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An “Investigation” into a Means of Ending Stigma By Jim Russell

As advocates for mental health and help seeking, we often discover
that a great chasm separating us from help is gouged open by fear and
shame. Treatments have become more effective, and more people in our
community voice their support, yet it seems that too many people who
need help slip through the cracks and spiral, alone, in to
destructive, and sometimes fatal patterns. To those of us who are
outspoken, supportive, and ready to shout for our place, it can be
disheartening to see those we care about suffer. We write blogs, we
speak publicly, we show our art and write poetry, we create and join
groups, and we pour our hearts out in every media outlet available.
Yet, still, so many people fear taking the step to seek help.

While is seems counterintuitive, we may be experiencing what has been
a phenomena in law enforcement, my world, for years. It is called
“siloing” and speaks to the idea of like-minded people forming a
supportive, but exclusive social group, because persons in that group
have a unique experiential connection. Similarly, we who experience
mental illness feel more safe around one another, can confidently back
each other up, and have an understanding and empathy that is truly a
separate world view. We can see this in our Twitter and Facebook
accounts. I for one, have a large percentage of my friends and
associates identifying as persons who either suffer from mental
illness, have experienced it in their family, or who are clinicians in
the field.  I really like it that way, but I have also come to
understand that the people that we need to reach, and who are mostly
likely to perpetuate stigma, are not in our group, but are outside our

My personal advocacy has focused on reducing stigma by highlighting
the fact that persons with mental illness, such as myself, can, with
treatment and support, often live fulfilling and successful lives. I
use my position as Deputy Chief of Police at FSU while also being
diagnosed with chronic depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and
panic disorder, as a personal example. It has been a good tool to turn
stereotypes about mental illness on their heads, and the means I have
used to deliver it is a program called Sworn to Silence, which I wrote
in 2012.  Sworn to Silence has provided an excellent delivery, but one
of its shortcomings is its first-responder centered focus. It
explains, clarifies, and debunks a lot of myths about mental illness,
but it does not recruit allies outside of the mental health world.
With that in mind, late in 2016, I knew that I needed to develop
another program, and this program would be focused on developing
natural allies.

So, I set out to create a presentation that would encourage outreach
into a group of people who are not deeply entrenched or invested in
the mental health world. At its core, the program would have as its
mission, “To invest in a new vision to eliminate stigma, promote
help-seeking, and save lives.”  This would be accomplished by
providing an easy to remember and utilize action-template that sets a
path toward mental health ambassadorship. I created an acronym for the
program: I.N.V.E.S.T.I.G.A.T.E., for Invest in a New Vision, Eliminate
Stigma, Tell and Inform, Guide Attitudes, and Take up Empathy. Of
course, the name is also a nod to my cop roots – I can’t help it!

Each piece of the framework seeks to empower and create guidelines for
an advocate/ambassador to systematically promote a vision of mental
illness as not something to be feared, but something to be understood.
Moreover, it strengthens facts and removes fallacies that often cause
afflicted people to withdraw. For instance, take a single section of
the training, Tell and Inform.  Here, this is further expanded to
impart to advocates that they must invest in their own knowledge and
education concerning mental illness, and it also discusses
environmental scanning. Environmental scanning, being a fancy way to
say that one should actively seek and take in current events and
research from a broad spectrum of media. Finally, with a well-informed
and objective advocate, this investment in education is demonstrated
through the ability to constructively engage in discussion up to and
including sharing one’s own story as a foundation, if comfortable
doing so.

Importantly, the program does not seek to develop or create a new
concept about what stigma is, or unveil some new wealth of knowledge.
Rather, it pulls known ideas and facts about stigma, mental health,
and advocacy and packages them into a compact and useful toolbox that
can be applied across a variety of social situations.  The information
was reviewed for accuracy of content due to the gracious efforts of
the chief clinical psychologist at the FSU Counseling Center, which
provided me the confidence to push forward. For those who take part in
the program they can think about it as a multi-tool for mental health
advocacy. How you use the tool and how often is up to you.

Stigma-fighting is not so much a science as it is an art that is
fortified through knowledge and good facts. As advocates and
activists, it is our job to paint the picture of mental illness as it
really is, an illness, and not a statement as to the value and worth
of the person who suffers with it. Unfortunately, we share our canvas
with untold numbers of people who paint with ignorance. It is our
charge to ensure that our artwork, our fight, is more rich, more
engaging, and more absorbing than all of the noise that’s splattered

The people that we are, and who we fight for are beautiful, and our
work must help open the eyes of others who should see them.

I hope this program will help do that.

image1Jim Russell is the Deputy Chief of Police at the Florida State University Police Department where he has served for over 24 years.  He became involved in mental health awareness and suicide prevention

as he dealt simultaneously with increasing incidents of suicide on campus as well as his own diagnosis of major depressive disorder in 2010. Deputy Chief Russell is dedicated to advocating for the elimination of stigma concerning mental health issues, prevention

of suicide and self-harm, encouraging senior management in first responder agencies to become better educated, and encouraging first responders to practice help-seeking without fear.  He often conducts his advocacy on a bicycle as an ultra-marathon cyclist

demonstrating that “persons with mental illness can and do achieve great things and deserve respect and dignity”, and has completed multiple extreme distance cycling events to promote this concept.  The core of his advocacy centers on his belief that, “If

I truly love the people I work with, then I will stand up for them on this issue”.

Visit FSUPD at  Follow FSUPD @keepfsusafe and my personal Twitter @jimridesforlife. 

The Divide

It’s breaking my heart…this divide.
It’s tearing me apart. The drama, the perceived slights, the resentment, and bickering…this isn’t what I imagined we would become.

Growing up, it was always us. Sisters. Blood is thicker than water. Our parents raised us to look out for one another, to support one another in each new endeavor. I knew my sisters would kick the ass of any guy who hurt me.

I thought our bond was unbreakable.

I thought we could withstand the abandonment, and we did for a bit. We were strong. We tried to make new traditions for each other. We made playlists filled with songs that spoke to us, like Darkest Before the Dawn by Florence and the Machine, and Who Knew by Pink. It’s been hard for us all, but we are mostly okay.

