May 22, 2019

What I know now about Mental Health could have Saved my Husband.


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On a characteristically sunny Southern California day in October 2012, my husband, Bill, walked onto the MetroLink tracks near our Dana Point home, spread his arms wide, and completed suicide as he was struck by the oncoming train.

Bill was depressed. He was anxious. He struggled with substance abuse, steroid use, and a host of other “typical” symptoms of mental illness.

But Bill was also a victim.

He bought into the widespread stigma about mental illness that plagues our society today. He was a middle-aged, white man with the strength to move mountains. In fact, Bill was a body builder and gym owner. He was the picture of physical health. But inside, Bill was dying. And the help he needed required him to admit the impossible—that he couldn’t control his brain.

Bill’s shame wasn’t an anomaly in 2012, just as it isn’t today. In fact, Mental Illness Policy Org. reports that half of Americans suffering from severe psychiatric disorders are receiving no treatment—that’s as many as 3.5 million individuals.

While there’s no one reason to explain this issue, I know what held Bill back. It wasn’t that he had no one begging him to get help—I was. It wasn’t even that he didn’t recognize the symptoms in himself—he did.

For Bill, it was the shame associated with society’s mental health stigma that kept him from the saving arms of treatment. It was the embarrassment and denial that comes with admitting to be what society calls “broken.”

Ending the Stigma

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a time in which we can offer life-saving information to those suffering from mental illness. Whether you or a family member are experiencing mental health issues, you can play a big role in helping those around you who may be by helping to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Here’s how:

Get educated.

After Bill’s suicide, I was wracked with the guilt of knowing I hadn’t done enough. While that was largely due to my personal grieving process, there are many things I now know that I wish I’d known then.

For example, I knew Bill needed help, but I didn’t know just how urgent the situation was. I didn’t know that he was at a higher risk for suicide because he knew three people who had died that way, or because he had two grandmothers who had attempted it. I didn’t know that his past use of steroids and current use of anxiety medications were exacerbating his illness. I didn’t even realize his frequent talk of death and suicide was a red flag that he had a plan in place.

I say this not to wallow in my own failings, but to underscore that the best way for us to end the stigma and help those we love is to learn everything we can about mental illness.

Be open.

Politics, religion, and…mental illness? While mental health issues might feel personal or taboo, talking about them can save lives—yours or that of someone you love. Being open about your own struggles—something as simple as telling a friend what you learned from your therapist—can open the door to empathy and understanding. If you read or overhear someone perpetuating a mental health stigma, kindly share your knowledge. Be cautious not to use mental health conditions as insults or jokes—you wouldn’t joke about or accuse someone who’s made the “poor decision” to have cancer, after all.

Practice empathy.

If you think you can’t relate to someone suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, you’re probably right. That’s because you’re experiencing life with a brain that isn’t lying to you.

Once you get to know someone who is mentally ill, you’ll start to understand that this is a path no one in their right mind would choose—and that’s the key right there. Rather than avoiding homeless people on the street, talk to them. Look in their eyes and listen to their story. Talk to friends and family members who suffer from depression, anxiety, or a host of other issues about the challenges they face on a daily basis. Seek understanding, and empathy will grow with it.

A month isn’t enough time to change the way society has stigmatized mental illness, but we can all make a difference in our respective circles—circles that undoubtedly include someone who’s suffering.


author: Kristi Hugstad

Image: @ElephantJournal

Image: Holly Lay/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Corti Cooper May 29, 2019 5:42am

Thank you for being open and sharing your story. It’s so important that we keep talking about it.

lizadeeza May 27, 2019 6:22pm

For years I struggled with cyclical debilitating depression. And it took years to understand how to unravel the mystery of it. There are countless reasons for the existence of depression, that vary from person to person. And to cure oneself of symptoms is not an easy task without a commitment to becoming FULLY AWARE of oneself in every aspect possible – Emotional/mental/physical/spiritual … and discovering what does and does not work for one in one’s life. For me, suffering symptoms starting at 10, then at 35 getting diagnosed. At 35 I made a commitment to finding a way to happiness through study of self and every strategy I could find. I found countless cures for depression, but if one has multi-layered reasons for depression: bad health/diet being a major source in conjunction with a poor mindset; history of trauma; poor relating skills; low self-esteem; poor coping mechanisms; etc — any and all can be key indicators of depression. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder which at times turned into mania. From my experience I learned that my diagnosis was the result of a tower of reasonable reasons/clues to my depression. Once I turned one situation around, I needed to address another and another. It was an ongoing quest to clip all the wires of depression that if left unchecked could explode into a self-destructive act of suicide.

I briefly took meds, but it made my situation worse mentally. I had a psychotic breakdown that was drug induced. I had never had anything like this previous or post taking meds. I vowed to deal with the devil I knew rather than the devil I didn’t. I learned to recognize sensations in my body, particular thoughts, emotions, etc as signals pointing to me things that needed changing in my life. Over time, the symptoms lessened and basically have disappeared. It wasn’t easy, because I was reaching out randomly in the dark, but now there are so many tools available to people. I would say all the different practices associated with Yoga (philosophy, movement, breathing and meditation practices) have been the most revolutionary tools, but I have implemented so many others as well.

If you truly want to be free of depression, it takes a deep commitment to changing anything and everything in your life that ails you. It is that simple and that difficult. Taking a pill, may give you temporary relief from the symptom that is alerting one that something is deeply wrong and needs changing – but it will never take away the source of the torment. The source or sources are what need to be addressed in order to relieve the symptoms. And unless one is ready to make such changes, no one is willing to hear this … because change can be absolutely terrifying.

Kevin Nolan May 24, 2019 1:17pm

Thank you for your brave insights. As per Cathy Wentzel, I have had depression (mild) for many years. I have been able to work a regular, full time, demanding job in health care. Several years ago I found dealing with divorce and the diagnosis of cancer to be a body blow. But I am back and still going. Persist in your search for a cure. The treatments for depression are changing and increasing in number each year. At this time, it is still difficult to find the correct match for a given person, without a series of trial and error.

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Kristi Hugstad (The Grief Girl)

For all of Kristi Hugstad’s adult life, she had one clear goal: to provide the highest opportunity for fitness and health to everyone who walks into her studio or gym—a feat she accomplished daily for years until an unimaginable day in October 2012 when in one tragic moment everything changed.

In the wake of epic grief, Kristi’s life has found a new trajectory. She discovered a deep desire to inspire and help those in need, not just physically but emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually. Her mission now is to reach out to those wrestling with grief and offer the opportunity to find a safe place to confront their pain and fears, to address them, change them, and ultimately move through them to a new perspective and new life.

A lifelong athlete and fitness professional, Kristi opened the first spinning studio in Orange County, California in 1995, and has been at the forefront of nearly every major fitness evolution in Southern California ever since. She is without match the quintessential fitness and health trendsetter in OC.

A native of Minnesota, Kristi holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Augsburg College in Minneapolis. She is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, trained in all forms of loss including loss of career, relationships, death, but with special emphasis on issues related to suicide. In 2014, Kristi began facilitating grief recovery workshops for groups and individual therapy. She has quickly become an in-demand public speaker about suicide prevention and grief for schools and civic groups throughout Southern California.

Kristi’s writing has appeared in a number of newspapers and media outlets including The Huffington Post. In April 2019, she was featured on an episode of the CBS show, “The Doctors.” She has a robust social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where she has more than 50,000 followers.

Her book, Beneath the Surface, offers teens practical information on identifying and coping with mental illness, as well as resources for getting help. You can preorder Beneath the Surface on Amazon to arm your child with the mental health information she needs to navigate—and enjoy—the difficult teen years.