Normalizing mental health: ‘If Simone Biles got coronavirus, this would be a completely different talk’

Part 2 of our series introduces you to a mental health professional and a teacher

FILE - In this July 27, 2021 file photo, Simone Biles, of the United States, watches gymnasts perform after she exited the team final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo. Biles and Naomi Osaka are prominent young Black women under the pressure of a global Olympic spotlight that few human beings ever face. But being a young Black woman -- which, in American life, comes with its own built-in pressure to perform -- entails much more than meets the eye. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File) (Ashley Landis, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Therapy gave Danielle Gomez the tools she needed to navigate a particularly hard chapter in her life, after both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer within six months of one another; she suffered a miscarriage; and then got pregnant again.

You can read Gomez’s story, and see why she chose to share it, here.

We spoke with her as part of our series on mental health. You can, by the way, still participate, and tell us about your own experience, if you choose. All answers are anonymous, unless you drop us your contact information.

After Gomez, we chatted with a mental health professional who works within a jail setting, and a teacher, in an attempt to continue the mental health discussion. Below are their thoughts, experiences and wishes as to how we can truly normalize all of this for generations to come. (And if you didn’t read part one just yet, start there!)

Meet Kara

Kara Dison was another one of the people who said her mental health may have actually improved during the pandemic.

Kara Dison. (Kara Dison)

“I think it got better,” she told us. “When everything got chaotic, I really clung to my support system and I utilized mental health services. As a professional, (it was) to manage some of the trauma that I was seeing inside the jail system and in my career, but also to manage the stress of being at home. And then holistically, I started to engage in a physical health program. I got on a better diet, started doing at-home workouts and connecting with more people on a positive level that way. And then a lot of prayer. ... I think when I got told that I couldn’t go to church, I wanted to reach out a little bit more. So it made me want to work harder at those things over quarantine.”

Dison mentioned the jail system because that’s where she works. She’s a mental health professional employed by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, in the program services division as an inmate caseworker. She brought a unique perspective to many of the mental health topics we covered.

Not only has she struggled with her own mental health, but she helps many other people as part of her job. It’s a challenge to care for other people’s mental wellness when you’re in a tough spot with your own, she said.

“You have to be well-grounded,” Dison explained, adding that that usually means you need someone else in your corner, who can help you stay grounded. She aims to prevent personal burnout, and had to look long and hard to find a therapist who was skilled at supporting other therapists.

Dison said she suffers from secondary trauma and PTSD, after working in this field for so long with people like victims of sexual assault, or sexual offenders themselves. She’s heard some awful stories, and those can really stick with her. Dison sees a psychiatrist regularly as well, to monitor the PTSD, and to make sure it doesn’t reach clinical levels involving time away from her job.

“I have to care for my mental health just like somebody would care for their diabetes,” Dison said. “If your stress levels are high and your coping skills are low, you might need the proverbial ‘mental health insulin’ to stabilize or whatever. It might be therapy, it might be medication, but you should manage it in terms of health, and not in terms of ‘buck up and move on.’”

Dison wouldn’t be an asset to her clients or her colleagues without mental health days, she said.

“But even in the facility I work in now, it (can be) judged (like), ‘Oh it’s just mental health.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, we’re all mental health professionals, and I know we’re taught to grind and grind hard, but at the same time, we have to admit our limitations, and that’s part of being a strong person.’”

‘You can’t see it’

The topic reminded her of everything that’s swirling right now surrounding Olympic standout Simone Biles, who pulled herself from almost all the gymnastic events due to her own mental health struggles. The “twisties,” as they’re called, are more of a mental block, but Biles has admitted this has been a rough time for her, with the spotlight shining down on the world’s greatest athletic stage.

“I think that’s what we should have always been doing,” Dison said, regarding Biles’ decision to withdraw. “(It’s) respecting our limitations and our vulnerabilities, and giving ourselves time to grow within our vulnerabilities and overcome them.

“If sometimes if I could just have an hour between a crisis here at the jail to just be with my feelings and let myself calm down from it, I am there 110% for the next client, where as if I have to go from one to another to another, I mean, I’ll do it and I’ll give my best self, but it’s not going to be the Kara you get when I get a break.”

Breaks are incredibly important.

We should all be extending some level of compassion and understanding to one another when it comes to inner struggles, Dison said.

“Mental health IS health. It’s part of us,” as Dison put it. “And it’s part of the social nature of our society. We have to respect that.”

And, she added, we know so much about mental health, scientifically. It makes sense to give each other time, space and withhold judgment. “Obviously, if Simone Biles got coronavirus, this would be a completely different talk. But it’s her mental health. You can’t see it.”

And perhaps that’s what makes things different. Dison said she can absolutely empathize with Biles -- of course you’d want to be in a strong mental state before performing gymnastics in front of the world at her level of truly elite capabilities.

Why doesn’t everyone get that?

Soft vs. tough

Speaking about this idea lately that our current generation is “soft” or “not tough enough,” Dison said she’s heard that mentality before, but doesn’t necessarily agree. “Everybody has a right to take care of their health,” she said.

And, Dison added, if a mental health issue goes unchecked, depression can equal suicide.

“It’s a life-or-death issue for some people,” Dison said. “It’s not some little issue. It’s everything.”

Plus, stress-related illnesses are a thing. Perhaps our physical health would be improved if we didn’t minimize mental wellness. “I tell everybody, ‘You’re the expert on you. You know you,’” Dison said. “So if you don’t feel right, whatever ‘not right’ is for you, it’s OK to talk about it. Never be ashamed about it. The only thing that gets rid of shame is shining a light on it.”