When I pictured us in our adult years, I pictured us happy. I imagined our kids would spend endless hours together, playing and exploring the world with one another. Born best friends, a net of family to catch them whenever they need it — like that group of kids in Cheaper By the Dozen, holding hands and braving scary new things together.

But now there’s a divide.
I’m reaching out, trying to hang on to one sister who is so consumed by perceived slights that she “barely considers” our other sister a sister.

It’s unfathomable to me. People are imperfect, we’ve literally known each other our whole lives. It’s always been us so we should know our imperfections and flaws a little better.

I get that my sister is hurt, but a lot of her hurt is imagined. I don’t say that to be mean, it’s true. She’s a mental illness warrior, fighting the battle that never stops — but sometimes she lets the darkness of her illness consume her and instead of asking for clarification, asking “is this real or not real?”, she lets it encase her. She lets walls get built and gets hurt when people don’t know how to tear them down to get to her, to help her.

And we want to help her.
We just want her to be happy.

Mental illness is one of the hardest hurdles a family can overcome. It doesn’t just affect the person with the diagnosis, it affects the entire family unit.

It’s something I have to tell myself when I get frustrated because I’m not being understood. It’s something I have to repeat when I see the ones I love most making mistakes that can cause permanent rifts.

You’re not supposed to give up on your family. You’re not supposed to wash your hands of someone simply because it’s hard.
You’re not supposed to stop loving them because you do not agree with them.

When you close doors on people — especially on family, it’s hard to come back from.

I know this because I live it — we’ve lived it. We’ve been abandoned, doors have closed on our faces. We’ve had to pick up the pieces of our shattered hearts when our parent decided leaving us was better for them than getting the help they needed to deal with their mental illnesses and their grief.

They say history is doomed to repeat itself, and the pattern in our history book doesn’t dispute this fact.

Don’t forget who was there for you in your darkest hours…
Don’t forget those who raced to your side when you needed it…
And don’t forget those who remain. We may not always have the reactions you’re looking for, but we love you. We care about you. We want you to get better and we want you to know that we love you more than anything and nothing your mental illness does or says will change that for


Stigma Fighters: Stephanie Paige

I Am Surely Dying…

It truly amazes me how in the matter of just a few days, my body and my brain, can completely double cross me…

A friend of mine recently posted how we are less than 200 days away from Christmas.  This had me thinking about last Christmas and my immediate family that was 4 in count at the time.  I remember waking Christmas morning in our house with two very happy kids, my 8 year old daughter and my 2 1/2 year old foster son.  He was smiling, his dimples poking his cheeks, realizing this is a happy occasion but not knowing why.  There was laughter and much confusion from him as he had no idea what to do with a wrapped present.  My husband sat on the floor by T’s gifts and unwrapped them with the glee a child would normally have.  It was a Christmas morning that was full of smiles, laughs and love.

Just a few days later, this all changed.

I had been having major anxiety off and on since T moved in with us at the end of October.  None of my spells lasted past a week.  This was a warning sign and I refused to listen to it.  I ignored the heavy breathing, the annoyance of every sound within my home… these things that my brain was telling me, “SOS, we need help, NOW!”.  I didn’t want to believe my perfect family, my dream family, was causing me to drown.  I tried to suppress the angry feelings I was getting toward my children in order to keep my dream of mothering 2 kids alive.  I continued to go to work and act as if nothing was bothering me, dreading going home at the end of the day.  I told myself, “This too shall pass.”

But it didn’t.

On the morning of December 30th, I awoke for work not feeling normal.  I was shaking.  My chest felt tight and I was dry heaving.  Once again, I ignored my body’s warning signals and went to work.  I sat in my cubicle hyperventilating.  “Deep breaths Stephanie,” I told myself.  I stared at my breakfast with disgust.  I was so nauseous that the sight of my cheerios churned my stomach.  I became dizzy, pushing myself against the headrest of my office chair to hold me up.  I cried as quietly as I could to not clue my coworkers into what was happening to me.

Then the tightness in my chest produced extreme heart palpitations.  This only fed my anxiety more as I wondered whether or not a heart attack was going to follow.  My hand quivered at my keyboard.  My eyesight blurred with tears I was striving so hard to hold back.  I was scared.  I had never felt this way in my life before.

And then, about 20 minutes later, the moment passed.

I thought I was in the clear when about a half hour later all the symptoms I had just experienced came roaring back.  My body was exhausted from fighting it the first time.  Professionals say there are two types of people with anxiety… the fighters and the flighters.  I am the former.  I fought so hard, I was dumbfounded I didn’t pass out from fatigue.  Just like the first time, after about 20 minutes, I succumbed to exhaustion.

This cycle repeated itself over and over that morning.  My coworkers were still clueless.  Most of them weren’t there due to vacation days they needed to use.  Those that were, I hid the terror in me from them with a fake smile.  It was 1pm at work which was lunch time.  I went down with my coworkers and sat in silence which was uncommon for me.  I forced myself to eat as much of my lunch as possible.  As they chatted away about TV shows, I sat… my heart beating out of my chest, the nausea increasing, my breaths become short and rapid.  Yet, I forced the smile on my face.  I left the lunch table slightly early. Back at my cubicle, almost an hour later, the symptoms weren’t subsiding.  In fact, they were growing in strength.  I thought surely I was going to pass out and die.

I called my husband.  He told me to use my coping skills from therapy.  They weren’t working.  I said I needed help.  I needed to go to the hospital.  He could not take me because he was home with our daughter and foster son.  Next in line was my mother.  I called her cell but could not reach her.  3rd in line was my father.  Success.  He answered the phone and tried to talk me down from this attack.  I informed him this was going on all day off and on.  He said he would come and take me to the ER as I was in no condition to drive myself.  I sat waiting for his text that he was here.  I informed a coworker as to why I was leaving in general terms to inform my boss.  My phone vibrated… my father was here.

