On the Nature of Happiness

In the pursuit of happiness we find ourselves chasing after many things: the right relationship partner, the dream job, the perfect home, the best vehicle, the latest tech gadget, but upon receipt of any of these things we merely find a short-lived excitement, a rush of enjoyment up until the sensation begins to fade in time.

In this falling-out of happiness we sometimes ask ourselves why that thing doesn’t make us happy anymore, and when that “thing” is a person we find ourselves wondering if we ever actually loved them at all or if it was just the excitement of something new and different. When the luster of “newness” has given way to everyday boringness, what are we supposed to think or feel? What does it all mean? When someone says, “I’m not happy,” or “I just want to find happiness,” what do they really mean?

People can make us happy, that part is actually quite true. Other human beings can bring happiness into our lives just as the taste of ice cream, or a birthday gift, a beautiful sunset, or anything else we’ve learned to find joy in. What we often don’t consider is the cost of that happiness. After all, it cannot be free, nothing in life comes without a degree of debt. The cost of happiness is impermanence.

We must come to accept the reality that happiness is an emotion like anger, sadness, fear, guilt, disgust, love, and all the rest. Emotions were never meant to be anything more than temporary. We’re not always happy for the same reason we’re not always angry, sad, afraid, ashamed, or any other emotion. We’re not meant to be happy all the time, it’s unnatural, it goes against our nature as living beings experiencing life. To always be happy would not be a gift, but a delusion, an illness, a curse, just as it is to be angry or sad all the time. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

Impermanence is the only absolute, and breaking the delusion that permanence of any kind is possible, is the only cure to our dissatisfaction with our lives, regardless of what or who no longer brings us happiness. Even contentment, our default emotional state, does not last forever – it too must give way to the emotional spectrum from time to time. I think perhaps it would do us a great service to live an examined life and to stop pondering whether or not we are happy or if someone or something makes us happy, and begin to ask ourselves if we are content.

If this topic interests you, consider reading The Power of Purpose, Meaning, and Fulfillment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

Online Etiquette

We’ve all seen it online and most of us have probably done it: committing a social faux pas in the comments section of social media posts, YouTube videos, news articles, and forums.

Though we’ve had centuries of revolving lessons on an ever-evolving modern social etiquette, and for millennia ethics philosophers have debated how people should behave in all aspects of society, today it would seem we are lacking in any significant contributions for a much needed social skills training in cyberspace behavior.

Take the time to read the comments section of an obituary where someone died in a particularly shocking accident, homicide, or from suicide and you’ll find more than expressions of sympathy. There is a high probability that you’ll also find disrespect to the deceased or their family, unfounded and offensive conspiracy theories, tribalism between commenters, inflated egos on righteousness, hyperbole, hysteria and any number of other reactionary behaviors and expressed emotions.  Some of the behavior is reminiscent of what you’d expect from children who have not yet learned proper social etiquette and, perhaps more importantly, self-awareness with emotional regulation.

It’s okay to feel confused, to feel angry, to feel scared, to feel threatened, to feel sad, all of these emotions are completely normal, especially for situations where someone’s death has been particularly violent or unexpected, but how we choose to experience or react to and express those emotions is critical for our own wellbeing and our ability to navigate social interactions and relationships effectively.

It’s never okay to be an internet troll and blurt out the first thing that pops into our heads, especially when we’re feeling very emotional, particularly extreme emotions like anger, as they blur our ability to rationally make decisions. Anxiety or nervousness, fear, and sadness are also strong emotions that can play a significant role in the words and phrases we choose to use and how we express them.

The false sense of anonymity we often feel online disconnects us from the consequences of the things we post or comment, especially in times of social and political turmoil. When in cyberspace, we dawn a delusional state of mind where we believe that we can vent our heightened emotional states freely without consequence and post angry or hysterical comments and then just scroll on to the next emotionally triggering post or simply close the browser window or smartphone app, and not have to acknowledge the very real human faces behind the other usernames and how our words may affect those people. Especially when those people are the friends and family of the deceased.

I would compare that level of disgust and discomfort to someone walking into a restaurant, dropping their pants, and taking a shit right on the floor and then walking right back out.  The behavior is socially bizarre, spiteful, derogatory, and shameful for the person doing it and unhealthy and very disturbing for the people unfortunate enough to witness it. The vast majority of us would not commit such an act in public, yet people do this online every day and there are consequences for them and society because of it. Least of all it reveals how mentally unwell the perpetrator is, essentially an audacious and ineffective cry for help.

Unregulated emotional outbursts and ill-thought expressions are why many websites and software applications no longer have options for commentary or allow it to be turned off. The very fact that general audiences cannot be trusted enough to engage in socially acceptable commentary which meets most online community guidelines, has set a precedent for the establishment of online social skills training, something that in my opinion should be instituted in schools – beginning in the elementary level.

It’s true that online chat and forum moderators have been around since the late 1990s, but back then far fewer people were online and they generally assisted moderators with identifying and removing inappropriate content. Today, we seem to grant people some type of collective permission to share outrageous commentary and behavior, it’s essentially rewarded with attention that only serves to encourage even more bad conduct. Attention or fame is the modern social currency and the current value of volatile and controversial behavior is very high.

There was a time when we had a sense that what we posted online would be heavily scrutinized for betraying any social norms because back then cyberspace was all new territory, we relied heavily on the influences and infrastructure of standardized in-person social interactions. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of bad social behavior online is that it is no longer staying online. An emboldened and unfettered cyber-lifestyle seems to be encroaching on our real-world social interactions, particularly in the last ten years.

While there are many reasons why people are currently walking around on a hair-trigger and exploding at anyone who so much as looks at them the wrong way, I believe that the rise of social media use has dramatically increased bad social etiquette at public venues, transportation stations, and other heavily populated spaces. Respect seems to have gone the way of proper salutations and valedictions – a once finely crafted and elaborate custom in written communications. I’m certainly not the only one to notice, comment threads reliably showcase people trying to keep the peace and report inappropriate content, but I fear their struggle is futile unless we take online social behavior more seriously.

Ask any parent about pre-teen and adolescent bullying online and you’ll see I’m not alone in this sentiment. Simply put, much more needs to be done about how people conduct themselves online. Perhaps at the core of this issue is why people seem to have given up on the notion of respecting others as human beings with thoughts and emotions, and instead seem to prefer to view people online as objects for amusement and vitriol. For me, it speaks volumes to the state of mental health and the very concerning reality that many people are mentally unwell and not receiving the treatment (in whatever form) they very clearly and desperately need.

To learn about how to effectively practice empathy in social engagements, I recommend my past post How to Practice Empathy and Prevent Emotional Impotence.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

Book Review: This Book Could Save Your Life

This Book Could Save Your Life:

Breaking the Silence Around the Mental Health Emergency

It’s Christmas Day and I’ve been reading This Book Could Save Your Life, which I started the other day, it’s a very important book that should be in the hands of every family. I’ll tell you more about it in a minute…

I live with a mental health condition that causes me to have suicidal thoughts and behavior. My mental health struggles began at age 14, I became suicidal at age 16 and enacted a plan to take my life. I survived that experience, only to become suicidal again at age 19. Up to that point, almost no one knew these things were happening to me, and then someone at my job finally noticed and intervened and I got medical and mental health treatment. Unfortunately, I became suicidal again at age 22.

