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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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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Why I Love Talking to Teens About Mental Health

Global

This week I was so excited to do my favorite type of volunteer work with NAMI — presenting their in-school program, “Ending the Silence.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) developed the presentation to raise awareness of mental health and mental illness, and to help end the stigma.

My co-presenter and I gave six one-hour presentations to high school freshmen. We were in a huge classroom with about 90 students in each presentation. That’s nearly 500 kids in two days, who learned about the warning signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, and what to do if they notice those signs in themselves or a friend.

I’m passionate about starting the conversation with teens. To let them know it’s okay to talk about mental health issues. Just like a physical disease, mental illness is a real medical illness that needs treatment.

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As presenters, we speak candidly about our own challenges with mental illness. We talk about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. We let the teens know that suicide can be prevented. We stress the importance of taking immediate action if they see signs of suicide in themselves or a friend. Talk to a trusted adult; call the National Suicide Lifeline at (800)273-8255 or text them at 741741; don’t keep warning signs a secret.

We emphasize the fact that millions of people throughout the world are affected by mental illness and that:

  • There’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Having a mental illness does not mean a person is weak.
  • Developing a mental illness is not anyone’s fault.
  • There is medical help available.
  • There is hope to get better and to have a productive, happy life.
  • You are not alone.

During the presentations this week, I looked at the students’ faces and could see how engaged they were. This is a serious subject that normally isn’t talked about so openly. It’s something they might be concerned or curious about, but aren’t comfortable with.

I wondered how many students in that room struggled with a mental health issue. Or maybe it’s their brother, sister, or parent who does. Mental illness affects the entire family. I never know who I’m going to reach, or who the message is going to resonate with.

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Sometimes the kids totally surprise me. Actually, they blow me away with what they say.

One girl came up to my co-presenter and me, looked us straight in the eyes and said, “You two are SO brave. You’re so brave to stand up there and tell your stories and talk about this to all of us. Thank you.” Then she asked if she could give us a hug. Of course.

Following another presentation, a 15-year-old boy wanted to talk. He seemed nervous, almost jittery. He told us he has so much mental illness in his family and doesn’t know how to handle it. We listened to him, offered our input, and gave him resources to look into. By the end of our conversation, he seemed more at ease and grateful to be able to talk about his problems, and not worry about being judged. He smiled, shook our hands, and thanked us for the talk.

What another student said melted my heart. I’m not sure why, but I noticed her while I was speaking. She was in the back of the room and looked timid and was pretty, with short light blond hair. It was busy after the presentation, quite a few kids came up to ask us questions, including the timid-looking girl. I looked at her and said hi.

She nervously smiled and said in a sweet, quiet voice, “I just want to let you know that you two are like angels.” Wow. This is a ninth grader telling us we’re angels. 

That was powerful. In just a few words, she said so much.

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We thanked her for the wonderful compliment. She went on to say that she has a really hard time around people (social anxiety) and depression. She thanked us for talking about mental illness. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe we were there, speaking about something that greatly affects her life.

We opened the conversation. Maybe now she’ll be able to talk to her close friends about her struggles.

These teens want to know they’re not alone. They want to know their problems are real and that they matter. They want to be heard, understood, and not judged. Even though they might keep their feelings a secret because of stigma, they want to be honest and talk about it. They’re tired of pretending.

That’s why I love talking to teens about mental health and mental illness. I want them to know it’s okay. That they’re okay.

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Big Changes

Four years ago, my husband and I took our youngest daughter Talee to college. Time has flown. This weekend we’ll watch her graduate.

I clearly remember moving her in to the freshman dorm. Walking up three flights of stairs multiple times on a hot September day, our arms filled with everything she could possibly need: clothes, shoes, school supplies, toiletries, bedding, and decorations to make it homey. She was excited to meet her two roommates. I hoped and prayed they’d have a great year.

It was difficult for me to believe my little girl was going to live away from me for the first time. Talee had severe separation anxiety in preschool. Growing up, she’d been painfully shy. In fourth grade, she had anxiety and so many panic attacks that she missed several weeks of school.

Talee matured into a strong, smart, and confident young woman. She was still nervous about starting college and living on her own, but knew she was ready.

It was bittersweet. I was proud of her and happy she was beginning an amazing adventure. But I didn’t know how I was going to manage without her at home. It was hard enough when our oldest daughter, Mackenzie, moved out. Now both girls would be gone.

