By Ellie Fratt

I was 12 years-old when I was diagnosed with methicillian-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a deadly antibiotic-resistant superbug. The infection ravaged my right leg and femur, causing me to undergo seven surgeries within one month. My illness has been the most formative experience of my life – it’s also what spurred my desire to go into the medical field.

When you get sick like I did, doctors tell you all of the things to expect: they tell you that you’ll be in physical therapy for months, maybe years; they’ll tell you how the medicine will make you feel more sick than you ever did in the first place; they’ll tell you how the scars up and down your leg will never go away, never really fade; and they’ll tell you how incredibly lucky you are to have made it this far. What they don’t tell you is how many invisible scars an experience like that leaves behind.

I struggled with being physically behind my peers due to my surgeries and I started to self-harm when I was 13; it continued for years afterward. I had a hard time voicing my day-to-day struggles with anyone other than my best friend. I felt like I couldn’t actually be someone who was depressed: I wasn’t “goth”, I didn’t dress in black every day, I hadn’t lost someone close to me. I felt that claiming to be a host to a mental illness would also be a vast disservice to those who seemed more justified in having a mental illness than myself. I was 14 when I was first brought to a therapist for depression and anxiety.

When I was 19, my symptoms came back in full-swing. I began to feel the enormous weight of my life and career on my shoulders and I had a hard time walking into the cafeteria without having a full-fledged panic attack. I spent every moment of my life desperately wishing it was over. Luckily for myself, I think I hit rock bottom; by my spring semester sophomore year, things started looking up. But others aren’t so lucky.

One in four college students have a diagnosable mental illness. An estimated 25 percent of college aged women attempt to binge and purge during their college career. According to the National Institutes for Mental Health, women consistently feel significantly more helpless, overwhelmed, exhausted, and traumatized from school than their male counterparts.

So why aren’t we talking about this?

When women are involved with mental health issues, everyone — women included — are so incredibly quick to write disruptions in moods off as hormones or emotions. I even did it to myself, even though I had a complete breakdown at least twice a week. Our society continues to look at women as being hysterical – a word that originates with a female-only medical condition of insanity due to a dysfunction of the uterus. To this day, men are stereotyped as rational and women as unpredictably emotional and that can lead to justification of behaviors that are unhealthy, and oftentimes, develop into a serious mental health issues.

So what can we do to help?

A brain is just like any other organ—it can get diseased too and there’s nothing shameful in that. We need to be doing a better job at teaching the women of our generation, and the generations to come, how to take care of themselves and their mental health. So start by having those conversations. They may be incredibly difficult conversations to have, but the huge stigma around mental health will never end without talking. Be an example to others; show them that there is no need to be embarrassed, that mental illness is not shameful, and that you want to talk and listen. Perhaps if someone had urged me to confront my mental illnesses earlier, I could have found relief sooner. I didn’t, but it’s likely that someone you know — maybe your goddaughter or the girl you sit next to in math class — could really benefit from a heart-to-heart about their brain.

About the Author: Ellie Fratt was a 2016 STEM Scholar and conducted her research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the Potter Lab. Ellie’s project involved isolation and identification of specific enzyme inhibitors found within various natural products; her research thus far has earned her a 2016 Barry Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention. She is currently a rising senior at Rhodes College, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in chemistry and religious studies. Ellie hopes to pursue a dual MD/PhD degree, and go into translational research in Neuroscience.

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