I have been in and out of treatment for my mental health condition for the last seventeen years. Sometimes systems of care and support have been effective, but often times they have failed. There are many reasons why I am still alive today. Medication and therapy have sometimes been helpful, but my condition has been rather treatment resistant. Friends, family, and sometimes even strangers have made a major positive impact, even when they thought their words or actions were only minor acts of kindness.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “I’m not an optimistic person, I’m a prisoner of hope.” The hope that change is not only possible but absolute, has kept me going when everything and everyone else has failed. Not my therapist, my medication, not family, or my friends, not my fitness routine or my meditation practice, not even time in nature have been foolproof. When all else has failed, hope has kept me alive and half the time I’m not even sure what I’m hoping for, just anything different I suppose. Something new and different, doesn’t even have to be better.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, each day, about 130 Americans die by suicide, that’s about one person every 11 minutes. Of those, about 70% are men, and over half involve firearms. There are many factors that contribute to suicide and not every suicide is the result of the same circumstances.

Some suicides are the result of mental illness that is either untreated or that is being treated with a method that is ineffective, but actually not all suicides are related to mental illness. Some are the result of immense pressures such as bullying, or feelings of failure such as losing a job or relationship, feelings of isolation and loneliness, or from extreme grief due to losing a loved one, to only name a few.

While not every suicide is the result of mental illness, every suicide is tied to mental health. Let me repeat that: not every person has a mental illness, but every person has mental health.

No matter the cause of suicide, surveys show that more than 90% of Americans believe that it is preventable.

Prevention is challenging and it takes many elements to be effective. Everything from education and resources, to skilled intervention, mental health crisis services, effective treatment and medical care, systems of community support, and peer support all play an important role in maintaining mental wellness in the face of adversity, whether that adversity is a mental illness, bullying, financial issues, relationship problems, loneliness, grief, or any other contributing factor.

There are always warning signs prior to suicide, but the challenge with warning signs is that sometimes people go to great lengths to hide them by concealing their thoughts and emotions or physical activities, or those around them do not know what is or is not a warning sign. Not every person at risk of dying by suicide will exhibit the same warning signs either, which makes any kind of blanket statement about signs to look for somewhat unhelpful.

Age is another major factor. A 10 or 14-year-old’s life is drastically different than a 24 or 68-year-old’s. A child or young teen is more likely to be experiencing bullying or a mental illness in its very early stages, whereas a young adult or middle-aged person is more likely to be experiencing financial or relationship issues, social isolation, substance use and/or the symptoms of an untreated mental illness they’ve been battling for decades.

There are plenty of resources out there that can provide you with suggestions on some of the warning signs to look for, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Now back to the book… written by 22-year-old Ben West, the eldest of three brothers from rural Kent County in southern England, U.K., it tells the story of how he lost his younger brother, Sam, to suicide in January of 2018, when Sam was only 15 years old and Ben was age 17.

The book discusses their early life, alongside their youngest brother, Tom, who was only 13 at the time of Sam’s death, and what they experienced as Sam began to display symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as depression. Ben explains how he knew next-to-nothing about mental health as a teenager and reflects on how he wished mental health education would have been part of school curriculum.

As the book progresses, Ben retells what happened the night Sam took his own life in their family home and how that experience impacted Ben and his family as it happened and then later the ripple effects of that tragedy. It is a very raw telling of a horrific experience that has been lived and continues to be lived by so many families around the world.

What sets Ben’s book apart from many others is that he has been immensely active in mental health transformation, primarily in the United Kingdom. In fact, you may have heard of him or seen him before on the news, as he began speaking about what happened to his family and the tragic state of mental health services both inside the U.K. and around the world, which garnered him international attention. The Diana Award, a U.K. charity that recognizes young people for making change in the world, announced Ben as their 2019 Legacy Award recipient.

Ben has spent the last 4 years campaigning hard to make real and positive changes to mental health services, from improvements to the U.K. National Health Service and to support systems within schools. His proximity to and involvement in these causes put him in close quarters with public figures and politicians, including an encounter with the then U.K. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Ben speaks both loudly and intelligently about the subject of mental health, at a time when we need such voices more than ever. While he may be British, I feel that this book is an asset to any family, regardless of whether you’re British or American. It is a reminder that understanding mental health is incredibly important, not just for your own sake but for your family’s.

It’s also a reminder that the warning signs for suicide may not be so obvious and that they may be more subtle than you may expect. It’s also a testament to the fact that both U.K. and U.S. mental health services are lacking and need our attention and support both financially and politically to actually be effective.

And perhaps most of all, the book is an ode to personal resiliency in the face of great tragedy. No one would have blamed Ben for recoiling inside himself and never again speaking of his brother’s death or the mental illness that led to it, or the broken system that failed them. He could have just mucked on with his life, undoubtedly grief-stricken but otherwise unmoved to speak his painful truth to the world and fight for the wellbeing of others and their families.

The least anyone could do in the struggle against the festering and overwhelming epidemic of ineffective mental health systems of care and treatment, and the dimly lit understanding of what to do when faced with the need to seek such services for yourself or someone you care for, is to read this book and perhaps you will discover the inspiration to find your own voice and use it to make these systems and processes better.

Ben’s parents have established a charity in Sam’s honor, The Sam West Foundation, dedicated to connecting those in need to mental health resources and services.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

A Safe Place to Call Home: The Childhood Trauma of Growing Up LGBTQ+ in Small-Town America

Me at 11 years old

I have lived in Osage County, Missouri my whole life, my family has done so for generations. Many, if not most, of the people who live here would tell you that they feel like they can be themselves, live the life they want, that they have a sense of belonging and support, and see this whole county as their close-knit community. But I have never felt that way.

Growing up here I tried to appear as though I fit into this place and among these people, but inside I never felt that way. I tried to mimic the behaviors I saw, repeat the words I heard, attempting to convince others and shamefully myself that I was at home here. But Osage County has never felt like home to me because I never felt as though I could safely be me.

Instead my childhood was filled with overwhelming fear and crushing anxiety, I grew up feeling an ever present paranoia, like I was in danger all day and every day, except for the moments that I was alone. Alone, I could be me, I could think and feel without external judgement, without the risk of being discovered and ostracized, I could feel safe. I learned very young that people were mean and hateful and I came to the conclusion that this equated adulthood.

Even in the safety of isolation, I was not entirely free. As a kid, I listened and observed the adults around me, including my parents, other family members, teachers, church and community members, paying attention to the things they said and the things they did. Learning their opinions and beliefs and measuring myself against those ideals and coming to the understanding that I was not good enough, that I was not good at all. They taught me to hate myself, to feel shame and guilt for things beyond my ability to ever control or change.

Eleven-year-old me began to question his sexuality when puberty struck, without even knowing what the word sexuality meant and at that point I probably never even heard the word before. That young version of me had thoughts and feelings he could not explain nor fully understand, but he had heard adults around him describe such thoughts and feelings as bad, in both a religious context and in a general social one. Building up trauma that would one day break down the door to his mind, leading to a lifetime of mental illness.

I was only a child and yet I understood that if anyone knew that I was having these uncontrollable thoughts and feelings that I would be an outcast, and as a child you fear greatly the process and the consequences of abandonment and rejection, both real and imagined. A child’s imagination is perhaps the most destructive, but the real is no less painful to endure.

I want you to take the time to imagine this if you cannot personally relate to it. Think about when you were 11 years old, or look around you at your kids or kids in your family or school or community. Consider what it might be like to be a child with a massive secret that if the adults or even other kids around him found out, his external life would be the same kind of hell his internal life has been. Imagine the burden, the weight on that kid’s shoulders, the fear and the anxiety. Some of the kids you know right now are experiencing this trauma, and believe you me it is trauma.

