Lately I’ve been struggling with stress and high anxiety, so I’m trying different ways to quiet my worrying mind. My favorite technique is deep breathing, which seems to calm me right away.
I was wondering if there’s a way to make deep breathing even more effective for me. Turns out there is! It’s called cue-controlled relaxation. I read about it in an article at Psychology Today .
At first, I was skeptical. How is one word going to help me? But I’ve been practicing this for a week now, and I can honestly say I notice a difference. When I think of the word (mine is “ocean”), it reminds me to take a deep breath. A sense of calm washes over me.
Here’s how to practice cue-controlled relaxation:
Choose a word. Something that makes you feel at ease. Like “calm,” “relax,” or “peace.” The word I’ve chosen is “ocean.”
Choose a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Since my favorite is deep breathing, I’ll explain it with that. Take a deep breath in for a count of five, hold for two, exhale for a count of five. Here’s what’s different — as you breathe out, say your cue word. I close my eyes and say “ocean” as I exhale. Feel everything relax… your muscles, jaw, neck, shoulders, hands. Let the tension go. This takes practice! Try it for three to five minutes, until you feel completely relaxed. Do this two to three times per day.
Shorten the time of practice. Gradually reduce, shortening the time by a minute. Eventually, just saying or thinking the word will help relax your mind and body.
To add to this technique, I also use imagery. When I exhale and say the word “ocean,” I think of my favorite, soul-soothing beach on Maui. I notice the warm, tropical air enveloping me like a blanket. I see the sparkling turquoise water and the islands of Lanai and Molokai in the distance. I feel the golden sand squish between my toes. I smell coconut suntan lotion and ocean air. It’s like I’m transported there, even for just a few seconds.
I totally relate to this image. Right now I’m on both sides — I’m the supporter, but I’m also the one being held up.
The past couple of months have been extremely difficult, as my mom is dealing with health issues. My two sisters and I are supporting our parents in all ways, big and small. I’m filled with worry, stress, anxiety, and sadness — which leaves me exhausted and drained. This is unchartered territory for my family. My parents (mom is 85, dad is 93) have been in relatively good health all these years. We are so blessed.
I’m more comfortable taking on the role of supporter, but I’ve learned that I have to let people in to support me too. There’s no way I can get through this without the love of my husband, daughters, sisters, family, and friends.
Whether you’re the supporter or the one being supported, we need each other.
Twenty years ago today, I woke up on my thirty-seventh birthday. Still groggy, I thought about what my special day would hold. Most of all, I hoped to relax, maybe read and spend time in the garden. My friend offered to take and pick up my daughters from school and I was planning to meet my husband for lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant. Dinner and chocolate cake at my parents’ home.
I had no idea that in that very moment, our world was horrifically changing. Life would NEVER be the same.
September 11, 2001 is etched in my mind forever.
That morning, our phone rang a little after six (we’re in California). We wondered who was calling so early. It was my husband’s assistant from work. “Turn on the TV… NOW.”
The horror unfolded before our eyes.
WHAT is happening? Was this a freak accident? I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that planes had crashed into the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City–on purpose.
When it was deemed a terrorist attack, I clearly remember my reaction. WHAT? Terrorists HERE, in the United States??? How can that possibly be?
As the terrifying events unfolded that day–another plane crashing into the Pentagon and one in a field in Pennsylvania–I was glued to the TV in shock, horror, and disbelief. I heard terms and names I wasn’t familiar with, but would soon become common: Kabul, Afghanistan, the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
At the time of the attacks, my daughters were in first and fourth grades. I couldn’t imagine explaining to them what had happened. I knew they’d have questions and I’d have no clue how to answer. I was sad for them, for their generation, to be brought up knowing that terrorists are a real threat–even here in America.
None of us could predict that the United States would be involved in a twenty-year war in Afghanistan.
