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Walk for Hope Talk in Harrisonburg, VA/Trip to the University of Notre Dame

  • April 12, 2012

Wow, very exciting weekend. Saturday i went to the Walk for Hope - an amazing first time event for suicide prevention and depression awareness. My friend Bib Frazier who lost his son to suicide was the catalyst for this event, as well as Pam Resse Comer from the counseling group at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Four schools participated as described below. I was sending out an "enhanced" version of my speech to a few folks and thought it might be helpful here too. I try to do my speeches without any notes, so I didn't say what is listed here word for word. This actually has more than i said (sometimes I forget something because I don't use notes - but I have found I am for more effective presenting without them) with links and photos that were not included in the speech.

The only problem with giving you this speech in writing is my sense of humor does not come through at all. But those of you who've seen me can probably imagine the hand motions and expressions that change a sentence from somber to funny. Hard to do on paper. Need my theatrics to pull it off.

Monday I had a chance to go to the University of Notre Dame for a whirlwind tour with adminstrators there about how to maximize mental health at the University of Notre Dame. Great folks there (of course I am a proud and biased alumni). Think we will see some groundbreaking work out of ND in the next few years in the mental health area. I also had a chance to meet with the students from a new course on mental health and mental illness awareness that is being offered at ND. They are using Struck by Living as a text for the class.

Gorgeous day at the University of Notre Dame on Monday!

 

The class has about 16 students, all from a wide array of backgrounds (Arts and Letters, science, premed, psychology). What was so nice about seeing this group is that it was not just psychology majors, but people who were generally interested in understanding mental illness and trying to make a difference in the world. Very excited about where this course is going. The NAMi student group at ND wants to do a talk in the fall and asked me to return. Of course I said YES! Any excuse to return to ND in the fall and see my good friends Steve Reifenberg and Chris Cervanek is appreciated.

Here is the enhanced speech:

Speech Given at Walk for Hope – Harrisonburg, VA 3-31-2012

(this was a four school suicide prevention and depression awareness walk. The four schools that participated were James Madison University (JMU), Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Blue Ridge Community College and Bridegwater College. Approximately 800 people participated, each person wearing a Walk for Hope t-shirt for a color representing his or her school. We all convened at the Farmer’s Market in Harrisonburg for speeches, food, music, and information booths for suicide prevention and recovery from suicide loss.

For photos and more tidbits, check out my SBL facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/struckbyliving

Speech:

Thank you for allowing me to join in this celebration of life. Pam Comer, Bibb Frazier and all of you who have worked so hard to create this event – thank you. Thank all of you for walking!

 

 

The two catalysts, Bibb Frazier (in cowboy hat) and Pam Reese Comer (at the mic)

I am speaking today in honor of Bibb and Dolly’s son Austin Frazier and also for Julie Simon, the sister of my friend Beth Schaeffer. Both Austin and Julie attended James Madison University.

If someone gave Bibb, Beth and me a crystal ball in 1978 when we graduated from Harrisonburg High School, and we looked in the crystal ball to see that sometime in the next 35 years Bibb would lose a son to suicide, Beth would lose a sister to suicide and I would attempt suicide, we would have said ARE YOU NUTS?! This crystal ball is defective! We were smart, strong, weren’t we good looking back then Bibb and Beth? Anyone would say we were capable people. Suicide didn’t happen to people like us or our families.

We were wrong. About 35K lives annually are lost to suicide in the US. To put that number in perspective, 40K people a year lose their lives to breast cancer. By taking simple steps, putting on pink shoelaces, and talking openly about breast cancer, the rate of death by breast cancer has steadily decreased over the past decade. Thirty years ago people treated cancer victims as though they were toxic and families dealt with their pain in silence. Today, families are open about cancer and communities rally in support. I believe that TODAY you are taking that same type of action about suicide. Thank you for taking that first step today to change our world.

 

Here are some friends from Cooper who attended the Dr. Oz event we did in January

JMU students - purple, EMU - light blue, Blue Ridge - Dark Blue, Bridgewater burgundy

Today I’m going to tell you one story, give a little advice, tell another story and give you some homework at the end. Don’t worry, the homework won’t be collected or graded, it something you hold in your heart. But in order for the homework to make sense, you have to hear the stories first.

Story Number One:

In September of 2001, when many of you were trying understand why your parents were glued to the TV, watching those two planes crash again and again into the twin towers, I sat in a locked psychiatric ward waiting for my first round of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). I was certain my life was over. I was certain I had nothing to offer my children who were 5 and 7 at the time, a few years younger than you. I knew had nothing I could give my friends, my community or my husband. I was so certain of this, I drove my car into the garage and let it run for 90 minutes.