By age 13, I was no longer questioning my sexuality, I knew what the thoughts and feelings I was having meant, even if I didn’t know a thing about the science or psychology of human sexuality. I knew what was happening with my mind and body, I knew what it meant when my heart fluttered when I talked to another boy I liked, I knew what it meant when I wanted another boy’s attention, to be more than just his best friend, and the intense jealousy I felt when he spent recess with someone else.

I knew what it meant when I wondered what it would be like to kiss another boy, to hug another boy. I knew what it meant when I marveled at another boy’s body and his athletic ability, or his humor, or the way it felt when he so much as touched me on the arm. I knew what it meant to deeply yearn to confide in him, trust in him, to protect him, and the desire to explore the physical changes that were happening to us both as we experienced that strange thing called puberty.

I was afraid and ashamed of all of it. I learned to hate these thoughts and feelings. In time I grew to hate other people who harbored the very same thoughts and feelings I had, and eventually I hated myself so much that I thought it was better that I kill myself than fall in love with another boy. All because of the words and actions of the adults around me who indirectly taught me that such thoughts and feelings were to be repressed and concealed because they were wrong, evil, sick, disgusting, among a myriad of other negatives.

When adults look at kids and say or think that they don’t know or experience things that adults do, those adults are only being dishonest with themselves and have either forgotten their own childhood or somehow made it through that time in their life blissfully unaware of themselves and their experiences. Kids may not fully understand what’s happening to them or what they are experiencing in their mind, but they are far more aware than many adults are willing to accept.

Throughout adolescence and young adulthood I was fully aware that Osage County was not an LGBTQ+ friendly place and that the people who used phrases like “be kind to others” really only meant “be kind to others like us.” I knew it meant that if you were different you were on the outside of this so-called community, and quite frankly it isn’t hard to not fit into their expected mold. If you’re not heterosexual, religiously Catholic/Christian, or politically Republican, you are likely a minority here. I certainly do not represent any of those three classifications and have not for many years.

Being a minority means you are on the outskirts of a community. It means that the resources, services, and even experiences that are readily available to others are either less available to you or you are discouraged from accessing them. Osage County has never been a welcoming place for people who are different, at least not during my lifetime.

When I came out in 2008, people literally told me that I should leave because I won’t be accepted here. I had people who were my “friends” that not only backed away from me but also ceased all communication with me, some even attacked and blocked me on social media because their Christian beliefs required them to view me as sinful, corrupt, and as a disease that needed to be purged from their life.

Childhood trauma is often a doorway for mental health conditions and substance use disorders to arise in teens and young adults, sometimes leading to suicide. Mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidality are prevalent enough in the general population, but they are even more common in the LGBTQ+ population for the reasons I’ve described throughout this writing.

Our attitudes, behaviors, and choices are powerfully influential. Oftentimes we are communicating to or influencing kids without even realizing it if we do not practice mindfulness and self-awareness. If adults do not want to teach judgement and hate to children, then adults need to stop practicing judgement and hate.

You can learn more about my personal journey with sexuality in my article titled, A Journey Called Hope. Other articles of similar interest are as follows:

If you or someone you know is an LGBTQ+ youth in need of resources and crisis services please reach out to the The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization dedicated to the mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth. Additional resources can be accessed through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or by utilizing the below links.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

20 Years Later

20 Years Later:
A Letter to a Lost Teenager

There is so much I wish that I could have told you, so much that I wish I could have done for you. If only I could travel through time to 2002 and be a part of your life, maybe somehow things could have been different for you. Instead I am forced to write a letter to a ghost, a person that no longer exists as anything more than a memory, a whisper in the silence, an echo in the places you used to wander.

I thought about making this letter witty and fun, the type that would make a person laugh and feel warm and fuzzy. But let’s be honest, you wouldn’t have been able to relate to warm and fuzzy. The only thing you knew was a withering vitality, like a neglected plant yearning for water. The language in your head was one of coldness, of a jagged sort, brittle and painful. A kind of smothering darkness, a foggy disillusionment for the dawning years of young adulthood that were still just a subtle glow on the far horizon of your life.

I look in your eyes and I see the pain you were feeling. I’d like to believe that if I had been there with you as someone you knew walking through the halls of your high school, or maybe someone sitting next to you in your classrooms, that I would see it, that I would see the hurt in your eyes, the confusion, the breaking from reality, the birthing of madness. That I would have seen your fear of being noticed and yet quite contradictorily your deep yearning to be known.

I have to hand it to you, your attempts to hide it were worthy of commendation. How anyone could continue to function in your blooming delirium while the walls were caving in, as if everything was fine, was quite frankly astonishing. The amount of pressure, not just the external social pressure, but the internal pressure, all threatening to make you implode and explode simultaneously, the burden was tremendous. Your ability to juggle all of these aspects of your life was remarkable, but that whisp of desperation you felt, that smoldering sensation, that sinking feeling, I’m sorry to say eventually surpassed even your ability to control and hide, and in time it over took you.

Every so often I pull out your poetry and I read through the words that you left behind for me so long ago, some kind of vain attempt to bring you back among the living. Whether or not you knew it in your 16-year-old mind, you were recording and sending me messages from across time and space, and while I cannot honestly say that I understand the meaning in all of them, in most of them the hidden truth reveals itself in a way that you were always too afraid to do with your voice. Like blood that drips from an open wound, the off-white pages were the receptacle of the fears, the secrets, and the yearning, all bleeding out from within you, from all your broken places, saturating and staining the paper.

Many of your poems and prose were about feeling trapped, imprisoned by both yourself and forces outside of you, such as in this piece:

Mirrored Windows

In this fortress of sorrow
there are no windows to the world.

When I look into them
all that I see is me.

Sometimes I cry for I cannot see
the skies of ever-changing time.

The darkness tells me secrets
of the happiness beyond these four
blood-stained walls.

I yearn to escape my prison,
but I am held here by bars of
shame and hate.

Reading through the words you left behind it becomes pretty clear that this is how you survived. It would have been impossible for you to hold all of it in, all of the anxiety, the stress, the shame, guilt, regret, hate, confusion, distrust, fear, anger, desire, hurt, and all the other emotions you were experiencing. You refrained from telling others, you avoided most social interactions, and instead you turned to that pen and notepad, and as if through some type of magical spell you opened a portal into yourself and out poured the painful thoughts and feelings that were swelling up inside of you.

You had already convinced yourself years earlier that people wouldn’t understand you if you had even been able to speak the words to describe what was happening inside you. This ink-stained artwork was all that you had, the only way you could get the pain out of your head, a short-lived moment of relief, like the sun breaking between the storm clouds relentlessly thundering inside your mind, just before plunging you back into the abyss that left you panicked and withdrawn.

All these years later your courage still inspires me. You thought yourself broken and incapable of being repaired, you felt as though pieces of you had been stolen away and scattered beyond your reach, but even in the dizzying array of troubles within your mind there remained this little flickering light of hope. As small and futile as it may have seemed to you at the time, that little glimmer of hope empowered you to carry on, even on the darkest nights that you or I have ever known.