Needless to say, I certainly did NOT feel like celebrating. My husband, daughters, friends, and family did their best to make me feel special. But I was anxious and jittery. I felt guilty it was my birthday. It was all so surreal. I kept thinking that just the day before, September 10, we were all living totally normal lives, oblivious to what was about to happen.
Each year when I wake up on my birthday, the very first thing I do is pray for the nearly three thousand beautiful souls who died on 9/11 and their families. I think of and pray for the first responders and the survivors of that day. And for the hundreds of thousands of troops who served in Afghanistan, the tens of thousands of them who lost their lives. We have family in the Air Force and British Army, many who served in Afghanistan. One of our nieces was there for six months, helping the women and children in villages.
Four years ago, my family and I were on Maui in September. On 9/11, a beautiful memorial was held on the beach. Representatives from the city of Maui, police officers, and firefighters were there to pay tribute. Kayaks filled with first responders glided out into the ocean to form a “surfers memorial circle.” The floating memorial is a traditional Hawaiian tribute to the life of people who have passed away. Members of each kayak tossed out plumeria flowers–2,996–to commemorate those who lost their lives on 9/11. It was hauntingly beautiful, watching thousands of plumerias float gracefully on the water.
What moved me the most was a firefighter who spoke–a first responder in New York City on 9/11. Through a shaky voice and tears, he told the large group that was the first time he’d ever spoken publicly about his experience.
Following the memorial, I went up to thank him. I told him it was my birthday and the first thing I ever think of on 9/11 is him, and all the others so tragically affected by that day. He hugged me tight. I hugged him tighter.
It still seems strange that my previous nondescript birthday is now known as 9/11. Someone suggested I celebrate on 3/11, at the six month mark. But that wouldn’t feel right. This is the day I was born, and I can’t change that.
Now September 11th is SO much more than my birthday.
Today I’ll be celebrating with my family and friends. But there’s no doubt I’ll go through parts of the day with a heavy heart, remembering the day all of our lives changed forever.
Recently I was asked to contemplate this: You’re grateful for much in your life. But WHY are you grateful?
It sounds so simple. My life is blessed and I don’t let a day go by without thinking of the people and experiences I’m thankful for. There are tons of things I’m grateful for, both big and small. I think of myself as “great at gratitude.”
Then why was this question such an eye-opener for me?
During an amazing course I took on mental well-being through mindfulness and creativity–called Emerge–the inspirational instructors, Tracey Yokas and Faithe Raphael, posed this affirmation for us to complete:
I’m grateful BECAUSE…
First, I thought about what I’m grateful for. At the top of my list–my family and friends. But Faithe and Tracey suggested we dig deeper, to not use those “usual” things we might think of first.
At the time of this particular Emerge class which I was loving (who knew Zoom could be so much fun and enriching?), I had just finished two summer online conferences, one for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and the other for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I enjoyed both of them and was grateful I had the chance to attend.
I wrote in my journal: I’m grateful for the conferences and classes BECAUSE…
At first I was like, well… because they’re fun? No, Jeni, dig deeper.
Okay… BECAUSE… I’m educating myself about three things in my life that are super important to me–mental health awareness, writing for children, and self care. Also, I’m meeting, networking, and connecting with like-minded people, which makes me feel less alone in my mental health advocacy, my writing, and my quest for improving my own mental health. All of this is helping to mold me into a better version of myself.
I loved this new way of thinking about gratitude. It felt challenging to go that extra step of WHY I’m grateful.
Here’s another example: I’m grateful for the ocean. Not just because it’s pretty and a fun place to be. I’m grateful for the ocean BECAUSE…
The ocean soothes me. I feel a sense of calm there that I don’t feel anywhere else. The sound of waves crashing, the smell of salt water and suntan lotion, long walks along the shore, sand squishing between my toes. I watch the water bob up and down, as white bubble bath foam washes up on the sand. I take deep, cleansing breaths of fresh ocean air and daydream. Ahh. The best.
