The Only Way Out is In

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This post was written by Dr. Colleen Coffey, a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau.

I think that mental health issues exist on a spectrum. I mean this, of course, in the context of the range of issues we all face and the spectrum of severity of diagnoses I also mean this as it relates to how issues appear within us.

The best analogy I can think of when it comes to mental health issues is a Russian nesting doll. A little doll, inside of a medium sized doll, inside of a larger doll that presents to the world. Usually, the larger doll is me–the best version of healthy, happy me. The little doll is anxiety and depression–it’s always there but kind of little in comparison to the rest of me.

Most days I feel great and my quality of life is pretty awesome.

Some days I still struggle.

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Can You Spare a Moment?

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Written by Kevin Briggs, Affinity Speaker with the Active Minds Speakers Bureau and “Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

It has been two and a half years since I retired from the California Highway Patrol. Almost all of my professional career has been in government service. When I retired in November 2013 to start Pivotal Points, I really had no idea how to proceed, but I did find out that the following items were a must: business license, web page, meetings with my tax professional, listening to my mentors. Quite overwhelming I would have to say.

I have learned so much since retirement, and have presented around most of the United States, and also in Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. Presenting on the subject of suicide prevention and intervention has been an awesome and humbling experience for me, and to be honest…a hell of a lot of work.

When it comes to mental health, the question I am asked the frequently is: “How can I help someone who may be suicidal?”  This is a key question that we need to continue to collectively think about.

We should and must continue to educate our societies, families, friends, and loved ones to recognize warning signs that someone has lost so much hope they are do not want to live. Let me share this with you, in 2014 we lost over 42,000 people to suicide–just in the United States. Nearly one in five people suffer from mental illness each year. There are very few people who have not been affected in one way or another by suicide.

Could we have helped those folks?  Possibly.

I have heard time and time again, “I saw the signs,” “They talked about it, but I never thought they would go through with it,” or “I thought someone else would have talked to them.” When you really stop and think about it, writing or speaking about suicide is a cry for help.

So what can we do?

For starters, if you even think someone is suffering, sit down with the individual. Let them know what you’ve seen or heard that makes you think they are suffering or in distress. Remember, listening is the key to understanding.

I have had psychiatrists tell me they wish more peers in their occupation would really listen to their clients. They hear symptoms and prescribe medication. The person comes back in a month and if they feel even slightly better, then the medication is doing its job.

My personal and ongoing treatment with my psychiatrist and counselor have been very good. Both listen intently and together we work out a plan for my continued success.

So back to the question, “What can we do?” In my experience, those who have been suicidal feel very alone, in pain, and think they are a burden to their families. To sit down with that person, tell them how important they are in your life, that their life has value, and you’ll be there for them, is a great start.

In my contacts with several hundred people contemplating suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, loneliness was a main contributing factor. Whether it stemmed from a broken heart, abuse/neglect, aging, social media or feeling rejected by others, social isolation can cause very serious health effects. Chronic loneliness can affect your heart, brain, life expectancy, and as a matter of fact, it is a major contributing factor to depression and alcoholism.

How difficult would it be for you to take a bit of time from your day to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with someone you think may be suffering? What if it was you on the other side?  You probably won’t be able to solve their problems/concerns, but just taking a bit of time to be there, to listen to understand, and to say, “I’m here for you whenever you need me,” may be just what the person needs, and you may have just saved a life.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.

KOGNITO CHALLENGE UPDATE: SAVE LIVES AND RAISE FUNDS FOR MENTAL HEALTH

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We’re two weeks into the Fall 2016 Kognito Challenge, and we are already seeing amazing results!

Overall, 65 schools have reached more than 600 students via Kognito’s At Risk for College Students mental health simulation, which is free to all schools with Active Minds chapters through October 7. The online, interactive experience teaches participants how to identify and assist students in distress.

This is the second Kognito Challenge. Collectively, Active Minds chapters have engaged more than 4,000 participants since the first Kognito Challenge in spring 2016.

As of the time this post was written, Austin Peay State University, Saint Cloud State University, and Stockton University, have completed and are leading the Challenge, each training more than 55 students, faculty, and staff. The first 40 chapters to engage at least 50 students and 1 faculty or staff member to complete the full simulation will receive $250 credit toward their national fundraising goal for mental health awareness and the Active Minds movement.

There’s still plenty of time to join in and compete to win! Here are a few creative approaches chapter members have taken to encourage participation:

Take pictures of students completing the simulation.

Pictures are worth 1,000 words. Take pictures of people completing the challenge and post on social media.

Promote the Challenge on social media.