On that freshman move-in day, I tried not to dwell on my status as an empty nester. I focused on organizing Talee’s new  space. It seemed an impossible task to fit three girls and all their stuff into a tiny room. Somehow we managed.

By late afternoon it was time for the welcome celebration in the football stadium. Excitement and nervous energy filled the air. Students, anticipating living the college dream. Parents, anticipating life without their children at home.

The band played, the president of the university spoke, and cheerleaders helped rally the crowd.

The speech that impacted me the most was given by Paul Wesselmann, The Ripples Guy, a motivational speaker. I’ll never forget what he said. This isn’t word for word, but it’s the basic idea of what he told us:

Parents, I need you to really listen. Your children are beginning a new adventure, adjusting to life without you close by. They’ll have successes, but there will be missteps along the way. Let them know you love them. Be patient. Be kind.”

And then he said this:

Students, I need you to really listen. Your parents are beginning a new adventure, adjusting to life without you close by. They’ll have successes, but there will be missteps along the way. Let them know you love them. Be patient. Be kind.”

The woman in front of me couldn’t stop crying. I choked back tears. The end of the ceremony came too fast. In a whirlwind, my husband and I gave Talee huge hugs, kisses, and told her she’d do great.

Talee learned a lot about life in the past four years. College was everything she’d hoped it would be — and much, much more. It’s going to be so hard for her to say goodbye.

Huge changes are coming. She was hired at a wonderful company and will be working in the city. She’ll commute from home for at least a few months. Working in the real world (at a “big girl job,” as she calls it), will be challenging for her to get used to. She’ll miss her friends, sorority sisters, classes, and of course, her boyfriend.

It’s going to be an adjustment for my husband and me as well. We’re thrilled she’s moving back home, we love having her and Mackenzie around. But it’ll be different.

Life is changing. I know it’ll all work out. Right now, I’m looking forward to the graduation ceremony this weekend.

Once again, we’ll head into the football stadium where it began. We’ll watch Talee walk in her cap and gown while Pomp and Circumstance plays. We’ll listen to speeches and cheer as the graduates toss their caps high into the air.

When I’m sitting in the stands, I’ll think about how far Talee has come. From a shy little girl with anxiety and panic attacks, to a confident college graduate with a bright future ahead. A shining example of hope.

One season of life is ending. Another is about to begin.

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Paul Wesselmann’s website is here

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Ending the Silence

Last week I went back to high school. I had something I wanted to share with the students. At one point, I realized I had thirty pairs of eyes watching me intently. I knew they were listening. Really listening.

I told three different classes about my journey recovering from anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. I  explained how hard it was when my little girl developed panic symptoms. Talee was in fourth grade when she had a panic attack at school. She was terrified it would happen again. She literally couldn’t make herself walk into the classroom, and missed two consecutive weeks. She was afraid of being afraid.

I spoke on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. I’m trained as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence program, developed for high school students. The goal is to raise awareness about mental illness and to help end the stigma. We discuss the warning signs of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide. We talk about what to do if we notice the warning signs in ourselves or a friend.

I wanted those juniors and seniors to know I waited twenty years before I told anyone about my frightening symptoms. I knew it wasn’t normal when I felt disoriented, like I was living in a fog or dream. I knew it wasn’t right when all of a sudden, my heart would pound, I’d get lightheaded, shaky, and afraid I’d pass out.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was strange. So I kept it a secret. I figured I needed to deal with it. Alone.

The main reason I felt this way? Stigma.

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is strong and very real. It can delay someone from getting treatment and symptoms can worsen. Mental illness affects millions of people throughout the world. Not only individuals, but also their families.

My daughter and I were fortunate, as we both recovered from panic disorder. It wasn’t easy, and there isn’t a complete cure. But medication and positive coping strategies — eating healthy, exercising, deep breathing — enabled us to resume our normal lives. We’re productive, happy, and in control of our panic.

I don’t remember mental health being discussed when I was in high school. I didn’t know  anxiety and depression were considered a mental illness. I had no idea that other people experienced the same terrifying panic symptoms that I did. Maybe if I’d heard about mental health conditions when I was a teenager, I would’ve received treatment earlier.

That’s why I speak out as a mental health advocate. I want people to know they aren’t alone. There is help available. There is hope.

I’m looking forward to visiting more high schools to tell my story and do my part to help End the Silence.

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