I tried this with other things I love… my husband and daughters, my favorite flowers in our garden, our one-year-old pup Duke. It was fun to dig deeper and bring out the reasons I’m filled with so much gratitude that each are in my life.
I challenge you to give it a try! Think of one person, animal, flower, event (or anything else) you’re grateful for.
Then answer: I’m grateful BECAUSE…
(For more information on Emerge, a course to improve mental well-being through mindfulness, writing, and collaging, please click here)
Like millions of others, I was shocked when Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympic team finals. My first reaction was WAIT… WHAT?? How can she do that?She’s the GOAT! I’ve never seen a gymnast stop competing, especially during the Olympics—unless they were physically injured.
WOAH. STOP. TIME OUT.
Simone’s issues were mental, not physical. Her mental block was REAL. Just because you can’t see it on the outside, like a broken bone or a bleeding cut, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Simone had the fortitude to know she must speak up and take herself out of the competition. She wasn’t in the right headspace. It wasn’t something she could simply snap out of. She didn’t trust her mind and body to work together to keep herself safe. As heartbreaking it would be to drop out, as much as she was aware she’d get backlash for doing so—she knew she had to.
She said that morning during practice she had a bit of the “twisties.” It sounds like a cute term, but it’s far from cute. The twisties is a phenomenon that happens when suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Her body isn’t cooperating and her brain loses track of where she is in the air. This could lead to a devastating or life-threatening injury.
Simone was her own best advocate.
I read an article that said something similar happened to Simone in 2013. She was 16, competing in the U.S. Classic. She fell off the uneven bars. She missed all of her connections on the balance beam. She hurt her ankle during a floor routine. Before she could go through with her vault routine, her coach pulled her out of the competition.
This time it was Simone pulling herself out. She had the experience and awareness to know when to set boundaries to keep herself safe.
This type of self-awareness applies to all of us. It’s important to know when to ask for help, to advocate for ourselves. This could be if someone is depressed, experiencing high anxiety or panic attacks, or has thoughts of hurting themselves.
It’s not easy to open up—especially if it’s a problem with mental health. I know. It’s downright HARD. It took me twenty years to admit I had anxiety and panic attacks. I never wanted to talk about it, in fear of people thinking I was “crazy,” that I could just stop it, or that there was nothing “really” wrong with me.
Stigma is powerful.
I respect Simone for knowing when enough was enough. And by her doing so, it further opens the conversation of mental wellness and normalizing mental health conditions as equally important as physical ones.
Simone is the Greatest of All Time. She is a CHAMPION.
My daughters gave me the most thoughtful, wonderful gift this past Mother’s Day. For at least two months I’d been saying I’d love to order Discovery Plus so I could watch the Magnolia Network shows. But another subscription? I felt guilty because my husband didn’t care about it, it was something just for me. So I shrugged it off, figuring I could do without.
On Mother’s Day, I was sitting at our kitchen table feeling like a princess, being served a beautiful breakfast made by my daughters. After we ate, they told me to turn around, my present is in the family room. There was no wrapped box and nothing that resembled a gift.
My eyes went to our TV, and there it was, displayed on the big flat-screen. Magnolia Table with Joanna Gaines. YES! They got me a year’s subscription to Discovery Plus!
The first show I wanted to check out was The Lost Kitchen with chef Erin French. I’d recently heard about her book, Finding Freedom, and was interested in reading her memoir.
Anyway… I’ve been riding our exercise bike on a pretty regular basis. I usually watch a cycling class, with an instructor motivating me and upbeat music playing. Or I listen to my Spotify playlist… loud! Something to pump me up. I tell myself I’ll just ride fifteen-twenty minutes, and that’s much better than nothing. And it is.
Last week I wanted to ride the bike, but I also wanted to plop on the couch and enjoy my new Discovery Plus. Specifically, The Lost Kitchen.
So I did both. Well, minus the couch.
At first I thought it wasn’t going to work. Would I be bored? How could I get pumped up watching a show about a chef and how she started a restaurant?
