A Raw Conversation About Mental Health

A Raw Conversation About Mental Health

The Risk And Rewards Of Speaking Your Truth

Discrimination is sadly a truth we are faced with every day. Whether you are a woman, a Muslim, an immigrant or a person of color. But there is also another form of discrimination that we don’t talk about quite as often and that’s the silent discrimination against self. It’s the self-stigma we assign to our mental health. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States, 18.1% of the population every year, yet only 36.9 % of those suffering get treatment.

The ADAA, also states that major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44, affecting 6.7% of the population ages 18 and older in a given year. With these kinds of numbers, why are we still hiding in the dark when it comes to talking about our mental health? When diagnosed with Cancer, there is no shame, it’s about the cure, not a judgment. But when diagnosed with a mental health related issue, we hide. We are afraid to talk about it, experiencing shame and fearing judgment.

I wrote a musical called Committed, it was about 8 people all suffering from different mental health issues; from general anxiety disorder, generalized depression, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucination, and dissociative identity disorder. It was my hope that by expressing through song and dance, we could get people talking about this and feel less alone. My friend, entrepreneur and podcast host, Jason Van Orden is on the same mission. He has created a new podcast to discuss the struggles and challenges that come along with living with depression so that other entrepreneurs feel less alone.

Tricia: Talk to me about why you wanted to start this new podcast, Jason.

Jason: The why starts with my own story in 2016. I had already been dealing with depression and anxiety for about 13 years. A few years ago all the symptoms started coming back although I wasn’t fully aware because it was a slow boil type situation. Unfortunately, that led me to more and more isolate myself, which is not the thing to do when you’re starting to deal with depression and don’t realize it.

Tricia: That must have felt really over-whelming. When we get used to one way of being and all of a sudden, it’s different and we can’t figure out why, or control it back to the familiar, it’s like walking on quicksand.

Jason: It just turned out to be really tumultuous for my business and career because things are just up and down. I had good spurts of creativity, and “Ah, here we go.” Then all of a sudden motivation and apathy would settle in, and everything would just stop.

Tricia: Doubt and fear are already part of the game. As entrepreneurs, we are constantly asking ourselves the question, “Am I the person to be doing this?” How did you manage the isolation and questioning on top of the day to day, challenges of being an entrepreneur?

Jason: Two things finally turned it around. Number one was when my wife, Melanie, encouraged me. She said, “You know what? I think you need to go see a psychiatrist.”

That seems like an obvious solution, but for all those months it never occurred to me maybe my medication is not working and seeing a psychiatrist could help. In hindsight, as I think about that, what I was realized was that I thought there’s some kind of stigma and shame that was keeping me from taking that step. That was huge.

Tricia: As humans, well, also as women, we are not comfortable asking for the support we need. I think when you layer any kind of stigma or self-imposed shame on top of it, we can literally live in a place of severe discomfort and even depression because we simply get used to it. We adapt and live with things instead of thinking we deserve to feel better. What was the big shift for you in this thinking?

Jason: I went to a mastermind in Florida. I almost said no just because again, I was in this weird isolationist place. Just feeling kind of that shame of I don’t want anybody to know that I’m struggling with this stuff. Maybe I’ve had all my success and all my good ideas. The last thing I want to do is go to a master mind and just look like I’m irrelevant or something. I just don’t have anything that I’m working on and stuff.

Something in me finally got me to say yes and go. I showed up at the mastermind thinking, “I’m going to ask all these strategic questions and what would you guys do?” Thankfully, after the hot seat format thing where everyone gives you feedback about what you’re working on. After the first couple people shared what they were dealing with getting feedback from the group, a switch went off in my mind, and it was like … I crossed out the page of all these strategic questions that I had written down to ask them. I knew in my mind I’m like, I just need to lay out everything that I’ve been dealing with emotionally, mentally for the last year and how hard it’s been.

Tricia: That takes some serious guts, Jason. Bravo.

Jason: Of course, I was scared out of my mind. That social stigma which then connects with the lizard brain of people will not want to associate with me. I will be ostracized.

Tricia: I’m damaged goods.

Jason: Damaged goods. Ostracization. That’s death. If the tribe no longer trusts and likes you and wants to be with you, sorry, you’re done. I chugged a beer before my turn.