If you expose shame, it goes away, she added. It’s important to take a regular inventory of how you’re feeling. Dison said she checks in with herself two to three times a week, journals daily and keeps up with a gratitude journal. Just like eating right, working out and spending time with her family, she prioritizes her mental health and works it into her normal routine.

When Dison starts noticing herself becoming jumpy, paranoid, irritable or extra vigilant, she thinks maybe her PTSD has been exasperated a bit. And then when exercising stops giving her a natural lift, or sleep starts becoming problematic, she checks in for help.

“It’s about taking the shame off of those symptoms, and being heard,” Dison said.

As for what she would tell others, Dison answered the following, and without delay or hesitation: “Don’t be afraid to say that you cannot do something, that you don’t want to do something, or enough’s enough. It’s OK to be exhausted. It’s OK to ask for help.”

Meet Jenny

Jenny Moore, a Houston teacher, lives with an anxiety disorder, which she speaks openly about, in hopes of making these discussions more commonplace.

Jenny Moore. (Jenny Moore.)

Moore realizes not everyone was raised like her. Moore has had substance addiction in her family for generations, so she grew up knowing about the topic and hearing talks centered around mental health.

“We (as a society) have to really, really talk about it,” she said, as part of the reason why she agreed to our interview in the first place.

When it comes to Biles, Moore was pleased to see all the support, which drew some naysayers as well, of course, but we also spoke about how the gymnast’s stardom shined a light on mental health and really got people talking.

Moore said she was really impressed with Michael Phelps, one of the rare people in the world who knows what it’s like to have all eyes laser-focused on you at the Summer Games. Phelps is currently serving as a commentator in Tokyo, and he’s addressed Biles’ “twisties” on multiple occasions.

“I thought he did an excellent job,” Moore said. “One, I thought he didn’t put words in her mouth, and he spoke from his point of view, but (he) also shined a light that, again, everybody is human.”

A lot of us, just as people, have the same issues and want the same things: Food on our table, for our family to be safe, access to good health care; the list goes on, Moore said. We’re not all that different.

Mental health as a taboo topic

When COVID-19 showed up in the U.S. in early 2020, the hardest part was answering these questions: Like any other parent or caregiver, Moore said, she found herself asking, “What do I need to do, in order to keep everyone that I love, safe?”

Someone in her family lives with an underlying health condition, which added a layer of stress.

“It’s been an interesting balance between looking for too much information, and just what I need -- (and) for someone who lives with anxiety, I know I went down the path of looking for too much,” Moore said.

Her “check-engine” light did come on during the pandemic, she admitted, but not like it has in the past. Moore, who’s in her 50s now, said that at the age of 44, she found herself wondering, “Have I lost my marbles, and am I going to be able to pick them up again?” But she credited strong family support for helping her to get through that time.

And then when COVID-19 really started spreading, Moore said she felt an intense sense of not being able to control things. She started controlling other pieces instead, she said. For example, her family stocked up on masks and hand sanitizer.

Moore said she acknowledged her anxiety, and even that helped. Talking about it can feel productive.

“It is almost like, if you feel like mental health is a taboo topic, then it’s almost like people feel like it really is a virus. ‘If I talk about it, if I hear things … then I’m going to get it, too, in a sense.’ … When the opposite is actually true. If we are more empathetic, if we can listen, we may not understand it, we may not get it, it may be frightening to us -- but if we can just listen … then we are more empathetic and more likely to go, ‘OK, what can we do to help?’”

The other side

Sometimes Moore listens to a news channel on TV that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, because she thinks it’s important to hear from the other side, and to learn what other viewpoints and perspectives are gaining traction or buzzing.

“That’s almost how I feel about mental health,” Moore told us. “It’s so important for us to hear the other side. Because if we don’t hear the other side, then we don’t know. I’ve had somebody tell me, ‘How in the world can you be anxious? You got your worst anxiety after you were on a great trip.’ I wanted to go, ‘Well, I did. And this is how it is. And there’s nothing wrong with me for doing that.’ … But I said, ‘I just did. It’s what happens. I’m not going to judge you. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t judge me.’ I think the more we hear about it, the less we judge.”

Moore said she works with a mental health professional, which has helped her immensely, especially when it comes to staying present with her family during a tough past year or so. She also starts her day with gratitude.

Both practices -- talking with a therapist and purposefully reminding herself to be grateful -- have been vital. “It gives me the grace to be myself,” Moore said. “I have learned I’m OK, even with all my lumps and bumps, and it is giving a plumber the proper tools to do the job. That really is -- it is a toolbox.”

A feeling can sometimes seem like the truth, she added. It’s like, “if I feel this way, it must be right.”

But that’s not always the case. Working with a professional can make all the difference, and bring in a fresh perspective, “and it’s the best gift you could give yourself,” Moore said.

And this idea about ‘kids today?’

We played devil’s advocate and asked her the same question as Dison: What about the notion that people are too sensitive, children grew up receiving these participation trophies, it’s a weaker climate today than it was in years past -- we’ve likely all heard this general idea. What would Moore say to that?

“I would say, you are a little bit right. And you are a little bit wrong.”

“Our kids don’t know how to fail, because all of a sudden, failure, which goes with the mental illness crisis we’re having ... people think if you have a mental illness, you have failed, (or) there’s something wrong with you,” Moore continued on. “And there is not.”

But it’s not about being tougher, she said.

“We all have baggage. It just comes in different colors, different shapes and different sizes,” Moore explained.

She ended with these words to anyone out there who might be in a hard spot: “Reach out and keep reaching out. Don’t stop reaching out. Don’t stop asking for help until you get it, because there is help out there. You just have to find it.”

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