Hi, I’m Erin Gallagher, Interim Executive Director of This is My Brave, and we’re so excited to present to you this season of Our Turn to Talk, a podcast series featuring young people who understand how important it is to talk about mental health. At This Is My Brave, we know that Storytelling Saves Lives. We hope that this podcast inspires you to Be Brave with us and to start brave conversations with your family and friends.
Anastasia: Just a heads up, this episode includes discussions of suicide and self harm throughout. Please be advised.
Joe: I don't know if y'all know the book Perks Of Being A Wallflower….Otherwise this poem makes no sense.
Joe: Have you ever read the Perks Of Being A Wallflower?
Joe: Sometimes I feel like the main character. I can't for the life of me remember his name, but I'm always writing to you because I know you'll listen, and I know you probably won't judge. And I’m mentally ill. And I like poetry and I have flashbacks. And I don't belong. And I think his name was, uh, it doesn't matter. It may as well be me.
Anastasia: I want you to meet Joe Perry.
Joe: That was awhile ago I wrote that. Yeah, that was two years ago.
Anastasia: Joe’s an 18-year-old poet and mental health advocate from New Albany, Ohio.
Joe: I suppose I should probably address the elephant in the room. Mental illness. I've struggled with mental illness since seventh grade ADHD, anxiety, depression, mental. Oh, I was so close. That's going to be the hardest part. This whole thing right here. You're doing great.
I suppose I should address the elephant in the room. Mental illness. I've struggled with mental illness since the seventh grade. ADHD, anxiety, depression, self-harm suicidal ideation. The list goes on and on. Oh my God. That's not what matters mattresses that I'm still kicking. And I'm here telling my story, but why am I telling my story?
There are a few reasons specifically for me, the guy who's been there done that for Kim, my long time friend, and also long time safety net, which admittedly went both ways sometimes for TJ, from the hospital, the best poet I ever met for Gabe and Addison, my hospital homeys, who witnessed me at my worst and my poetry at its best.
Funny how that works more generally, I'm doing this for that kid, you know? Well actually, probably you don't. That's why I'm here to tell him that it's okay to tell you to have a conversation.
Anastasia: I think you know by now how much I believe in the power of talking. The power of storytelling.
Today, we’re going to let Joe tell his story, which started around the 7th grade for him. We’re going to talk about the stigma he experienced at his school around his mental health symptoms, and we’re really going to dive into his poetry, and the healing powers of it.
Joe: So the poetry. I mean, I had been writing a little just in general sophomore year, just because my English teacher at the end of the year did a cool lesson on slam poetry. And I liked it. I don't know I'm bad at slam poetry, but I'm good at spoken word. So that's neat. So I was fascinated with that, but then it didn't really pick up into what it became as a coping mechanism until the hospital in December of sophomore year.
And then it didn't really pick up into like a serious, um, thing that I would put out into the world in any capacity until I stayed on the psych ward again. The summer after sophomore year, when I wrote a poem, it was oddly enough, a sonnet, which I hate classical forms, but I tried to constrain myself.
So I had to think a little harder and keep my mind off things, which is a whole other strategy that I use. But it was apparently something that the staff liked and that a lot of the other patients really liked and they hung it on the wall. And this was handwritten on like a composition notebook page.
And I was like, yeah, So maybe this can be used for something more than just keeping me sort of sane. I was going to say sane, but again, I was in the psych ward, so not quite fully sane. [laughs].
[fade in theme music]
Anastasia: I’m Anastasia Vlasova, and this is Our Turn to Talk.
Anastasia: I’m 19 and a freshman in college.
Anastasia: So, in the 7th grade, when everything first started, what was it like when you first started experiencing mental health issues?
Joe: I had such awful trouble focusing on anything. And I got on medication for it – ADD – And I focus a lot better now. But that’s when I realized maybe this is something that isn't just something everyone has to do. Maybe not everyone has this much trouble paying attention to class.
I think probably when my doctor just in conversation or something, they were like, oh, that's a thing that people your age deal with, sometimes we can like switch that. We can treat that. And I was like, oh, word, like really? Like, that sounds great.
So this thing I've been dealing with this whole can’t focus thing I've been doing for like years now that I just didn't really realize that's not like a thing everyone has to do.
Anastasia: Was there a moment or anything like that that you can remember when things really changed?
Joe: I think It was always more of a passive kind of buildup. I don't think it was ever like aha this is such an acute struggle. It was more of ah this kind of sucks.