It was in this myriad of emotional and mental states that you came to question everything that you had been told, everything that you had ever believed to be true about yourself and about life. It wasn’t enough that your perception of self was shattered, so too did your perception of everything outside of you. No one would have blamed you if you had laid there and given in to the overwhelming loss of identity and purpose, but you didn’t do that. You got up and you went searching for answers, searching for what it meant to be you, what it meant to be alive in the world and why so much of it resulted in suffering.

What came after was a sundering and a surrendering, a letting go of what you had always clung to for safety, and a desperate wading into troubled waters that grew ever deeper the further you traveled towards the other shore far into the distance. Cast adrift into the unknown, you felt more alone than you had ever been in your young life, afraid and distraught you paddled feverishly, trying to keep your head above the surface, afraid of the dark below you that harbored everything you wanted to pretend didn’t exist. Beneath those depths was a loss of innocence and a reckoning that was unavoidable.

You swam for as long as you could, you tried so very hard to reach the refuge of the other shore, but the waters took you and you slipped beneath the surface and into the cold, from which you would never return. By the time the sun breached across the horizon, what emerged from the depths was not you, it was something else entirely. You, my youthful innocence, died down there and I arose into being, forever changed by the experience.

Sometimes I think I can hear your murmurs or whispers, your dreams echoing inside of me, remnants of hope for what once was but that can never be again. I am so very sorry for the tragedy that befell you, but without your unwanted sacrifice I would have never stood upon the other shore. Though still besieged by the same darkness that haunted you, your passing has allowed me to walk through the golden door and onto the middle path beyond. A path towards the truth behind the veil of illusionary permanence, towards the compassion at the end of the cycle of suffering, and towards the wisdom of untethering from the notion of self.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

Seeking Help for Depression

For many teens and adults who are facing sadness or are feeling down about a recent event or disappointing experience, or who may not be feeling as optimistic about life as they used to, or who are perhaps feeling heartache over an ended relationship or friendship or even undergoing grief from loss, the practice of self-care can be very beneficial and there are a wide variety of actions through this practice that can be taken to help them get through that low point in an otherwise healthy mindset.

But for those feeling moderate to severe depression, which is a diagnosable and treatable mental health condition, many self-care activities or suggestions are not enough to surmount the overwhelming symptoms they may be experiencing. For most people facing this level of uphill battle, professional mental health services may be necessary. They were for me.

When someone has some type of accidental fall and they are feeling or showing signs of a broken arm, would you tell them to go outside and get some sunshine, go for a brisk walk, pick up a new hobby, spend money to spoil themselves, or listen and sing along to their favorite song to feel better? No, of course not, you would take them to a medical professional, perhaps with persuasion if they are initially reluctant.

Yet in mental health we do exactly the opposite of what we should do. We avoid and downplay, we pretend like it’s not happening, we keep it a secret, we allow ourselves to be silenced due to shame and guilt, and we refuse to get help in the unrealistic belief that it will magically go away on it’s own. But it won’t because mental health conditions don’t work like that. You can’t grow out of it because it’s not a life phase, you cannot just “get over it” because it’s not a perspective or chosen state of mind.

While the causes of moderate to severe depression are still being researched and debated and the question of whether or not it is a chemical imbalance or something else entirely remains unanswered, we do know that it’s more than feeling like you’re in a funk. There are both psychological and physical health consequences to having untreated moderate to severe depression, especially in the long-term.

More than likely there are many contributing factors beyond a chemical imbalance or malfunctioning neurons, including such factors as untreated trauma and life challenges related to finances, family, social pressures, internally and externally induced stress and anxiety, unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use, or the symptoms of another untreated or undiagnosed mental health condition like PTSD and/or a co-occurring substance use disorder.

For cases of moderate to severe depression, I urge people to reach out to a professional mental health services provider, whether that’s directly to a counselor or indirectly through a conversation with a primary care medical provider who can connect someone to mental health services.

As a former certified peer specialist and as someone with lived experience with bipolar disorder which has interrupted and interfered with my life for the past 23 years, I want to tell you that there is no shame in seeking help. We seek medical assistance for physical ailments, so it makes sense to seek assistance for mental ailments as well.

As someone who has gone through multiple counselors and therapists, and a psychiatrist, I know that not every person you reach out to can be helpful or even competent. To be honest, some doctors, counselors and therapists are not effective at their jobs, some should even have their licenses revoked. If you don’t like your mental health provider, leave them and get another one! With the rise of telehealth and online providers we are no longer bound by our physical locations when it comes to seeking help.

There are many different kinds of counselors and therapists with a wide range of specialties who are trained in different types of therapy or treatment modalities. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Psychotherapy (talk therapy), and support groups, are just some of the most common types of therapy but there are so many other types that are specific to certain situations or specific needs or goals.

Just because someone is young does not mean they are immune to developing mental health conditions, in fact quite the opposite is true. Youth are at the greatest risk because most symptoms of mental health conditions develop at the onset of puberty or well into the 20’s. Youth within the age range of 10 to 24 years should be regularly evaluated for the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions. The earlier it can be diagnosed the more we can prevent years of unnecessary suffering.

My mental health struggles started when I was 14 years old, suicidality started at age 16, hospitalization happened at age 19, and another suicidal episode happened at age 22. My hospitalization at age 19 occurred just a few months after I had dropped out of college and had started working a full-time job. I was encouraged by a coworker to self-admit into a local hospital’s inpatient behavioral health ward after an uncharacteristic emotional outburst at work and my disclosure that I was having suicidal thoughts.

A lot had led up to that moment. My previous career goal had recently been crushed, I had hated college and withdrew my enrollment, I was battling with self-acceptance, struggling with a then undiagnosed and consequently untreated mental health condition, and unaddressed childhood trauma.

Life was hell for me at the time and I had already been suicidal for 3 years prior to that intervention. I was scared and confused but knew that if I didn’t accept external help that I would take my own life because I saw my life and my pain as one synonymous struggle. In my overwhelmed mind I convinced myself that ending my life would end my pain. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to hurt anymore and I was so exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster of thinking of ways to end my life/pain. Once I arrived at the hospital and filled out the paperwork, I was admitted for a mandatory 72-hour hold and while it didn’t magically fix everything, the experience really was a positive turning point for me.

As someone who has been involved in behavioral health personally and professionally for years, I know that not everyone supports inpatient behavioral health ward stays, primarily due to the cost, and that concern is absolutely valid, especially for those without health insurance. Thankfully, today many other crisis resources and services are available, some of them cost-free and often times a mental health crisis can be addressed without a hospital stay through such options as mental health and substance use crisis hotlines or lifelines and affiliated mobile response teams. All things I wish had been available to me when I was a teenager and young adult.

I have been in and out of therapy for decades, I have been hospitalized for suicidal behavior, have had one abandoned suicide attempt, I have received multiple diagnoses from a psychiatrist and physicians, and have been prescribed nearly a dozen different antidepressants and mood stabilizers throughout that time.

BUT I have also had a long career working full-time with only a few interruptions due to my mental health condition, I also live financially independent. My point in telling you this is that recovery and a life beyond a mental health condition is possible. My life has been interrupted but not brought to an end. Depression as a symptom of my bipolar disorder is a hiccup in the grander scheme of my life, and while it comes back from time to time, it’s just an interval. You too can get through depression if you take care of yourself and get professional treatment when you need it.

Above all else, know that there is hope and help, never be ashamed to seek help for mental health issues, doing so is literally no different than seeking help for physical health issues. There are many crisis lifelines and helplines available that didn’t exist all those years ago when I needed help. They are free, confidential, and the crisis counselors staffed for these lines have extensive training to respond to any mental health crisis.

