Welcome to the fourth and final episode of The Loneliness Project, an audio production of WRFI and the Ithaca College Park Scholars Program. Throughout the series, we have highlighted the perspectives of students, mental health activists, college administrators, and public safety officers.
But, mental illness and loneliness? For many, they don’t begin in college. Not even close.
In this episode, we’ll hear from an Ithaca College student who began experiencing mental health challenges long before she left for college.
Brontë Cook and John Turner reported and produced this piece. Laura Rosbrow-Telem, the news director at WRFI, directed this episode. Mars Booker and Elena Piech wrote and produced the theme music. All other music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions under a Creative Commons license. We especially want to thank Engaged Cornell and The Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration and The Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI.
*This piece first aired on WRFI Community Radio News on Dec. 14. We are proud to say The Loneliness Radio Project won a 2019 first place award for Outstanding Public Affairs Program or Series from the New York State Broadcasters Association.
Episode 4: College student who immigrated to U.S. as child shares mental health barriers and how she’s learned to cope
The transcript is below. But, if you can, the full experience is better with the audio above.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, at least one in five youth between 9 and 17 years old currently has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Think back on that stage of life: the years of braces, bad hair cuts, pimples, AP workloads, hormones and — for our generation — embarrassing social media posts. One in five people navigate this awkward period while also struggling with mental illness.
This was the reality of Ithaca College freshman Mary Raboy.
“My mental health was the worst in eighth grade… it was really hard,” she shares.
Mary’s pre-teen years weren’t just filled with the complexities of self-discovery; she struggled deeply with anxiety and depressive episodes.
As Mary went through middle school, her anxiety was almost always present. At its best, she would get fidgety and scratch at her arms. At its worst? Mary would physically start shaking, unable to even speak.
Mary began to realize that something wasn’t right — and, she didn’t know what to do. As a young teen who barely even knew who she was, Mary had very little idea as to how to treat, or recognize, her own mental illness.
So, as a first step, she did what a lot of people in our generation do: she turned to social media. When she entered middle school, social media sites like Instagram and Tumblr were taking the world by storm; and Mary found solace in them.
“I used social media to vent,” she recalls. “In my head I convinced myself that I was trying to connect with people but I think I was just trying to not be alone in my thoughts or to put them somewhere that validated them. Because if I made an Instagram post and said something genuine I felt like those emotions were more real than if I just kept it in my head.”
These sites were Mary’s emotional outlet. But, her relationship with social media was…creative.
“I’d make fake accounts to like my own pictures, do hashtags like #fall for fall. I was so obsessed with the idea of how much my social media displayed my value because I guess that was one of the only spaces ever where I had the freedom of expression,” Mary assesses.
Making fake accounts to like your own pictures? Yes, it was very middle school.
But Mary thought that doing this was necessary. She felt like Instagram and Tumblr were the only places she could really be herself; they gave her validation that she wasn’t getting anywhere else.
However, these sites, among others, also romanticized depression. And they introduced Mary to some really unhealthy coping mechanisms.
She says, “I remember in middle school I’d go on Tumblr and I’d see like really like artsy pictures of girls and their cuts. And these crazy journal entries of like suicidal thoughts and…”
And, as her depression got worse, she found herself coping in the only way she knew how.
“And I remember just doing the same thing like like cutting and taking pictures and trying to be OK with the fact that like I was hurting myself,” Mary recounts.
And, in this, Mary isn’t alone. According to a study that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association, the rates for self harm among girls between the ages of 10 and 14 increased 166 percent between 2001 and 2015. In the same demographic, self-injury from sharp objects has increased by 152 percent. Since 2009, the rate of cutting among girls in this age demographic has increased by 18.8 percent a year.
Janis Whitlock, the director of the Cornell Research Program on Self Injury and Recovery, says that, in general, people who self injure or struggle with mental illness tend to seek informal support and information online.
“That’s really common,” she says. “There are a billion different places that they can go. Often they’ll report at least short term satisfaction with what they receive there because you can immediately find other people who kind of understand. And that’s really validating and helpful.”