Oh my goodness! I quickly fell in love with the episode. Talk about being my cup of tea! The scenery is gorgeous. It takes place in the tiny rural town of Freedom, Maine. The Lost Kitchen is a place I’d LOVE to visit. It’s rustic, homey, elegant, and welcoming. There are always flowers and herbs in the kitchen and on the tables, fresh from the farm. The food–all sourced farm to table–looks incredible and is beautifully prepared, complete with edible flowers.
None of the women who work at the restaurant (including Erin French) had formal culinary training. They’re self-taught, learning as they go along. The kitchen isn’t a “yelling” kitchen. The women respect each other, have confidence in each other, and are a great definition of team. Their workplace is filled with kindness, compassion, and grit. No matter what challenge they come across, they get through it together. They’re family.
I was so engrossed in that first show, I easily pedaled for forty minutes without realizing it. Maybe I didn’t ride as fast or do as many sprints as I normally do. But that didn’t matter. I had a good workout, plus burned 180 calories.
From that day on, I was hooked. Yesterday I finished the final episode of the first season, proud to say I pedaled my way through each one. Burning calories, firming my legs, raising my heart rate. Great for my physical health.
But how did this help my mental health?
The Lost Kitchen calms me. My legs spin around and around and my heart rate increases, yet I feel relaxed. I could look at that scenery all day–the fresh food, flowers, warm interior of the restaurant, the pretty globe lights and flickering candles. So cozy. One of my favorite things is a chalkboard sign hanging on a door in the kitchen. The word “Breathe” is written in the middle of a heart.
I love when guests arrive at The Lost Kitchen and begin tasting their meals. They close their eyes and hum “Mmm.” I can almost taste it. All the flavors are expertly crafted together in just the right way to please the palate… breads, cheeses, apples, peaches, greens, pork, meat, fish… even the oysters they get fresh from an oyster farmer look good to me. And that’s one food I’ve always said I never want to eat (too slimy). But the way she prepares them looks delicious. Even to me.
After watching an episode, not only am I inspired to go to the farmer’s market and be more creative with my cooking, but it feels great to take that time exclusively for me. A mental health break. I know I need that just as much as I need the physical exercise. For me, it’s a great form of self-care and self-love. And I don’t feel guilty about it.
Now that I’ve finished the first season of The Lost Kitchen, maybe I’ll buy Erin’s cookbook and try to replicate some of that deliciousness and beauty to my own kitchen. I’ve started cutting fresh thyme, herbs, and flowers from my garden and displaying them in vases in my kitchen and office. It makes me feel good.
I don’t want to ruin my workout streak on the bike. Guess for now I need to find another show on Discovery Plus to motivate me. Hm… What’s next?
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I did something we haven’t done for more than a year. We drove to one of our favorite places, a harbor in Ventura, CA. The ocean is directly across the street, so we love to walk along the shore after spending time at the harbor.
First stop was a casual fish restaurant, Andria’s Seafood. We sat on the patio savoring every bite of fish and chips as it melted in our mouths. After a leisurely dinner, we took a stroll, basking in the activity and vitality of the area. Outdoor music at one of the restaurants helped set the vibrant, fun mood. People dined outside, laughing and chatting. The line for the ice cream shop was really long. We hadn’t seen it like that since two summers ago.
It was all so… wonderfully NORMAL. Even with masks on. I could see joy in peoples’ eyes, the genuine happiness of being out together. Enjoying life. Getting back to the things we love.
Like millions of others during the pandemic, I desperately missed being with people. Video chats are great and I was so thankful for the technology, but it’s just not the same as an in-person human connection. I’ve missed seeing smiles, giving and receiving great big hugs.
This past month I’ve been taking advantage of the loosened restrictions, enjoying coffee and dinner dates with friends and family. There’s nothing more important to me than connecting and nurturing those relationships. One lunch with a close friend was three hours long! I hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving 2019.
But there’s a flip side to all of this.