By the time I reached his car, he could see I was not myself in any way.  I was a shaking, hyperventilating shell of a person.  On the way to the ER, he asked me more questions that took me minutes to respond due to my lack of breathing.  I was shivering so much, it was as if I was standing out in frigid temperatures for a long period of time which for December was common but I was dressed appropriately.  We reached the parking garage at the ER within 15 minutes.  I felt helpless as my father had to help walk me in because I would fall over.  At the desk I had to give my name, date of birth, etc. to the person at the ER desk.  This I did with labored breath.  My father then helped me sit until we were called into a triage room.  I sat down next to the nurse in the room.  At this point I was just waiting for the heart attack.  My heart was outside my chest visually in my mind.  The pounding drowned out my hearing.  I was still shaking uncontrollably and my breathing remained heavy.

Her questions were not easy to answer.  Unfortunately, being a grown adult, my father could not answer for me.  It took about 15 minutes to answer her five to six questions including if I had been to West Africa lately.  Believe me, Ebola was far from my mind.  Then she got up and hooked me up to the blood pressure machine… 164/95.  Then came my temperature… inaccurate read because of my strenuous breathing.  Then my pulse and O2… again, inaccurate.  Upon completion of these tests I was finally moved to a room in the ER.

The ER doctor came in, asked me several questions, some the same as the nurse in triage.  He took a good look at me.  I could see the look in his eyes.  He knew the suffering I was going through.  The words came out of his mouth, “You are having a major Panic Attack.”  The good news, I wasn’t dying.  The bad news, I felt like I was.  I was given .5mg of Xanax.  Within 15 minutes of taking the Xanax, my body was beginning to calm itself.

At this time, I phoned my husband.  Our foster son’s social worker was over for what should have been a happy occasion.  He brought gifts for the family for the holidays.  After hanging up the phone, I knew what was going to happen.  My husband had to tell the social worker where I was and why.  I knew that my foster son, a boy I loved just as much as my daughter, would probably be removed from our house.  This stirred the anxiety in me but I was drugged and extremely exhausted I couldn’t fight anymore that day.  I just laid in the bed in the ER and breathed what were the first normal breaths of the day…


Most people that know me, know that it was only a few short days later that T left our home.  It was a decision that both my husband and I (with agreement from our and his social worker) made in the best interest for him, our daughter and myself.  It was not an easy decision… as a couple of people expressed to me after he was gone saying I didn’t care about T’s needs, that I was being selfish.  The fact is, I cared so much about him, I knew he needed a mother that was not becoming a poster child for Mental Illness.  I think of him daily.  I smile at the fact that we taught him how to love, how to eat, and how to speak in the 2 months he lived with us.  He is truly an amazing little boy that I will always love and miss.

20160418_134440 Stephanie Paige is a 30-something who has struggled with Depression since age 14 and Anxiety since age 26. She is mother to one beautiful daughter. With the strength of her husband, parents, and her child, she has survived 6 bouts of Severe Depression and has become a huge advocate of Mental Illness. Currently, she has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder and has survived severe Postpartum Depression & Anxiety.

Stephanie can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter


Stigma Fighters: Johnny Sparkles Part 2

Read part 1 here.

Samantha soon warned me that in the not-so-distant future, she would possibly not be in contact with me for a few days, and I accepted it, because I loved her, and I knew it was something she had to do. She ended up breaking her promise, and I got to see her pretty much every day up until a 48 hour stretch (or so) where I didn’t hear from her. When I finally heard back from her, she revealed that she took a bottle of pills, intending to end her life, and that she woke up feeling groggy, and regretful, but thankfully still alive, and then she picked up the phone to call me. She apologized, but I was kind of numb. I didn’t know what to really think, and I was scared. I knew she wasn’t leaving me specifically, and that our love was strong, but it’s not an easy task trying to cope with the thought of the most important person in your life thinking about disappearing, and not giving you fair warning first. She had been planning this from before she met me, I soon found out, and this was part of the reason why it took her so long to approach me, as she was worried about bringing me into all of this. But we dealt with it, as people who love each other do.

For the next few days, I still saw her pretty regularly, but now she was determined to go on a trip to the neighbor islands. Due to financial reasons, I was unable to accompany her, and I was once again terrified that I would lose her. Just being away from her for a day or two at this point was very hard, as things seemed a lot more serious and fragile than I had realized. I trusted that she just needed to get away for a few days, but in the back of my head, I knew anything was possible.

When she returned from the trip, we still saw each other pretty regularly, but I felt an uneasiness with her from time to time, but as the days passed, I felt her happy side coming out again, and we were the kind of couple that was always inseparable, as long as we were physically with each other. It was the time away that scared me. I never doubted anything when I was face to face with her, although I often worried about her nonetheless, just because, you know, I wanted her to be “okay”, whatever that means.

Over the next few days, Samantha was talking about getting a new job, and seemed to be readjusting to life on the island quite well, after all the recent trauma, uncertainty and adventure in her life. I remember her visiting me at work one day, which she was known to do from time to time, and dropping off some of my books, while saying she was considering getting a job with the company. I thought this was promising news, and I talked to her on the phone later that night before bed, to gab about our usual sweet nothings. By the time Monday had rolled around, I hadn’t heard back from Samantha. This was very out of the ordinary, even after the last episode. Every horrible thought you could think of was in my brain at this time, and I was sick to my stomach around the clock.

It’s a common misconception that someone who hurts so much, and lives with so much depression, is incapable of loving another human being. Actually, I don’t really know if that’s a common misconception, but I must say that it is something I worried about upon getting involved with Samantha. But she shattered that misconception almost overnight with her patience, her generosity, and well, her love, of course. Calling it “love” sounds so minimal, though. It’s that certain thing that can’t be explained, but is something you feel every time that special someone looks at you, touches you, or says something to you in that perfect way–a way that you’ve never heard it, felt it, or experienced it before–not in a way that’s meant to slight any past loves, but sometimes someone just gets you the way nobody else does, and something about you just clicks with them, and you seem them the way nobody else does–and that’s when what seems like a once a generation type love forms between two people. As much of a mess the world can be at times, it can really be a miracle, too.

