An Open Letter about Mental Health

Humans of Howard | Elsa Lakew | February 17, 2016

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The following was written by Howard University junior, Elsa Lakew, on her personal blog: (Direct Link to Elsa’s original post.


I believe, there is stark a difference between being alive and living.

I was organizing my first demonstration for Black Lives Matter and it was the day before the action was supposed to take when it happened. I was talking to a great friend of mine, let’s call him, “Guy that looks good in plaid shirt”. And in the midst of updating the Facebook event page, emailing people, trying to find a bullhorn and trying to keep myself together by ignoring the fact that I had no idea what I was doing–but trying to learn along the way–when I was stopped in my tracks.

“Guy that looks good in plaid shirt” pops me out of my little bubble of worry I put myself in when he says, “Elsa, not that you should ever give a fuck about what I think, but it doesn’t really seem like you’ve ever struggled that much.”

It wasn’t until I read what he said to me, that I heard something I had not heard in a long time. Silence. When I read that message it was like a wave of electricity had just coursed through my body. I was so shocked. I mean my entire life, even up until this moment has felt like nothing short of a struggle. I mean, half the time it feels like I am barely getting by.

And the silence that had filled the room, shortly after was engulfed with my laughter. “Ha gottem!” I thought. I replied back, “Man I must hide it really well. In high school, I was a fucking mess.”

And I was a mess and still am to a certain degree to this day. I feel so lost some days. The saying, the grass is always greener on the other side, rings true in this case. Even when in reality, that may not be the case.

On social media, we do such a good job in trying to keep up appearances. I too fall under this umbrella of only showing the world tiny fragments of my life. And of course, like most I mainly choose to share those wonderful Kodak moments.

I remember in high school my anxiety got so bad that it almost debilitated me to the point where I no longer wanted to live. And to this day, I have not been open about my mental health journey–especially with being involved in this movement.

Being a member of the Black Lives Matter movement in any capacity is draining–to say the least. To see time and time again the name of someone in the form of a hashtag–and automatically knowing what that means. To see another officer not brought to justice for taking a life but is instead offered paid leave and impunity. To witness peaceful Black bodies be met by violence–it is exhausting.

The battles that you fight are not only physical–but it is spiritual and mental. To witness this much pain happen over and over again, you will get to the point where you ask yourself, “Is this life really worth living?”

And if you have ever asked that question before, know that the answer is yes! And it will always be yes because I whole heartedly believe that your existence is valid and you are loved–whether you realize it or not. Dealing with mental health issues is hard and whether you realize it or not, everybody at some point in their life had asked themselves that question. It does not mean you are weak–it just means you are human and you may be in need some help.

Dealing with mental health issues is hard and even though the majority of us will not admit this aloud, everybody at some point in their life had asked themselves that question. And asking that question–contrary to popular belief–doesn’t make you a signatory of being weak by any stretch of the imagination. It just means you are human and may be in need some help.

Take it from someone who has been dealing with anxiety for a while now. Anxiety is paralyzing at times, but what’s more paralyzing at times is the thought of trying to open up to someone and talk about it.

I used to be afraid of talking about this with anyone else because I thought I was the only one going through this. I remember in high school, I didn’t see any of my other classmates in high school struggle, in fact, they looked like they were just breezing by. But now I know that was not the case. Often times when you are dealing with mental health issues–one of the biggest self-deceptive actions we take is to think of ourselves as “the other”. We paint our struggle as being individually set and make ourselves feel like we are the only ones struggling to get through the day–when that is not the reality.

Often times when you are dealing with mental health issues–one of the biggest self-deceptive actions we take is to think of ourselves as “the other”. We paint our struggle as being individually set and make ourselves feel like we are the only ones struggling to get through the day–when that is not the reality.

I mean I get it, everyone gets anxious or deals with mood swings when they’re a teenager. But this is beyond that. When it comes to things such as anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issues it is not something that can easily be fixed with a bandage, a pat on the back or dissipates over time. It is something you live with on a daily basis, similarly, it can resurface anytime it wants to. And to be honest, it’s hard to break the surface sometimes when it comes to anxiety.

So what does anxiety feel like?

Well, imagine yourself in the middle of the sea, 20 feet below water. You don’t know how you got there, one minute you were cursing your professor under your breath for giving you a test on something they never taught you and the next you’re drowning. And now you’re just drowning in the middle of the sea made up of all of your worries, and even though you try and tell yourself to swim to the surface your body is paralyzed. You find yourself going nowhere. Stuck in the same place. And all you want to do is break the surface and breathe. Just take one breath. And the worst part about all of this is, you see the surface. And even though you know there is air above that surface, you are still unable to reach it.

To this day, I find myself in the middle of the day asking myself, “Did I breathe?”

Well ignoring the obvious sarcastic response, “Well you’re alive aren’t you?” I believe there is power in the way that we breathe.  As someone who has dealt with sporadic panic attacks, the way that you breathe can be key to aid in ending an anxiety attack or prolonging it.

You see my anxiety stems from a few things, some of them being– worrying about stuff I have no control over like the future or not meeting the expectation I had set up in my own mind. And although I don’t have control over a lot of things, I do have control over how I breathe. And I have come to not only live with anxiety but know how to actively combat any future panic attacks and overall learn to deal with my anxiety. And one of the things I do is constantly remind myself that I have a lot of things to be grateful for.