Build an army one step at a time. Gather a team of a few people to help you spread the word. Or, ask one person to tell a friend, to tell a friend, to tell a friend. Active Minds at Austin Peay State University, University of Texas at San Antonio, and others have tapped into their social media networks to spread the word via social media for the Challenge.3

Use school resources.

Several schools have sent the Kognito simulation link to their campus listservs, inviting all students, staff, and faculty to complete the course. Talk to your school newspaper, radio station, social media team and announcers at sporting events about helping you promote the challenge.

Give out free food or candy in exchange.

In the past, some chapters have re-branded their Kognito Challenge (such as a “Game Simulation Marathon”) and distributed candy in a central area on campus as a way to draw students to their table and ask them to complete the simulation.

Incentivize with gift cards.

Several chapters are raffling off gift cards to participants. Participating chapters receive weekly user reports from Kognito, which can be used to randomly select prize winners.

Integrate the simulation into fall RA training or first-year experience/orientation.

Several schools have been working on incorporating the Kognito simulation into RA training and/or first-year experience/orientation. To count for the competition, each individual needs to complete the course, so it is recommended that they/orientation bring their own laptops to the training or attend part of the course in a computer lab.

Team up with professors to provide extra credit.

Professors in departments of psychology, social work, public health, and others may be interested in offering course credit to students who complete the simulation.

Incorporate it into your student org fair and other programming.

Last year, the University of Pittsburgh allowed participation in the Kognito Challenge to qualify students to be acknowledged as completing the chapter’s upcoming campus-wide mental health unity pledge.

There’s still plenty of time to get involved and train your peers to help students in distress! If you haven’t started yet, take the course today at www.activeminds.org/kognito and share it with students on campus before the free course expires on October 7!

Team up with your school’s marketing club.

find out if your campus marketing club would take on promoting the Challenge as a project.

Set weekly goals.

Set small, realistic weekly goals that will put you over the finish line. All you need are a few participants each week.

Organize a dorm night.

Organize a dorm night. Talk to RAs to help you schedule a few 30 minutes time-slots when people take the simulation in their room. Give out refreshments.

Contact the Chapters Team at chapters@activeminds.org for support.

My Cat, the Lifesaver

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IMG_1080 (1) I’m only a little embarrassed to say that I think my cat may have been partially responsible for saving my life.

I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder for a long time–almost ten years now that I look back on it–but I’ve always been able to find my way back with some time, effort, and a lot of therapy. But last summer I fell into a depressive episode that was deeper, longer, and more debilitating than anything I’d ever experienced

For the first time my mood wasn’t the only thing affected by my mental illness. My body hurt, all the time, constantly. I was either sleeping for 14 hours a day or less than four. I’d go two weeks eating almost nothing and another two weeks eating almost anything. I could barely move but worse than any of that, I could barely think.

I’ve always felt smart, and I’ve liked using my brain. My job demands that as my primary function, but suddenly I found myself floundering. I was forgetting common words; losing them halfway through a sentence I’d already started. I developed a stutter and couldn’t think through tasks or projects, immediately overwhelmed by everything. I would write emails with the same care and attention that I normally would but people would write back saying I wasn’t making sense, that the sentences didn’t mean anything when put together.

I’d fallen into old habits of self-harm, and I was struggling with constant thoughts of suicide. And if I managed to drag myself into work on any given day, I’d be faced with coming home utterly exhausted to a lonely apartment in a new city, far from my friends and family.

I did a decent job keeping up the façade of being depressed but functioning…or at least that’s the only explanation that I can think of for why my friends decided it was time to redouble their push for me to adopt a cat.

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We Can Cope with That

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by An Anonymous Contributor

You know when you’re at the grocery store and the line is kind of long, or someone is moving kind of slow and you’re just looking around at the candy? Do you ever get that split second, impulsive, almost unconscious though of “I could steal this”?

Probably in that same instant you laugh to yourself about how silly that would be; that you don’t even want the candy bar you’re looking at; and then the cashier calls you up, you smile, and you move on with your day.

It isn’t perfect, but this is the closest analogy I have to describe what intrusive, passive, suicidal thoughts look like to me.

I’m pretty sure I have most of the diagnoses in the book (by book, I’m actually referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM): Major Depression, ADHD, Generalized Anxiety (or maybe an atypical OCD, we’re not quite sure yet), and most recently Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

I’d suspected that I’d had BPD since I was a junior in high school; a budding Psych major reading the DSM in the library on my lunch periods. When I stumbled on BPD I knew pretty instantly that things fit but I was also terrified. I read about how treatment was limited, and how most people experienced multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations.