I was starting to have some more problems with my mood. Um, my Granddad had just recently passed which was really tough on me. And so then until about, let's think freshman year, late freshman year of high school, that whole kind of two year span I had, I had been doing self harm. A fair amount.
Those were a shitty, shitty two years, man, can't lie. But, um, you know, it, I don't, if it is what it is looking back now, I came out of it alive.
Joe: So then after those two years, I kind of had a few months of like, yeah, maybe I'm okay. I'm finishing out my first year of high school. Woo. Look at me go. And then that, uh, kind of collapsed at some point in there. And I, uh, had some real problems like sophomore ish year, um, specifically that winter.
And I remember that winter because winter is always a huge deal for me. That winter was really bad. I landed in the psych ward at a children's hospital here in Columbus. That was a really low time for me. Um, I ended up going back to the psych ward two more times that summer, uh, it was, it was a pretty low point.
This was all around the suicidal ideation. Um, two of the hospitalizations were for attempts. A lot of it was self harm and just not a, not a fun time to be Joe can't even lie.
Anastasia: Unfortunately it hasn’t been a fun time for a lot of us. And what Joe was going through, so were - and are - a lot of people our age. It’s painful to say this…but… . More people are hurting themselves. Studies show that about 1 in 5 teens say they’ve harmed themselves…specifically to soothe emotional pain. And in the past few years, researchers have begun to uncover patterns around it – how addictive it is, the on-again off-again cycle that many young people fall into, and how those who engage in self-harm are more likely to attempt suicide.
And they’ve also thankfully begun to identify some of the most effective treatments, like DBT, or Diabolical Behavioral Therapy. So there is a lot of hope. And awareness – bringing stories like this to light – is the first step, which is something our generation is already doing. And Joe is a huge part of that.
Anastasia: Eventually, after Joe was released from the psychiatric ward, he was in a stable enough place to really try to address his mental health issues and the self-harm.
Joe: I got into some really intensive, like four times a week therapy. Like, whether you want it or not. And now I'm a little over one year self-harm clean. So that's all cool.
Joe: Definitely therapy has played a huge role in it. I'm a huge advocate for therapy, i’m a huge , huge advocate for therapy. I also think my medications have played a huge role in it. I, I hesitate to call myself a huge advocate for medications because that has a lot of weight saying that and a lot of connotations, but I, uh, you know, I'm a proponent of following the theories of modern medicine and the way that my doctors saw it, they said medication is the way.
Joe: it was a whole combination of a whole lot of things that brought me back to where I am. And I don't even know that it brought me back to where I am, because where I am now is definitely very much a new location from where I was even before this whole thing ever happened.
Anastasia: So, Joe was obviously going through a lot of this super heavy mental health stuff during school. After all, high schoolers spend at least 6 hours a day at school. So as teens, whatever we’re going through, we’re going to be dealing with it at school, too.
And he said his school’s administrators and counselors were not exactly helpful at the depths of his mental health challenges, and in some cases, really harmful to his mental health.
Joe: So like for example, I have panic attacks. There are things that I have and when I have panic attacks, one of the things that happens is I kind of, it's, what's a word to describe it. Fidget, Twitch, not fidget, more Twitch kind of shake. It's a thing.
And if you have absolutely no idea what, like a panic attack or a seizure looks like, and you'd only heard seizure described as somebody shaking a lot, you would think I was having a seizure and I very much am not. but sometimes people think I am and it's not fun.
So when I was having a panic attack or felt like I was going to at school, my teacher would say would say you should go to the nurse. First problem with that half of the campus, I don't want to say half about a quarter of the classes on campus are across the street from the nurse. So that's immediately a problem.
The second problem is even the ones that aren't across the street are usually about six to seven minutes, walk through the halls from the nurse. So that kind of sucks. Then after you get to the nurse, I would get there and I'd, you know, show up to the nurses office and I would have a panic attack.
And if it was a panic attack and i shook or twitch, a bunch of people would freak out. And a lot of times that people would be the nurse. And so I'd be there having a panic attack, like 14 year old kid. And I was like a scrawny kid.. So picture this 14 year old, like scrawny kid sitting at a chair, freaking out having a panic attack and this, like, nurse with a really loud voice is like yelling at you. nLike, oh my God, Joe, stop it. Just stop it. Oh my God. this was not the first few times. This was every time.
To the point where twice. She called the school resource officers. The SRO are basically police officers. We have in our schools to come and try and like hold me in place. So I would stop shaking, which wasn't ideal.