Tricia: What was the response of your colleagues?

Jason: I gathered my thoughts and then started into talking about everything that I had been through. I was there with, I think there were ten of us in total. I just started noticing nodding heads. Then very empathetic questions. Then supportive suggestions or even just, “Wow, that’s really hard. Yeah, I’ve been through some really hard …”

By the end of that conversation a few things had happened. First, there was just this huge release of the shame of it because here a group of my peers had heard this deepest darkest part of my story, and not rejected me for it. Part of my brain believed that I would die in that moment. It was like, oh, I didn’t die. They embraced me. Opposite reaction than what I expected.

Two other people in the group shared very detailed about struggling bipolar, depression, anxiety, being on and off of medications. I’m looking at the group going, okay, three out of ten of us have had significant mental health conditions in our lifetime. Those were a really important notes to me.

Tricia: Those numbers are probably higher, but what you and the others did that day is plant a seed for the other two or three in the group who weren’t ready to discuss it. In helping yourself in that moment, you already began to help others.  

Jason: Clearly there are a lot of entrepreneurs who are struggling with this stuff. Maybe their story is not getting out. What if we collected a number of these stories, made a series of them, a diversity of conditions, of people and situations and just found out how has this been for you? How has it affected your business? Is this why you’re an entrepreneur? How do you deal with the downsides of these things? Raise awareness. Educate people. Shift social stigma. If nothing else, just offer somebody a moment of, “Oh my gosh. I’m not the only one. I’m not broken. I’m not the only one dealing with this thing.” That’s the why behind the podcast.

Tricia: I think it’s amazing, Jason, because self-imposed stigma around mental illness is so prevalent. The idea of entrepreneurs getting support is a very common, everyday phenomenon. I’m going to get support from somebody for my marketing funnels. I’m going to get support for my Facebook ads. I’m going to get support for my social media presence. Entrepreneurs are constantly getting support. When you said that you weren’t getting the support you needed, it made a light bulb go off in my mind, because that’s self-imposed stigma. I am very aware of this having written a musical about mental illness, that we have to work at de-stigmatizing mental illness, and I think this is such a brilliant way to do it.

I want to bring it back specifically to entrepreneurs who are on the treadmill every day, working to make a difference in the world with their businesses and  to help people. Talk specifically about the effect of mental illness and having a place to share and not feel alone with entrepreneurs specifically.

Jason: It’s so easy for us to immediately put ourselves on a hierarchy of less than greater than and “Oh, look at somebody and all their success. Everything must go right for them. Why do I wake up in the morning and so-and-so is talking about hustle, hustle, hustle and I don’t feel like hustling today.” You come up with this awesome idea, and then all of a sudden a couple days later you’ve got this raging self-critic, and it’s just ruthless in the way that it’s tearing you down, and you’re just like, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?”

Now of all of a sudden we’re adding to the narrative, “Yeah, there’s also this.” If that’s part of your story, it doesn’t mean that you’re hopeless or you’re not cut out for it or you’re broken. Now you can go, “Okay, this is me and who I am and how it is.”

There are ways to mitigate these things or strengths even that come along with having some of these challenges. I can make this a part of my story. I can leverage this. I can set my business up in a way to allow for maybe a month out of the year I’m going to want to be in bed inexplicably for hours, and I’ll just set up my business to compensate for that and not recriminate myself because it’s like, “Oh my gosh. I’m taking the medication. I don’t know why.” Then it comes back to this I am fundamentally flawed as opposed to this is a thing. We’ve all got our things. Just because so-and-so looks like they’ve conquered everything doesn’t mean that your story is a hopeless one.

Tricia: I think also being an entrepreneur means you’re a risk taker. You’re somebody who wants to forge a new path. You’re doing that today by just reframing the way we speak about mental health. You’ve not said mental illness once. You’ve said mental health every single time. I think that is an important differentiation that I appreciate. Thank you.

Tricia Brouk

Tricia is a member of The Screen Actors Guild, The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Dramatists Guild of America, New York Women in Film and Television, and The League of Professional Women in Theater. She is very involved with Visible Ink and is also a directing mentor for Girl Be Heard, an organization empowering girls to share their stories.

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