Mental health: End the stigma

Oregon State student-athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten, co-founders of the #DamWorthIt campaign, on the WSUV campus.

When I sat down earlier this year to review plans for this semester’s Sports and the Media class, I knew I’d be raising issues of race, gender, politics, economics and technology. This year I decided to add a new topic: mental health.

After back-to-back classes this week on the subject, highlighted by two student-athletes who came in as guest speakers to deliver a powerful peer-to-peer presentation, I could see the value of adding it to the syllabus. My only regret was not doing it sooner.

Think about it. If you’re a college athlete, you’re trying to balance your academics with the demands of grueling practices, traveling to games, and the expectations of performing at a high level in your sport, in front of screaming crowds and national television audiences. Throw in concerns about injuries and playing time, and that’s a whole lot of pressure on your young shoulders.

Taylor Ricci, a gymnast, and Nathan Braaten, a soccer player, endured those experiences during their athletic careers at Oregon State University. Further motivated by the deaths of teammates who died by suicide 11 months apart, they co-founded a campaign, using the platform of sports, to spark conversation about mental health issues at universities around the country.

Their campaign is called #DamWorthIt — a play on words involving the school’s Beaver mascot — and the Twitter hashtag #EndTheStigma is at the heart of it. Since launching the initiative a little over a year ago, their campaign has received national recognition and the Pac-12 Conference has awarded them a $60,000 grant to take their message — that “It’s OK to not be OK” — to student-athletes and coaching staffs at all the member schools.

On Thursday, the two of them drove up from Corvallis to speak to my students at Washington State University Vancouver. Taylor and Nathan presented a slideshow and a video, and told their individual stories of facing mental health challenges as scholarship athletes and top-tier students expected to maintain a facade of perfection.

Taylor, originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, began competing at age 4 and committed to Oregon State’s nationally ranked gymnastics team as a 14-year-old, rising to become team captain at OSU. A Kinesiology Pre-Med major, she graduated last spring and is awaiting word on her applications to begin medical school in the fall.

Nathan, from Littleton, Colorado, was recruited to play midfielder. He is a Business and Finance major who interned for Nike last summer and will return to the company as a full-time employee after graduation this spring. Both he and Taylor were named Academic All-Americans.

Needless to say, they stand out as shining examples of smart and successful young people. But there’s the catch. As they note, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental health illness in a given year — and the proportion is even higher among college students.

Taylor and Nathan spoke with honesty and conviction about their stresses and what drove each of them to see a therapist. The implication was clear for my students. If high achievers like these two can ask for professional help, any of them should feel free to do the same — or, at least, check in with friends who might benefit from similar encouragement.

In three years of teaching at two campuses, I have seen many young adults in my classes struggle with challenges involving family and finances, academics and health, romance and roommates, car troubles and work schedules, as well as incarcerated siblings, and immigrant parents facing deportation. No wonder a good many of them are stressed out or experiencing depression.

The #DamWorthIt campaign launched in January 2018, the same week that Tyler Hilinski, a universally admired WSU quarterback, took his own life on the Pullman campus. Because of that tragic coincidence, our guest speakers said they have felt a special bond with WSU.

On Thursday, it was gratifying to see Taylor and Nathan connect so powerfully with a message designed by students for students.

One student wrote to me later to say: ” (T)his week I made a big step to see a therapist and after my visit I realized that it wasn’t a form of weakness but of strength. The timing of this topic could not have been better.”

Another one said this: “Their presentation made me want to stop and be more present for the people in my life. I know that we all get busy and we carry our own lives, but it is important to be present and in the moment for the people important to you. By being present, we are able to hopefully notice signs of the people in our lives and notice that they might be struggling.”

I am indebted to Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten for sharing their stories and bringing light to a subject that’s still shrouded in shame. Had I not noticed a short story on their efforts in a Sports Illustrated article in January, I would not have been aware of their trailblazing efforts to address a hidden epidemic. They responded graciously to my emails inviting them to come up to Vancouver and left having made a lasting impression on my students and me.

#DamWorthIt, all right.

No easy path to a college degree

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Oregon State University athletes Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci co-founded the #DamWorthIt campaign in January 2018 to raise awareness of mental health issues. (Photo: Oregon State University)

Working with young adults as I do, it’s easy to celebrate their accomplishments in the college classroom and feel good about their post-graduation paths. During two-plus years of adjunct teaching at two campuses, I have enjoyed seeing the critical thinking and writing ability of many students come into plain view over the course of an academic quarter or semester.

