What I Would Tell My Younger Self About Mental Health

The Child Mind Institute has an awesome campaign that I love to follow. It’s promoted in May for Mental Health Awareness Month.

#MyYoungerSelf offers inspiring messages of hope. Celebrities, athletes, business people, and social influencers give short videos about their struggles, and what they would tell themselves as a child. They’re super open about their own journeys and stress that if you’re suffering from a mental illness, you are not alone. It’s okay.

Emma Stone speaks about her anxiety and panic disorder, Mayim Bialik talks about depression, Michael Phelps about ADHD, Barbara Corcoran about dyslexia, and so many more.

Today I watched a video from Alex Boniello, a Broadway actor, whose anxiety began in high school. He was in the cafeteria when he experienced such frightening symptoms, he thought he was having a heart attack. He had no idea it was anxiety and panic attacks.

This got me thinking… I totally relate to what Alex says. My panic attacks started around age 10. I didn’t know what was going on, why I had such frightening feelings. I was embarrassed and didn’t tell anyone. Now I know that stigma and shame kept me from saying anything. I finally got medical help in my early 30s for panic disorder.

That’s why I speak openly about mental health. I want to encourage people to talk about it, to reach out for help.

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So, what would I tell my younger self?

Jenny, I know you’re scared and worried there’s something really, really wrong with you. You’re exhausted from keeping it a secret. You think no one else in this entire world could possibly understand what you’re going through. But millions of other people do understand! Because they’re going through the same thing.

The symptoms are terrifying, but you won’t die from them. Those horrible physical sensations and strange thoughts, like you’re living in a fog or dream, actually have a name: Anxiety and panic attacks. Panic disorder. You are not imagining it. It’s a real illness.

And something else… there is treatment, you don’t have to do this alone. There’s no magic cure, it’s not going to simply go away. You’ll always have to manage it, but you’ll feel a ton better than you do now. The road to recovery isn’t easy, but you’re going to do great.

I know you’re nervous about your friends finding out and you don’t want them to think you’re weird or treat you differently. They won’t. Having panic disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. Millions and millions of people struggle with their mental health. Talk about it and get help — the sooner the better.

Don’t ever forget, you are NOT alone.

Courtesy of The Child Mind Institute

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Middle School Heroes

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(Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide. If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line in the U.S. at 741741)

I can’t get something out of my mind. Yesterday I was watching TODAY, and a story immediately caught my attention.

A group of middle grade students helped save a woman who was attempting suicide.

I couldn’t wait to hear how they helped. As a mental health advocate, I’m passionate about spreading awareness, especially to adolescents. I’m a speaker for NAMI’s in-school program, Ending the Silence. I want kids to know there is no shame in struggling with mental health issues and there is help available. If the younger generation is aware of mental illness and talks about it more, the stigma will lessen.

Back to the middle school students… This past Saturday, the boy’s volleyball team at Kepler Neighborhood School in Fresno, CA, met for practice. Their coach had them go for a warm-up run, to a place they’ve never run before — a nearby bridge.

That’s where it happened.

A 47-year-old woman was dangling more than 100 feet in the air by her arms.

The boys said it took a moment for them to realize what was happening. They ran to tell their coach, Murray Elliott. He called 911. He told the boys to go back and tell her that her life matters.

Elliott said that for ten minutes, the boys did not stop yelling and screaming, telling her that her life matters.

The woman eventually pulled herself back up onto the bridge, where she was met by police.

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The boys are being called “true heroes.” Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said it perfectly:

“Their words of encouragement caused this woman to realize her life had value. Thank God they were in the right place at the right time.”

Because of their quick action, that woman did not lose her life.

This story is a reminder of why I speak to high school students about mental illness. During the presentation, I tell the teens that if they notice signs of suicide in themselves or a friend, don’t wait. Take immediate action:

  • Tell a trusted adult.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Ask the question. Ask if he or she is thinking of suicide.
  • Call 911 or go to an emergency room.
  • Call the National Suicide Lifeline at (800)273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • Don’t keep warning signs a secret.

When the middle school volleyball team went out for their run that Saturday, those boys had no idea how they were about to impact someone’s life.

Even though I don’t know them, I’m so proud of them.

A true inspiration.

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It Isn’t Easy to Be Vulnerable

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I can’t get something out of my mind and I want to share it here with you.

I often write about my experiences as a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s in-school mental health awareness campaign, Ending the Silence. I visit high schools and talk to students about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend.

