Samantha Schutz is the author of I Don’t Want to Be Crazy, a memoir about growing up, breaking down, and coming to grips with a psychological disorder. We sat down with Samantha for Mental Health Awareness Month to learn about how she’s making an impact and helping people feel less alone. Samantha is a Publishing Director living in NYC. She is also a co-creator of the You Are Not Alone Murals series as well as the curator of You Make Me Feel Less Alone, a place where people can submit writing and art about the things they are struggling with.

Can you tell us about your journey with anxiety?

Shortly after heading off to college for my freshman year, I started having panic attacks. Only I didn’t know what I was feeling had a name. My first attacks were terrifying. They were scattered and seemingly without pattern. I didn’t know when they would hit.

It wasn’t long before the attacks picked up speed, and I was having several a day. I often felt nervous and not in control of my body,. As the frequency of the attacks increased, it became difficult to do normal things like sit through class. It was textbook panic disorder. Only I didn’t know that. I thought I had gone crazy and that all the things I hoped for in my life—that my parents hoped for—were gone.

I was very fortunate that my college had an easily accessible Mental Health Center. It was there that I was able to ask for and receive professional help, including regularly seeing a therapist, occasionally seeing a psychiatrist, and taking medication daily. I truly don’t know how I could have gotten through my freshman year and stayed on my path without professional help, as well as support from loved ones.

“You are not alone”

What led you to publish your memoir?

A few years after I graduated from college, when my anxiety was under control, I found myself still behaving like I had frequent panic attacks. I was still fearful a lot of the time and socially reluctant. But those feelings didn’t make logical sense since I wasn’t actually having any panic attacks.  But logic had nothing to do with it. All those years of panic attacks were a trauma that my body and mind weren’t ready to let go of. I thought that if I could remind myself of how bad things were in college, I could convince myself how different—and how good—my life was now.

So I took out my old journals and started reading. I only had to read a few pages to see how bad things had been. The difference between “then” and “now” was stark. Cracking open those journals was a huge turning point for me since it made my new reality really sink it. And it played a big role in me deciding to write my memoir, I Don’t Want to Be Crazy. The journey to writing that book began with the intention of healing myself, but as I typed page after page, I knew I Don’t Want to Be Crazy could provide comfort to others. I knew I wasn’t alone in these feelings.

What would be your advice to other young adults facing mental health challenges?

I would say, “You are not alone.” And then I would keep saying it over and over again.

The most common phrase in all the emails I get from readers is: “Your story made me feel less alone,” which r lead me to launch two initiatives. The first is You Make Me Feel Less Alone. This is an online community that features submissions of original art and writing about the things people are struggling with. You can see more on Instagram or the website.

The second initiative is the You Are Not Alone Murals series that I co-created with artist Annica Lydenberg (Dirty Bandits). The first three murals just launched across New York City for Mental Health Awareness Month. Though inspired by a compassion for those struggling with mental health issues, the murals (by (@dirtybandits, @adamfu, @jasonnaylor) have broad appeal and offer support to anyone who feels misunderstood, victimized, or abandoned. You can see more on Instagram or the website.

Have you seen the mental health stigma change?

No one was talking about anxiety or depression when I was a teen. For teens now, being around people who are transparent about who they are and what they might be struggling with is commonplace. But just because people are talking about it doesn’t mean that it’s not still really painful to acknowledge what you are going through to yourself and the people around you. It still takes courage. And for all the people who are able to speak up, there are still lots of people who feel too ashamed.

How can someone find help?

I know it can be scary and maybe even embarrassing to tell someone you are struggling, but remember: This is not your fault. If you had the flu, you’d go to the doctor, right? This isn’t different. And the sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can get support and start to heal.

Start by going to your primary doctor to get checked out. They can give you a referral for a therapist or psychiatrist. There are also free hotlines you can call for immediate help as well as get info on longer term support. Also, many therapists will work on a sliding scale if you can’t afford their fees. Check out this list of resources here.

What does it mean to you to be powerful?

There is power in vulnerability and knowing when to ask for help. It’s not easy to be vulnerable and admit to yourself and others what you’re going through and that you need help.

Asking for help is not weak. It’s the opposite: you are being powerful and taking control of your life.

Photo credit: Graham Burns @thecoolburns