Well-Being//

I Tried to Get People Talking About Mental Illness—With a Necklace

What happened when I embraced an unexpected approach to fighting stigma.

I spent the last week wearing an anxiety necklace everywhere, interested to see how, in our culture of (often unspoken or unaddressed) anxiety and stress, people would react to seeing the word “Anxiety” dangling around my neck. Prayer and worry beads have been used to promote inner reflection and calm the mind for millennia, but this is an entirely different sort of anxiety jewelry, nearly indistinguishable from a standard nameplate necklace. And it makes sense: Anxiety has been a part of my life for almost as long as I’ve known my own name.

I had my first panic attack in fourth grade during a school music recital. I ran offstage after a loud screeching noise emerged from my saxophone mid-solo, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I’ve since forgotten the song, the day leading up to it, and the hours after, but I vividly remember gasping for air on the cold floor of a school bathroom, unsure of what was happening.

Though I’ve only experienced a handful of full-blown panic attacks, I’m very familiar with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), both its definition and its symptoms. It’s a part of my life I learned to accept long ago and I’m comfortable speaking and writing about it. I just worry that others don’t want to hear everything I’m ready to put out there—that I’m oversharing or otherwise making them uncomfortable when I bring up mental illness at brunch or chat about mental health over drinks.

I bought this necklace hoping it would help me start those conversations, as it was designed to do. At first, I hoped it would prompt others to open the dialogue. I wanted everyone from family members to coworkers to that woman who’s always waiting for her coffee at the same time as I am to ask me why I was wearing it.

I envisioned friends noticing the necklace and opening up about their personal struggles with mental illness, because so many are affected by these disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 1 in 5 American adults experience mental illness each year.

I actually pictured a random guy approaching me at a bar and putting his dull pickup line on hold in favor of a meaningful conversation about the international prevalence of anxiety disorders. According to the World Health Organization, 264 million people suffer from anxiety disorders globally, and mental and substance use disorders are the number one cause of disability worldwide. My hopes for this piece of jewelry were ambitious, to say the least. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I was excited to play my small part in getting more people talking.

Then the necklace arrived, and I posted a photo of it on my Instagram story with the caption, “Ask me about it!” No one asked me about it. I wore it for a few days with no remarks at all.

To be fair, the reactions I did eventually receive were kind and encouraging, if few and far between. After a meeting, a coworker told me, “I saw the necklace earlier and thought it said everything it needed to say…It’s not something you’re ashamed of. You’re wearing it like your name.” Later, a close friend simply said, “Wow, that’s really cool.”

I finally realized that many people were seeing the necklace but not mentioning it, despite its unique message. I was wearing it when I caught up with an old friend who told me, after a couple of hours, “I saw it and wanted to say something, but I didn’t know how to bring it up.” We both wanted to have that discussion, but she didn’t know how to broach the subject, despite the sign around my neck.

While on my personal quest to fight stigma with conversation and jewelry, I came across this Instagram post from user Mallory Snodgrass, who was hoping to do the same with interviews and a big sign:

She walked around with this poster hoping, like me, to discuss mental health. “It’s hard for us as interviewers and it’s hard for respondents to find the courage to talk about such a stigmatized issue,” Snodgrass writes.

It comes as no surprise that mental health is still a sensitive subject, shrouded in stigma. Wearing a necklace, or even carrying a large sign, doesn’t suddenly change that. But the necklace did make it a bit easier for me to open the dialogue myself. At a dinner with strangers, broaching the subject of mental health by drawing attention to a piece of jewelry was much easier than stopping someone’s rant about their latest fling to announce that mental illness has affected my life and I want to talk about it.

Additionally, it can be difficult to be open about mental illness on social media, particularly on Instagram. But even amidst the engagement photos, sunsets, and wanderlust-inducing vacation shots, sharing a photo of a necklace felt natural.

So I’ll continue to wear this necklace because of the few people it has prompted to talk to me about mental illness. Because I like to think some people saw it, on me or online, and felt a little less alone. Because it reminds me daily that there is still stigma surrounding mental health disorders, and that there are so many little ways we can fight it. Because it helps me tell my story and I hope it lets others know I will listen to theirs whenever they’re ready to share.

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