I don’t like to admit this… but returning to life as it was pre-COVID-19 brings me anxiety. I wish I could say I was simply excited. I like to think of myself as a people-person, often up for going places, experiencing new adventures. In reality, I’m not super outgoing or adventurous. I’m more of a homebody, most comfortable in my own surroundings.
And what about meeting with friends and family I haven’t seen in more than a year? Will it feel like it used to be, pre-pandemic? Or will it be filled with tension and disagreements? With such extreme political division, racial strife and injustice in 2020, this is a huge worry. Even though we may be on different political spectrums, can we still get along? What about the issue of vaccination? Masks? Can we get together and agree to disagree? Will we be able to stay away from touchy subjects?
Talk about anxiety.
This past year, we’ve had to adhere to strict boundaries and have become somewhat conditioned not to go anywhere or gather in large crowds. To wear a mask, wash hands often, use lots of hand disinfectant. Keep socially distant. Quarantine. Birthday parties were replaced with drive-by celebrations. No usual holiday gatherings, dinners, or any type of social meetings. No travel. No hair appointments, routine doctor and dentist visits, book club wine nights, writer’s group, etc.
Even if I wanted to do these things, I couldn’t.
And sometimes–this brought a sense of relief. I wasn’t expected or obligated to participate in any of these activities. In a way, I felt freer with zero pressure to keep up a busy schedule. For me, that equals less stress.
I love being home with my husband and our pup Duke. Our daughters have been working remotely, so they’re able to stay with us for periods of time, which makes my heart so happy. We’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to be together, knowing this time was a mixed blessing and wouldn’t last forever.
My daughters have gotten used to working from home, managing their busy schedules with countless Zoom calls and virtual meetings. They’ve enjoyed not waking up super early for the hour-long, traffic-filled commute to their offices. Or getting all dressed up for the work day. How will they feel going back? Excited? Stressed out? And what about kids, parents, and teachers who have struggled to navigate online learning. How will it be to return to school full time in person? Exciting? Yes. But it can also be an anxious time, consumed with apprehension and worry.
While it was really hard adjusting to the boundaries and restrictions, removing them can cause stress. There’s actually a term for it:
As someone recovered from panic disorder and living with generalized anxiety, I’m definitely feeling reentry anxiety. Is it strange that I’ll miss the simpler days?
Note: I’m having such conflicting thoughts right now, it’s hard to put into words. Guilt. How could I possibly miss life during the pandemic? It was truly awful. It felt surreal. Extremely scary, so very sad, uncertain, overwhelming, horrible. Please know I’m often thinking of the 580-thousand plus souls who lost their lives due to this terrifying disease. So many families have been affected.
I’ve been wondering how to ease into this new normal, post-pandemic life with the least amount of anxiety possible. Here are some ways:
Take it slow. Don’t book a full schedule. At first, limit social activities to once a week.
Set limits on the length of time of activity.
Set limits on what is comfortable in regards to the amount of people at the gathering, if it’s outside, if masks are required. For me, I’m not yet okay going to a concert or a crowded movie theater.
Make a list of things to do now that restrictions are lifted. For me, that’s travel locally, spend time with friends, make a hair appointment and doctor appointments I’ve put off for too long.
Don’t judge yourself. Be compassionate. There’s a whole range of emotions you can have, which is normal. You can be excited, scared, happy, guilty, stressed–all at the same time.
Accept that life may never be the same as it was before the pandemic. This could be a job, a relationship, your routine. Priorities may have switched.
Get out for fresh air. Exercise. I love to walk in the mountains near my home.
Practice deep breathing. Say a mantra while slowly inhaling and exhaling. “Life is good.” “This will pass.” “I am enough.”
Remind yourself that just because you CAN doesn’t mean you HAVE to.
Like everyone else, I never dreamed I’d ever experience living through a global pandemic. It was life-changing. Even though reentry to this new phase of post-lockdown can be filled with anxiety, it’s also an exciting and hopeful time.
I’m already looking forward to a huge family gathering for Thanksgiving.
