Read time: 9 minutes
As many of you know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Throughout this month, it’s likely you’ve seen brave individuals sharing their mental health stories and journeys in an effort to help break the stigma and normalize conversations around the subject.
And if you follow us on social media, it’s likely that you saw our post honoring the month and that we’d share some stories around our own team’s mental health journey.
May is #MentalHealthAwareness Month, and it's something that's important to us here at Unity.
Over the next few weeks, some of our team members will share their mental health journey in a continued effort to #BreakTheStigma.
You are important. You are enough. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/0JD2xRbgra
— Unity Web Agency (@unitymakesus) May 7, 2021
Well, we decided to do something a little different than what we mentioned.
Two of our employees — CEO Alisa Herr and Digital Content Specialist Michael Avila — decided to have an open chat about their own mental health journey and what they’ve done to prioritize it.
Alisa and Michael go in-depth about their own journeys, including some of the shortcomings they’ve had along the way. It’s one of the most personal interviews we’ve done so far, and we greatly appreciate the time both of them took to share their stories.
Why highlight stories around mental health when we’re primarily a web accessibility development agency?
This movement not only aligns with our core values, but it’s also an important subject for our team.
We wanted to contribute to the #BreakTheStigma movement and help normalize conversations around mental health.
Having conversations about your well-being with a friend, family member, or therapist could be life-saving, and it’s so important to feel you are heard and supported.
Although the discussions of mental health have transitioned to a more positive tone, people still feel apprehensive and even ashamed about sharing how they’re doing or even struggle to accept it for themselves.
By making these conversations feel normal, the hope is that more of them will happen.
And when more conversations like this happen, we hope that will save more people.
Note: Both Alisa and Michael were interviewed separately for this piece. One’s response does not influence the other.
When did you start making your mental health a priority? Why did you start your journey then versus earlier?
Alisa: Right before my second child was born, my depression hit in a big way.
It was 2015, I was the CTO of a statewide media nonprofit, my marriage was good, my first child was healthy and happy, but I was most definitely deeply depressed.
You hear about postpartum depression, but not so much prenatal depression.
When my baby was about 6 months old is when I started seeing a therapist.
(Listen, when you have a newborn, you barely have time to bathe, let alone go to what seems like an optional appointment!)
I had seen therapists on and off over the years with mixed results. Only when I began my medication journey, it became clear to me that I had actually had untreated depression for most of my life.
I didn’t seek treatment any sooner because of the shame I felt about having depression.
You can read more about my journey in a post I wrote in 2016: Finding Myself at 32.
Michael: It wasn’t until 2019 where my mental health became a big priority.
Up until then, I had worked under the mantra that many other men have likely heard:
Suck it up and deal with it.
It’s something I learned from friends and family when I was younger, and this led to me bottling things up and pushing it to the side.
It was not the healthiest way to go about it for sure, and I could tell I was getting close to my breaking point.
During 2019, I was at a stage in my career where I wasn’t happy and dealing with some unhealthy competitiveness. It had taken a toll on my mood and even my relationships, and a close friend and my partner both suggested I give therapy a try.
Up until then, I had seen therapy as weakness (which is a horribly toxic mindset) but I also loved my friend and partner and valued what they said, so I decided to give it a shot.
What have you done to help with your mental health?
Alisa: Most recently what’s been working is a mix of therapy, reading, mindfulness, and chats with friends.
My husband says that my therapist deserves a medal — not for putting up with me but for how much she’s done for me.
(And maybe also for putting up with me.)
A few books that have been instrumental lately are:
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski
- The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together by Sherry Walling and Rob Walling.
Michael: Therapy and acceptance.
Therapy because it allowed me to uncover some of the bigger things that were weighing me down. My sessions exposed me to who I really was and the negative path I was heading regarding my mental health.
I was finally aware that I had issues, and it was both relieving and terrifying.
Acceptance because for me to move forward in a positive way, I needed to accept myself for who I was in that moment. I spent so much time denying it, and that created an even more negative impact.