But, just like Mary, many are exposed to triggers that can influence self harm.
“We’ve found that if people go to chat rooms or other spaces where they find other people who have a history of self injury or suicidality, and there’s no moderator, so there’s nobody there that’s making sure that people aren’t triggering other people or there aren’t designed features that basically allow for flagging or least request that people keep triggers to a minimum or provide trigger warnings, then that experience of being there can be very, very triggering for people over time.”
The toxic coping mechanisms that Mary was exposed to became a huge part of her life.
She didn’t know what else to do — she felt like she was out of options. She couldn’t really talk to anyone about this in real life — especially not her family.
“In my household, my parents didn’t really believe in depression or anything,” Mary explains. “And so anything I ever dealt with where I was emotionally vulnerable, I just really tried to disregard or invalidate constantly. My parents sort of amounted a lot of my reaction to my mental illness as me being bratty or ungrateful. So it took me a long time to even accept anxiety as something that was part of my identity.”
When Mary was five, her family emigrated to the United States from the Philippines. This background really affected the way her mom responded to her concerns of mental illness.
“In Filipino culture it’s just not something that you acknowledge,” she says. “My mom just always stressed that there’s no point in being sad. And I tried to have her mindset but then also growing up in America, there’s such a different mindset of believing that mental illness is a thing and you can feel that way.”
Almost immediately after Mary’s family moved to the U.S., her mom got remarried to a man Mary affectionately calls her dad. Throughout their time in the States, her mom’s Filipino-centered values about mental health dominated the household.
But Mary wasn’t the only one struggling. As Mary suffered from anxiety, so did her stepdad, who she calls her dad.
“My dad actually deals with extreme anxiety and as a white male, especially him being a stay at home father, it was a huge insecurity for him and he repressed a lot of it.
“I think as a child growing up and looking up to this man I learned to adopt his coping mechanisms. And so it wasn’t so much that he didn’t agree with mental illness. I think he addressed mine but in the same way that he was scared of his own he was scared of mine,” she assesses.
Just like Mary, he didn’t quite know how to talk about his mental health problems. So, a lot of the time, he kept quiet.
But, his silence took a toll on the family. His social anxiety was so bad that he couldn’t even get a job. Mary’s mom had to work around the clock to provide for their family. Sometimes, up to 80 hours a week.
So, when Mary was in high school, her stepdad sought help. He began to work through his anxiety, and finally got a job. Mary’s mom was so grateful, both that her spouse was seeking help for his own mental health, and that she would no longer have to accept full financial responsibility for the household. She could finally stop working long hours and take some time for herself — something Mary had never really seen her do.
Only recently has Mary’s mother opened up to Mary about her challenges.
“As her being a breadwinner and her repressing her own depression of being an immigrant mother with three children to take care of – and we were homeless at one point – and being put in that situation of bottling her emotions so far down because she had to take care of our whole family,” Mary explains.
A lot of Mary’s mom’s desire to stay strong had to do with Filipino values.
“Filipinos like a female dominated world… very female dominated,” Mary says. “She treated me and my sister differently. She wanted us to be very strong. I think she wanted to teach me that sort of strength so that when she couldn’t be there for us we could be there for each other, me and my brother and sister.”
While her mom’s heart was in the right place, this focus on strength and perseverance just made Mary feel more alone. As the Raboy family slowly started to talk about mental health when her stepdad began seeking help, this was a full two years after Mary herself was at an all-time low.
In eighth grade, when she was close to bottom, Mary realized she couldn’t talk to her family about her mental health problems. So, she asked her mom if she could go to a therapist.
“She told me I was being dramatic and that was never going to happen. So I cut that option out of my life for a really long time,” Mary remembers.
This is when she really turned to the internet sites we talked about earlier – the ones that introduced her to unhealthy coping mechanisms. As Mary dove further into these sites, she felt less and less like she could talk about her problems, and more and more hopeless. She began to think she was out of options.
And then, that year, when she was 14, she says,“I had gotten to the point where I attempted to commit suicide.”