Samantha would often apologize for bringing me into her world, and felt bad that she had subjected me to her pain, but the only thing I wish she had done differently–other than survive, naturally–is introduce herself sooner, because once I met her, loving her with all of me was inevitable. Maybe she knew that, too, and that probably was overwhelming for her, but the fact is I know my love made her last few months on this planet more manageable. I have the memories, and the emails, and the warmth in my heart to tell me that, and nothing could ever change what we had together as a couple.

There was never any issue between us in that way. We were perfect friends, a perfect team, perfect lovers, and we just fit together like two forgotten puzzle pieces. The life that her and I shared together is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, except for more time with her, and I am so honored that she had the strength to approach me, even though much of what was inside of her told her not to. I told her all the time how lucky, fortunate, and honored I was, and she was always so sweet to tell me how much I meant to her, even on her darkest days, and she also made me feel so sexy and handsome, even though I often don’t feel like either one of those things. When I was around her, I had no doubt that I was those things, and that’s what love is, folks.

As far as her suicide goes, I don’t blame her. I often curse the universe for leaving me behind with this massive hole in my heart, but I never, even for a second, imagined being upset with her about what she did. The way I look at it, it wasn’t my thing to be upset with anyway. This was Samantha’s cross to bear. This was something she had to deal with. Sure, in many ways, I had to deal with it, too, but while I have struggled with a bit of depression, I never had to deal with that weight of it the way she had to, and I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to even breathe when it got really bad, so how could I ever be upset with someone who chose to love me, and open up to me, and give me all of her time, when she could have easily just never even said “hello”?

When I was asked to write this piece, I was concerned with what exactly they wanted me to say. In the end, I just decided to write what I was feeling. It’s been over three years since I’ve been able to see, touch, and feel Samantha, and my life in many ways has never been worse, but the beautiful (and crushing, I suppose) irony, is that it was that very love that she bestowed on me, that has given me the strength to keep moving forward, because I know that kind of love exists, and that it can come sneaking up on you at any time.

So I guess if I had to leave you with something, I would say, never think you’ve got the world figured out. You may be depressed, or love someone who is depressed, or think that you don’t want love, or you might just be unsure about everything, but if you let down your walls a little bit, and take a swing on something unexpected, sometimes you get borrowed time. It might not be forever, or as much time as you want, or need, but it will give you infinite moments of beauty that would have otherwise never crossed paths with you. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, even if your mind isn’t always on your side.

The other thing about Samantha and I is that we were always honest with each other. We didn’t agree on everything, but when we were unsure, we always told each other why, and within minutes, everything would be great again, because we knew we had each other’s backs when we were together, and that’s really all that fucking matters. Even if only one person has your back, and even if that is only for a short time, that is more than a lot of other people ever get, so one last parting shot of wisdom from me would be to take every ounce of good luck you’ve ever received, and let it inspire you for the rest of your life. It’s up to you to choose how long that will be, or how powerful that inspiration is, but the last thing you want to do is ignore it, or push it away.

As far as loving someone who is going through depression, or other forms of mental illness goes, it’s simple. You just keep doing that: Loving. You support them. You listen to them. You understand them. You ask how you can help them. You stay out of their way if you can’t, or they don’t want you to. You embrace them. You believe in them. And you love them. And never take any of it personally. Choose to make them as comfortable as you can, and be happy that you don’t have to deal with all that weight on your shoulders and burden on your mind. Some people may even walk away, because they can’t deal with it. But no matter what, you don’t stop loving them. Because if you stop loving someone who is going through that kind of anguish, well then you probably never really loved them in the first place.

I love you, Samantha. Almost from the first moment I knew you. Then I never stopped, and I always will. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for everything. I hope that every second for you now, is as happy as you made me feel every second I was with you. xoxox

ok10Johnny Sparkles is a Hawaiian-born stand up comedian now based in Las Vegas. He is also a journalist for hire, as well as former editor, and staff writer for a handful of websites. His debut comedy album, ‘Homeless Romantic’, is available all over the interwebz, including iTunes, Amazon, Band Camp, and Pass Out Records.

Johnny can be found on his blog,Facebook, and Twitter


Stigma Fighters: Vincent J. Fitzgerald

To Be Both Client and Clinician

Vincent J. Fitzgerald

I sit in serene, soft light and contemplate what is safe to share, and what I should withhold. My war against anxiety is fought on many fronts, and I am battle weary from its barrage of multiple manifestations. Across from me a person waits for my offering on the subject, and before I speak I extend an affirming nod to convey understanding of racing thoughts, crippling fears, and sensations of dying. I choose only to nod because in this therapy session I am the therapist, and therapists do not divulge vulnerabilities to our clients. Sometimes we divulge our vulnerabilities to no one at all.

The walls in the safe house I have built for clients must remain sturdy as there would be no sense of safety should I reveal my frailties and self-perceived incompetency. My understanding stems from more than clinical experience. I have spent hundreds of hours in the other chair as my embattled relationship with anxiety predates acquisition of the social work license I was driven to acquire by witnessing my mother’s depression and my father’s anxiety. Each time a new client asks if I have experience with anxiety disorders, I nod and think, more than I would wish on anyone.”

I was asked to write a bit about the genesis of my anxiety, and have narrowed its origins to my birth. I was born into anxiety, and it is my birthright. What have changed as I have aged are degrees of severity and levels of disorder. In 5th grade it presented only as embarrassment. I was too mortified to inform teachers I never learned to tie laces, forcing me to tuck them into the sides of my shoes rather than face a humiliating confession. I also refrained from telling my parents for fear even they would ridicule me. There is not safety in the house of anxiety.

Afraid to fail, I never tried sports in high school, and avoided rejection by ignoring girls, deferring to the confident guys who had the smooth lines of bullshit. So frightened was I of being asked to dance at senior prom, I skipped it, and tried to sound cool by telling people “I don’t do proms,” rather than reveal awkwardness that also forced me to skip yearbook pictures. I have no memories of prom, and am not immortalized on glossy yearbook paper. In college I feared group projects and oral presentations. Weeks in advance I predicted stuttering and spitting words resembling languages created for Star Wars. These were but anxiety appetizers before I was fed a foul main course in adulthood.