Two weeks ago, my co-presenter and I went to a local school and presented four Ending the Silence programs to 140 freshmen.

The kids always leave an impact on us, but this time it was especially insightful.

A little background… following the presentation, we have a question and answer session. Some classes are really quiet and it’s hard to get the teens to participate. I totally get it. Anxiety, depression, bipolar, OCD, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide are not easy topics to open up about. Especially in front of peers.

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But that day, we had questions like these:

What do you do if you think an adult you know has a mental illness, but they refuse to listen to you, as you’re just a kid? How do you make them to go to the doctor for help?

How did you try to kill yourself? (directed to my co-presenter, who speaks very openly about her depression, OCD, PTSD, and suicide attempt)

How do you know if you really have depression? Because all teenagers are anxious or depressed. Aren’t they?

I often wonder if the kids ask questions from personal experience or if they’re simply curious. I never know what impact our words have on them. I never know who we’re going to reach.

When the presentation is over, a few students usually stay to talk with my co-presenter and me. I know it’s hard for them to do that. Some don’t want their friends to see that they’re going up to talk to us. Some are too embarrassed. It takes courage to talk about problems — especially mental health issues.

It’s scary to be vulnerable.

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I’ll never forget the three who opened up to us that day two weeks ago.

There was a girl I noticed when I was in front of the class speaking. I can’t pinpoint why, but maybe because she looked like she was paying careful attention to what we said. She asked several questions during the Q&A, mostly about how to handle an adult with a mental illness. She walked up to my co-presenter and burst into tears. I didn’t hear what she said. I found out later that the girl’s dad has a mental illness and is abusing her.

At the same time my co-presenter was helping her, another girl came up to me. Her hands shook and tears streamed down her face, as she told me about her family situation. She said she has anxiety and panic attacks, and had a panic attack while I was speaking. She wanted to leave, but didn’t because she thought it’d be rude. I assured her it wouldn’t have been, and I completely understand. (I’m recovered from panic disorder and agoraphobia). We discussed how to talk about her problem with her mom, so she can get medical help. She gave me a big hug before she left.

Another girl came up to us, visibly shaking as she told us about her severe anxiety and panic attacks. She paced and it was hard for her to look us in the eye. She said her mom has anxiety too. They both haven’t seen a doctor because her mom says they don’t have enough money. We came up with some ways for her to bring up a conversation about mental health with her mom, and try to find a way to get help.

I never would’ve guessed that those teens are going through such serious, challenging times. It doesn’t show on their faces, on the surface.

That’s why I give the students this gentle reminder: Be kind. You never know what someone else is going through. Be there for each other.

It’s okay not to be okay.

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Spreading Mental Health Awareness: One Teen at a Time

some things take time

I wish I would’ve known about mental health conditions when I was a teenager. If I had, I may have told someone about my frightening and strange panic attack symptoms. I could’ve received medical help much earlier than I did.

But I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be different. To me, it wasn’t an option to tell anyone. I dealt with it in silence for 20 years.

That’s the main reason I’m so passionate about speaking to youth about mental health. I want them to know that it’s okay not to be okay. Mental illness doesn’t mean you’re weak. You shouldn’t feel ashamed. It isn’t anyone’s fault. There is help available. You are not alone.

I volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as a speaker for “Ending the Silence,” an in-school mental health awareness program. Yesterday I presented to about 70 high school seniors.

During the presentations, my co-presenter and I explain the warning signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend. We talk openly about anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, bipolar, eating disorders, and suicide.

Yesterday I told the teens that when my doctor first diagnosed me with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I was actually happy. Not happy that I had it, but relieved that I finally knew what it was.

There’s an actual name for my terrifying symptoms!? Other people feel like this? (Yes, millions!) And there’s treatment for me? (YES!!)

It felt like I was validated. Those awful panic sensations I’d hidden for so long were REAL. I had a disorder in the brain and needed treatment. It wasn’t possible for me to “get over it” or “just calm down,”  phrases I often reprimanded myself with.

That was the first step in my recovery.

Have patience with yourself. No one is perfect!

When I present “Ending the Silence,” I keep in mind that I never know who I’m going to reach. But there are kids who need to be hearing what I have to say.