Most people who know me know that I live a life fairly opposite of the standard Cluster B personality short hand of “erratic, dramatic, and over-emotional.” But when depression hit again and my self-loathing was deep, my suicidal thoughts scarier than they ever had been, my self-harm less predictable and more severe, I asked my therapist directly if he thought I had BPD. And, though he hesitated, later explaining that he worried about weighing me down with the stigma that comes with the diagnosis, he said he did.

Though I’ve never attempted suicide, I have been plagued by intrusive, persistent, suicidal thoughts. Just like the voice in the back of your head at the grocery store telling you that you could steal that Snickers if you really wanted to; I have a voice in the back of my head telling me that I could kill myself if really wanted to–if the circumstances lined up correctly, if all my hope really was gone.

People were worried about me and checking in with me often. My family and friends were sometimes overwhelmed by how little they could do to help me; how powerless they felt in the face of something they couldn’t see or understand. I felt like I was slowly suffocating but my own brain was the one who wasn’t letting my lungs work.

My brain was the one keeping me awake every night telling me how much of a burden I was on the people who cared about me even though that care that they showed every day was a sign of how much they wanted me to stay alive and get back to being myself.

I still have a lot of trouble realizing that I can’t always trust my brain to be telling me the truth.

But the one strategy that’s stuck, that’s helped me get used to the thought that my brain is an unreliable narrator, is the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale.” It’s a fictional series about a small desert town’s community radio station where strange things happen. These include: Tuesdays occasionally being canceled due to scheduling errors, dogs not being allowed in the dog park because it is the home to strange, hooded figures, and civilizations of tiny people living below the alleys of the neighborhood bowling alley.

All of these events are reported in ominous, dark tones but, at the end of the day, the town lives on and the people realize that it’s not worth being afraid of all the things that they see, hear, and experience. They can live on, even with the strange, sometimes scary occurrences. I’m not great at it, but I’ve come to see my mind as Night Vale and its radio host, Cecil.

So, when my brain tries to tell me that everything is hopeless and when it won’t leave me alone, I try to smile and laugh at yet another story being spun and remember what Cecil said at the end of one episode: “And while the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first and settles in as the gentle present. This now, this us, we can cope with that.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.

Send Silence Packing: Meet Danielle Lukens

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dani-family_v2Hi, I’m Dani, and I’m delighted to introduce myself as the other 50% of the Fall 2016 Send Silence Packing road staff! It’s great to meet you.

What can I say, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind! In late August I packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and hopped on a plane to D.C., eager to embark on a 70-day journey across the United States. I was in disbelief that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel and support a cause I am so passionate about. It’s now almost two weeks since I boarded that flight and I’m still not sure it’s fully sunk in that this is my life!

daniWhen I read the Send Silence Packing Staffer job posting I knew I had found my dream job. Road tripping, mental health advocacy, and college populations all in one job?!?!? It just seemed too good to be true. But here I am in a hotel room in Oklahoma pinching myself and wondering, “How did I get here?”

Some of you may be wondering the same thing, so hopefully I can clear things up for all of us! I graduated from The University of Vermont in 2012 with a degree in Environmental Studies but a burgeoning passion for mental health. During my senior year one of my best friends’ mental health started to deteriorate.  As one of his primary supports I was introduced to a whole new realm of mental health care that I had never known before. I am grateful for having witnessed the barriers he encountered when trying to access care, and to the stigma surrounding bipolar and transgender people within the mental health community.

I have since pursued a career in the mental health field and have worked in diverse workplaces ranging from a teen substance abuse clinic, to a funeral home, to the counseling and wellness service at New York University. When the opportunity to join Active Minds as an SSP Staffer presented itself it seemed like the perfect next step.

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I am so thrilled to be part of Active Minds and to bring my passion to the Fall 2016 tour of Send Silence Packing. Stay tuned for more updates from the road!

Send Silence Packing: Meet Samantha Greenhalgh

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Hey everyone! My name is Samantha (you can call me Sam).

I am one of the new Send Silence Packing Staffers for the Fall 2016 Tour. I graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham this past May, and from the moment I heard Active Minds was looking for new road staff, I knew I had to apply.

I joined UAB’s chapter of Active Minds as a freshman and in my four years I had the privilege of witnessing our little chapter grow from 4 members to 40 and more. Having hosted SSP on my own campus, I saw first-hand how the display could impact a community, and I am honored to be able to bring a similar effect to campuses across the country.

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Joining the Active Minds Team as an SSP Staffer has given me the opportunity to stay involved with the organization, fulfill my love of travel, and continue making an impact on communities across the country.  Though we have only completed a few displays so far, I can already tell this is going to be extremely rewarding work. I am looking forward to what the rest of the tour has in store for us, and I cannot wait to share it with all of you!