Parenthood was my first severe trigger of disordered thought. When my daughter started walking, I followed her around in lockstep to ensure she would not bump her head or swallow small objects laying somewhere outside reality. When she graduated to solid food, I monitored her chewing and implored her to bite small because I believed she would choke. Anxiety doubled when my son was born and I depleted joy at amusement parks because intrusive visions of them being flung from rides haunted me. So crippled was I by imagining sickness, I skipped family outings to spare myself perseverations about their safety. My anxiety was misconstrued as apathy, and laid the groundwork for eventual divorce. All wars have collateral damage.

Social anxiety at my first job in mental health rendered phone calls in front of coworkers impossible. Convinced I sounded inept, I snuck them when my teammates were away. If one reappeared, I hung up and announced wrong number. Anxiety tried convincing me I had no business working in mental health if I was not mentally healthy, but fear of stigma prevented me from seeking treatment.

After my divorce, parenting my children alone was too much to bear. Anxiety returned in the form of globus hystericus, the sensation of an invisible lump in my throat resulting in relentless gag impulses leaving me bedridden until my doctor diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and relieved my physical symptoms with Xanax. What I once explained away as nerves and shyness mutated to monstrous manifestations with each new stressor in my life.

Within months of getting y generalized anxiety somewhat under control, my bubbling anxiety erupted into a colossal panic attack suffered as my daughter rode shotgun, unaware of my internal explosion. When we arrived at her soccer tournament, I begged her mom to pick her up so I could cower home where I retreated to bed and impugned myself as a failed parent. I recovered by the next day, but was less fortunate when a second attack struck on my way to watch football with friends. The attack en route to a fun activity scarred my brain and kept me housebound for a week.

Attacks snowballed into disorder and it was weeks before I dared venture anywhere besides the nearby school in which I served as a school social worker. Driving to my kids’ home was impossible; I stopped taking them on weekends without explanation, and I isolated myself from family and friends. After my Zoloft kicked in, I ventured to the home of a friend I had not seen in weeks. I was stung by stigma when he compared me to Howard Hughes and asked if I was “done doing the hermit thing.” My disorder was mistaken for choice at a time when I was without choice. I cowered at the notion I was mentally ill, and told him I was just “doing me.”

I continue to weave through my anxiety obstacle course, achieving licensure to be the therapist I desired to be, while following my own therapist’s request to pursue writing. To be a therapist not in treatment would feel hypocritical to me, and in order to normalize my clients’ need for therapy, I share my experiences after a few sessions. I want them to know I am not only leading them into battle against their own mental illness, I fight alongside them in unified brotherhood as well.

IMG_1400Vincent is a practicing psychotherapist and writer with a Masters
Degree in Social Work from Fordham University. He is a lifelong
resident of Jersey City, NJ and remarried father of two awesome
children. He hopes to continue forging universal connections through
personal stories. Vincent owes a his professional desire to his
persevering mother, his drive to his hard working father, and his
accomplishments to his incredible wife, Gemma.

Vincent can be found on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter


Stigma Fighters: Imade Nibokun of Depressed While Black

I was raised to believe slaves were the only black people who had the right to be depressed. So when I stayed in my bedroom for days at a time, silent and suicidal, my family’s encouragement was that “things could be worse.” If my ancestors survived slavery with no mental health treatment, then I certainly could survive unemployment with no mental health treatment.

My family’s words made me sink deeper in guilt that I was not a slave, yet after 2 master’s degrees, I managed to be poorer than the generations before me. My great grandparents owned a farm, and sent my grandma to boarding school. I could barely afford a Wendy’s 4 for $4 meal after a Ivy League education. Hearing “things could be worse” only induced shame.

Being depressed while black means being seen as too strong to be like “those depressed white people” but too privileged to have the right to be depressed. Your pain is not validated, it’s compared.

I had no language for depression until a therapist visited my church in 2012 after my first full year of unemployment. She listed depression symptoms like excessive crying, lethargy, isolation, and irritability. That was the beginning of seeing myself not in the superhuman myth of my ancestors, but in the very real mental anguish of black communities.

In the four years since I realized I was depressed, I’ve had three therapists, five antidepressants, one suicide attempt, one close call, and a hospitalization. My concept of blackness has expanded with each peak and valley of my depression journey. Even after starting my book, Depressed While Black, and it’s online community, there are times when I still feel that I’m “not allowed” to get help. In those moments, it’s not my inexhaustible black strength that keeps me going. It’s my friends who choose life even when I can’t. It’s the low income mental health services that treats me like a human being. It’s the Twitter convos that remind me I’m not alone.

Depression and blackness are not mutually exclusive. Depression deepens blackness, and shows the contours of our culture that are often hidden from view. With the help of my black friends, I’m learning, flawed and slowly, that in my pursuit of employment, mental health must come first. I can no longer crumble mentally while my work hours build up. I’ve had to realize the very lesson that was denied to my ancestors: that my worth is more than my labor.

IMG_0138-2Imade Nibokun is a Columbia Non-Fiction MFA graduate who turned her Depressed While Black thesis into an in-progress book and online platform that shares mental health stories from an African-American lens. She writes about depression at the intersection of race and religion. Imade is also a freelance writer with published work in LA Weekly, VICE, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and WNYC.

Imade can be found on her website, Facebook and Twitter

Stigma Fighters: Dann Alexander

Cuts to Mental Health Services – Risky Business

With more mental health awareness comes more education. In an ideal world this should translate into more accessibility to more services. Canada prides itself on being a country with supposed universal access to healthcare. We are lucky here to have it. No argument there. Canadians do pay for those and other services through remittance of some of the highest taxes among all of the G7 nations. Again, there is no intended argument here. We want our tax dollars going to essential services like health.

There is a storm cloud hovering over many places such as my hometown of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The mental health unit closed at the local hospital last summer. It was a relatively small eight bed unit that served the county reasonably well. Staffing shortages were blamed. Nearly one year later and the mental health unit is still closed. Stories have made their way through of patients being assessed through the hospital’s emergency room department with very mixed results.