Yesterday after the presentation, several teens came up to my co-presenter and me. One student said her younger brother attempted suicide last year and she’s having a hard time with it. Another girl said her boyfriend gets panic attacks and she wants to know how to help him. She said his family doesn’t want to admit he has a mental health condition. The teens thanked us for listening and giving our input. Even though they still didn’t have a clear-cut path to fix their problems, they said it felt good to let it out and talk to someone who understands.

Which brings me back to the point… you never know what people are going through.

When I speak to the students and look out into the sea of faces, I often wonder what they’re thinking. And who I’m reaching that day. I’ll never really know.

But all I can do is keep trying.

End the Silence.

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers - Buddha Doodles

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The Scariest Part of Panic Disorder: on the NAMI Blog

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I’m excited to have another article published on the NAMI Blog!

It’s about something I never thought I’d ever talk or write about. For me, it was the scariest part of panic disorder.

Derealization and depersonalization.

The best way I can describe it: an out of body experience. My body would feel numb and I’d feel disconnected and disoriented from the world around me. I’d look into a mirror and wonder if it was really me staring back. It was like living in a fog or dream, where things don’t seem real.

I used to worry that if I told anyone, he or she would think I was “crazy.” It wasn’t until years after I recovered from panic disorder, that I found out these symptoms can be part of the illness.

For more on my experience, please click here to read my post on the NAMI Blog.

Nami National Alliance on Mental Illness

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Why Asking for Help Isn’t Easy: My Post on the NAMI National Blog

I’m excited that a piece I wrote for NAMI’s National Blog has been published! How stigma prevented me from receiving medical help for panic disorder. Please Click here to read.

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(Note, this is not an excerpt)

Sometimes people ask how I was able to hide my panic attacks for 20 years. My first thought: I have no idea, I just did. I felt there was no other choice.

The reason, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time?

Stigma.

Growing up, I felt different than the other kids. I was sure they’d never understand the frightening symptoms I experienced. I didn’t want my friends, or even my family, to know. I didn’t want them to worry and think I was strange.

Most of the time I was fine. So why talk about it? I can handle this on my own.

Years later, I realized I didn’t need to handle it by myself. More importantly, I shouldn’t have.

I didn’t know there was help available. I thought I was alone.

Now I speak out about mental illness because I don’t want others to feel like I did. I want people to know there is hope. You are not alone.

Click here to read my post on the NAMI website.

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Let’s Talk: World Mental Health Day

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I feel a bit rusty as I write this. I’ve been away from blogging, writing, and the regular routine for three weeks. Just a few days ago, my family and I returned home from our grand European adventure (it was incredible, more on that later).

Yesterday, while jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I scrolled through my Instagram feed and saw a post from Miriam at Out an’ About. She mentioned World Mental Health Day.

Wait, what’s the date? Of course, tomorrow is October 10! How could I forget?

Miriam is in Australia and I’m in the western U.S., so my afternoon is her next day. I’m messed up with days, nights, and dates, from traveling. So thank you, Miriam, for the reminder!

I couldn’t let this day slip by without saying something about it. AND… this year’s theme focuses on young people and mental health.

I’m passionate about spreading mental health awareness, and in particular, to our youth. As a speaker for NAMI’s in-school program, “Ending the Silence,” I visit high schools and talk to students about mental health issues and what to do if they notice the symptoms in themselves or a friend.

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Half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, but most cases are undetected and untreated (from the World Health Organization).

I can definitely relate to that fact.

I was about 10 when my panic attacks began. I didn’t have any idea what was wrong with me and never wanted to tell anyone. I didn’t want my friends or family to think I was weird, so I dealt with it as best I could, on my own. I kept my scary and strange symptoms a secret for 20 years before I got help.

I don’t want this to happen to other kids. That’s one reason I love presenting “Ending the Silence” to teens. Awareness and education are crucial.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. Adolescents need to know that it’s okay not to be okay. There is help available and there is hope.

This quote from NAMI is a great reminder to parents:

“Odds are, your children won’t go to a counselor when they feel something isn’t quite right. They’ll come to you. So please, stay open and believe them. Believing may save their lives.”

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While the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to lessen, it remains strong.

This morning I read an essay co-written by Lady Gaga and the Director-General at the World Health Organization. Here’s what they said about the reality of stigma:

“Yet despite the universality of the issue, we struggle to talk about it openly or to offer adequate care or resources. Within families and communities, we often remain silenced by a shame that tells us that those with mental illness are somehow less worthy or at fault for their own suffering.”