Luckily, unbeknownst to me, my garage is really well ventilated. I did ECT, and recovered. I remember looking at my journal the day after the first ECT session and thinking who IS this person.?? I’ve ruined my children, I’m a horrible wife, I’m stupid, I sounded like the Eyore character in Winnie the Pooh. I did ECT and snap my view of myself and my life completely changed. I realized then, really for the first time, that depression is a disease. Nothing in my life had changed. I had the same husband, the same house and the same kids. Yet in a 24-hour period I viewed my world completely differently.

When I sat in that garage, I saw no possibility in my future life. That’s the problem with clinical depression. Depression skews perception SO much, the crystal ball of life is perpetually gray. I figured I might as well end it now and save everybody the heartache.

So many people think suicide is a selfish thing – clearly those people have never been clinically depressed. Most suicides occur because the person sincerely feels he’s a burden on the world and everybody would be better off without him. The hope of change is lost. When I was that depressed, suicide seemed practical, even a moral choice.

In 2001 my crystal ball was permanently gray no matter how hard I shook it. Convinced change would never happen, I tied to take my own life.

I made a list yesterday of some of the things that have happened in the decade since I attempted suicide:

- I’ve watched my kids grow up into people I actually like and respect, most days anyway – they are now 15 and 17. I often think of what their lives might have been lost if they lost their mother at ages 5 and 7.

- My husband has distilled into even a finer person than he was when I married him. He’s done incredibly well in business, growing his partnership and nurturing a long list other companies. Not only has he helped his own employees have jobs and gain financial security, all the companies that he’s helped have become more successful. I often wonder how many jobs would have been lost if he had to shut down his business for several years because he was suddenly faced with single parenthood with children traumatized by their mother’s suicide.

- I’ve pursued my life’s passion of writing, wrote Stuck by Living, and people have actually read it! Thousands of people! I’ve visited 19 different countries (not all related to the book), done about 200 talks, reunited with friends all over the world, and made a long list of new friends.

- There’ve been fun quirky experiences - a psychologist in Ireland found me on the internet and asked me to evaluate his prep manual for ECT patients, which I did. I got to be on the Dr. Oz Show. I’ve been invited to speak at medical schools, universities, at the International Society of ECT and Neurostimulation and the American Association of Suicidology. The American Assn of Suicidology – can you believe such a thing even exists?

- I’ve been able to hang out with creative types which I initially did not believe existed in Texas – writers and musicians. In fact, one musician named Brice Beaird (http://www.facebook.com/BriceBeaird) wrote a song inspired by my book. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/struck-living/201111/song-heals-hold-me Through a bizarre set of circumstances I connected him to a producer in Austin. I got to be on the music video – very fun experience creating that. You can even buy the song on ITunes “Hold on to Me” a singer is Helen Darling (http://helendarling.com/).

 

 

Songwriter Brice Beaird who wrote "Hold on to Me"

- But perhaps my favorite story is about Jorge. Like many men in the Latino culture, Jorge was ashamed of his wife’s depression. He pushed away his friends who were trying to help him. Jorge heard me talking about Struck by Living on the radio, sought out the book and started reading. Jorge read Struck by Living to his wife, page by page, translating it into her native Spanish so it would be easier for her to understand. He emailed me to ask some advice and thank me. Turns out that Jorge works 5 miles from my house. He teaches at a nearby school and his wife received treatment in the same hospital where I received treatment. Jorge changed his macho-latino view and accepted the help of friends because that’s what my husband Ken did. Ken is well respected community, smart, a leader and Jorge followed his example. I met Jorge a few weeks ago, charming, a life force, kind of a cross between Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem. For the younger women in the crowd, this may not be that exciting, but those over 50 might understand what a fun meeting that was! Jorge’s now developing a Spanish translation of Struck by Living and we are going to publish it.

Just think about it, ten years ago I sincerely thought I deserved death. That I had nothing to offer. But what is even more strange is by being honest about the absolute worst part of my life, I have freed not just me, but others to improve mental health in the world.

When I think about all these experiences, I realize Man! My crystal ball SUCKED!

The problem is no one’s crystal ball is accurate. No matter how bad life or good life seems on any day, I can guarantee you one thing. Life will change. Learn to soak up the good moments and tread water through the bad ones. If we help each other, if we are willing to accept help, we all can make it.

So now for some advice

In order to make it – however – we need to be able to recognize depression. Everyone needs to learn to manage his or her own mental health. Here’s the fun part. Everyone’s mental health plan is unique. Our president can’t craft a plan for you, a doctor can’t prescribe it. YOU have to own it. And EVERYONE, not just the mentally ill, needs a mental health plan.