Loved ones who have had people admitted for treatment have seen their family members be shipped off to hospitals that are up to a five hour drive away. This kind of burden seems like risky business. Maybe they are getting treatment that they need, but what about having family support right there in person when they need it? Sure, technology can and has brought people closer together. Surely family members would rather visit their loved ones in person instead of having a bedside session of Skype.

There are other areas of Canada where cuts to mental health services have affected hospitals and the populations they are to serve. Small town and big city health care facilities feel the pressure. It’s happening in America and Britain as well. Chicago Illinois is still reeling from the 2012 closure of half of the clinics it once boasted. To think of the lives put at risk by these closures. You have to wonder where do people turn for help?

Indeed. Where do people turn for help when service cuts are put in place? Health is risky business. No system is perfect. Most would agree that a system does need to have resources in place to help those who need it.






Dann Alexander is a Freelance Writer based in Nova Scotia Canada. He is the Author of “Planned UnParenthood – Creating a Life Without Procreating” Available almost anywhere online where books are sold.




Dann can be found on his website, and Twitter

Stigma Fighters: Neesa Suncheuri

Part 1:

My mental illness journey is a long and circuitous one.  It began as soon as I could tell the difference between sad and happy.   It now continues today, although I am fortunate and proud to be in recovery.

My father was an abusive person, both to my mother and myself.  We always had to walk on eggshells around him, because he was quick to anger.  When the rage began, he would scream like a boiling tea kettle.  Whenever this happened, I would run away, quick, into another room, and then shut the door behind me.  Curled into a little ball in a corner, I heard him screaming at my mother.  It was muffled sound, words intelligible, and my mother never responded a single word.  But the cruelty was absorbed through the door, easily enough.

From home, I learned that it was wrong to express my opinions and stand up for myself, because it would make my father mad if he was in a bad mood.  Often, he would ask me, “Your father is always right, is it?”  And I would say, “Yes.  You are always right.”

When I started kindergarten, I took this lovely “skill” to school with me.  Kids taunted me in the way kids do, which is normal enough.  “Neesa the Pizza, you’re stupid!  You’re too tall!  Your hair is poofy and ugly!”  But instead of ignoring them, or telling them to go away, I would just stand there, looking at my shoes.  In my head, I thought they were right.  Because at home, I learned that the best way to show a person respect was to acknowledge they were right all the time, even at the expense of my personhood.  I strove to respect my classmates, and so I agreed with them that I was worthless.

As I got older, my lack of confidence worsened.  I began to thoroughly believe that the word “LOSER” was stamped into my DNA, and that it was a word written on my forehead, visible to all except me.  I slouched terribly, and was somewhat ashamed of being the tallest kid in my class every year.  My mother didn’t dress me fashionably also, but instead opted for practical adult clothing from L.L. Bean.  I was tall enough to wear it.  Things got better in the sixth grade, when my father left our home.  I started therapy to help process my tangled feelings, but it wasn’t enough.  The damage was already done, and by the seventh grade, I wanted to die.  To help me, my mother decided to pull me out of public school and put me into an alternative private school for eighth grade.

I’m very glad she did this.  The school was very small, and there were only about twenty-five of us eighth graders.  I started to enjoy school and come out of my shell.  I continued therapy, and had academic success.  But then the depression started again, and by wintertime in ninth grade, I wanted to die again.  This time, my mother took me to the hospital, where I stayed for two weeks.  On my fourteenth birthday, I started new psychiatric medications: Zoloft and Klonopin.  The stuff worked, and I stayed out of the hospital for the rest of high school.

I would be remiss in my story to downplay the importance of music in my life.  I began playing the violin when I was five, and then switched to the viola when I was eleven.  I played all throughout grade school, and was among the class of accomplished pre-college musicians in my area, that big fish bowl called New York.  I consistently was awarded principal violist in various festival orchestras, and also sat principal chair at a prominent youth orchestra in Manhattan.  After auditioning for conservatories for college, I was invited to attend some of the best programs in the country, one of which I ultimately attended.

As a musician, I learned to expect success for myself, and strove to avoid failure as much as possible.  This should have entailed practicing my butt off at all times, but sadly I was quite tortured in this regard.  Due to my mental illness, I had problems with practicing for longer periods of time.  After focusing for about a half hour, I would become overwhelmed with sadness, tears in my eyes.  Always in my mind was the message, You suck.  You suck.  You suck.

It was hard to practice regularly when I thought I sucked all the time, so I avoided the instrument as much as I could.  It was a miracle that I had the success that I did.  But as I trudged through academia, I was very confused.  Having studied music intensely my entire life, I defined myself as a “musician.”  And yet music was a source of pain.  It made no sense.

For undergraduate studies, I desperately wanted to escape the East Coast, and go far away.  So I decided to attend a school in the midwest.  The school was absolutely perfect for me at the time.  The campus was sprawling and green, and the downtown area was chock full of great restaurants.  The music school was huge, and so it was easy for me to lose myself in the crowd and keep to myself.  I was always surrounded by people in classes and orchestras, and yet I had few friends.  I wanted it that way.

Why?  I guess part of me wanted to immerse myself in my studies.  I saw friendship and dating as a distraction, and I was emotionally fulfilled simply by music itself.  The whole process of studying one-on-one with an esteemed professor was thrilling.  I’d have an hour with the professor, during which I’d play a piece I’d prepared.  Then he’d give me advice as to how to improve here, there, and so forth.  Over the course of my degree, I studied with four different professors in this way.

There was just one problem.  I had to practice.

When starting college, I was bright-eyed and optimistic.  I fancied that I would become one of the best violists in the school.  But at the start of sophomore year, there was a viola competition that jarred me.  Although my teacher advised that I not participate, another sophomore entered and won.  I immediately then regarded her with hatred and envy, and resolved to “beat” her by winning next year’s competition.  This conflict was entirely in my mind.  For the next year’s competition, I entered and prepared diligently enough, but lost.