  1. I am healthy. (Relatively, I mean subtract the shitty college diet and I’m basically Beyonce when she filmed DreamGirls.)
  2. I have a great family that loves me
  3. I am sane. (But don’t test me, I get enough of those from my professors.)
  4. I have friends. (Okay, maybe this is a conversation to have at a later date– but I think food and Netflix should so count as friends. Okay, maybe for the Netflix, it’s debatable. But I have been in a relationship with food for 20 years so you can’t tell me shit.)
  5. I go to a great school

But even though I have become better at dealing with my anxiety, I still have moments when I fall back into that hole. And I acknowledge that sometimes others in my situation don’t make it out of that hole. Mental illnesses vary in that sense–but if you do not try and seek help it will engulf your mind and control your life. I can wholeheartedly say that I would not be here if it had not been for the support and help I have received from others.

We live in such an interconnected world. Social networking sites are awesome, but they can also become really annoying. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, are all pretty fun and interactive ways that keep us connected to your friends and family. But sometimes it can be deafening. At times, I find myself drowning in this incessant white noise of updates, trending topics, and upkeep.

At times, I find myself drowning in this incessant white noise of updates, trending topics, and upkeep. The internet age surely does give a new meaning to the phrase, “Keeping up with the Jones”.

In the age of interconnectedness, it’s good to unplug every once in awhile. This is most certainly aimed at people my age and younger. Because like I said, almost everyone on the internet only shares the good stuff happening in their lives and in this age of connection– has also led us into the age of comparison.

And I think this has led to the popularization of the phrase, “I need to get my life together.” Which I often times hear a lot of my friends and peers say. And my only sane reply to that question is, you are in your 20s this is the one time of your life when you’re not expected or supposed to have your life together.I believe you should just aim to be present, to be here in the now and live this life to the fullest. Full of all the mistakes and lessons that come with it.

I believe we should all just aim to be present, to be here in the now and live this life to the fullest. Full of all the mistakes and lessons that come with it.

So what was the purpose of me writing this? Well this is dedicated to “Guy that looks good in plaid shirt” and everyone out there who is carrying a load on their back that seems to get heavier each day. I see you. I carry you in my prayers. You are loved. And you’re wanted.  Let me clarify that, I am not here to sympathize but simply empathize. I simply want to let you know that I have been there, I’ve hit that low and got through it.

Owning this part of you is hard and coping with it without any help is debilitating. The topic of mental illnesses is so stigmatized in our society–especially within the African diasporic community–when it shouldn’t be. In fact, I have always been dumbfounded when Black folks assume that mental health is a “White problem”. Considering just the amount of trauma Black people have gone through.

If you have broken leg–you go the doctor, right? I mean, would you walk around with a broken leg just hoping it will heal itself? Of course not, not only is that absurd but it’s dangerous. Well, I believe we should take the same approach with our mental health.

And in this age of comparison propelled by our social media crazed world, we can’t deal with our mental health by simply slapping a filter on it. This is not a part of us we can simply crop out. But there is hope and there is help out there–and if you are going through something–I beg you to please get the help you need.

And although the grass may seem greener on the other side–know that your assumptions may be far from the reality. You never know what demons the person you are looking up to is dealing with.

I just hope the next time you look at me you see a girl who is working to better herself because that’s the real me. And I pray you continue to do the same. The girl who looks like she has never struggled before is just the micro-condensed pixelated version of me.



This article was written in dedication to two people Ashton Ernst and MarShawn McCarrel.

Ashton although and I had not spoken to him since probably high school ended, I knew enough of him that upon hearing the news of his passing it hit really close to home. Words truly don’t suffice when it comes to the grief attached to unexpected goodbyes. Ashton was a light–and I will never forget those dances moves he busted out on our senior year trip to Six Flags. Ashton was most certainly the type of person who was unapologetic for who he was and made others around him comfortable enough so they may do the same.

In the Facebook post that announced his passing, it mentions that Ashton was a stark mental health advocate.

“Ashton fought Bi­-Polar disorder and was an ardent advocate of mental health awareness. Ashton, through his own experience, wanted others to know they were not alone in their struggle and help was available. A brutally honest person, Ashton always searched for and promoted the truth. Speaking the truth takes courage and strength and Ashton would want everyone to know the truth about his death to help others with this disease.”

Ashton was much braver than me because for a long time I tried to run away from my mental health problems as if I could find a refuge to hide from it.

MarShawn McCarrel was an activist who was a source of inspiration for me, mainly because he was so young and yet so brave in having the ability to not only fight on behalf of the Black Lives Matter community in his home state of Ohio–but decided to come all the way to Maryland to simply lend a helping hand in the struggle for police accountability here. I really wish I could have had the chance to know him better, but I know that I was blessed to have even met him. 

I am publishing this overdue essay in honor of Ashton and MarShawn’s memory. To shine a light on the importance of mental health–by telling their story and sharing my own in hopes that someone may see that it’s okay to talk about this. And if you need help please seek it. 

I have donated to both Bernie Sanders campaign & The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I ask others to please do the same if you can, as respectively requested by the family of Ashton Ernst. And in memory of MarShawn McCarrel please donate to Marshawn McCarrel’s Legacy Fund