Mary described to us what she did to herself on that day, when she was fourteen. I’ll spare the details, but — it was very violent. Listening to her story was heartbreaking. And her attempt affected her for a really long time.
“When I went swimming, I’d always keep a shirt on, I would put makeup on my arms. And it was like a crazy thing that like I hid,” she says.
Mary kept her suicide attempt a secret for two years… and, it dominated her life. As she dedicated her time towards healing — both physically, and mentally — she had a profound realization.
Mary describes this as a turning point: “Immediately after that happened, I realized I wanted to try … because it wasn’t worth it. And also just to deal with hiding some a situation… like you have a moment. And then it like dictates a lot of your actions for so long.”
She wanted to do everything in her power to move on. And, this didn’t mean ‘get over’ her mental health problems — not at all. She knew she was going to struggle with anxiety for the rest of her life, but she realized there were ways to move forward through healthy coping mechanisms, like creative outlets.
Except, for Mary, talking to a therapist was still off limits. Because of her mom’s reaction to the idea of therapy, its negative connotations were rooted so deeply in her psyche that she couldn’t even consider it.
But she did engage in some form of therapy: art therapy.
Growing up, Mary always loved art. In fact, her mom was the one who introduced her to art in the first place. And, as she searched for ways to move forward after her suicide attempt, she found that creating art really comforted her.
Collaging, and engaging in other art forms, gave Mary an avenue to channel her feelings.
Mary explains, “In the way therapy asks you to be introspective and to question what you’re doing and to face the truth, art does that for me. A lot of times, I’m a very conceptual artist. The basis of everything that I do is why I’m doing it.”
Above Mary’s bed hangs one of her pieces. It’s beautiful, full of abstract images of women, each appearing to be watching one of the others.
“For this collage, it made me think about all the experiences that I’ve been through and putting that into one thing. When you transform the way you feel into something you can touch, I feel like I can hold it and accept it in a way that therapy couldn’t. Because you can’t touch a conversation,” she interprets.
Having a tangible way to process her feelings has allowed Mary some sort of emotional release — one that she never felt she had before.
“I’ve always had an eclectic personality and putting that history into an isolated space has been my way of controlling everything,” she recalls. “Art creates a bridge between my experience and an experience someone else can connect to. Everyone tries to find their voice and sometimes it’s talking or writing. For me, visual art gave me that passageway.”
Going into high school, Mary relied heavily on art to alleviate, or at least cope with, her struggles. And then, around the time Mary’s step-dad opened up to the family about his anxiety, she was more comfortable talking about it, too.
Mary didn’t reveal everything to her family — and she hasn’t ever told her mom about her suicide attempt. But they have talked, and shared more.
“As I got more comfortable, I did bring it up to my mom,” Mary relates. “Talked to her about everything she’d been through and everything I’d been through. We were so far into our own heads that we didn’t even realize how close we were. She had to grow up in extreme poverty and gang violence and an abusive father and for her to look at my life and hear that I had any sort of mental hindrance was really tough because she felt like she worked so hard to put me in a space where I didn’t experience what she did but I ended up falling in that hole anyway. But as tough as it was, to have a solid place to relate was better than it was worse.”
Even today, Mary struggles. Sometimes she feels really, really low… and sometimes, she feels like the happiest person she knows. Her mental health is complicated and dynamic. But, she says she continues to move forward by focusing on healing. And, when I asked why she was so willing to share her story with us?
“The healing of being able to say it,” she tells me. “And as heavy as it can be, the fact that I can say it makes me feel like it’s something that I own, not something that owns me.”
For WRFI, I’m Bronte Cook.
This is the fourth episode of the Loneliness Project, an audio series by the Park Scholars Program at Ithaca College, in collaboration with WRFI. This episode was produced by Bronte Cook and John Turner. Laura Rosbrow Telem, the news director at WRFI, editorially supervised this episode. Mars Booker and Elena Peach wrote and produced the theme music. All other music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Engaged Cornell and the Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration, and the Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI. You can stream past Loneliness Project episodes online at wrfi.org.