It’s 5:30 a.m. on a recent April Monday in chilly Napa. As the restless night fades, I am dozing, finally numb to the nagging fears that have metastasized in me these last few weeks of the pandemic. My wrist buzzes. I silence my alarm, to rest a few minutes more.
My eyes jolt open an hour later to see sunlight streaming in. As head of a national mental health nonprofit, I can’t be late for the day’s first video conference. I hurry to the kitchen, my dog Cooper close behind. I set down his breakfast, and as he gobbles down his food, I feel my face relax. I exhale. I’ve got this. I can help others. This day will be worthwhile.
As for so many others, my mental health has been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Having lived with schizophrenia for 30 years, I’ve learned not only how to survive such challenges, but to keep growing in the midst of crazy times. What’s the self-therapy I’ve learned throughout these decades? It’s caring actively for others. Reaching out to others who are struggling with anxiety, fear, depression and debilitating mental illness is, for me, profoundly empowering and healing.
When I was a teen, solitude was my friend. Driven by a love for the cosmos, I’d spend hours climbing the dusty trails of Briones Park in Lafayette and building original model spacecraft from toy construction parts. I loved life sciences too, and volunteered as a chimpanzee researcher at the Oakland Zoo. Then, just as I was stretching intellectually and enjoying gratifying friendships, a psychotic episode scrambled my future.
Throughout that chaotic summer, I was certain demons lurked behind every corner. I could hear them guffawing whenever I committed “fatal errors” such as stepping on a crack or eating too much at a meal. Day after lonely day, as my family, doctor and I fought for me to regrow into the young man we once knew and loved, I became despondent, exhausted, hopeless. Until one cool fall evening, I lay curled under the stars on my front lawn, ready to end my life.
The galaxy’s glow, once a solace and source of inspiration, now glared down at me. Lying there alone, I feared my dreams were dead. But the fresh scent of green grass stirred my curiosity for life. A vivid premonition of my next visit to observe the chimpanzees filled me with hope. Life still held potential for beautiful discovery. I dusted off the grass and returned home.
That fall, three things kept me fighting my way back to life: My family’s loving support reminded me to care for myself and others. Engaging in community activities helped me care for (and be cared for by) others around me. And benefitting from the best science-based medical care showed me that science can be a mighty force to investigate psychosis, and to improve our reality.
In the next years, staring-down brain illness was like climbing a slippery trail: two steps forward, one back. Through the slip-ups, I still grew. I finished college and started working as a spacecraft engineer. When a second episode crumpled me again, I pivoted to work for the mental health and brain-research nonprofit my family and I founded, which helped me refocus as an agent of change and community-builder.
Through it all, the new treatments that neuropsychiatric scientists around the country were advancing enabled me to live successfully. Now, in gratitude, I’ve dedicated my career to supporting the kind of science that saved me and to advancing policy to support vital community mental health initiatives. Among our most important goals has been to advance detection and prevention of schizophrenia in teenagers, who as I once did, find themselves at their rope’s end.
Strengthening my community’s mental health has bounced back to strengthen mine. I appreciate every day this miraculous human feedback loop: We actively care for our own mental health as we support others’. Some simple ways I’ve discovered to do so: Check in with friends and share an anecdote, a photo, or a laugh. Spend time with those you love – any way you can. Play made-up games. Dance around the living room (on Zoom) Start a blog, a webcast or a podcast about something you care about. I find that this offers focus and connection in an uncertain and confined world.
On a recent webcast I hosted with Kevin Hines – a young man who survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge – we talked about perserverance, possibility and the days ahead. Dozens of people wrote to say they found our conversation fortifying and encouraging. Like the kid staring at the stars and grasping for a lifeline, they felt inspired—and less alone. We are strong together.
Now is the time. Nurture your community, and advocate together for causes that move you. I’ve found nothing has helped my mental health more. May you find the same.
Brandon Staglin is president of One Mind, a national mental health and brain research non-profit.
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