 

Learning What Can Help

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This post was submitted by Melina Acosta, Member of Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and President of Active Minds at UT-San Antonio.

In November 2013, I knew little about mental health aside from the fact that my dad was battling depression. I avoided the topic of suicide on that autumn night when my dad mentioned it because I did not know how to respond. Sensing that it made me uncomfortable, my dad made that the first and last time he ever brought it up.

He died by suicide less than a week later.

I was nearly done with my first semester of college at the time of my dad’s death. That fall, I had gone home every so often to visit my dad, whose second bout of depression had grown increasingly worse over the semester. The man I had known all of my life to be a silly, ambitious, and energetic businessman was suddenly a taciturn, lethargic, and sad stranger. Continue Reading

Changing the Conversation

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Russell Fascione is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee.

“Like… I get that it’s not the person’s fault really but… suicide is pretty selfish when you think about it.”

Flash.

Instantly, it was like somebody lit that spark in my mind that never fails to ignite my passion for mental health advocacy. For me, there’s something about stigma that turns an ordinary passion into the sort of fire that you can just see in someone’s eyes.

The above sentence was said to me (paraphrased, of course) a couple of years ago. I was tabling with a fellow Active Minds member and a friend of hers had joined us to hang out. I think we were tabling about suicide, which is why the subject came up.

My immediate reaction when she said this was to be offended. Did she really have the nerve to say that while we were tabling about suicide prevention? Once I took a step back from my emotion I realized that she didn’t mean to insult anyone. She probably didn’t understand how stigmatizing it can be to label suicide as “selfish.” How could I expect her to understand when the topic of suicide is so seldom discussed in our society?

“The thing about suicide is….” I paused, not wanting to offend her or make her think she offended me, “Even if we can call the act of attempting suicide selfish, the person behind it is not acting out of selfishness… if that makes sense.”

I could tell she was truly listening to what I was saying, so I continued. “When someone is so far into that dark place that they want to end their life, they might not be thinking about who their actions are going to hurt. Maybe they are in too much pain to think about it. And even if they are aware of how it might impact their loved ones, the desire to end their pain may have become too great to bear anymore.”

If I remember correctly, that’s about all I said. I could’ve gone in-depth about the known risk factors for suicidal behavior. I could have explained how feeling like a burden (a common experience of those contemplating suicide) might make someone think that they’re doing their loved ones a favor by taking their own life, which might completely negate any feelings of selfishness or guilt that they might have had. However, I could tell she was really considering what I had just said, and I didn’t want to go too far and overwhelm her.

The notion that suicide is selfish is something I had spent a great deal of time thinking about.

When I was 14 I felt so incredibly guilty for wanting to die, because I knew that if I killed myself my family would be devastated. For years, that guilt and the selfishness that I felt for thinking about suicide kept me from reaching out for help. All of the stigma about suicide–much of which I had internalized–had me convinced that it was better to suffer in silence than to have someone else think what I did: that I was selfish for wanting to die. I’ll never know for sure if that guilt had pushed me closer to the edge or further from it, but I do know that I’m grateful to be alive.

Make no mistake, I didn’t lose any respect for this acquaintance because of her statement, and there was no animosity created between us. In fact I’m glad she said what she said, because it reminded me that the stigma we need to face is not just in the media and our larger social systems, but in the people around us who don’t even realize that these ideas are stigmatizing.

It’s one of the things that make the work that we all do as Active Minds members or in other advocacy settings that much more important. I also realized that it was important for me to listen and understand where she was coming from too, because a one-sided conversation is not a productive conversation, especially in the pursuit of social change.

Being part of the social movement against mental health stigma can be difficult and discouraging, especially with the seemingly endless sea of misinformation and disrespect shown in various media outlets, but it’s worth it. Thinking back, it makes me happy to remember how respectful and thoughtful that conversation was. It gives me hope to know that “fighting” the stigma doesn’t have to be a fight, sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation.

I wanted to share this story here because I hope to see a day in which we can completely put to rest the idea that victims of suicide are selfish, weak, or otherwise bad people, and think instead with empathy by making an effort to understand what someone might be going through if they are contemplating suicide.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.

10 Things You Can Do To Stop Suicide

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So much is happening as our movement kicks into high gear for Suicide Prevention Month (Sept 10 – Oct 3) to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.

Bottom line: all of us can help prevent suicide. Check out the ten ways you can act today at: http://www.activeminds.org/suicide-prevention-month-2016

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You’ll also see on that page examples of what Active Minds’ 400+ college chapters are doing on their campuses to spread awareness as widely as possible.

Together we are making a powerful statement of healing, hope, and help.