Back in December 2018, I wrote an article for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) that described my experiences with panic disorder, including derealization and depersonalization. You can read it here on the NAMI blog. Since it published, I’ve received dozens of emails asking how I was able to recover.
I wish I had a simple, easy answer. Although I consider myself recovered, I still have to work at lowering my anxiety. It’s an ongoing process. And we’re all different—what works for me may not work for someone else.
Before I explain what helps me, I want to give a little background:
I’ve had panic attacks since I was young. I don’t remember my first one. But I’ll never forget the first time I experienced feelings that were so terrifying and surreal—they felt unreal. I was in fourth grade.
My teacher asked me to go to the administration office to pick up some papers. When I arrived, a strange sensation came over me, like I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Am I really here? Is this me or someone else I’m watching? Is this real?
The best way I can explain how it feels is that I’m detached from myself, like living in a fog or dream. I wonder if I’m in the right body. My face and limbs feel numb, like a plastic mannequin. When I walk, it doesn’t feel like my own legs are holding me up. My arms don’t feel like they belong to me. When I stare at my reflection in the mirror, I question if the person looking back is really me. It’s as if I’ve stepped out of myself and am looking at someone I don’t know. My voice doesn’t sound like mine. I feel removed from the world. Objects look blurry, sounds distorted. It’s a struggle to bring myself back. In these moments, I have wondered if I was going “crazy.”
The medical terms for these intrusive thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self). Derealization and depersonalization can be symptoms of panic disorder, which I’ve been diagnosed with.
So, what helps me?
Anti-depressant medication has lessened the frequency and intensity of my panic attacks and also the feelings of unreality. But it hasn’t taken them completely away. I know I’ll never be 100 percent cured from panic disorder.
But… I’m able to control my symptoms and live a full, productive, joyous life with the help of medication, mindfulness, and grounding techniques.
I used to think the terms mindfulness and grounding were interchangeable. They’re not exactly the same.
Mindfulness: Purposefully paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting your feelings without judgment. Mindfulness helps me slow down and appreciate life.
Grounding: Rather than being nonjudgmental about what is happening in the present moment, grounding focuses your attention away from a place of trauma or stress, guiding it toward safety in the here and now. Grounding connects me to my body and my surroundings, reminding me that I’m here and I’m safe.
Grounding techniques use the five senses (see, touch, hear, smell, taste). The purpose is to keep yourself in the present moment. At first, this didn’t come easy to me. It’s taken practice!
Here are some to try:
List five things you can see.
Four things you can touch.
Three things you can hear.
Two things you can smell.
One thing you can taste.
Deep breathe (this is my favorite exercise, it calms me right away). Inhale through your nose while counting to seven in your head. Hold for a count of two. Exhale slowly through your mouth, counting to seven.
Talk to someone.
Use a grounding object, like a stone, a small stuffed animal, a stress ball. Touch it and notice the texture.
Taste food or a drink. Is it cold, hot, creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, sour, or bitter?
Chew gum, noticing the flavor and how it feels in your mouth as you chew or blow bubbles.
Smell a flower, essential oils, coffee, a lemon, lavender. Does it relax you?
Listen. Is there a dog barking, sirens blaring, birds singing, wind rustling?
Stretch or exercise, aware of how your arms and legs feel with each movement.
Take a walk. Feel your footsteps on the dirt, gravel, or pavement.
Pinch yourself, pull your hair, wiggle your fingers and toes.
Count to 100, then backwards.
Sing a song or say a nursery rhyme in your head.
Describe your surroundings in detail. Focus on an object, memorizing details about it. Look away and list everything you saw.
Name all your family members and their ages.
Use an anchoring phrase: say your name, your age, the date, what time it is, where you are, what you are doing.
Repeat a mantra while deep breathing. Like: “I am safe.” “Life is good.” “I am real. The world is real.” “Here. Now.”
Pet an animal.
Take a shower or bubble bath.