The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline of 988 is accessible to anyone in the U.S. for call or text. They can provide assistance during a mental health crisis, such as when someone is having suicidal thoughts.

The Crisis Text Line, if you are in the U.S. or in Canada, can be reached by texting the word HELLO to the telephone number 741741 or if you live in the U.K. the telephone number is 85258 or if you live in Ireland the number is 50808. They can provide assistance with any kind of mental or emotional distress, including thoughts of suicide.

The Military/Veterans Crisis Line in the U.S. can also be reached by calling the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 and then pressing the extension number 1 when prompted, or if you send a text to 988 just let them know in your message that you are a current member of the military or are a veteran. You can also text the alternate number 838255.

For members of the LGBTQ+ there is The Trevor Project. You can call their lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or you may text their lifeline at 678678. They have other online resources such as a private social network and online chat options, all can be accessed at their website hyperlinked above.

All of the above listed crisis and helplines will connect you with trained adult crisis counselors, and are available 24 / 7 / 365 and have various language options available. They can also provide you with resources and connect you with local mental health services where you live. You can contact them about your own struggle or you can contact them on behalf of a family member or friend who may be struggling.

For situations specifically involving substance use in the United States, the National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 can provide recovery treatment referral options and other helpful information. For situations resulting from a human-caused or natural disaster, the U.S. government established the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 to call and 66746 to text in order to receive crisis counseling and support for those impacted emotionally by such disasters.

The Teen Line is an option for teenagers wanting to speak with someone their own age. They can be reached by phone call at 1-800-852-8336 during the hours of 6 PM – 10 PM PST (9 PM – 1 AM EST) every night, they can also be reached by texting the word TEEN to 839863 between the hours of 6 PM – 9 PM PST (9 PM – 12 AM EST). Phone calls and texts are confidential, except in emergency situations. The line is operated by high school teens volunteering their time to support their fellow teens and it is a crisis line accredited by the American Association of Suicidology, a well-known organization in the behavioral health industry. The line is operated by professionally-trained teenage volunteers based in Los Angeles, California. Despite their headquarters in California more than 70% of their incoming phone calls and texts actually come from outside the state and those they support are spread across the United States.

Workplace Mental Health

For more than a decade I found myself at work witnessing, hearing about, or personally experiencing behavioral health challenges that were not effectively handled or addressed by management staff or by the employer as a whole.  Not because no one cared, but because people were woefully unprepared, untrained, and uneducated on best practices.

Behavioral health is a term that encapsulates both mental health conditions and substance use disorders. For years, I have expressed my concerns regarding how behavioral health in the workplace has been both viewed and treated, and for years I have been either ignored or not taken seriously.  In 2018, I finally found myself in a position where my voice had at least a minimal opportunity to be heard by leadership and for the next few years I pushed for change.

While the majority of my proposals were not considered (including the most important one), some of the smaller efforts were approved and we were at least able to bring some degree of educational opportunities about behavioral health to our employees.  One of these included a partnership with the a local university’s psychology department.

Leadership’s unwillingness to take my concerns regarding behavioral health in the workplace seriously and their lack of earnest desire to consider my other proposals for positive change, eventually added to the list of reasons I resigned. This mindset of not settling for a workplace that doesn’t take mental health seriously is something that I am not alone in. These past few years have shown that employees are fed-up with employers who don’t care about their mental health and don’t provide them with the time, resources, and support needed to fend off burnout and other common workplace mental health issues.

Typically the barrier preventing positive change in the workplace for behavioral health challenges is not caused by the employees, but by the employer and their leadership team, who for any number of reasons tends to avoid the topic.  This avoidance allows people to continue to suffer, generally in silence, to the point that they leave, and once word gets out that the employer is not a safe and supportive place to work, other people will not want to apply for their job openings.

From employees struggling with substance use disorders or mental health conditions, to supervisory and management staff being overwhelmed by employees struggling with these types of behavioral health challenges, there has been and continues to be a need for training and education, as well as policy and procedure change in the workplace.

Both private and public companies have the opportunity to make fundamental changes to how behavioral health challenges are addressed in their workplace and an opportunity to make a positive change in our society for those who struggle with these challenges and those who care for them.

I support any initiative taking steps to make these improvements and urge employers to do more for employees with substance use challenges and mental health conditions.  There are programs and initiatives already established for support in the workplace and more than likely employer’s already have employees qualified and willing to lead any such initiative if they’d just be given the chance to make a positive change through education, training, policy and procedure transformation!

Now is always the time to advocate for mental health changes in the workplace, not just for those currently employed but also for those who may be prospective employment candidates. There are public and private organizations offering programs to support mental health in the workplace, and also state and federal grants, tax credits, tax deductions, and other financial incentives for businesses that employ candidates with mental health conditions, mental disabilities, or who are in recovery from substance use disorders.

Here are some general recommended best practices for organizations and management staff to get started on supporting mental health in the workplace. This list is by no means all inclusive nor in any great detail, it should be considered a starting point.

