What everyone can do to help with mental health

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Suicide victim Madison Holleran. Image credit: ESPN.

Sometimes the best thing you can read or watch is something that jars you to your core.

Not the thing that makes you comfortable or happy, but a tale that leaves you speechless.

Those are the stories that make you think. That motivate you to action. And change your perspective.

I read one recently: “Split Image,” a recounting about the death by suicide of a University of Pennsylvania track athlete. A key focus of the deeply-reported story was the stark dichotomy between the Madison Holleran’s social media and her inner turmoil. That’s important, but something else hit me hard in the telling: the seeming lack of a place or person where Madison could bare her soul.

This was a young woman struggling with a hidden problem: a profound dichotomy between the life trajectory she had carved out for herself as a successful student and athlete in high school versus the severe absence of happiness she found in living the fruits of that trajectory in college. Add in any level of proclivity for mental illness and that’s a dangerous cocktail.

Yet, you would never know it by looking at her, as is so often the case with mental illness.

There is a deeper issue here than the long struggle to raise awareness of mental health issues and eliminate the societal stigma associated with talking it, let alone confessing one’s own challenges in that area.

Here’s why:

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

She started seeing a therapist during Thanksgiving break [before she committed suicide the following January] and would continue seeing the woman through winter break. The closest Madison came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety.”

Everyone now agrees that Madison was depressed, though she had never previously exhibited symptoms. (Depression exists on [her father] Jim’s side of the family.) Something had changed with her brain chemistry. She was not seeing the world in the same way she had before. She had lost weight too, had become so thin as to appear sick.

The day before Madison returned to Penn for spring semester, she had a session with her therapist that Jim also attended. She admitted to having suicidal thoughts. “If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t act them out,” her doctor said. “Either call me or call someone in your family.”

Madison nodded.

As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”

Jim feared that speaking about suicide would make its likelihood greater. He didn’t raise the subject as he and Madison drove back to Philadelphia.

Mental illness is scary. It can be down right terrifying. It isn’t easy to understand. And that’s before you factor in the complex, multi-layer filter of having a loved-one battle such demons.

I’ve had family members battle mental illness. There are few things that will leave you feeling more helpless than attempting wrapping you arms around what they’re feeling.

Speaking about such struggles out loud is scary and intimidating as hell.

It’s no wonder a teen in a situation like Madison felt she didn’t have someone to turn to when her thoughts spiraled to a terrible place.

Does she turn to her parents, who were no doubt reveling in her “success” as a student-athlete?

Does she turn to fellow students, where the fear of rejection from peers could be overwhelming?

Does she turn to some other important figure in her life such as a current or former coach, teacher, or extended family member?

Who knows. Each case is different for the sufferer of mental illness even feeling like there’s a viable choice in any of those options.

That’s what jars me. Thinking about giving people opportunities to bare their soul. To have an option besides leaping off a nine-story parking garage to their death.

As uncomfortable as it is, a clear takeaway of Madison’s story is she didn’t feel comfortable baring her darkest thoughts to her family. Does that mean her family failed her? Probably not, but they likely could have made  different choices…which virtually every family suffering through such an event could find in their own honest hindsight.

Indeed, family can be important. But, even more important are those spaces outside the family  where someone feels willing to take the risk of sharing some of their demons.

Even the greatest achievers in our society struggle with this. Sometimes mightily.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympian in history, landed his ass in rehab in 2014 for a host of issues, including wishing his life was over, prior to his swan song, 2016 Olympic games:

 “My brother was like a scared little boy on that trip [to rehab],” says [Michael’s sister] Hilary. Once there, the then 29-year-old hero of three Olympic Games was left alone, stripped of the personality that had publicly defined him. “Hug-hug, kiss-kiss, turn in my phone and go to my room,” says Phelps, “It’s probably the most afraid I’ve ever felt in my life.”

About five days into his stay, Phelps says, he began to loosen his resistance…“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” he says. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being. I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being. I found myself feeling happier and happier. And in my group, we formed a family. We all wanted to see each other succeed. It was a new experience for me. It was tough. But it was great.”

Michael Phelps. Olympic legend.

Michael Phelps. Fucked up dude.

That’s why talking about mental health is important. Even the great and resource-rich among us don’t know where to turn with these issues. It took Phelps landing in rehab for 45 days to start sorting his shit out.

Now, he’s appearing in “Angst,” a film on the often unpleasant, let’s-kick-this-under-the-carpet-while-not-making-eye-contact issue of anxiety and depression. In doing so, Phelps is explicitly setting permission for others to talk about it.

Permission is essential. Permission to be vulnerable. Permission to be able to say out loud to another human being, “I’m not ok.”

Author and athlete Rich Roll set a standard for vulnerability in Finding Ultra, and continues it to this day on his podcast, which recently featured the tear-inducing tale of the otherwise Tony Robbins-like Lewis Howes, describing coming to terms as an adult with being raped in a bathroom at five years old. It’s a must-listen episode, all related to Lewis’ new book about the many emotions men often avoid dealing with and discussing, The Mask of Masculinity.

But.

Books and podcasts are one thing. Intentionally setting permission for others in your life is essential.

There were times in my life where I was able to create those kind of spaces, especially as an assistant swim coach in college and as a manager of people in a large company. At various points I ended up having some unexpected and very serious conversations with people that had less to do with college athletics or work. They had to do with life.

A swimmer ready to quit the sport, on the spot, during a Christmas-break training trip in Florida. Another swimmer ready to throw in the towel because they weren’t enjoying the sport anymore. A co-worker breaking town in tears in my cubicle. A professional acquaintance getting raw about a public controversy that made future employment a challenge.

In almost every case, I don’t know exactly where that person is today. I don’t know what impact those conversations had over time. What I do know is they were totally outside the guardrails of what might be typically expected in each of those environments.

Here’s why I think they happened: something about each case included an environment where the person knew, or could take the risk that, there would be no judgement in saying something uncomfortable.

Recently I had a friend get real about depression and suicide-related thoughts. That’s heavy. I’m glad somewhere, probably without meaning to, something in how we talked set that permission.

None of us can solve the problems of all the Madison Holleran’s of the world. Nor should we be the solution, that’s for each person to work through, preferably with the support of mental health professionals. Yet, we can create environments where our humanity is so visible and evident that those in pain become willing say something out loud that might not otherwise dare to utter. Because from that moment of confession comes hope for change and improvement.

I say that because I’ve had to stare down that confession. To set up an appointment with my primary care doctor to say, “I think I’m showing signs of depression.” To end up seeing a psychiatrist and later a counselor as my treatment progressed, because yes, I was clinically depressed.

As much as professional treatment helped address a number of things and got me on a trajectory to be given a clean bill of health, it would have been a lot better to have been able to talk more openly about those issues before I was diagnosed.

To be fair, I had a few, friends with whom I shared some of the key issues impacting my depression, but I hesitated to share the story in full. I would do that differently now.

That’s because I know deep down inside after emerging from the other side of my mental health taking a downward turn that talking to others is important. Those that are still on the far side of that challenge need more spaces where they can feel safe to say utter words like:

  • “Help.”
  • “This isn’t right.”
  • “I’m not ok.”
  • “Here’s what really eating at me.”

Do it.

Set permission.

Set the example by being vulnerable yourself.

Listen.

Make clear you give a damn.

Maybe just look someone in the eye and genuinely ask how they’re doing.

I’d rather do any of those things than learn someone in my life reached the point where leaping nine stories to their death was a better option.

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