This past fall, however, a different aspect of higher education has become more readily apparent. I’m talking about the multi-faceted challenges involving mental illness, physical health, finances and work that stand as barriers on the path to a college degree.

Whether it’s a single one of these obstacles or more, these issues can get in the way of a student’s academic achievement and even derail their best-laid plans.

For instance, during my just-completed fall classes at Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver:

— One student withdrew from school because of depression and wound up being hospitalized for several days. Others, I learned, were dealing with anxiety and neurosis.

— One student withdrew because of a grandparent’s death. The student was already under stress from having to care for her adolescent brother while her mother was preoccupied caring for the ailing grandmother abroad.

— One student’s father was killed in a car crash. The student took off a couple weeks to grieve and attend the funeral, then came back and finished the term.

— Three students missed multiple classes because they had to take their mom, dad or significant other to get emergency medical care.

— Other students were absent or left class abruptly because they were called into work.

— A handful of moms and dads missed classes because they had to stay home with a sick son or daughter. A prolonged teachers strike wreaked additional havoc, forcing one student to bring her first-grader to campus when she couldn’t find child care.

Even when health wasn’t an issue, other issues popped up. Ever heard of the digital divide? It’s the gap between the “haves” — those with easy access to technology, including mobile devices and broadband internet service — and the “have-nots” — the ones who, lacking these amenities, must go to libraries and other places on campuses to do internet research and print hard copies of their work. I had several “have-nots” in my classes.

The digital divide leads to the homework gap, as seen in this video.

One student, a young mother with two sons, said this fall was the first time she’d been able to buy a laptop computer of her own, thanks to a generous scholarship.

Another student who received an “F” in my class pleaded with me to change the grade to an incomplete, explaining that she and her mother had been struggling financially and that she only had sporadic internet access thanks to a neighbor sharing their Wi-Fi during times of slow usage. (I had no idea this was happening so, of course, I changed the grade to an “I”.)

In many of these cases, the students involved are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants and the first in their family to attend college. As a first-generation student myself and coming from a working-class background, I too worked part-time and relied on scholarships to put myself through school.

But those were simpler and more affordable times, before the invention of these costly technological devices and the development of anxiety-producing social media. And, unlike some of my students, I never would have imagined working full-time and going to school, too.  No wonder some of them struggle to stay awake in class.

Heck, even food is an issue. On both campuses, I’ve seen fliers publicizing campaigns to restock food pantries. Naively, I thought it was cool that these students were collecting food for others in the community. Only later did I realize these efforts were for other students.

At Portland State, the average age of students is 27 and roughly 40 percent of freshmen are students of color. I love the diversity and the energy derived from working at an urban campus of nearly 28,000 students, set right in the heart of downtown.

At WSU Vancouver, a commuter campus that draws heavily from small cities and towns in Southwest Washington, just under 25 percent of students are ethnic or racial minorities. As at PSU, many are returning students, including veterans and community college transfers, and there is a growing cohort of LGBTQ individuals.

At neither place is there a sense of entitlement, as one find at the Ivies or other top-rated private institutions. And that’s exactly how I like it.

Steffi_MentalHealthInCollege-336x446From Day One, I’ve known my students are typically not the ones who were high school stars with a long list of extracurricular activities — and that’s fine. More often these are the ones who tap into their potential only after zigging and zagging in their early years of their life. Some of this is a result of not yet knowing what they want to do or what they are capable of. And some of this is a result of external factors such as those described above.

I now see with greater clarity just how much of a challenge it can be for these young men and women. As I ease into my time off between semesters, I can resolve right now to do a better job of keeping my eyes and ears open and reaching out sooner to those I suspect may be struggling.

Troubled teenager, desperate parents

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Nothing I have read in the past month has had a more profound effect on me than the ordeal of an ordinary couple in the Midwest trying their best to get help for their son — a young man with autism who’s a social outcast at school, a pale boy who loves death metal, who’s run afoul of the law, and who’s posted angry Internet rants threatening to shoot up a church, a school or a mosque.

Talk about chilling.

Ever since Columbine High School, we as a society have been quick to judge — and judge harshly — the parents of youthful mass shooters who unleash their rage and resentments on innocent victims.

Where were the parents? Why didn’t they know about their child’s violent fantasies? How could they miss signals of their evil intentions?