  • Implement health and safety policies and practices
    • Mental health is often viewed as the “ugly duckling” of the health industry. Everyone knows it exists but no one wants to acknowledge it as real or talk about it. For this reason, policies and practices that we would find appalling if implemented for physical health are deemed acceptable when enforced for mental health. People have to jump through burning hoops just in the hopes that their insurance company might help pay for the services they need for their mental health condition or substance use disorder (if they can even find effective services). This same type of “cold shoulder” and obstacle course towards treatment is forced on mental health in the workplace too, where even though scheduling regular medical doctor check-ups are encouraged and time-off permitted for even the slightest onset of the sniffles, employers do not believe that “mental health days” are a real and justifiable cause for using sick leave, or in some cases employers do not even allow their employees to use their sick leave for mental therapy sessions.
    • Too many employees are afraid to tell their employers they are struggling with their mental health and chose to suffer in secrecy and silence out of fear of punishment and other negative consequences, which leads to the employee’s self-isolation, reluctance to seek help, a risk of prolonged untreated mental illness, a decrease in work productivity from the employee, loss profits for the employer, and the list goes on. Burnout, anxiety, depression, substance use, and eating disorders are all leading mental health issues that are finally being discussed in today’s workplace, and any employer not equipped to address these issues will not fair well in an era where we as a society are finally starting to acknowledge that mental health is real.
    • When employers contract with employee assistance programs (EAP) they need to ensure that the program is comprehensive and effective. Through these programs employees often have access to a limited number of free counseling sessions and access to other resources and services, but not all programs are made equal. Sometimes there are limitations and restrictions on the free counseling sessions that make them ineffective.
  • Be mental health aware and learn to recognize signs of distress
    • Anonymous workplace surveys regarding employee mental health and substance use and the effectiveness of provided resources and services can assist an employer with gauging their current workforce overall mental wellbeing. Not every employee will be honest with their answers due to fear of being discovered/identified or even retaliated against no matter how anonymous the data collection process may be, but most employees will be forthcoming with their struggles and their feedback. The results of these surveys can often be eye-opening, but more importantly they direct an employer toward what types of resources and services their employees are in need of, what’s working and what isn’t. There must be a robust regulatory system in place to review the feedback and actually implement necessary changes to improve employee resources and services.
    • Awareness of employee behavior can save lives, for example when an employee who has always had good attendance suddenly starts coming in late or missing entire days without an obvious explanation, it may be a warning sign that something is impacting the employee’s mental health. The employee doesn’t need to be contacted for reprimand or threatened with termination, they need a compassionate employer to reach out and ask what type of support may help them return to work. The old model of punishment for undesired behavior needs to be replaced with a model of compassion and support or the high turnover rates will continue.
    • There are a variety of programs that can be implemented in the workplace to teach both management and staff what signs and symptoms to look for when someone may be experiencing a mental health crisis. One of the most commonly utilized programs in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia is Mental Health First Aid.
  • Educate on topics such as substance use and mental health conditions
    • Learning how to identify someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is important, but it’s just as important to learn about behavioral health in general. Human resource departments should be equipped with providing educational opportunities to employees about commonly experienced mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and available treatment options. This is not about diagnosing or directly treating an employee, this is about empowerment through education, it’s about eliminating the stigma of mental health and substance use that often keeps people from seeking help, and it’s about illuminating the truth of just how prevalent and treatable these challenges really are.
    • If an employer’s HR department is not equipped to provide this type of education, most EAPs have contracts with counselors and other mental health educators who can host educational seminars about these topics both in-person and online, but this should not be a once-a-year opportunity, these educational seminars should be routine and occur regularly every quarter and cover a wide variety of mental health topics.
  • Share information and resources for treatment, self-care and symptom management
    • Improving resource and service awareness should extend beyond just new employee orientation because onboarding is often a rushed process and leaves new employees overwhelmed and unable to remember everything thing they’ve been told or shown. Information regarding what mental health services are provided via their EAP should be regularly identified via emails, discussed via meetings, and posted on walls in communal spaces. It is recommended that the information be provided to them quarterly but no less than bi-annually.
    • Since life does not just happen during the day, employees should also be provided with resources and services they can contact at night after work for assistance and support with various life challenges connected to mental health. If the EAP does not provide 24/7 assistance and support, employees should be provided with the contact information for the various state and national mental crisis organizations that do.
    • Most EAPs can provide information about self-care and symptom management, but their are also many non-profit organizations that are more than willingly to provide brochures, pamphlets, booklets, and print-outs about what someone can do to better cope with a mental health condition or substance use disorder. These items can be placed in communal or centralized locations within the workplace to provide employee’s the opportunity to take them home. They also have posters that employers can hang up around the workspace.
    • For more comprehensive support or treatment services, most countries have a national organization that provides mental health services or can connect people to organizations that do. In the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) retains a registry of organizations that provide behavioral health treatment.
  • Involve team members in practices that support a healthy work-life balance
    • In addition to burnout, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance use, another very common mental health issue faced by employees is loneliness. It is not enough to provide employees with information and access to resources and services, they also need the motivation to utilize them and this can be very difficult if they are isolated at home and in the workplace.
    • Providing employees with opportunities to partake in activities inside and outside of the workplace builds a stronger sense of community. While the “company bowling team” and the “holiday party” have been long-standing staples of the workforce experience, more attention needs to be placed on mental health related experiences such as retreats focused on mental wellness, community walks focused on mental health awareness, and volunteering programs focused on coming together to help those in need.
    • Workplace peer support groups can provide a crucial opportunity for employees to talk with their peers about what they are experiencing in their personal lives that is impacting their work life or what they are experiencing at work that is impacting all other aspects of their lives. Studies have shown that most adults meet new friends at work and this is especially true for men who find it more challenging to make friends after school compared to women. Peer support groups are a great way for people with common experiences to not only meet one another, but to also support one another.
      • The general benefits of peer support groups include:
        • Creates a confidential environment where individuals struggling with a behavioral health condition or related circumstance can openly discuss what they are experiencing or struggling with and be able to receive emotional support from those with a similar condition or circumstance.
        • Permits social validation for their struggle without the stigma or the insecure and judgmental responses from those who do not have a lived experience with, or understanding of, a behavioral health condition or related circumstance.
        • Provides an opportunity for those who often struggle alone with a behavioral health condition or related circumstance to communicate with, learn from, and recover or grow alongside those who are similarly affected by their condition or circumstance, establishing a network through which factual information, proven methods, and helpful resources can be openly exchanged.
      • It’s important to understand that there is a difference between a therapy support group and a peer support group. Peer support groups are peer-led and cannot provide therapy or any other type of treatment for a mental health condition or substance use disorder, whereas a therapy support group is led by a clinical licensed mental health practitioner. There are many other important factors when establishing peer support groups and these factors increase when considering establishing them within a specific employer. The Canada Life Assurance Company has provided a short but comprehensive outline for starting this type of program, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) published a short article on the topic in 2018. Beyond this key information, there are mental health non-profits qualified and willing to assist in the establishment of peer support groups within a workplace, but the first place to request assistance is through the employer’s EAP.
  • Provide access to career development opportunities
    • As a former professional development instructor I cannot advocate enough about how important professional development opportunities are to the overall wellbeing of an employee and the overall success of a workplace. This goes beyond the core basics of any workplace education curriculum such as leadership training, conflict management, team building, and communication. Employers should be implementing a wide variety of programs, including tuition reimbursement, cross-training, mentorship, apprenticeship, and job creation/trade/exchange.
    • Part of my advocacy is to encourage workplaces to incorporate behavioral health education into the curriculum because the sooner we normalize conversations around mental health, the sooner we allow people who are struggling to feel less alienated, less stigmatized, less ashamed, and less hopeless. Employees have every right to learn about the mental health challenges they may face during their career, whether these challenges arise due to their personal life or their professional life because in both cases they will impact them in the workplace.
    • Professional development is more than just knowledge though, it is also about what employees do with that knowledge and their ability to be successful in their career. Success is not a clearly defined concept, not everyone views it in the same way nor measures it by the same standards and that’s a good thing. Regardless of how an employee perceives success, they all want to have a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in their lives, and for a lot of people their job is the primary source of these things, and it therefore falls on the employer to provide these types of opportunities for employees. The consequence of not doing so is the employee choosing to leave and look for a better employment experience elsewhere.
    • Recognizing and rewarding the contributions of employees is not new, but not all employers put effort into doing this, or when they do, it is generic and disingenuous or it’s overkill. Like all things in life, moderation is important because too much of a good thing can become monotonous and lose the power of its meaning. Kind of like cake, it’s great until someone starts baking you a cake every single day – then you get real sick of it real quick. Recognition and reward should not be treated like a participation trophy, the saturation of this type of program can quickly lead to it having the opposite effect as originally intended. Recognition, reward, and celebration of success should be reserved for those achievements that have truly gone above and beyond expectation and have honestly garnered such a degree of attention.

The bottom line is that employees are an investment, they are the single most valuable and important asset to an employer and their mental health needs to be recognized as a matter of great concern. If a policy or practice is not to the benefit of employee mental health then it needs to be seriously scrutinized and reconsidered, which means that there must always be contingency plans set in place for modifying or amending any process, procedure, or practice to reduce the negative impacts on employees. Failure to do so reflects poorly on the employer and their leadership, for any organization ill-equipped to care for its employees is ill-equipped to provide services to its customers.

You can learn more about what types of actions can be taken or what types of policies can be implemented in the workplace to support behavioral health by checking out my previous article U.S. Behavioral Health and the Workplace.

You will also find research and data supporting the need for these types of changes via the following private and public organizations:

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

The Words We Choose to Use in Behavioral Health

September is National Recovery Month, and while I have not been directly impacted by what is referred to as a substance use disorder, many people that I know personally have or still are struggling. Mental health conditions and substance use disorders may not be exactly the same thing, but often times they are co-occurring, meaning they can be existing at the same time and one often leads to the other.

