Content warning: This essay discusses suicidal thoughts, post traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks, which may be triggering to some readers.
Teen Mom's Catelynn Baltierra is checking herself back into treatment. As I'm watching in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's early April, but it could have been the dead of February as far as the weather was concerned. My three roommates and I are burrowed into our respective spots on the sofas, an unspoken seating arrangement developed out of habit and familiarity. Our homework, senior thesis drafts, and graduation forms lay discarded at our feet or strewn across our living room table. Popcorn sits in our laps, and Teen Mom OG is on the TV. All that matters to us at this very moment is whether Catelynn Baltierra will get better, because if Catelynn will be okay, then we will be okay, too.
I was diagnosed with panic disorder my sophomore year of college at Tufts University. As a teenager I had never struggled with anxiety, had never even really succumbed to the angst that afflicted so many of my peers. I liked to joke that my emotional range spanned from a four to a six: rarely did I experience uninhibited joy, but nothing was ever so bad.
That all changed when I turned 20 and my brain chemistry decided it had a different plan in mind for me. I had my first panic attack at an Italian restaurant in Davis Square, terrified I was having a fatal allergic reaction as my heart raced and the walls began to close in. After that night, everything changed. I was perpetually anxious, terrified to leave my dorm room, taking notes in a hand so shaky I could barely read them. Food made me nauseous, so I ate nothing and lost substantial weight. I was convinced I had a brain tumor.
At the same time, one of my best friends, Carmen*, also began to experience panic attacks, hers a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We both found ourselves suddenly incapacitated in ways we could never have anticipated. We avoided certain locations on campus. We asked for extensions on exams and essays. We found some small solace in the fact that we were going through the panic together. We dubbed ourselves residents of PanicTown: Population, 2.
But soon, we discovered that our town wasn't as small and lonely as we once thought. For since we skipped class and avoided parties, we had ample time to watch television. And on that TV, one of the stars of Teen Mom OG, Catelynn Baltierra, was grappling with a mental illness of her own.
Catelynn and her longtime partner and husband Tyler Baltierra have always been admirably open about their respective struggles with mental illness and trauma. Catelynn's father left the family at a young age, and her mother April was an alcoholic for many years. Tyler's father, Butch, was in and out of prison on drug charges for most of his childhood and adolescence. The couple met at a young age, and were brought closer together when Catelynn's mother and Tyler's father were briefly married. Together, they endured trauma and abuse from their parents. Together, they made the decision to place their daughter, Carly, up for adoption when Catelynn became pregnant at the age of 16, a heartbreaking journey captured in the MTV show 16 and Pregnant. And together, the couple has chosen to address outright their struggles with mental illness — for many of us the most private and secretive part of our lives — as a central aspect of their storylines on Teen Mom.
Junior year my three roommates and I moved out of the dorms and into a house of our own. Carmen and I had spent a summer away from campus licking some of our wounds, but certainly not healing all of them. I still met with my on-campus psychiatrist once a week, grappling with how to better get a handle on my anxiety and lying awake at night agonizing over whether or not to begin taking anti-depressants. Carmen found safety in our house but not always on campus or from her own trauma. I was anxious and despairing; Carmen had vivid, painful PTSD panic attacks that left her exhausted and demoralized.
It was incredible to watch someone on TV not only admit to her struggles with panic attacks and anxiety and depression in such a public way, but to also willingly and proactively seek treatment.
On Teen Mom, Catelynn Baltierra was not faring much better. After giving birth to her second child with Tyler, Nova, Catelynn found herself suffering from frightening panic attacks, lethargy, an inability to get out of bed. But rather than hide her struggles with anxiety and postpartum depression, Catelynn spoke about them candidly, on camera, for the world to see.
"Are you okay?" a producer asked Catelynn in one scene from Season 6. "No," Catelynn answers. "I just need to go get myself help." But a moment later, her seemingly calm resignation turns to self-hatred. "I just feel like a f**k-up," she confesses through tears. "Honey, you're not a f**k-up, honey," Tyler reassures her. "Things happen. As long as we don't mask it no more, and we, you know, fix it, and let's work on it."
It's a short scene. If I had watched it in high school, before I was diagnosed with panic disorder, I might not have given it a second thought. But to me, and to Carmen, and to one of our other roommates, Jenna*, this small moment was a revelation. It was incredible to watch someone who I had seen on TV for years not only admit to her struggles with panic attacks and anxiety and depression in such a public way, but to also willingly and proactively seek treatment.
While Carmen and I saw a peer in Catelynn, Jenna looked to the reality star's husband for inspiration and advice. Jenna had taken on the role of caretaker, holding Carmen on the couch when she shook in the middle of an attack, listening to me while I cried to her about my fears of being crippled by anxiety forever. For Jenna, Tyler became a fellow ally, someone she could look to as a model of how to cope with a loved one struggling with mental illness. The gates to PanicTown opened, and we welcomed in new residents.