By this time, it was the end of my junior year in college.  I realized that I was not becoming the best violist in the school, and that I was unable to put in the hours of daily practice required to be of such caliber.  Whenever I practiced, I would only be able to focus for about thirty minutes, when suddenly the thoughts came.  You suck.  There’s no point.  And then there were the thoughts without language.  The emotions.  The tears.  I thought I was lazy and stupid, and I hated myself.  I needed help, yet I didn’t know how to ask for it, or even describe it.

I started to think that there was some magical spiritual quality that musical virtuosi had, that I didn’t.  And that if I were to cultivate this ability in myself, I would be the superstar that I always wanted to be.  I incidentally befriended an student on campus who was a member of a meditation group.  The group had a guru that lived in India, who was perceived to be a living Master akin to Jesus.  I approached the group with sheer zeal and enthusiasm, feeling that this was my cure.  I soon made arrangements to formally join the group.

In order to join, I had to have three individual meditations with a meditation leader, a person specifically appointed by the guru to lead meditation sessions both in groups and one-on-one.  Before I started, there was one statement that should have sent off a red flag:

“The guru has said that people with mental illness should not do this practice.”

I was earnest and upfront about my taking medications for depression.  But my behavior was normal enough that I slipped under the radar.  And anyway… how bad can a meditation practice be for mental illness?  Isn’t it touted by even doctors, that mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help manage mental illness?

It was easy enough for me to assimilate the facets of this practice into my life.  I meditated daily in the morning and evening, and held the guru in my heart as the cornerstone of my attaining Enlightenment.  Every Sunday, during my senior year of college, I would hitch a ride to Indianapolis with a couple of disciples.  We’d go to the home of a meditation leader and join their group meditation sessions.  I also went on periodic retreats in different midwestern cities, where I met many kind people.  I felt my horizons broadening.

And I also believed that I was now on the way to becoming a virtuoso violist.  Just ahead, I knew that I was going to get the praise and recognition that I so badly wanted and deserved.  The chess pieces were being arranged.  At the start of senior year, I joined the music school’s baroque orchestra.  I found new musical confidence, and I was introduced to a new set of musicians.  Instantly, I developed a crush on one of them, a guy named Ricky*.  I remained mum about it, although I was completely infatuated and “in love” by the end of the year.

During the spring of my senior year, I also worked with my psychiatrist to get off of my medication, claiming that my meditation practice had healed me.  I felt like I was on top of the world, like the productive superstar I always wanted to be.  My schedule for the summer was jam-packed too.  First off, I performed at a music festival on my college campus, during which I smashed in a fling with Ricky.  Directly after this, I attended and performed at a six-week music festival in one of those southern states.  And then after this, I took a trip to India to go on a spiritual retreat, where I meditated in the presence of the guru himself.  Quite epic.

But all was not blissful.  When splitting ways with Ricky, neither of us contacted the other, and the “passion” fizzled.  Being off my medications, I started to decompensate while stuck at the music festival, and then I became obsessed with Ricky.  In my heart, I knew he hated me, the same way I knew I was a loser in childhood.  To numb myself, I abused Klonopin, even arriving to orchestral rehearsals in a sedated stupor.  I eventually had my roommate hide the bottle from me, likely horrifying her.  And then when I traveled to India, Ricky was still on my mind.  Even when meditating before the guru.  Where was the mental peace?  Everyone had their eyes closed, and no one saw my tears.

The next fall, I returned to the same college to start a masters degree.  I played in the same baroque orchestra, but this time it was torture.  I thought of Ricky 24/7, and by mid-September I started having violent thoughts about him.  Completely spooked, I went to my therapist and told him Ricky’s life was in danger.  As I confessed, I cried my guts out.  I suddenly then experienced a feeling where I felt punched in the stomach.  And as I dried my tears, I realized something changed…

Everything around me now had “energy.”  Whether it be a chair or a flower, everything around me began talking to me.  Mind you, I didn’t hear voices audibly, but everything around me now had personalities I could interact with.

I immediately perceived this to be a spiritual awakening.  This energy I felt, I believed it to be what Buddhists call “chi.”  It was everywhere, and it was in my body too.  It gave meaning to my life, where before there had been none.  And it also gave me a new wellspring of inspiration in music.  Practicing viola became a joy.  It’s working… the meditation is making me a virtuoso.  I now viewed practicing as a sort of yoga, where the postures and technique of the viola were a path to Enlightenment.

But the chi was also confusing.  All the people around me exuded energy as well, but it was more difficult to understand.  People that I used to perceive as trustworthy and helpful would now exude energy that was hostile, and vice versa.  No one noticed anything was amiss though, because no one knew me well to begin with.

At this time, I also auditioned for a music festival in New York City, and was accepted into the chamber music portion of the program.  The festival was during the winter vacation between semesters.  When the time came, I attended rehearsals and fulfilled my responsibilities, but my mental health was in shambles.  But still, no one knew.

At home, I was obsessed with chi.  I put mushrooms in my mouth and it felt like they exploded.  I ran into the shower and rubbed oil on myself to enhance my chi.  I wandered into stores, smelling the merchandise to see if products were heterosexual or homosexual.  And I started to feel the “chi” in my body.  I could direct it wherever I wanted.  I felt powerful.  I started eating lemons and going outside without a winter coat.  I thought I could keep warm with the “sheer power of anger…”

10604633_10105917040545179_7058188922368008475_oNeesa Suncheuri works as a mental health peer specialist in New York City.  She has an extensive background as a classically-trained violist, but now is a singer/songwriter performing at various dives with friends.  She writes poetry for Organic Coffee Haphazardly, and runs a Facebook wellness group called “What is Wellness?  A Mental Health Discussion Group.”

Neesa can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.  

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Stigma Fighters: Worth Fighting For

Are you worth fighting for? There was a time when we were close. I looked to you as a mentor, a father figure. Now, the only thing you do is criticize me. I wish you could see the good in me. I wish you could support me. I know that you are a narcissist. But, I still miss you. I miss the you that I once knew. I miss the you that gave me advice about how to live my life. Because, I am lost without you. I am living this life without guidance and I feel that hole.