Listen to your favorite music.
List five things you’re grateful for.
Practice visual imagery. Think of a place you love, describe it to yourself in detail, and picture yourself there.
Think of someone you love and what they would say to you.
Be kind to yourself. Tell yourself: “I matter.” “I will get through this.” “I’m doing the best I can.”
Last week I spoke to teens about mental health, like I’ve done dozens of times before. But this time it felt different. This was my first set of presentations since early 2020, before COVID-19 lockdowns.
I’m a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I present NAMI’s Ending the Silence program to middle grade and high school students. My co-presenter and I talk about the warning signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those signs in themselves or a friend. We speak openly about anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide.
So last week, instead of being inside a classroom with students and their teacher, we talked to them via Zoom. The presentations went great and I was so thankful to have the opportunity to meet with them. Technology can be wonderful!
But there’s nothing like actually being there with the kids, looking them in the eye, feeling that emotional connection and energy.
On Zoom, some of the students preferred not to be seen. Their cameras were on, but instead of a bunch of faces, I saw ceilings, bedroom walls, or a silhouette of a person. But that’s fine, I get it. It’s high school.
Even if I couldn’t see them, I knew they were there, listening. When I give these presentations, I never know who needs to hear what I say that day.
Through my computer screen, I could sense the kids were stressed and frustrated. Most likely some of them were anxious and depressed. There’s no doubt that distance learning this past year has taken an immense toll on students (parents and teachers too, of course).
At the end of our presentation, my co-presenter and I open it up to questions. We let the kids know they can ask us anything at all. We’re open books. Sometimes there’s only silence. Which again, I totally get. Mental illness is hard to talk about. Kids don’t want to be thought of as different. They don’t want their peers to think they might be struggling with a mental health condition.
A question at the end of one of our sessions last week broke my heart. Through an anonymous direct message, a student asked: If someone is thinking of attempting suicide, but isn’t really planning to do it, does that person still need to get help?
Our answer: YES. Talk to a trusted adult. A parent, teacher, school counselor, family friend, adult-age sibling. Tell someone you trust so you can get the help you need.
Another student wrote: How do you get help without your parents knowing?
Our answer: It’s hard to do that for a minor. Talk to an adult you trust. If that person can’t help, go to another. And another. And another. Until you get the help you need.
I pray they’re getting help. It’s rewarding to know that at least we opened the conversation.
While the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to weaken, there’s still a long way to go. My hope is that with future generations, mental health conditions can be spoken about as easily as physical diseases.
It inspires me so much when athletes, celebrities, and famous people speak out about their struggles with mental health. It’s comforting to know that despite living with a mental illness, there’s hope to live a productive and successful life.
Athletes are thought of as tough, strong, powerful. Resilient. Which is why it can be super difficult for them (especially men) to speak out about a mental health issue.
But mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter how physically strong someone is or how much money they have.
Anyone can be affected by mental illness.
National Football League player Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts, says he suffers from anxiety and depression. In a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune, Darius talks about losing his brother eight years ago and how the pain is still so deep.
“If you look at me and you see a Cinderella story, or a superhero, or the Maniac, or whatever, just know that underneath the helmet is a real person who is still working through some real pain.”
Darius gets support from Colts owner Jim Orsay, his family, and the Colts organization. They started an initiative called “Kicking the Stigma,” bringing awareness to mental health and providing support for mental health services in Indiana. The program is part of a larger NFL initiative, “My Cause, My Cleats.”
Jim Orsay says, “‘Kicking the Stigma’ is our commitment to eradicating and getting this environment changed. We need to find ways to get people to feel safe and not to feel judged or persecuted when they’re trying to seek help.”
Absolutely. The more we speak out about mental illness, the weaker the stigma becomes.
Thank you, Darius, for sharing your story. It’s not easy to talk about a mental health condition. And thank you Colts, for shining the spotlight on mental health.
Mental illness is not anyone’s fault. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is medical help available.