And I'm like, you're the nurse. They're great. When you come to them and say, Hey, I sprained my ankle, I banged up my knee, hit my head on the wall, whatever. They're not usually trained in mental health crises. So we're relying on them for that, but they're not.
Joe: So that was very prevalent in my school, of relying on people to know how to deal with mental health crises when they really didn't know how.
Anastasia: Joe’s experience with his school nurse and other administrators is unfortunately not uncommon. Only 20 states have mental health education as part of their public school curriculum, and only 9 mandate it by law. I don’t know what it’s like at your school but a recent survey shows that only about half of all public schools provide any sort of mental health assessment or screening for students.
Anastasia: What made you go to the school board and try to get things changed in the first place?
Joe: I would go to the admin of the school, and say, Hey, this is something we probably need
Joe: We were pushing for a suicide prevention type program. And they would just say nope, not important, not important.
Joe:. There were counselors, but they were more of a scheduling classes and class advising role. And the one school psychologist for the 2,500 students, was actually a caseworker who you couldn't just walk in and, or schedule with. You had to, like, you had to jump all sorts of hoops and no one could do that.
They were extremely inadequate.
And then within the span of three years, We lost a teacher and a student to suicide. And then the student we lost to suicide was a seventh grader, and then we said again, Hey, do you see why this is important? And they finally said, it's important. Just not like the most needed thing right now.
SCOTT: The data is pretty alarming. High school students, about one third will say they felt sad or hopeless two or more weeks in a row last year. Somewhere around 18% will say they considered suicide. About 14% will say they made a plan, and nationwide somewhere around 8% will admit they made a suicide attempt in the last 12 months.
It’s now the 2nd leading cause of death for every kid aged 10 and older. And it’s the number one cause of death for 11-14 year olds.
Anastasia: That’s Scott Poland. He’s a psychologist and professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University, where he directs their suicide prevention program. He’s an expert on school safety, youth suicide, and school crisis prevention. He’s been doing this work for more than twice as long as I’ve been alive.
SCOTT: How do we save kids' lives? Comprehensive suicide prevention in schools. First of all, let’s say you’re a 4th grade teacher. Every year, you need somewhere around 45 minutes of training of what to look for what to do, don’t keep a secret, understanding the referral procedures at your school.
And then there’s the important concept of developing safety plans with at risk students, internally externally what can you do if you ever have those thoughts.
They also sadly need post plans. And I’ve written a lot on all the tings that have to be put in place after the suicide of a student, and that gets to be a very complicated issue.
Once all of these things are in place, now we can talk about what information will we provide to students in classrooms about their important role in friend intervention.
SCOTT: I have hope in the younger generation. They’re smart, they’re much more vocal, and they are demanding that mental health be taken just as seriously as physical health or anything else. It’s just quite a shame it’s taken this long and this much destruction had to be done to get to a place where it’s almost being put in the spotlight..almost.
[fade in midroll music]]
Anastasia: We’ll be back with more of Joe’s story, and the power of poetry after a quick word from our partners.
Hi, Erin Gallagher from This Is My Brave again.
Whenever I meet young people who are sharing their stories, I feel even more empowered to do the work that I do.
If this inspires you, too, I want to tell you how you can get involved with us at This is My Brave.
Are you a college student? Our Brave Ambassador program is a student-led movement to create a safe space for yourself and your peers to talk about mental health and to break down barriers on your campus.
Are teens, if you’re feeling like this is your turn to talk, check out our website for opportunities to share your story… including how to participate in our next National Teen Show: Go to Thisismybrave.org for more information.
Anastasia: As we discussed earlier, Joe writes a lot of poetry.
Joe: I do it as a coping mechanism primarily, um, to keep myself, I like to say keeps me sane, but you know, that's probably not fair. I do that mostly on my own.
Anastasia: And it’s a huge part of his mental health recovery.
Joe: Poetry itself really helps me because I can get all my feelings out onto paper and I don't have to share them with anyone, but I can if I want.
[fade in Joe reading “Chameleon” from Brave show]
Joe: I wrote a piece called chameleon. And chameleon helps because the poem chameleon helped because it got across a very important message.
[fade up “chameleon”]
Joe: That is that mental illness is different in everyone. Every single person. There is no same mental illness. You know, there is no one case of depression that fits all. It's it's variant. It is truly a chameleon. It takes many forms and that's what the poem was. And I think it achieved its goal in showing that to some people.
