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Health professionals say attitude toward mental health is positively changing

Posted: 8:53 AM, May 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-22 14:55:20Z
Health professionals say attitude toward mental health is positively changing

Kiley Winkelhake has been living with anxiety since she can remember.

"I would go to daycare, and they would have to rip me off my mom because of my separation anxiety. I would cry every day; I was in hysterics," Winkelhake recalls.

At the age of 7, she started seeing a psychiatrist and was put on her first medication. By the time she was 12, she was diagnosed with depression and tried just about every legal medication for kids.

"I got super depressed and really hopeless," Winkelhake says. "I didn't think I was going to make it to graduate at all. I was so sad, and I was pushing everyone away. I was really not healthy... at all."

She felt like she was drowning. She says the voices around her were muffled, and mundane tasks like getting out of bed were suddenly very scary. Winkelhake had become suicidal.

"I just felt like I was a burden to everyone, and I think a lot of the time when you're depressed and when you die by suicide, you're thinking you will make the people that love you be in less pain, and so when I was suicidal, I just was like 'Well, I think it will make my parent's life easier, and my friend's life easier if I just... died,'" she says.

Through the help of friends, she connected with therapy, and with art as her outlet, Winkelhake made it to graduation. She says she's feeling much better today.

"I'm 20 now, and I never really thought I would be 20," she says. But I'm alive, and it's kind of amazing, I guess."

She knows anxiety and depression will forever be a part of her, and learning how to live with it is her current mission.

"It's not about getting rid of the pain or the illness. It's about learning how to control it, and not let it control you anymore," Winkelhake says.

We often hear about those who have taken their life, but health professionals say a majority of people struggling with mental health issues are able to find happiness again.

"If there's any way that what I can say can impact someone and keep them alive, or help them get help, then I want to be able to do that," Winkelhake says.

"What we know is that suicide is preventable. If people get access to resources, the crises in their life that are leading them to be suicidal, often pass," Julie Cerel, with American Association of Suicidology, said says.

National organizations like American Association of Suicidology and Sources of Strength say it's important to pay attention to people like Kiley because she's living proof that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

"We can wrestle with mental illness. We can wrestle with really difficult things in our lives and get through that, and still really live a healthy life," Sources of Strength Executive Director Scott LoMurray says.

Sources of Strength is a program aimed at empowering teenagers and young adults to seek connections and healthy behavior. The organization offers support for young people dealing with depression and anxiety. But what makes it unique from other organizations is its upstream approach to prevent students from feeling suicidal in the first place.

"We spend a lot more of our time actually focusing on strength, focusing on resiliency, focusing on recovery, focusing on health and help and what those things look like," LoMurray says.

One strategy is teaching students about coping mechanisms. Sources of strength calls it "protective" factors, which includes family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, and mental health.

"That might be listening to music, that might be talking to a friend, that might be a mindfulness practice or a gratitude practice where every night you write down three things you're grateful for. Those things actually have really profound impacts on our brain," LoMurray explains.

LoMurray says volunteering and healthy exercise can also put somebody in a better head space, giving them a sense of purpose and worth. But in the end, there isn't one answer to solving mental health. It's a complicated issue, which is why both LoMurray and Kiley are thankful for -- what they say has been -- a recent culture change around the topic.

"I've definitely seen a shift in people talking about mental health more, and embracing taking care of yourself and not being as judgmental on taking medication," Winkelhake says.

"The reality is, being very clear and direct with someone and saying, 'I'm really worried about you... that you might be thinking about suicide,' is actually a relief for people who are thinking about suicide. If someone is that desperate, it's likely suicide is already on their mind," Cerel says.

Winkelhake says she appreciates the conversation because she knows she's not alone.

"I think it's cool to see people that are alive living with this illness because we talk so much about the people that pass away from the illness, but we don't talk about the people that are living with it and learning how to live with it," she said.

She says it's helpful to know everyone is more accepting of the illness. Winkelhake now lives her life using art as her solace and finding a reason to be happy one day at a time.

"I just hope that I can live in an honest way that brings happiness to me and the people around me," Winkelhake says.

If you or someone you know is suffering, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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To contact the journalist for this story, email Elizabeth Ruiz at elizabeth.ruiz@scripps.com

To learn how communities can help people struggling with mental health, watch the second video above, featuring Shannon Breitzman with Health Management Associates.