On Mental Health and Illness in Debate

Today (October 10th) is World Mental Health Day, so, for Beyond Resolved, I want to share how my anxiety has affected me as a debater and raise awareness of the broader issue. This isn’t to speak for everyone with any mental illness, although BR and I would love to hear from you if you want to share (anonymous is ok!)

My family always jokes about ironic it is that someone who couldn’t greet an extended family member without her mom by her side a few years ago, is now a nationally-ranked public speaker. I personally think it’s pretty cool— I have learned a lot from debate and the fact that I am in an almost constant state of self-doubt and panic certainly hasn’t made it any easier. But to say that debate has “cured me” would be a bit of a stretch. 

Anxiety isn’t just being “shy” or “nervous”— although that is definitely part of it. The main difference is that while everyone experiences those emotions at some point, people with Anxiety disorder experience them nearly constantly.  

I suggest that you read this guide if you want to educate yourself even more on the variety of mental health issues. Or if you’re bored, buzzfeed put together a list of tumblr posts which kinda does the same thing.

Despite my improved public speaking skills and competitive successes in a public speaking activity, I still struggle with mental illness in very real ways. The best example of this for me was the Blake tournament last year. At pretty much every tournament, I get flustered during a speech or two— I’m told this is something that more drills can help with— but to say I was unprepared for this particular tournament would be a massive understatement. I mean yes, I had cases to read, but I knew next to nothing about the national debt (still don’t). Even though I had some incredible times with my friends at that tournament and achieved far more than I hoped, what I remember most about it was how overwhelmed I was during every speech. I would get up to speak and the little voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough and I don’t deserve to be up there and what I’m saying is wrong and stupid and I just need to shut up and that I’m not good and all my success is because of my partner, or an easy pairing or a bad judge or literally anything else that was out of my control. On top of that, my anxiety is just physically bad. I get really nauseous and my limbs feel numb. My breath is short and my heart beats louder and faster. Imagine you’re on a rollercoaster waiting for the drop and it never comes. With all that going on while I try to give a two-minute speech, it is a miracle I formed a coherent sentence.  

Let’s take another example. Back in June, the night before Nationals, my team and I were sitting in our hotel room. I took out my flows from a round I had done earlier that day and tried to give a redo, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t form the right words. My thinking was: my speech didn’t just have to be good, it had to be perfect, and because I live in a state of constant self-doubt, nothing could ever my standards. Instead, I just sat there on the carpeted floor, while my incredible friends did their best to help me. For a few of them, it was the first time that they had seen me like this— not just self-deprecating humor, but twitching, shaking, zoning out, and—yes— crying. I almost decided not to compete at all. If I was slightly less self-destructive, I would have quit right then and there. 

Other occurrences that pretty much happen at every tournament include: hiding in the bathroom in between rounds to avoid talking to certain people, obsessively reloading tabroom for an hour to get my result, asking to “use the bathroom” so I can stand in the hallway during RFD and not deal with the physical pressure of being in the room, not being able to fall asleep for hours each night reliving what I did wrong and what I will do wrong, and zoning out in conversations because of how stressed I am about everything else.

So why am I sharing this? I believe that representation in any area is crucial— that’s why I write for this website and organize a mentorship program for marginalized people in debate. But in this community, it is far easier for me to discuss my identity as a woman or a person of color than it is for me to discuss my experiences with mental illness. 

I think there are two reasons why this is the case. First, there’s a pretty big stigma around discussing serious mental health issues. It’s really easy for teenagers to talk about how stressed we are about grades, test scores and, yes, debate success, but it is comparatively harder to talk about stressors when they don’t have a clear cause. If we “shouldn’t” be stressed about something, we feel guilty about how it affects us. We feel like we don’t have the right to be upset and as a result, we internalize these feelings and allow them to destroy us from the inside.

Second, we are all pretty uneducated. I’ve had symptoms of anxiety my whole life but I only learned that this was abnormal in seventh grade, I was only diagnosed last year, after it began to hurt my academic performance, and just last month I learned that tensing up and lashing out at people when I’m nervous is because of this condition and that panic attacks aren’t always just being non-communicative and rocking back and forth. This lack of education leads us to characterize people with mental illness in certain ways— often as violent or dangerous (by the way, please don’t do this. It sucks to hear someone close to you use mental illness as an insult). 

I don’t want to speak for other’s experiences when there are plenty of online resources from people who understand better than me. Mental health in debate extends far beyond one person’s experience with anxiety. I am extremely privileged to have supportive friends and family and access to numerous mental health resources, so I thought I would share some that have helped me. If you have any suggestions to add here, or you just want to talk about the post, you can fill out the ask form on this website and I will add them to the list so others can share.

  1. A TedTalk depicting the reality of High Functioning Anxiety from the perspective of a comedian (I find the public speaking aspect to be fairly similar to some issues with debate— “I don’t get stage fright, I get life fright”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUedQ0_EGCQ

  2. This website has helped me a lot— it’s a really useful resource for people who experience symptoms of anxiety— or even just dealing with “normal” amounts of stress. http://theanxietytoolkit.com/resources/

  3. I haven’t personally used this, but I have heard great things about this online therapy service. There are free options with trained volunteers, and (relatively) affordable options with licensed therapists. There are also support rooms and chats. https://www.7cups.com

Finally, there is an amazing website for people with disabilities and mental illness in debate with a dedicated mentorship program and tons of amazing blog posts. Because Beyond Resolved is focused on issues of gender inequality, which tend to be socially acceptable to confront, we have a relative position of privilege in this community. 

There is one immediate action I want to suggest that people can do to make other’s lives easier. I take medication for my anxiety, and last summer at NDF I was required to take it in a public office— where anyone could see the label. While I don’t have a problem with people knowing about my anxiety, this can be really dangerous for people who aren’t or can’t be as open with their experience. 

Lots of love as always.

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