[fade in sound from chameleon/clapping]
Joe: I think that poetry is such an effective coping mechanism for me. Um, simply, I mean, it's, it's for the same reason that people find talking an effective, coping mechanism, you know, just, or therapy with someone where you just sit and talk, that kind of therapy is because I can get all my emotions out. I don't have to bottle them all up inside. Um, whether I then tear up the poem and just throw it out or whether I keep it or whether I share it with someone or a crowd or an audience, it doesn't matter. It it's getting my feelings out of inside of me.
[fade in Amanda Gorman poem]
“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”
[fade out on applause]
Anastasia: These are the powerful words of Amanda Gorman. She’s the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate who read this iconic poem during the 2020 presidential inauguration. It goes without saying this was a tumultuous time for the country – the pandemic was raging , the political climate had basically never been so polarized. This was just a few weeks after the January 6 attacks on the capitol. And for so many of us, her words were super soothing – this clip was shared on social media more than TK times. It really speaks to the power of poetry to make us all feel a little better, and more connected, like it does for Joe. And research supports this too.
Tasha Golden: (04:37)
Forever humans have long looked to art to help us heal, able to connect to be well.
Anastasia: That’s Tasha Golden, the director of research at the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University.
Tasha Golden: And it's, you know, scientifically we wanna understand what that's doing for us and how that might inform the other kinds of therapies or healing processes that have already kind of been codified by western medicine (05:09)
If we think about it like evolutionarily, if we've always done this, it's probably because it does something for us. So it's worth figuring out what it is that it's doing for us and how we can one make that more accessible to more people.
Anastasia: So Dr. Golden and her team of researchers are trying to put actual science behind what creating art, specifically writing and poetry, does for our health and mental health.
There's a really, there's a really interesting line of research called into expressive writing, uh, researcher named James P inabaker, who found that people who did not talk about their trauma appeared to suffer more than people who did. And so he developed this practice of what he called expressive writing. That was a way to get people, to basically write down and articulate the difficult things that had happened to them so that he could look at and measure how that was affecting their health.
They've done hundreds of studies now over the last few decades of expressive writing found all kinds of health advantage from like improved immune response, decreased absenteeism at school and work like fewer doctors visits, uh, sort hospital stays like all kinds of things. If people wrote down and basically articulated what they had been through.
Anastasia: Dr. Golden says that creative writing and poetry are so powerful is because we’re able to communicate difficult experiences or emotions in a non-linear way.
Tasha Golden: (08:02)
So if I don't have to just be able to say this happened, then this, then this, if I'm able to more just dump things out in a way that maybe makes sense to my heart, but wouldn't make sense in a logical conversation sequence, that's often really helpful for our mental health to be able to express an emotion without having really nail it down with precision, the way that we might have to, if you imagine talking to a doctor or something like that, and then you have also this way to create some safe distance from your experience, if you want to.
Tasha Golden: (10:08)
And even with the kind of like structure and artifice of a poem, is it something that I've put together, however, haphazardly, however, with how we're much training or education, it doesn't matter, but I put it together into something I've packaged it in a way that, that takes it a little bit out of my own brain and makes it something that I can share with other people, which we know when it comes to mental health research is really important for our health and healing to be able to connect with somebody else. And obviously those elements of stigma, the more that we share or something with other people, the more that topic becomes. I always use the word talkable. We, how do we make things talkable? And often that's, that's through the arts it's through seeing that topic in a poem, on a stage, in a song, on a film, um, we become able to broach topics that otherwise we find really uncomfortable or too complicated.
Anastasia: Dr. Golden has found that most of all, it’s the process of creating itself, the pause that that entails, that helps sooth difficult emotions.
Tasha Golden: (23:19)
The process of creating can kind of be this moment where like, I'm gonna let myself be human. I'm gonna let myself have feelings that I don't necessarily understand and can't control. And then once I have had that, whether it feels incredibly ecstatic or incredibly bad, a lot of times on the other side of it, I'm, I'm moving on to something next. So the first thing is to let yourself have the emotions. And then the second thing to know is to, is to have a next step, to not use it as a way to ruminate or stand still, but maybe use it as a way to connect or to communicate. So maybe I'm gonna use this as a way to communicate to my future self, my tomorrow self, or I'm gonna use it as something that I'll send to a friend or I'll, I'll write a poem and text it to somebody or I'll listen to a song and then text somebody and be like, I'm just listening to this one song over and over, but use it as a way to connect. So you don't fall into yourself and stay stuck. And then also just knowing that there's always, um, more to explore
Joe: So I wrote a poem, um, titled dear my mental illness and it sort of takes the form of a letter to my mental illness. You know, I'm not good at writing letters. I'm good at writing poetry. So that's what I did. Um, and it's kind of a breakup letter with my mental illness or a declaration of independence, I guess.