Therapy helped me uncover and accept this part of me, and it allowed me to finally begin my own process of healing.
How’s your journey been? Have there been any ups and downs? What have those experiences been like?
Alisa: There are always ups and downs.
Winter is an especially difficult season for me, as it is with many people with depression.
Now that I’ve been on medication, in therapy, and open with people about my struggles, those ‘down’ periods have gotten a lot shorter than in the past. I can now catch myself starting on a downward spiral and know when it’s time to ask for help before it’s too late because:
When I get too far down, I’m unable to reach out.
The annoying thing with depression is that your mind actually LIES to you and convinces you that doing things like laying in bed, hiding from the world, and not talking to anybody will make you feel better.
But in reality, those will actually keep you down in that deep dark hole.
The worst part is that the (seemingly “simple”) things that will actually make you feel better are the most difficult things to make yourself do — like going outside for a walk, taking a shower, or tidying up.
Michael: It’s definitely been an up and down journey, and it’s something that I’ve begun to accept as normal.
The mindset I’ve taken with mental health is pretty similar to physical exercise:
You need to constantly be working at it.
I recently went through a period where I didn’t do that. I had gone through therapy and thought I was in a good place, so I completely dropped all my exercises and my sessions.
Although I was fine for a little while, a lot of the issues I dealt with came back, and it brought me back down.
I attribute a lot (if not all) of this to neglect and not practicing the techniques I was taught in those sessions. It wasn’t until recently — when I returned to therapy — where I recognized issues (new and old) that were keeping me down.
I’m not 100% there yet, and don’t anticipate being there for a while, but I’m happy to have taken steps towards a healthy mental lifestyle again.
Definitely learned my lesson.
What are your thoughts around taking medicine for your mental health? Do you think it’s a good option?
Alisa: For me:
But it’s not for everybody.
I’m aware that there is a big over-medication problem in western medicine. I have tried many of the “natural” ways to combat depression (sunlight, exercise, mindfulness, therapy), and although they are definitely things I need to do regularly to keep myself healthy, they’re just not enough on their own for me.
When I first started taking my medication, it was like the fog finally lifted and my life soundtrack started playing “I Can See Clearly Now.”
Michael: Admittedly, I felt very negatively about taking medicine early on in my journey.
It wasn’t for any educated reason though.
I viewed medicine similarly to how I originally viewed therapy as a whole — another sign of weakness. I ended up having a few conversations with friends who do take medicine or who have loved ones that take medicine and the overall consensus was that they were happy and surprised with the impact it creates.
Yes, they were still working through their mental journey, but they were now doing so without the crippling anxiety or depression. They had clarity.
Although I do still think that medicine isn’t the long-term solution, I’ve completely 180’d around the idea of medicine and mental health.
With the right person, medicine can really create positive momentum to impactful change within a person’s state of mind.
What would you say to someone who is just starting their mental health journey?
Alisa: I am so proud of you!
The hardest part is starting, then the hardest part is continuing.
It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but you get more used to working with it. Plus, there’s a level of self-acceptance that you may find once you start talking with others and learn how common of a struggle mental health is for people.
Michael: For any person, the biggest thing I’d share is to just start.
Seeking help, especially in today’s generation where these conversations are more normalized, is awesome. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends and family (provided they are ok with this) if you aren’t comfortable with a therapist.
And if you are, that’s awesome! Make sure you find the right one, and it’s ok if the first person you pick doesn’t work out. Continue to search for the right person and don’t give up.
Oh, and for any man reading this:
Please don’t listen to the dated mantra of “suck it up and deal with it.”
It’s 2021 fellas. Men have emotions.
They can cry.
They can feel anxious.
They can be scared.
You don’t need to fall into this trap of being a “manly man.” True strength — and in my opinion the mark of a strong man — is the ability to recognize when you’re not ok, accepting that, and looking for help.
Don’t fall into the old, toxic mantras of years past.
It’ll only hurt you in the long run.
If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or any emotional crisis, know this:
You are not alone.
And you don’t have to feel like that forever.
Here are some resources for help: