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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The Chain Reaction Continues: Meghan Trainor Opens Up About Her Mental Health

It's the most confusing, frustrating thing ever

I love Meghan Trainor’s music. With empowering lyrics, her pop songs are upbeat, happy, and make me want to sing and dance. I’ve always pictured her that way too — bubbly, energetic, and confident. Maybe that’s why I was surprised when I heard her talk about her struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

But hold on… why would that surprise me?

As a mental health advocate and someone who has recovered from panic disorder, I know darn well it doesn’t matter what the person looks like on the outside, he or she can still have problems on the inside.

People have said to me, “How can you possibly have anxiety when you’re so calm all the time? It doesn’t make sense.” I shrug and think, I don’t know. I can’t help it. 

That’s the thing. You never know.

I saw Meghan Trainor on NBC’s Today. She said the person who helped her “figure out” her anxiety was Today anchor, Carson Daly. A few months ago, Carson talked about living with anxiety.

At times I feel like there's a saber-tooth tiger

“He’ll never know how much his video helped me and my family. I told them that’s how I feel, I just couldn’t explain it,” Meghan said. “I went up to him (Carson) and I was like, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for me, but it was amazing.'”

That reminded me of a post I wrote earlier this year, An Awe-Inspiring Chain Reaction. NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan tweeted about his depression. That encouraged another NBA All-Star player, Kevin Love, to open up about his panic attacks. Which helped Carson Daly talk about his lifelong struggle with anxiety.

It was a chain reaction that gained momentum from the honesty and openness of each man.

And now, Meghan. She said when she was experiencing panic attacks, she assumed no one else felt that way. I used to assume that too.

I didn’t think anyone else in the world could possibly understand what I was going through. It didn’t cross my mind that others experienced the same scary panic symptoms. So I kept quiet and hid my fears. It was the worst feeling to be embarrassed and ashamed of something I couldn’t control.

One of the first steps in my recovery was when my doctor told me millions of other people have panic attacks. That shocked me. It was powerful to know I wasn’t alone.

We can’t underestimate the impact others can have on us. Hearing another person explain their challenges can be a turning point. It can clarify how we feel. And more importantly, it can help us realize we are not alone.

We must continue to speak openly about mental health. Don’t stop the conversation.

Keep the chain reaction going.

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Ask the Question. Ask the Direct Question.

(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)

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This morning I woke up to the tragic news about chef and travel host, Anthony Bourdain. Death by suicide.

Heartbreaking. And after the shock earlier this week, the suicide death of designer Kate Spade.

My husband and I love to watch Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, “Parts Unknown.” He was an amazing storyteller. He traveled to both popular and remote places around the world to get his stories. My favorite episodes were when he visited unknown villages, and I learned about another culture’s cuisine and way of life.

In his interesting, somewhat quirky, and cool way, Anthony would sit with locals and have in-depth conversations over a meal. People opened up to him. He had a special way of delving in to find out how they lived. His show wasn’t just about food. It was about family and life. He seemed full of life, with a yearning to learn more.

But he must’ve been battling demons so strong that he was in total despair.

On the Today show this morning, they interviewed a psychologist, and one of the anchors asked him what people should do if they think their loved one is struggling. The  psychologist stressed how important it is to talk about it, to ask the question.

The interview resonated with me. What the psychologist said is exactly what I tell high school students when I present NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in-school mental health awareness program, “Ending the Silence.”

If you notice the warning signs of suicide in yourself or a friend, or your gut instinct tells you that something isn’t right, something may not be right. Take immediate action. Ask the question. Ask the direct question: Are you thinking of suicide? Are you suicidal?

This may sound too direct and uncomfortable, but the other person might feel relieved that someone else said those words, that someone else opened the conversation. It may be a little easier to talk about it and admit they need help.

Skilled Sailor

Know the Warning Signs (From suicidepreventionlifeline.org)

Some warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these, seek help by calling the Lifeline (800)273-8255

Warning Signs of Suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

Please reach out for help. There is no shame in having a mental illness.

There is hope.

You are NOT alone.

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