By Colin Stoecker
Kristen Davis loves her work with patients who have brain injuries and transgender people who hope to transform their voices at the Speech and Hearing Center at George Washington University.
“I can relate through the troubles I’ve had with my own brain,” she said.
Davis, 30, is getting a master’s degree in speech pathology from GW and wants to become a speech pathologist. This isn’t the first master’s degree program Davis has pursued, as she has struggled with severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. She has faced stigma from her peers and mental health professionals alike.
Towards the end of high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, there were signs that she had depressive disorder. But she tried to hide these at Duke University in North Carolina. College life was anything but easy for Davis. She realized something might be wrong in her first year.
“I was up late working on an English paper and I thought about killing myself because I wouldn’t be able to turn in the paper on time,” she said.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), of 9.5 million American adults who had serious thoughts of suicide, 2.7 million made a suicide plan and 1.3 million attempted suicide from 2013 to 2015.
Davis’ suicidal thoughts worsened after she returned to her parents’ house in Florida for the summer.
“I was out boating with my family one day and all I could think about was jumping off the front of the boat and killing myself,” she said.
She sought professional psychiatric help and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, which she said felt “like a layer of cotton kind of insulating me from the sharpness of those thoughts.”
Back on medication, Davis graduated from Duke and moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a masters in journalism at American University. But as the stress from graduate study started to build, suicidal thoughts returned. Davis wasn’t eating, and only sleeping two or three hours a night.
She had an internship at The Washington Post, and was assigned to write a story about a man who had drowned in the Potomac River.
“You know when you’re depressed and you’re reading about death it makes death feel so eerily close,” she said. “When I was writing this article all I could think about was drowning myself in the Potomac River.”
One morning, home alone, she tried to end her life.
“I was so tortured by all of these thoughts that I went in the bathroom and cut my arm with a razor,” said Davis.
Her best friend found her and she was taken to the hospital. Over the next year, she was an inpatient at seven different institutions in five different states. She saw more than 20 mental health professionals in a little more than a year. She tried 15 different kinds of medication and underwent two rounds of electro-convulsive therapy. Nothing seemed to work.
The worst stigma Davis faced about her mental health condition didn’t come from her peers or her family, rather from mental health professionals who were supposed to be helping her.
“They treated me like I was less than human,” she said. “I became very wary about opening up a lot to these people.”
One psychiatrist put his middle fingers up in her face and said, “That’s what suicide is, basically an F U to your family.”
Another psychiatrist told her mother, “I don’t deal with people who do that.”
At a therapy farm in North Carolina, a psychiatrist asked if Davis had tried genetic testing. With a simple cheek swab, her DNA was sent off to a Genomind lab. Genomind is a personalized medicine lab that offers genetic testing services to pinpoint the biological root of disorders like depression and anxiety.
The results provided objective proof of her condition, which she saw as empowering. Davis’ brain had a shortage of serotonin—the happy chemical. Her brain couldn’t produce enough serotonin and this was worsened by the rise in cortisol—the stress hormone.
“My psychiatrist told me that it was my genetic destiny to have a mental health crisis at some point in my life,” she said. Davis believes the test saved her life.
“A brain is an organ and sometimes it can’t produce adequate chemicals, just like the pancreas in diabetics can’t produce adequate insulin,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything about me is weak or wrong.”
One in four adults have dealt with mental health issues, according to the World Health Organization.
Nicole Markisohn, 28, of Alexandria, Virginia, works in marketing and digital communications. She was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder in 2009.
“Depression is like your whole world has just gone black and white,” said Markisohn.
She was prescribed a low dosage of the antidepressant Lexapro after seeing a psychiatrist.
“It’s chronic, so it’s just a matter of keeping it in perspective,” she said.
Depression affects 16 million Americans each year, or 7 percent of the adult population. Women are more likely than men to experience it. Depression occurs most often from the late teens to the mid twenties according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health.
Markisohn attended the University of Maryland. She said the resources available on campus for students with mental health issues were very helpful, but the real struggle came after graduation.
Her previous employer was very supportive, but Markisohn believes that mental health resources from human resources departments are underutilized.
“Your company’s HR department is a great resource and they have hotlines for you to call,” she said. “People are afraid to ask, but they have rights. Through the Americans with Disabilities Act, everyone is entitled to reasonable accommodations.”
Treatment for workplace mental health can produce results for workers and employers.
Every $1 of treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and work performance, according to the APA.
Markisohn was not comfortable at first bringing her mental health issues to the attention of her employer.
“There’s still a feeling that it’s something to be ashamed of,” she said. “We have so many doctors for physical health. You shouldn’t have to hide your emotional wellbeing.”
An organization called uLead, founded by Christin Lewis, is working to change the dialogue around mental health stigma in the workplace for young professionals. Markisohn was college friends with Lewis.
uLead is an initiative of The Luv u Project – founded by Christin, her husband Alex, and her father Rich Mattingly. They have partnered with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the only public health school with a department of mental health in the country.
“If someone has a cardiac arrest and goes to the hospital, there’s best practice for how to handle that. If someone breaks an arm, there’s a way that you’re supposed to set that arm or work on it. But when someone says ‘hey I’m having some problems. I’m thinking about this or I’m having some stress,’ there aren’t as many best practices,” said Mattingly, founder of The Luv u Project.
uLead brings together young professionals for happy hours and trivia contests to educate them about mental health issues.
“It’s not a scary thing to have someone who’s dealing with mental health in the workplace, in fact it’s quite common,” said Lewis.