A Million Steps To Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention

April 27, 2018 – When I share my plans for Memorial Day 2018, most people react with some degree of astonishment. Starting that holiday weekend, I’ll be pairing up with a friend to run 40 miles a day – the rough equivalent of one and a half marathons – every day for 25 days in a row. This 1,000-mile trek will take us along the entire Bruce Trail from north to south in Ontario, Canada, then on to the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany in upstate New York.

The 1,000-mile run will be the biggest challenges of our lives, but the physical pain that will inevitably creep into our bodies is dwarfed by the anguish of those affected by mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts.

I have seen this anguish firsthand. In April 2017, I lost my mother to suicide. This run won’t bring her back, but its purpose and its title – “See Our Symptoms Run” – is to allow her memory to thrive while publicly elevating mental health awareness and suicide prevention. If my family had recognized the signs of severe depression that my mom was exhibiting leading up to her death, she might still be with us.

For 70 years my mom was the embodiment of joy, affection, compassion, goodness, tenderness, and selfless love. A devoted wife of nearly 50 years to my father, she adored her four children almost as much as her 12 grandchildren. She touched the lives of countless young children as an elementary school teacher, an occupation to which she was divinely called. Each person she met in her church, school, and community couldn’t be in her presence without breaking into a smile and feeling at ease.  

Yet something changed after her 70th birthday. Gone was the jovial family matriarch in her golden years of retirement, replaced by someone who became overly preoccupied with the various physical ailments she was experiencing. It took nearly a year and countless doctors and tests before we realized she was suffering not only from physical ailments, but from anxiety and a mental health condition as well. We encouraged her to seek therapy, see a psychiatrist, find a support group, and be forthcoming about her fears and the underlying causes of her anxiety. We still didn’t realize she was battling severe depression. She had hidden her symptoms so well that no one among her family and team of doctors could see how much anguish she was in. Shortly after her 72nd birthday, she took her own life.

In retrospect, the signs of severe depression become apparent: self-isolation; cutting herself off from family and friends; inability to find joy in things that previously brought her happiness; comments about being a burden to loved ones; and fear of leaving the house, among others. We realize now that my mom had exhibited these signs, but we hadn’t connected them at the time with severe depression or thoughts of suicide.

As I’ve reflected on her death and those signs of depression she exhibited, I’m able to see certain times in my past with a new perspective. It’s only now that I have truly come to understand that I myself have at times had to deal with depression.  While I’ve gradually realized over the last five or six years that I sometimes struggle with a general anxiety, I also see that there were several times in my life–high school and grad school in particular–when I was also mildly depressed. At the time I never thought to seek help, probably because I didn’t understand that I was depressed. I figured I could tough it out, suck it up, get through it; I figured I was just “down” and would get over it by my own strength. I believed guys my age didn’t need help and certainly didn’t need to talk to anyone. I was naively ignorant. Thankfully, I was able to get out of those bouts despite my own ignorance, but my older, wiser self would now tell the younger, ignorant me that it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.

As for the anxiety I still deal with today, I see the symptoms of that more clearly than I did before my mother died. I’ve always been a bit of an anxious person; people who knew me as a kid are probably nodding in agreement right now. But now I recognize the signs with much more clarity, recognize when I’m starting to feel anxious, and know what those triggers might be. I’ve learned that particular dreams I have are a reflection of that anxiety, even if I can’t always remember exactly what they are. Perhaps most importantly for my current mental health, I’ve learned that running (and exercise in general) is my best coping mechanism.

When I tell people that I like to run 100 miles in a day, or 50 miles a day for a week, there’s been no shortage of those who ask me what I’m running from. Far from running from something, however, I’m running towards something – running towards better daily mental health and a way to deal with my anxiety. When I run, the anxiety-inducing worries that had seemed so significant fall into perspective as I put one foot in front of the other and log mile after mile. Even on the days when I’m sleep-deprived, exhausted or unmotivated, I know that getting out the door for just five miles will make me feel better, physically and emotionally, and relieve me of the anxiety that preoccupied me beforehand.

Let’s remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, and embrace a discussion of these issues with those affected by them. The conversation starts with recognition of the warning signs. Equipped with this awareness, and helping to foster an environment in which people are comfortable sharing their thoughts, we have a better chance of preserving lives and pursuing healing.

Click here for information on how to donate to the “See Our Symptoms” Run.  

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