I’m grateful that there is a World Mental Health Day, recognized each year on October 10. Mental illness is a global issue. It does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you live, what nationality you are, if you’re rich or poor… we all can be affected by mental illness.

World Mental Health Day encourages people to speak out about mental health and mental illness. But the conversation can’t stop after today.

End the silence. End stigma. Let’s talk about it.

#WorldMentalHealthDay

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Teens and Suicide Prevention

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says each year, more than 41,000 people die by suicide.

teens in high school

Last week I went to a local high school to talk with students about mental health. I’m a presenter for NAMI’s in-school program, “Ending the Silence.”

My co-presenter and I spoke to two classes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. When our first presentation ended, we noticed the teens looked almost stunned. During the question and answer period, no one wanted to say a word. It took some gentle nudging for them to ask us anything.

Then we thought about it… These were incoming freshmen, brand new to high school. Classes started two weeks before. They probably weren’t comfortable yet with their teacher, let alone their classmates.

And they’d just sat through an hour of us talking about a subject that isn’t usually spoken about so directly and openly.

It was a lot to take in.

The students heard about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They learned the warning signs of mental illness, and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend.

We had a straightforward discussion about suicide and the warning signs:

  • Talking, writing, or drawing about death.
  • Talking about having no reason to live, being a burden to others, or not being here tomorrow.
  • Looking for ways to attempt suicide.
  • Feeling hopeless, desperate, or trapped.
  • Giving away possessions.
  • Behaving recklessly.

We let the teens know that these symptoms can be subtle. But if their gut instinct is telling them that something isn’t right, something may not be right. And it’s important to reach out for help.

Take the warning signs seriously, and take immediate action:

  • Tell an adult you trust.
  • Ask the question. Ask if the person needs help, if they are thinking of attempting suicide.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Call the National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
  • Text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • Go to an emergency room or call 911.
  • Do not keep warning signs a secret.

Sometimes when I’m presenting “Ending the Silence,” especially when we’re on the topic of suicide, I think the kids seem so young to hear about it. But they must.

The National Institute of Mental Health says that for ages 10-14, suicide is the third leading cause of death. For ages 15-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Mental illness can affect any one of us. At any time. Teens need to know there is help available and they are not alone.

When I speak to the students, I never know if a kid in that classroom, or maybe a family member or friend, is struggling with a mental health condition. I never know who I’m going to reach.

The more educated the younger generation is about mental illness, the greater the chance the stigma will lessen.

We must have this conversation. Let’s keep it going.

#SuicidePrevention #StigmaFree

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On My Mind: Demi Lovato

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This morning I went to a local high school to talk to teens about mental health. I’m a speaker for “Ending the Silence,” an in-school presentation created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Today I spoke to incoming freshmen, who were taking a summer school health class.

When I got home this afternoon, my husband asked if I’d heard the news about Demi Lovato being hospitalized for a drug overdose. I hadn’t. I was shocked and saddened. I thought about how I had just talked about Demi to the kids watching my NAMI presentation.

During the program, I talk about how anyone can be affected by mental illness. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re a boy or girl, where you live, what your ethnicity is, how much money you have, or how successful you are.

Anyone can be affected. But there is hope for a productive life.

I show a slide of celebrities and famous people who live with mental illness. This is one of my favorite parts of the presentation, because the kids know who many of these people are and can relate.

One of the stars the students always know of is singer Demi Lovato, and today’s class was no exception.

I mentioned that Demi lives with bipolar disorder, yet despite her challenges, she’s able to function and have an extremely successful career. Demi has battled addiction, bipolar disorder, and an eating disorder for years.

At this point in my talk, I usually catch myself when I start to tell the students that it’s inspiring because these famous people who live with a mental illness lead successful and happy lives.

The part I catch myself on is the word happy.

Because I truly don’t know how happy they are. I hope they are, but the point is that they live with mental health conditions. They struggle and suffer. Achieving fame and wealth does not mean they’re happy. They’re human.

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A couple of weeks ago, I heard Demi’s new song called “Sober.” Her lyrics are sad, talking about how she has relapsed. When I heard it and saw the video, I was worried for her. My thoughts and prayers go out to Demi and her family. I sincerely hope she finds inner peace and recovers.

Momma, I’m so sorry I’m not sober anymore
And daddy, please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor
To the ones who never left me
We’ve been down this road before
I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore
I’m not sober anymore
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