‘You’re not alone’: CNN Heroes share advice for Mental Health Awareness Month
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to connect with a trained counselor or visit the Lifeline site.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year it seems to coincide with a flurry of violent headlines. For many, this constant bad news adds to the stress of everyday life, which may already feel overwhelming.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, each year in the US, one in five adults experience mental illness and one in six children aged 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder. That’s millions of people. In 2021, less than half of adults received treatment.
America’s mental health crisis is having a widespread impact that touches everyone.
“One of the things that we underestimate as a society is how our global mental health impacts us as individuals. And we have seen it over and over again as we experience gun violence,” said Michele Neff Hernandez, a 2021 CNN Hero who has helped millions navigate grief and loss through her nonprofit Soaring Spirits. “We can see what happens when people don’t get the help they need; there can be tragic consequences.”
Neff Hernandez is one of many CNN Heroes who have found unique ways to help people with their mental health. Some of them marked Mental Health Awareness Month by sharing advice and insight with CNN’s Elizabeth Belanger about what is working for their communities. Below are edited versions of their conversations.
For Neff Hernandez, whose organization helps widowed people connect with each other in a community of support, it’s important for everyone to know they aren’t alone in their struggle. Mental illness is common, yet the stigma surrounding it is often a hurdle for people seeking the treatment they need.
Michele Neff Hernandez: When our body isn’t working well, going to a doctor to seek the cause or to help alleviate symptoms is considered normal and even responsible. Yet, when we are struggling with our mental health for any reason – including grieving a death, experiencing a traumatic event, even coping with the global and national crises that are a part of our daily narrative – we so often hesitate to seek mental health support. The pervasive stigmatizing narrative that implies that seeking mental health support shows weakness or that a mental illness or the breakdown of our mental health for any reason is something to be ashamed of has a significantly negative impact on our society, especially our young people.
We have to model good mental health care by learning about mental health with the same vigor we use to learn about physical health. Imagine if meditation were as popular as weight loss. Or if picking up your mood stabilizing medication was viewed in the same way as picking up your blood pressure medication. Normalizing caring for and seeking help with mental health is a gift we can give ourselves and the next generation. We all need mental health support at many times in our lives; what a gift it would be if accessing that help were viewed as just part of normal life.
We see this in grief all the time: No one wants to allow people to be sad. We seek to fix instead of listen. We pressure grieving people to “get over it” to make others more comfortable. We set the definition of success after a traumatic event as “returning to normal,” even when returning to a past normal is impossible. The truth is we are always changed by the challenges we overcome, and integrating what we’ve learned about ourselves in the aftermath is one of the key elements of building resilience. When we stigmatize mental health care, we create an environment that ensures that the people who most need help will suffer alone.
Annette March-Grier is a 2014 CNN Hero and the founder of Roberta’s House, a bereavement center in Baltimore, Maryland. Their programs reach more than 4,000 people of all ages each year. In 2021, the organization moved into a new state-of-the-art center where it hosts in-person support groups and serves people who are suffering all types of loss.
March-Grier stresses the importance of putting yourself first to enhance mental well-being.
Annette March-Grier: Everyone is looking for some kind of balance, yet few are finding it. Your state of mind is where it all begins. Make self-care a priority for your mental wellness. “Self-care is not selfish.” It is a truth that if you don’t take care of yourself, you will have nothing to give others. This includes healthy relationships that can be jeopardized because of stress, burnout, and lack of self-care. Your physical health is also connected to your mental health. Negative thoughts and suppression of these can cause dis-ease, and over time this leads to disease.
Self-care means taking time out for self, creating a gratitude list, journaling, dancing, laughing, breathing fully, smelling the fresh air, being aware of surroundings, being in the moment, enjoying the stillness when you can, taking time out for self, playing with your pet, exercising, reflecting on the past, dreaming about the future, eating healthy, helping someone in need. All of these self-care activities increase the body’s endorphins and bring on relaxation and balance.
Sports helped 2012 CNN Hero Scott Strode overcome his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He founded The Phoenix in 2007 to provide free athletic activities and a sober support community to others battling addiction. Today, the organization is in more than 200 communities nationwide with nearly 200,000 members.
Strode’s work focuses on the intersection of exercise and personal connection to benefit mental health.
Scott Strode: Social connection is a powerful tool for creating positive mental health. At The Phoenix, every day we see the profound impact that belonging and social connection has on our members’ confidence and overall well-being. Just spending a few minutes daily in the presence of others can be inherently powerful, and thankfully it is now easier than ever to make these vital connections.
Whether it’s getting together for an activity or just talking about challenges being faced, social connectivity can help us all overcome mental health challenges.
Exercise can also be a powerful tool to improve mental health. We encourage you to get out for a 15- to 30-minute walk or run and consider inviting a friend to join you. Sharing these physical activities with supportive peers can create the vulnerability to begin to share about what else you might be experiencing.
Service dogs are often a helpful tool for members of the military returning from deployment and afflicted by conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. 2012 CNN Hero Mary Cortani’s nonprofit, Operation Freedom Paws, has helped nearly 600 veterans, first responders, and others train their own service dogs.
Cortani emphasizes that not all wounds are visible, and silence is not a treatment for mental illness.
Mary Cortani: If the world has taught me anything, it has taught me to remember to be kind, do not judge what you cannot see. Pain is invisible. With all the craziness going on every day, breathe. It is okay to feel down, to feel overloaded, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated. Try not to hold onto it. Seek help, talk to your family, friends, pastor, priest – talk to someone. And for those listening, really hear, pay attention, because sometimes the silence says more than the words. There is no shame to ask for help. It takes courage, and we all have it within us.
It takes all of us to realize mental health needs to be talked about, not buried under the rug. We need open, honest conversations; we have a mental health crisis in this country that is only getting worse as we become more divided. Fear only adds to it. Mental health doesn’t just affect veterans and first responders; it can affect everyone. Trauma is trauma, and enough repeated exposure changes the brain. There is hope, and there can be healing, but we all need to work together to help those who need our help.
We need to stop the silence surrounding mental health and model healthy behaviors so that we can assist with support and help guide towards resources. We are not in this alone, nor are those suffering from mental health issues.