In the case of Shelly, 54, and Gary, 63, a couple who’ve already raised an older son with mental illness, they are fully aware of the threat posed by their younger son, Shea. That’s why, even after years of testing, advocating and treatment, they have laid bare their efforts in a desperate attempt to get him help before he hurts someone or kills himself, as he’s threatened to do.

The couple’s predicament is the subject of a riveting piece in the March issue of Esquire. (I meant to write about this earlier and I’m finally doing so, just as the calendar flips to a new month.) Titled “A Troubled Boy,” it’s written by Tom Chiarella, who teaches at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, the same college where I once spent a week as Journalist-in-Residence working with the student newspaper staff.

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Shea’s troubles — including vandalism of local churches and a court-ordered curfew for fighting in school — have made the news in this small town of 10,000, prompting his parents to go public with their concerns not just for their son, but for other parents whose boys need therapy for their mental health issues. They’ve taken to recording his outbursts and shared them with Chiarella.

“The two of them hunker down at the table, listening to his rants, which have grown more frequent in recent weeks, into exhaustive and thorough threats of rampage. And this horseshit prose poem of filthy Internet tropes about Arabs? It spouts from the mouth of their very own boy. The parents know what they must do. They have to warn someone.”

Shea attempted suicide when he was 14. Now 18, his parents cannot simply institutionalize him, so he is caught between two alternatives — an underfunded, overwhelmed mental health system and a “predictably outsized and overwhelming” response from local law enforcement.

As mass shootings continue unabated in the United States, politicians repeatedly pledge to seek increased funding for mental health programs but never seem to follow through. It’s numbing because it’s just so much posturing.

As Chiarella points out, close to 10 percent of state psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated across the country between 2009 and 2012 due to budget cuts. In Indiana, the decline in mental health spending has been worse than in most states.

In 2009, the state’s per-capita mental health spending was $87.65, well below the national average of $122.90, Chiarella reports. By 2013, it had fallen to $70.67, placing Indiana 39th in the nation.

This lack of resources has only added to the stresses on Shea’s parents, forcing them to warn the authorities about the potential dangers posed by a son they love but cannot seem to reach.

“Sitting in his living room,” Chiarella writes, “I ask Shea: Would he really kill someone?”

“He sits in sweatpants, with a home-detention monitor clamped to his ankle, once again tearing into his parents’ peaceable hearts without seeming to know it….He’s autistic, and as such he’s often plainly disconnected from what he says. He doesn’t seem to know what hurts his parents, and he certainly doesn’t seem to know what effect the words he says have on his life or the lives of others.”

Chilling, Absorbing. Heart-wrenching. This is a terrific piece, one that reveals the anguish of parents who could be any of us.

Lead photograph: mimwickett / rgbstock.com

Esquire photograph: Eric Ogden

To unfinished stories

Tim Akimoff, storyteller.

Tim Akimoff, storyteller.

By Tim Akimoff

Sleep, or something like it.

More is needed.

I think. 

Moving about is a product of the engine inside me. Well-fueled, and I have the energy to go from here to there.

But the opposite is sometimes true.

On days when the fog rolls in like it used to cover San Francisco when I still lived on those hills and valleys. I suppose it still does, even though I’m no longer there.

I like to breathe it in like pea soup and let it clog my pores and gouge out my eyes and fill the crevices with gray nothingness,

I know my enemy, and invading his space can keep him at bay for a while, though the fog will always subside, and then he will attack from the flanks, the brilliant little Napoleon that he is.

Franklin Roosevelt sold Americans on fear and filled his war chest and sent our grandfathers off to Europe and the South Pacific to fight a rising evil. 

It’s a quaint story. And we’re a nostalgic race.

But fear is quite a thing and should not be used lightly for things like starting wars.

Roosevelt was wrong, of course. Fear is not the only thing we have to fear. There are many other things to fear, because fear, in and of itself, is so multifaceted. If you’re going to convince a nation’s young mens’ mothers’ that their sons should die for something, then fear is a delightfully abstract concept when wielded by powerful men.

Coffee can keep fear away, coffee and a mind filled with other thoughts to crowd it out. 

Fear is a bully to other thoughts. 

The mind goes in two directions. A wide-open highway with nothing discernible in the distance in either direction. One way leads to destruction, I’m told, and the other direction leads to bliss, or so I hope.

There are no street signs. No apps to tell you you’re going the wrong way in a slightly pretentious computerized voice.

You play the chicken crossing the road, standing at the center line of your life waiting for the cars to speed by you. 

The semi-colon tattoo is becoming more popular these days as a symbol of mental health awareness.

