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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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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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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All Things New: Meet Author Lauren Miller!

All Things New is an amazing Young Adult book that I just read and absolutely loved!

I’m grateful that the lovely author, Lauren Miller, reached out to me after reading a post I wrote on NAMI’s national blog, detailing my experience as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence. I visit high schools and speak to students about mental illness. Very fitting, as Lauren’s book centers around a girl who has severe panic attacks.

All Things New is about 17-year-old Jessa, who has anxiety and panic attacks and doesn’t tell anyone. She becomes very good at hiding her secret and pretending. She gets in a horrific car accident, that leaves her with scars and a brain injury. She leaves her old life in California to live with her dad in Colorado. Her anxiety becomes worse. Until she meets Marshall, a boy with a heart defect who helps bring Jessa out of her closed-off world, into the broken, but beautiful, real world.

The theme running through the story is that we’re all broken, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of our broken pieces. The book shows how we can make it through; with love, kindness, and courage.

No one wants to talk about

I recently had the chance to interview Lauren to find out about her life and her work as an author. Please join us…

Your latest book, All Things New, centers around Jessa, a teen with an anxiety disorder. Why did you want her to have a mental health condition, and specifically, panic attacks?

From the very beginning, I wanted All Things New to examine the notion of emotional and psychological wounds — the pain we carry that no one can see. For me, that pain was anxiety, which I hid for years. It was exactly the type of challenge I wanted to give Jessa, my protagonist, because anxiety is real but invisible, and it’s closely connected to identity, another core theme of the story.

After Jessa’s accident, she has a form of face blindness, where she sees scars and bruises on random people’s faces, that aren’t really there. So interesting, and that would really be hard to deal with! I’m curious to know how you researched that.

As with all my books, I reached out to experts for help! I emailed with my hero, Oliver Sacks (through his assistant, Kate) before he passed away, which was a total writer’s highlight. Dr. Sacks suffered from face blindness and hearing from Kate what he experienced was a great help. As my story progressed, Jessa’s condition became less like true face blindness and more like ‘regular’ brain injury-induced hallucinations. In addition to that Jessa also suffers from something called aphantasia, or mind’s eye blindness, which means she can’t see any mental images in her head. For that, I corresponded with a professor in England named Dr. Adam Zeman who helped me tremendously to understand a condition that, at the time I started writing, didn’t yet have a name! The science/research aspect of the writing process is one of my favorite parts of writing.

There’s a slightly spiritual theme, as Jessa goes through challenging obstacles to put her life back together. I don’t want to divulge too much, but I’m talking about the first man who helps her at the scene of the accident, and the counselor. To me, that was comforting. Why did you add the spiritual element?

For me, the world is both a physical and a spiritual place, with both aspects being equally real. I’ve experienced moments like Jessa experienced–inexplicable things, people showing up who can’t really be explained, odd coincidences that provide meaning and purpose. So it was natural for me to add these aspects to my story (in fact, all of my books have slight supernatural themes!)

Jessa has a special relationship with her dad. I loved what he said when she was afraid to drive again. “I want you to be free. Free from the panic and worry, free from all that terrible self-doubt I see in your eyes and blame myself for. But you have to want it too, Jessa. You have to decide not to let fear win.” That says a lot, doesn’t it? Not letting fear win.

YES! I love that line, too. It’s the advice I have to give myself, over and over again.

What do you want readers to come away with, after reading All Things New?

More than anything I hope my readers will come away feeling hopeful about the future. Whatever hard thing they are going through, there is wholeness and healing in store for them, even if they can’t see it yet. I also hope my readers with anxiety will come away knowing that they are not alone!

Are you writing your next book? If so, can you tell us what it’s about?

I am actually working on a movie script right now–an adaptation of my first novel, Parallel. It’s been so fun that I think my next project will be another script! I have an idea for a coming of age movie about a girl who’s boyfriend is sent to rehab her senior year of high school, loosely based on something I experienced. But there will be a fourth novel, for sure. I just don’t know what it’ll be yet.

Lauren has written two previous YA books, Parallel and Free to Fall. You can visit her at laurenmillerwrites.com.

You can find All Things New in book and Kindle edition on Amazon. Click here!

 

 

Let’s Talk About It

“What should I do if my friend is having a panic attack?” “If you have anxiety, will you get depression when you’re pregnant?” “I know my friend is depressed, but she won’t admit it. What should I do?” “Can you get panic attacks while you’re sleeping?”

These are some of the questions I was asked last week when I spoke to a class of 36 high school juniors. I presented a program called Ending the Silence, developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The purpose is to raise awareness of mental illness and help end the stigma.

I love to speak to high school students and bring attention to mental health. If I attended something like this when I was a teen, maybe I wouldn’t have waited so long to get treatment for anxiety and panic attacks.

Mental illness is a difficult subject to discuss, and can be especially hard for young people. If kids aren’t embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it, there’s a good chance there would be less stigma for the next generation.

When I stood in front of the class to share my story, I noticed how engaged the students were. I had their full attention, and for the next fifteen minutes they would learn how panic changed my life and also my daughter’s. They’d see that recovery is possible. I wondered if any of them had ever heard anyone speak openly about their struggle with a mental illness.

My co-presenter and I explained the warning signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder.

We assured the teens there is no shame in having a mental health condition. We told them millions of people around the world live with some type of mental illness. It affects not only the person dealing with the disorder, but their families as well.

Our message to the students was clear. The stigma needs to end. Many people don’t say anything about their condition, in fear of being ridiculed. Stigma can keep someone from reaching out for medical help.

It took me twenty years to go to my doctor. I knew it wasn’t normal to have extreme bursts of fear. My heart would beat fast, I’d get clammy and shaky, and was afraid I’d faint. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong with me. I didn’t think anyone would understand, not even my doctor.

We wanted those high school juniors to know they aren’t alone.  If they or someone they know has a mental health condition, it’s important to talk about it and get help. The sooner, the better. We wanted those students to know that even though mental illness can be extremely challenging to live with, there is hope.

Together, we can end the stigma.

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