Here are the four main categories of substances that commonly cause dependency and some examples:

  • Analgesics (narcotics/painkillers)
    • Natural (Opiate) examples:
      • Codeine
      • Heroin
      • Morphine
      • Opium
    • Synthesized/Synthetic (Opioid) examples:
      • Carfentanyl
      • Dextromethorphan
      • Dextropropoxyphene
      • Fentanyl
      • Hydrocodone
      • Hydromorphone
      • Loperamide
      • Meperidine
      • Methadone
      • Oxycodone
      • Oxymorphone
  • Depressants
    • Barbiturates
    • Benzodiazepines
    • Nicotine
  • Stimulants
    • Amphetamines
    • Caffeine
    • Cocaine
    • Ecstasy
    • Sugar
  • Hallucinogens
    • Cannabis (THC)
    • Ketamine
    • LSD
    • Psilocybin

When we talk about substance use, we often think of illicit natural (opiate) painkillers like heroin or stimulants like cocaine, but other controlled substances cause dependency when not used as directed, these commonly include prescription opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, or morphine, as well as prescription stimulants like amphetamines.

What we don’t often think about are depressants like alcohol and nicotine, or stimulants like sugar and caffeine. Even though these substances are legal to use, and products like alcohol, sugar, and caffeine are generally viewed as safe, they also have a profound effect on our bodies and minds with long-term consumption, and for many people are addictive and cause dependency.

The sensation you get when you haven’t had your morning cup of coffee, or you haven’t had your mid-afternoon sweets, or your hourly dose of nicotine, is a form of withdraw. While sugar and caffeine may produce a lower grade of withdraw than nicotine or alcohol, all of them train your brain to become dependent upon the chemical reaction caused by the substance.

While it’s generally easy to reduce the consumption of sugar and caffeine, most people will struggle to ever eliminate the use of these substances completely. Similarly, nicotine can be very challenging to eliminate when someone has become dependent. For more addictive substances like heroine, cocaine, and crystal meth, eliminating their use can be an overwhelming battle.

Alcohol, caffeine, marijuana, nicotine, and sugar have been a part of human culture for a very long time and have become a staple of the human experience for a sizable portion of the population. However, these reasons should not dismiss the negatives of their consumption or use.

When we have conversations about substance use, especially with people who are struggling, we need to be mindful of the language we use. Terms like “abuser”, “addict”, “druggie”, “drunkard”, and “junkie” are no longer acceptable. Terminology like this is derogatory, causes conflict, and labels the person as the disorder and not as a human being, none of which is helpful for someone experiencing addiction.

People are more than the conditions they battle with. We often forget this when we encounter them under the influence. Someone who may be violent when consuming alcohol, or someone who commits theft when seeking funds to purchase their substance of dependency, can be extremely difficult to see as a victim of their disorder. So it can be hard to stop labeling people with burdens as the burden itself, but if we ever hope to assist the person into recovery then words of support must replace words of judgment.

I used to speak about this during one of my classes, it’s so fundamentally important that we pay attention to the words we choose to use when referring to people. Not just those with substance use disorders but those with mental health conditions as well.

While I wouldn’t encourage them to do so, it’s okay for someone with a substance use disorder to refer to themselves as an “addict” or “drug abuser,” if that’s the terminology they choose to use. But it is not okay for someone else without a substance use disorder to refer to them in this way.

The same goes for people with mental health conditions. I often call myself “crazy,” due to my bipolar disorder, but this is not an invitation for others who have no lived-experience with a mental health condition to refer to me as “crazy” or as a “crazy person.”

You may be wondering why we use these words to describe ourselves if outsiders are deterred from doing so. I can’t speak for everyone as I think each person has their own justification, but for me it’s like taking back the power taken from me. Claiming a word for myself that is often used as a weapon against people like me feels as though it saturates its potency and makes it mine, rather than theirs.

Aside from avoiding derogatory terms like “addict” and “crazy” we should also not refer to people as their condition or disorder because they are not one in the same. I used to mention this in my class as well, we want to make sure that we are not confusing a human being with a mental health condition or substance use disorder, they are two very different things.

It’s not okay to use phrases like “heroine junkie” or “meth-head,” when referring to someone with these specific substance use disorders. The same goes for mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It’s not okay to refer to people with these conditions as “schizos” or to use phrases like “she’s bipolar.” Perhaps the worst of all is to refer to someone with a disorder or condition as a “burden.”

We have to remember that these are human beings struggling with substance use or mental illness. We are more than our substance use and mental illness, we struggle with those things but we are not those things. We have a burden, but we are not the burden. We are more than the burdens we carry on our shoulders, we are more than our struggles.

Think about it, do you really go around and refer to people with infertility issues as “infertiles” or “sterile people” as if they are somehow not other human beings deserving of equal compassion? No, of course not. Their condition does not rob them of their humanity, so why would we rob anyone else struggling with a condition or disorder of theirs?

Proper terminology is to say “He has schizophrenia” or “She has bipolar disorder.” Stating that someone has a disorder or condition separates their identity from the things they struggle with and allows them to maintain a degree of dignity and humanity, allowing us to treat everyone as the fellow human beings they really are.

It’s true that substance use and mental illness can morph people into individuals we no longer recognize, dramatically altering their behavior and in some cases physically changing their appearance, but no matter how bad it gets, they do not cease to be human, they do not cease to be your family member, friend, colleague, or neighbor, and it’s at those lowest points when they need you the most and your willingness to treat them humanely.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

In Memoriam: Ricardo “Ricky” Reyes

My dear friend Ricardo “Ricky” Reyes of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, passed away tragically on August 20, 2022. He was born on June 21, 1987 and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of Iris Gomez Lopez and the late Salvador Reyes. He graduated from Lancaster Catholic High School in 2005 and enlisted as a reservist in the United States Marine Corps. He served as a Field Artillery Cannoneer with India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, from November 2005 to February 2012. He was deployed from September 2006 to April 2007 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom attached to [2d LAAD Battalion? – pending confirmation]. He was also deployed to Africa from May 2011 to June 2011. He was a 2012 graduate of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with an associate degree in Collision Repair Technology.

I met Ricardo, or “Ricky” as most people knew him, online in 2006 sometime before or during his deployment. I can no longer remember exactly when or where, it may have been on Xanga or MySpace or potentially on Military.com’s forums as I spent a lot of time on there due to being interested in enlisting. Wherever it was, I remember us messaging one another, initially about the Marine Corps and other military related stuff. From those conversations we grew to become friends and exchanged phone numbers and followed one another on social media for the next sixteen years. He supported me both before and after my enlistment in the Marine Corps in 2007, for a while I considered him one of my closest friends that I could confide in with anything because I trusted, admired, and respected him immensely, I was and still am grateful for his long-lasting and loyal friendship.

He was there for me when I was going through mental health struggles resulting from my premature discharge in 2008. Even when he was busy he still responded to me, any time of day or night. I had not spoken to him as much in more recent years, that’s just how life goes, but I knew that no matter how much time had passed he would treat me exactly the same way as he always did, with open arms and as supportive as ever. Whether it was personal life stuff or car stuff, I knew I could reach out to him for advice. I last spoke to him a few months before his death. A person will never meet someone more loving, supportive, and accepting. The world has suffered a great loss and I am devastated by his passing.