The home that we shared together junior and senior year became both a loving haven and an island unto itself. We were closer than sisters, because when you hold someone while they spasm from a vivid flashback, or joke together about how panic attacks might excuse us from a math requirement, or secretly look up every movie we decide to watch together to make sure it won't be triggering, you share a bond that isn't easily broken. It was lovely, but it could also be isolating. It could feel like no one else could really understand what we were all going through together, because no one else was there.
But we shared that home and haven willingly, easily, with Catelynn and Tyler. However busy our schedules, we found time for Teen Mom, sitting down with a bowl of popcorn or with a hastily prepared dinner for an hour long break from homework and clubs and exams.
And the show gave us more than entertainment. Jenna, often emotionally exhausted from taking care of and comforting me and Carmen, could commiserate when Tyler cried on his mother’s shoulder, talking about how scared he was for his wife and how tired he was of holding everything together while Catelynn was in treatment.
Carmen and I understood viscerally Catelynn’s pain as she checked out of treatment, only to find that the anxiety hadn’t subsided enough for her to cope. I watched Catelynn withdraw from Tyler as he showed her the renovations he had been making to the house they had purchased together, recognizing the need to insulate oneself from everyone and everything in order to feel numb to a painful reality. (I had been doing it for over a year.) We bore witness with sympathy when Catelynn checked herself back into treatment, returned, and checked herself in once again. And we found an immense, indescribable comfort in the fact that not only did someone else know exactly how we often felt, but was willing to undergo the immense emotional labor to put those struggles on MTV.
"It was a hard decision for me to expose everything mentally, but then again, it was also instinctual to just be open and share it," Catelynn told Cosmopolitan of her decision to depict her struggles with mental health on the show. "I just wanted to show the realness of it and the rawness of what happens. Mental illness is a serious thing that can take over your life. I've been there and it's taken over mine."
She has also shared the reasoning behind her radical transparency on MTV. "To be a role model for people, that's important. That stuff is real and it's okay to be not okay," she said in a Season 7 bonus clip. "It was important for me to share it, because a lot of women go through it and don't really talk about it."
After a semester abroad, my roommates and I turned a corner going into senior year. I felt better than I had in over a year after deciding to go on Lexapro and regaining my independence in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carmen had found healing and comfort in Chile, and in a loving relationship. Jenna had spent a semester in Cuba, disconnected from our struggles and the rest of the world. We returned to school rejuvenated, healthy if not fully "cured," and ready to enjoy our last year of college and our last year together.
Unfortunately, things were not going as smoothly for Catelynn and Tyler. Catelynn had returned from treatment, and had seemingly settled happily back into her life in Michigan with Tyler and their daughter, Nova. But Catelynn's recovery was derailed again when a miscarriage sent the couple into a tailspin. She began expressing suicidal thoughts, and voluntarily checked herself back into a treatment center. Cameras were there to capture it all.
Carmen and I watched heartsick, reminded of all of the times we thought we had made progress, finally wrangled our mental illnesses into a corner where they couldn't hurt us, only to be stunned when they reemerged to rear their ugly heads. Jenna saw herself in Tyler as he cried on the car ride back from the facility, paralyzed by his helplessness and the exhaustion of it all. We all could see that Catelynn, our beloved PanicTown neighbor, needed help.
And in April, when Catelynn confessed to Tyler that she felt she needed to go back to treatment once again, we cheered her on from our couch. We sensed she was on the brink of a breakthrough. We could tell her trauma and anxiety had not yet been quelled, but that soon, like us, she would find a way to live with it, to not be defined by her mental illness, to be okay. And we wanted more than anything for Catelynn Baltierra of MTV to be okay, because that meant that we would be okay, too.
Since Season 7 of the show wrapped, Catelynn and Tyler have been more than just okay. The couple recently announced their pregnancy with their third child together. They tackle vicious divorce rumors head-on. They affirm their own self-worth with Instagram posts captioned with #mentalhealthmatters and #keeptalkingMH. And through it all, they keep the cameras running, allowing us to bear witness.
It's impossible to exaggerate the profound effect watching Catelynn Baltierra on Teen Mom has had on my life, and the lives of my friends. Jenna has since confessed to us that she often looked to Tyler for ideas of things to say to us when we were feeling particularly anxious or despondent. Carmen responded as gleefully to the news of Catelynn's pregnancy as if it had been a member of her own family. And I sometimes watch clips of Catelynn's journey to remind myself that no matter how difficult or hopeless a situation may seem, getting better is possible. Catelynn taught me that, and was brave enough to teach the millions of others who tune in to Teen Mom.
Thanks to Catelynn and Teen Mom, PanicTown isn't so lonely after all.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.