I have a mental health plan that I’ve developed for me that I call my Struck by Living Top 6 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qay6Skv7Go&lr=1&user=struckbyliving

Here are my Top 6

1. I take an antidepressant. I This was a tough hurdle for me to overcome, not because of any side effects of medication, but because I felt if I were spiritually whole, I should not need an antidepressant. I felt so strongly about this I went off medication in 2005 and I relapsed in 2007 when the perfect storm of stress occurred.

2. I try to protect what I call the “big three.” Everyone has her “normal” in terms of sleep and body weight. My sleep normal these days is about 7 hours a night. When I see my self sleeping less – 5 hours a night several days in a row, I try to readjust. If I can’t I call my psychotherapist or psychiatrist and we adjust medication.

In terms of body weight, I know I’m depressed when I start dropping weight rapidly. If Im depressed I have no appetite – other people eat when they’re depressed, I do the opposite. Normally I have a voracious appetite. So again, I monitor and adjust. I also take fish oil for Omega III fatty acids and take a Vitamin D supplement. Deficiency of both these things have been strongly linked to depression. When I look back at the three major episodes in my life, all three had heavy onset in Dec/Jan and peaked in March/April – from this it seems pretty likely that I suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), which is basically a deficiency of Vitamin D due to lack of sunlight. Because we have become SO good about wearing sunscreen, we often don’t get the 15 minutes of unprotected sunlight a day that we all need. It is an easy blood test to determine your Vitamin D level. So if you or someone you care about seems to follow this same pattern, I highly recommend getting your Vitamin D levels checked.

Routine exercise has been linked to better brain health in study after study. John Ratey wrote a book called Spark, I highly recommend it. The work of my good friend Dr. Madhukar Trivedi on exercise and depression from UT Southwestern is highlighted throughout this book. But exercise is important not just for management of depression, but ADHD, Alzheimers, and better academic performance. So the first thing I tell people to do if they are depressed is to force themselves to at least get out and walk briskly every day for a period of time. I am an avid runner, but you don’t have to run or be a super athlete. Just make exercise part of your daily routine.

3. I listen to my friends and family about my own mental state. If I am trying to solve my depression, I am trying to solve my problem with the very organ in my body that is broken. It just isn’t very effective. So now when my family, particularly my husband tells me my “normal” is off – not sleeping enough is usually the first and biggest sign, I try to self correct. My friends get after me if I send emails at 3 in the morning. I’ve trained my family and friends to be my barometer of health.

4. I plan proactively for times of high stress. This happened just recently. I was in London in early December doing a talk and visiting friends, and I got a call from the Dr. Oz show. Ended up they wanted me to be on the show, and fly immediately to NY after I returned from my London trip. Between the holidays and the impact of having my life on display for 3-4 million people in January I was wound up. I called my psychotherapist and we scheduled about 3 sessions once a week through January. I also called my psychiatrist and we adjusted medication for that time period. By the end of January I was back on track.

I think many people avoid psychotherapy because they see themselves committed to psychotherapy for a lifetime. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is completely reasonable to agree with a psychotherapist on the goals of therapy and a timeframe of completion.

5. I do things that excite my brain. When I was a freshman at ND I had my first depressive break (although I did not recognize it at the time) in January of 1979. I had decided to change from pre-med to another major, my boyfriend had dumped me, etc and I slipped from deans list to a 2.2 with an identical course load.

Because my father insisted that I have an employable skill upon graduation, he forced me into a business major. Sophomore year I was miserable. All business courses, no electives. I remember taking statistics and just barely making a “C.” I could not understand my teacher or the subject. Junior year, I was able to have some electives and took everything in English. I thrived, back up to deans list. And guess what? I did better in all my business courses too. In fact I aced Quantitative Methods – which is basically advanced statistics. Because my brain was happy, my brain overall performed at a higher level. (Interesting to note that although I have a low “B” average at ND, I never had a “B” semester. I was either happy and on Dean’s List, or miserable and struggling to maintain a “C.”)

6. I try to have friends who are fun and have a sense of perspective. In this country we have a habit of hanging out only with members of our same age group. The problem this creates is we get stuck in the problems of that age group. For example, for me right now, with a 17 year old, the big “problem” is “Where will your child go to college” If I hang out with the other moms at the private school my son attends, I can feel my blood pressure rise. So this is what I do. I go to the Cooper Aerobics Center – this is a place in dallas where I work out – not a pick up type health club – there are a lot of people at Cooper from ages 40-80. When I am in the locker room after my work out, I just call out my problem for the day. Women who are 5,10, 20 years older than me call back their stories – “Oh yeah! I remember that stuff. I also remember when Johnny dropped out of school and we thought the world was going to end. You know, he went on to create his own business and did really well. . .” there is nothing better than knowing that someone has lived through your problem and recovered.

