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or via my website at www.unstoppablejoybook.com.
In my book, I outline ways to find joy while living with mental illness. You’d have to pick up the book for more details. However, I will give you a hint! Joy is found outside of your circumstances. Many people are only happy as long as life is going well. However, in order to be joyful you have to let go of the need to live a perfect life. You will be happier once you allow yourself the freedom to experience life as it is and not how you would expect it to be.
3WV: You also talk about hope. Why is having hope important as you go through mental illness?
Nicole: As I discuss in my book, hope is the foundation on which everything in life rests. You need a certain level of hope in a higher power that is greater than yourself to get through tough times. I speak to people who are suicidal all the time about finding hope in seemingly hopeless situations.
One thing most people don’t understand is that a suicidal person doesn’t necessarily want to end his or her life, they just want the pain to stop. They can’t see an end to that pain, so they think suicide is the answer. I tell them that is not the answer. It’s really about how can you make your life worth living, and how you can find the encouragement to hang on until you see better days. Depression gives you tunnel vision and most people can’t see the end in sight. They think things will never change.
However, being a person who suffers from suicidal thoughts, I can tell you things can (and will) change. It just seems unbearable because of the weight of depression. I’ve been struggling with suicidal thoughts since I was a child and I will be 36 in May. I can tell you every time I thought about giving up—things always got better, turned around for the best, or made me stronger. I could never see it at the time, but when I looked back, I realized that nothing was ever worth giving up.
That’s why hope matters. Hope keeps you sustained even when you can’t see the beginning from the end. Hope keeps you planted in faith when you don’t see any reason to keep going. We trust that even if we don’t see a reason, there is one.
3WV: If a woman or her child is suffering with mental illness, who can she turn to for help? Are there any support groups?
Nicole: There are local agencies and private practice therapists depending on your insurance. You can also qualify for a sliding fee at some agencies, which you pay for sessions based on your income. Many places also offer support groups, which can be helpful if you wish to connect with others going through similar struggles. If you visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website at www.nami.org, you will find great resources on finding therapists and support groups in your area.
3WV: Give some last words of empowerment or advice.
Nicole: My message for the masses would be never give up. Therapy is a game changer. Medications and other treatment plans are available. It is a struggle, but that struggle can become your strength if you let it. You are a warrior and the fight is in you. I went from debilitating depressive episodes to obtaining a doctorate, becoming an author, and working on a second masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. I want people to know, it’s okay to not be okay; and it’s not okay to suffer alone. Getting help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you wise. It makes you a warrior.
3WV: How can people reach you?
Nicole: They can reach me in the following ways:
Her Contact Information:
Facebook — Dr. Nicole Ferguson
Join her Facebook group, Unstoppable Warriors — There you can find your daily dose of encouragement. We are 2000 strong and growing.
Instagram — @ DoctorNicole1
Website — www.unstoppablejoybook.com and pick up your copy of Unstoppable Joy today.