Um, because we can't just write, Hey, mental illness. It isn't me, it's you? That doesn't work. But I imagined, Hey, something like that, what if it did? So I went for that, you know, um, I just wrote, and then I kept writing and then I kept writing and I decided, Hey, this is working pretty well. And, um, you know, it didn't make my illness leave me wish it did, but it didn't, but it's a pretty good poem.
[fade in Joe’s poem Dear my Mental Illness from This is My Brave performance]
Joe: Dear my mental illness:
When you first took hold, I was okay with it, but then your embrace grew cold, the friendliness faded. And I realized I needed out of this hole that you had dug before it became my grave.
But every time I tried I just fell back in. So I just gave up. I didn’t say a word, while you consumed my world. But now, a flurry of my furious words flood these pages sounds of my shouts fill the stage, ideas leaking from my brain, you thought this was over, you thought you had me cornered, you thought you had crushed me. You thought incorrectly.
I think I found my way out, and i think i found my way now, because this is me, frantically forming some semblance of an attack on your hideous ways. Its been planned, well thought out and calculated. Everything you do, is deliberate, so everything I do, has to be too. You thought you would be the death of me, oh in time you will see. How backwards you had it all along. I’ll have my revenge, crush you underfoot like the snake you are, how you’ll bite with no head, you’ve lived in mine for far too long. Now I’m smarter, I know you’re tricks, I’m smarter than I ever was, come face me yourself. Coward.
That’s all you are, a rat, a weasel, but you no longer control how I feel, and I will crush you like the dirt you are, and I will do it too. Because I’m not alone. No, I’m not alone, there are people who want to hear my story told, but not yours. No, not yours. You’ve had the floor for the last five years, you…..
[fade in closing music]
Anastasia: So what sort of advice would you give to other kids who might be struggling with their mental health or be in a similar situation you were in in high school?
Joe: This is one of the most important things I was ever told. And it's something along the lines of you are not a fortune teller and the meaning you cannot guarantee that the entirety of your future will be miserable or filled with despair and sadness and nothing worth living for nothing worth having hope for. And if you can, I need you to give me the winning lottery numbers for tomorrow and the day after that, because I got some money to make.
Um, But since you can't predict the future, you can't say with certainty that you have no reason to stick around. So don't rob yourself of that chance. For anyone who's not struggling, who's hearing this takes the most important thing, I can tell you is just one person even if its just one person.
That's become my mantra for the last two years, I guess, just one person. And that's what I say to myself when I do things like this. And I think, I don't know how on earth I've been given an opportunity. To get up on stages or in front of a microphone and speak to God knows how many people, but if I wasn't able to, I would only need to reach one person because that one person would reach another and that one person another, and that's all it takes
Anastasia: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Our Turn to Talk.
Next time, I speak with Jada Bromberg…..
Anastasia: If you’re a young person, we’d love to hear from you. What’s your story? You can go to ourturntotalk.com to share.
Ok, so maybe you're not ready to share your story, but maybe you have a question for us. We will be answering your questions in an upcoming Our Turn to Talk episode. No filters, no shame here. Submit your question on our website ourturntotalk.com
Our Turn to Talk is a production of Principle Pictures. We believe in the power and impact of storytelling through podcasts and films to build empathy and inspire change. Season One is a partnership with This is My Brave, an organization using performing arts to fight the stigma around mental health challenges and addiction. I’ve been very proud to intern there for the past two years. A very special thanks to Executive Director Erin Gallagher and Program Manager Katie Grana. Check out This Is My Brave at thisismybrave.org.
This episode of Our Turn to Talk was produced and edited by Megan Botel. Mixing by Mitch Hanley.
Beth Murphy and Jennifer Marshall are our Executive Producers. Additional support in the field and in the studio from Patrice Howard, Hannah McEachern, Ed Kashi and Ben Kolak.
Support for Our Turn to Talk is provided by The Hollister Confidence FUND, The Hershey Company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Rose-Marie van Otterloo and the Risa Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Washington.
I’m Anastasia Vlasova and I’m so excited to be on this journey with you. And don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
Hello everyone, Erin Gallagher again. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of Our Turn to Talk. Are you inspired by what you heard today? Are you ready to share your own story about your mental health journey? If yes, here’s how you can do it.
Go to ThisisMyBrave.org and select Share Your Story. We can’t wait to hear your Brave!