The semicolon tattoo is gaining popularity as a symbol of mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Beauty keeps fear away. The way it bleeds all over everything in bright sunlight. 

Even high places falling away to nothingness are beautiful from behind the protective ropes and warning signs. Your fear of heights assuaged by these liability releases. 

A mountain in the distance or the ocean’s incessant wail upon hapless shores can serve as meditative mind clutter. Crowding out fear with spatial cognition, sound, salt, power, majesty and perspective. 

She can erase fear like laundry stains. When it comes crowding on you like so much ketchup on white clothing, she takes it away somewhere and magically disappears it like it never was.

Nuzzled against the back of her neck in bed on cold days when she lets you; breathe the tonic of her smell and feel slightly faint of heart but no trace of fear. 

The anger in her eyes can do it too. 

The whole hell hath no fury bit is overplayed but not entirely untrue. With a look, she’ll make you forget who you are, forget where you came from, forget the purpose of life.

But like a bore tide, it comes racing in along the fjord of your soul and drowns you while you look up at the beauty that recedes into the murky green and faltering light into the pressure, the heaviness of a body of water compressing the blood and gases inside you into chemicals that no longer keep you alive but into pathogens hellbent on your destruction.

This is where you choose your own adventure.

Down here in the pressure. Down where it’s deeper and darker than anything you’ve ever experienced before. 

This is the wrestling floor with no spectators, the arena with no audience, the colosseum with no crowd. Just you and your specially selected mind fuck going toe to toe for so many rounds you’ve lost count. 

And when you emerge between rounds, freshly showered and shaved, because this is like no other sport in the world, the rules say you must look and act like everyone else, but you do it not to follow the rules but because fear imprints this message on the gray matter of your brain. 

Your battle is not public knowledge. Your fight can have no spectators. It is your own little private hell, and you must keep it that way.

We all know what the first rule of Fight Club is. 

So you emerge from the fighting pits blood-stained and weary but clear headed. You cover the wounds with words like a salve. Like a battered woman covers her bruises the world cannot see, because the world cannot understand her fight.

You emerge into sunlight, relentless and purifying sunlight. It burns away the sea water in your lungs, turning the putrid dank into steam that floats into the back of your throat where it forces you to cough it out and you finish crossing the road where you stick your thumb out into the open space looking for fellow travelers going whichever direction seems best today.

Here’s to the storytellers still weaving their tales. To the broken but not defeated. To the fighters who haven’t figured out how to quit. To the partners who don’t understand but who stay anyway. 

To unfinished stories;  

Tim Akimoff is: A father of three kids, married to their mom. A writer with a passion for finding new ways to tell old stories. The director of digital content at WBEZ Chicago, where he creates podcasts about craft beer for public radio. A hobby chef with a penchant for cooking things over fire and smoke. A Hemingway enthusiast for reasons that include a love of adventure and gaining new experiences, and well-crafted sentences. And a burgeoning advocate for mental health awareness. He likes to live his life out loud over on www.killingernest.com

About the piece:

We lost my uncle, my dad’s brother, to suicide when I was a teenager. Besides not talking about mental health as a society in America at the time, my Ukrainian-immigrant family, full of superstition and fear, absolutely shunned the idea of talking about his state of mental health at the time of his suicide. 

My uncle’s death haunted me for years. It still haunts me to this day for want of answers and a society that refuses to discuss this aspect of its well being. 

I have a sibling who is bipolar, and I have a history of anxiety myself that is associated with some reporting experiences when I worked in Ukraine the summer before the Orange Revolution. 

I have covered post traumatic stress issues within the military for the last decade of my career in the media and have had soldiers tell me that telling me their stories saved their life when they might have chosen to end it. There is a lot of power in storytelling and a lot of revelation in words that can dispel the fear and the stigmas that come with mental health problems. 

This piece contains a little bit of every story I’ve ever told about mental health awareness in a first-person narrative that spans my entire career. 

I got the tattoo featured in this post to remind myself that I’m fighting for awareness through my own demons and the ghosts who still haunt me. Visit http://www.projectsemicolon.com/ to find out more.

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Editor’s note: I met Tim at the University of Oregon when I was recruiting college students for internships at The Oregonian. I was mightily impressed by his thoughtfulness, his sense of adventure, evidenced by extensive travel, and his embrace of other languages and cultures. With each passing year, I grow more impressed with his insights and his ability to share them.

Tomorrow: “The Google Chronicles: Planning a wedding, reflecting on matrimony” by Kyndall Mason and Simone Rede