My condolences go out to his family and other friends, of which he had many! He was loved, adored, and admired by so many people, a testament to his character and the type of man he was. I don’t understand how or why the accident happened, but I feel like he would tell me that he died doing something that he loved. He always told me to live without regrets because he tried to live his life that way too.

To anyone who did not know him, I would paint him as a man who served his country with honor and pride, who cared deeply for his family and friends and would do anything for them, he lived to the fullest whether that was traveling, or concerts, or social gatherings, he was always doing something as he hated being idle, and the only thing he loved more than cats were cars and his bike, oh and his loyal “Yota”, he loved that thing too. I never knew him to be angry or bitter, he was always warm and supportive for the entire sixteen years I knew him. He was friendly to everyone he met.

On August 28, 2022, I drove from Missouri to Manheim, Pennsylvania to attend his memorial service on the following day. There are very few people in my life that I had been friends with and had sustained communication with as long as this man, I knew that if I didn’t go I would regret it for the rest of my life. I had hoped that by driving all the way out there and paying my last respects it would allow me to better process my grief over his passing. I also made the decision to go to the location where he died, more about that in a bit. He has since been laid to rest at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, I will be returning to visit him again.

I was touched by just how many people from Ricky’s life were at his memorial service, such a powerful message for how much he was loved, admired, and respected. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet his mom and listen to his family, military family, childhood friends, and other friends tell stories of how he impacted their lives and the funny memories they had of him. Hearing those stories helped paint a picture for me of who he was in other people’s lives, illuminating facets of his character and history that I did not know. To me, this was a gift and I will cherish it. I know that many others have similar stories to tell, though some of us found it too painful to share openly at his memorial service.

In 2021, I had planned to travel to Acadia National Park in Maine and my hope was to stop in Pennsylvania and spend time with him. However, due to pandemic-related complications and my unemployment at the time I made the decision to delay that trip. Reflecting on how I felt during his memorial service, I found that I had some degree of guilt over that decision. Of course I could have never known what the future would hold and so I don’t blame myself for that decision, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have guilt and regret about it. I think that others in his life may have a similar sense of guilt or regret about not reaching out to him more or not spending enough time with him, and considering the circumstances of his unexpected passing I feel like this is a very natural thing to feel.

These last few days I have been scrolling through his social media posts, searching through my own social media feeds looking for posts and comments he made, going through my phone and reading our last private messages, and mentally kicking myself for having not saved our older communications when I changed phones over the years, especially those conversations from 2006 to 2012 when we communicated the most. I didn’t know back then that those conversations would one day hold a whole lot more meaning to me. What I do have left are conversations with him asking me if I put a hood scoop on my Avenger yet, and our most recent conversation wherein he was very convincingly encouraging me to buy a Toyota Tacoma, or a “Taco” as he referred to them. Those conversations may have been generic or basic at the time, but wow do they mean so much more to me now.

In 2016, my mom died after a long illness. I also lost another friend, Colin, just a month before that, very unexpectedly. While I had the opportunity to say my last words to my mom, I did not have the opportunity to make peace with Colin. After those losses, I reached out to Ricky and told him what I really thought about him, essentially my feelings toward who he was as a person and a friend. I am so immensely grateful that I had taken that opportunity. The knowledge that he died knowing how much I really appreciated him brings me a lot of comfort and peace. The shock and pain of his passing is by no means diminished, but it means so much to me that he knew how I felt about him.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I drove to the intersection where the motorcycle accident happened. I don’t know why but I needed to see it as part of my grieving process, to be there in the place of his last moments. There was some kind of work being done at the location, so I couldn’t stop and walk around as I had planned to do, but I could certainly see how an accident could happen there.

Loss is always hard, whether expected or not. It truly is like a wound that hurts immensely at first, drains so much joy and vitality out of you, and it never fully heals because it always leaves a scar that at times will ache as if to remind you of what you have lost. Though the scar fades and hurts less in time it still remains there forever, an aching emptiness to remind you of that person who was once a part of your life but is no more.

I think perhaps there are lessons to be learned here, I feel that we should reach out more to the people in our lives and let them know how much they mean to us, you never know when they may be taken from you. I have lost so many people in the last six years that at times I feel dumbfounded by the whirlwind of shock and grief.

Some say you can fill that void of loss, but I have never found that to be true. Remembering the moments that you shared helps immensely, though it can also resurrect the grief and pain of the loss. I have found that creating new memories by doing things that remind me of the person or engaging in things that they enjoyed can help me feel close to them again without focusing too much on “what used to be” or what I have lost.

It’s not the same as if they were literally there, but in some strange way making new memories doing these things makes me feel as though they are with me. I intend to do this for Ricky as well, it won’t be hard for me because there are reminders of him everywhere I go. I cannot comprehend a life and a world without the privilege of knowing that he’s just a quick message away.

Pour one out for this man, if anyone deserved the title of legend, it’s him. I’d say “rest in peace” but that’s not the man I knew, he wasn’t interested in resting, so maybe “ride free” or “stay wild” or “fly high” would be more appropriate. He was and still is loved and will never be forgotten!

Music & Mental Health: A Path to Recovery

It was the spring of 2021 when I was first introduced to Oliver Daldry‘s music via a U.K. 2015 film titled Departure. At the time, I had quit my job a couple months prior and I was in a low point mentally, struggling with anxiety, depression, and was experiencing suicidal thoughts. For a few months, every day was a battle.

When I went on YouTube to see if I could find more of his music I found a song titled Bookcase, and when this song played for the first time it was late at night, my whole apartment was cast in darkness except for the glow from my laptop screen. The intro of the song stunned me, like suddenly having tunnel vision except for my ears, and as the song played I felt as though I was falling or perhaps being swallowed into a dream, somehow transported outside of time and space.

Every lyric of the song reached out and into me like fingertips touching my heart. It simultaneously hurt and felt loving, like washing away the blood from a wound that has not yet healed, like a harsh truth I needed to hear if I had ever hoped to recover.

I sat there on my apartment floor crying quietly as the song played out, it was like some kind of spiritual experience for me.

Needless to say, I bought the song and I’ve probably heard it a million times since then. It’s not as potent as it was the first time I heard it, but songs are always like that, it can never be like the first time you heard it. It still reminds me of that hard time in my life, but it also reminds me of how I recovered after and right now I need that.

Like I said it’s been over a year now and I am once again unemployed, having quit my job a month ago after situations there interfered with my mental health. I come back to Oliver’s music when I need to hurt and heal, because you can’t have one without the other.

I’ve bought every song I can find of his. Catch the Wind, Diamond Sky, Howling Wind, are some of my other favorites, but every song has a meaning and a message, it’s up to the listener to decipher it for themselves.

The songs are personal to Oliver, and they are personal to me the listener, but that doesn’t require the meaning to be the same. That’s what’s great about songwriters, they help us understand our own emotions without even knowing what our emotions are and yet somehow we have this shared experience and it’s extraordinary.

Oliver is incredible, not perfect, but incredible. His songs are like the mortar for bricks, they are not the thing itself but the stuff that holds the thing together.

His songs are like his scars, remnants of something that was, things with meaning and history, and when he releases a song it’s like he’s revealing a scar to us and while we may not know the story behind the scar we can still relate to it because we have scars too.

He is not merely an artist to listen to, he is an experience to be had. I am grateful to be alive in a time graced with the music of Oliver Daldry.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.