 

 

Here are some friends from Cooper who attended the Dr. Oz event we did in January

This safety in knowing “this too will pass” helps put life into perspective. So when exams come and everyone is losing it about that chemistry test – remember in the long term your chemisty grade only matters so much. Do the best you can and get a good night’s sleep.

I have recently added a 7th item which is allow time for introspection http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/struck-living/201109/introspection-key-ingredient-mental-health

Time alone – to pray, meditate, and to think of your place in the broader spectrum is critical to my mental health. I left out this component purposely because I have seen too many people try to pray their way to health – avoiding the professional help and medication that they probably need. But as I have talked so much about mental health. I realize to leave this critical component out is a mistake.

And now the final story. I want to leave you with a story that has a strong visual metaphor. For me these are the type of stories that stick, and hopefully this one will stick with you.

In 2005, I went on an 80-mile hike through the Sierras with one of my best friends and her long-time boyfriend. These friends are what my husband calls “crunchy granola” and were a bit hard -core about their hiking. No GPS, no satellite phone. I hauled a 40-pound pack through incredible scenery. I got bad altitude sickness for a few days, actually thought I was going to die, but finally we descended to a lower altitude and I thought my problems were over. Not quite. We had a river crossing. It had been raining all day so the river was raging. The log was plenty wide and I have decent balance, but if I fell, I would break some bones or worst case hit my head and drown. I took a deep breath, looked forward and crossed the log.

 

My friend Rand crossing the river

A few days later, we reached the beginning of that same river, close to the spring where the river initiated. I took one big step and crossed into a green field, the peak of Mt Whitney in clear view, no problem whatsoever. The difference of crossing early versus late in a river’s life struck me hard.

That river, for me, is my depression. I know my signs of depression. I don’t sleep, I drop weight, I isolate and I condemn every idea that comes into my head before it hits the page. These days I’ve gotten much better at detecting the slippage myself, and can often self-correct. The trick is to catch the problem at the beginning, when the stream is small, where I can step across the issues and maintain my health. If I give depression too much time, the stream turns into a river – that rages – that endangers my life. If I slip on that log, I not only lose my own life, I endanger the lives of those I love.

 

This is the river near the source, with Mt Whitney in the background

 

Thank you so much for being here today and helping people to choose life. Now, after listening me, are you ready for your homework? Okay. You homework is to implement two simple practices so that you and the people around you can have fuller lives.

The first is:

Develop your own mental health plan, write it down, and protect it. Life is going to bring problems. If you catch them at the stream stage, however, the solution is far easier.

The second

Be kind to each other. You have no idea how powerful a hand on the shoulder or a kind word can be for someone who is deeply depressed. That small gesture can drive people from isolation to inclusion. And who knows. In that short, brief moment, you may have saved a life.

So with this, I’d like to leave you with a song. The is sung by Helen Darling (http://helendarling.com/), the artist who also sings “Hold on to Me.” This song isn’t about suicide, but a lost love. But the reason I want to play it for you today is because the song is about being a force of change. Suicide is bad and I believe far more prevalent than we realize. Many of us have lost people we love, causing a tear in our souls that we fear will never heal. But we can heal. We can help ourselves and others to get help before suicide becomes an option. As it says in the song:

No one else except myself

can turn all my pain into passion

It’s up to me if I’m ever gonna be

lovin’ and livin’ and laughing

It’s not just gonna happen

 

Singer Helen Darling who performs "It's Not Just Gonna Happen"

PLAY SONG

 

(at the “rally” I read the lines to the crowd and had them repeat them back to me. I encouraged them to sing along with the refrain. This went over okay, not too many people sang. Not sure if it was because they couldn’t remember the words, didn’t like country music OR just thought this I was a dumb idea. Lots of tapping feet however – so I think they might have just not been able to remember the words.)

So let’s go make it happen! Thank you very much.

 

Very curious if anyone even reads this entire blog! sory so long, but I am just pumped about how well this event went.

Back to my life of being a mom and a writer - will check in again soon -

 

Julie

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"Struck by Living is just the kind of book that our field and our patients need."

Madhukar Trivedi
Madhukar Trivedi, MD, Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health and Director of Mood Disorders Research Program and Clinic, UT Southwestern
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About Struck By Living

In Struck by Living, Julie Hersh picks apart the irony of her life with humor and brutal honesty. Despite a loving husband, healthy children, financial security, Julie attempted suicide three times. With the help of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), Julie broke the deadly course of her disorder. Now well, Julie promotes the importance of mental health with collaborations with other artists and organizations.

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