But I think you are gone.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a way to bring you back. Can I revive you from the dead. You are alive but it’s like watching a zombie walking in front of me. I wish i knew what the trauma you experienced was. I wish there was a way to ask you how to help, but I speak and you hold your ears. I speak and you look at me like I’m not a human being.

I think you assume I am histrionic. I know you must think I have Borderline Personality Disorder. Even if that were true, what does it matter? Don’t you still love me? How can you abandon someone that was once so close to you? I can’t understand this. It feels wrong to me.

I once asked you for help and you told me that you could no longer guide me. It was time for me to do it by myself. Well, I tried to “do life by myself” and I’m not doing so well. I need you and I’ve asked for you to come back so many times. But it’s like I’m holding my hand out for you to high five me and I’m left hanging. Can we forget the past. I miss and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Can we pick up the broken pieces of what was a relationship and put them back together with relationship crazy glue? Is this even possible.

There is no way to know if you miss me too. I do know that I can’t live life pretending that you were not once the most important person to me in the entire world. It’s a shame because you think that I pushed you away, when it’s totally the other way around.

I want to not be angry anymore.

I want to forgive you.

But every time I try…

You tell me that I am a bad person in some passive way.

I can’t do this anymore.

I can’t hate you and I can’t love you and I don’t know what to do.

Please tell me what to do. You are so good at that. You used to know. You still know what to do. You just won’t tell me.


Stigma Fighters: Shari J. Ryan

Anxiety Is My Super Power
By Shari J. Ryan

Sometimes, I care too much about silly things. Silly things like the weather, making mistakes, or whether or not someone likes the person I am or the books I write. I think the way I am may be considered unhealthy to some. However, telling me not to care what others think will not change the questions I ask myself when letting someone new into my life. Telling me not to care when someone doesn’t like me won’t change the way I feel when someone snubs me or uses me. Telling me not to pay attention when someone criticizes my work won’t deter me from trying to make it better the time around.

We live in a world full of lies and for some it’s an understanding—an acceptance, for others it creates discomfort, which is understandable. Our judicial system states that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. However, a person with anxiety and possibly even people without anxiety often believe the exact opposite. It is a way of protecting ourselves. Just because we are told to think one way does not mean that is the way we will think. We walk by people on the street and wonder what they are thinking, will they hurt us or continue to walk by. The thought of them hurting us proves that we label people as guilty until they prove themselves innocent. While this might be a symptom of anxiety, this is also a symptom of human instinct.

We all stumble and trip on our own, and yet, most of us have been purposely tripped at some point in our lives too, but watching where we walk is a lesson we learn after peeling ourselves off the ground one or more times, and that’s how I live, and I can assume others are the same—always on the lookout.

My weakness as a human being is that I am passionate about unimportant things and little details, which sometimes causes more pain than good. I was the perfect diagnosee for anxiety—a person who focuses too much and too hard on unimportant things and little details, then lets it affect every part of me. It may be referred to as anxiety, but I call it passion.

I have been called sensitive as well as emotional, and it’s true. It’s something I love about me. I try to place myself in other people’s shoes. I ask myself how I would feel if I were them, and sometimes I may obsess over it in fear of cuasing pain on someone else. Obsession is from anxiety. Obsession gives me intuition on the feelings of others.

The amount of friendships, trust, hope, and hurt we allow into our lives defines us from the inside out. Some people can separate themselves, others cannot. If I were to be analyzed by the way I care for my friendships, have difficulty with trust, and sometimes think more pessimistically than optimistically when considering hope, my defined outcome points to anxiety. My defined outcome protects my heart.

In reality, anxiety highlights all fundamentals of my life, creating questioning of others thoughts, feelings, and emotions toward me. Does this make me broken or weak? No. I know what I love, what I believe in, and what could hurt me, which means my anxiety shields me from anything other than what makes me happy. When I encounter a thorn, I don’t have the desire to touch it just to see how much pain it can cause. Therefore, I’m not one to speak up, scream, or fight. Instead, I back away and allow myself to forget—to forget what I’ve let in because forgetting is the best survival technique to getting through life.

People tell me to be honest, show my feelings–wear my heart on my sleeve, but I have the same response every time someone makes this suggestion. “Why bother?” Outside influences will never change, just as people are who they were born to be. I don’t owe explanations or reasons for my silence because the result is futile and monotonous, typically leading to meaningless apologies. So I walk away, pride still intact and there is nothing wrong with that.

Despite the “normal” side effects of anxiety, I surprisingly have patience and understanding; I give to others until all is taken from me, regardless of trust. When there is nothing in return, though, it’s time to move on. These are the rules I live by–the rules my anxiety has created for me. When I walk away from what I believe may become a tumor in my life, it’s because there are no chances left to give or not enough benefiting risks for the taking. No one can ever say I gave up too soon, but some might say, I give up before it was too late.

I love anxiety. I do. It defines me, and not the weak part of me. It defines the strong part of who I am. It’s not an ailment or a stigma; it’s a protective guard—it keeps me safe and it enhances the protection of my heart and mind. Anxiety is not the broken wheel on my ride in life; it is a light in a dark room–a perception of who to trust and how to know when to leave. It keeps me the introvert I am but my bubble is perfect and small, just right for only allowing in the quality I need.

Anxiety isn’t a state of being, but rather a capability to comprehend what I’m supposed to be reading between the lines—a tool to overachieve in knowing too much and coping with a greater understanding for details in life that are commonly overlooked.

I look at my weakness as strength—a quality not everyone is fortunate enough to have. While I may find a lot to worry about as I go through life, my awareness to weed out the liars, the users, the cheaters, and stealers is a super power I hope I maintain forever. It pays to focus too much and too long over silly things, whether we refer to Anxiety as a stigma or not.

sharipictureInternational Bestselling Author, Shari J. Ryan, hails from Central Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two lively little boys. Shari has always had an active imagination and enjoys losing herself in the fictional worlds she creates.
When Shari isn’t writing or designing book covers, she can usually be found cleaning toys up off the floor.

Shari can be found on her website, Facebook and Twitter