The first review is in for Redemption!

Okay, this made me really happy. G.S. Jennsen, author of STARSHINE, was kind enough to review Redemption. The review below and it’s…well, it’s good, and that’s awesome. ūüôā I’m glad she enjoyed it, and I hope you will too.

As a reminder, Redemption comes out on June 5. You can pre-order a print copy now for just $3.99.

Review below:

“A moving, hopeful tale of personal struggle and unlikely heroism masquerading as an adrenaline-fueled sci-fi action thriller of a novel.

Like the characters onboard the Redemption, we as readers are thrown into the middle of a crisis on page one; like those characters, we have absolutely NO IDEA what‚Äôs going on. Thus begin the dual journeys of the reader and the Redemption crew‚ÄĒjourneys that travel through terror, shock, anger, despondency and renewed hope. Several times.

In the early pages of the book, I wasn‚Äôt sure that Ash Maddox, a young man thrust into the role of captain of a spaceship under the worst possible circumstances, was going to be able to successfully carry the mantle of leadership or of primary protagonist. In fairness, Ash wasn‚Äôt sure, either. But he surprised us both. As much as Redemption is a pulse-pounding action tale of the race to retrieve a cure for an alien virus and save Earth from a deadly epidemic, it‚Äôs a thoughtful, inspiring tale of a group of people fighting through adversity, fear and their own personal demons‚ÄĒnot to mention mysterious enemies frequently shooting at them‚ÄĒto rise above their circumstances, come together and become, yes, heroes.

Of course, it isn‚Äôt quite that simple or straightforward; in good stories it never is. But the Ash we leave at the end of the book is not the same man we met on page one. Other characters evolve as well, but it‚Äôs Ash‚Äôs journey that truly matters here. After all, he is the captain.”

Author Interview: Catherine Price, How To Break Up With Your Phone

Frequently readers of this blog will note that I have repeatedly discussed the extremely damaging effects that technology, social media and overuse on your smartphone can have on your mental health. Last week, in a blog entry entitled “Put Down The Damn Phone,” I suggested that you…well, put down the damn phone. That entry was largely inspired by Catherine Price’s book¬†How To Break Up With Your Phone, a devastating look at the problems our over reliance on technology have wrought, and a step by step path forward.

I reached out to Catherine to answer a few questions, and she was kind enough to provide her insight into technology, phone use, and mental health. Enjoy! And yeah, buy her book. REALLY, buy her book.

You discuss the addiction to telephones and how it negatively affects…well, pretty much everything. Can you talk specifically about the connection between depression and phone use?

I can’t speak to that precisely because I am not an expert in depression and don’t get much into depression in particular in the book. With that said, you might want to look at the work of Jean Twenge and, in particular, her book¬†iGen, because she did a lot of research on the mental health effects of lots of phone time. Her article in the¬†Atlantic, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” also shows charts of depression rates rising (I am not sure if they are self-reported) starting around the same time as the launch of the first iPhone. My suspicion would be that social media would be the biggest problem when it comes to phone use and depression, and that there are probably three groups (at least) of people being affected: those who are¬†already¬†depressed and then become more so upon getting sucked into social media spirals, those who numb themselves/try to escape their emotions by zoning out on their phone (and are unable to motivate to stop) and those who are borderline¬†depressed and become more so upon spending tons of time on their phones/looking at instagram and social media feeds of other people’s idealized (and unrealistic) representations of their lives. Again, I am not a medical expert, so please clarify that this is purely my personal hypothesis.

What’s the direction of the relationship between depression and phone use? Which one causes which, or is it more complicated than that?

As mentioned above, I can’t really comment on that because I am not an expert in depression. With that said, I would suspect that‚ÄĒas is true in many circumstances‚ÄĒthe relationship goes both ways. Sometimes the phone might trigger depression; other times, depression might trigger the excessive phone use.

One of the most frightening components of your book was discussing how phones can affect developing minds. Can you expand upon that a little bit?

Our brains are “plastic”‚ÄĒmeaning malleable‚ÄĒby nature; it’s how we learn things. We are spending an average of four hours a day on our screens. Put those facts together and you can see why our current habits are worrisome for¬†everyone, adults and children alike. With that said, children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable because their brains are still in the process of developing for¬†first¬†time‚ÄĒand the brain regions associated with self control and judgment are not yet well developed. Also, if you spend your childhood experiencing life on a screen, you are missing out on, well,¬†life. I don’t think we know yet the long term effects that phone time is having/will have on our children, but I highly recommend to new parents that they limit screen time as much as possible. Drawing something on an iPad is not the same as drawing something on pen and paper.¬†¬†Taking care of a virtual pet is not the same as a real dog. Etc. Our goal should be to help our children experience the world through all 5 of their senses.

Phone addiction seems to be real – but, how often is real therapy required to break it?

I’m not a mental health expert so I don’t know. I can say, though, that many therapists report seeing clients with addictions‚ÄĒor, at very least, problematic relationships with their devices. I recommend Victoria Dunckley’s book¬†Reset Your Child’s Brain¬†and Nicholas Kardaras’s¬†Glow Kids¬†for more information from psychiatrists’ point of view on device addiction and kids in particular.¬†¬†There’s also the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. My non-professional take is that there are some cases in which you may well need the help of an addiction expert, especially if you’re already also suffering from another condition, such as depression. But for most of us, we have the ability to create healthier relationships on our own‚ÄĒit requires being more aware of your own experiences, prioritizing your time, and making concrete changes to your phone and environment to cultivate new, healthier habits. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

What’s your best advice for people who are depressed but spend too much time on their phones?

If you are truly depressed and spending too much time on your phone, my advice‚ÄĒagain, not as a medical expert‚ÄĒwould first be to seek therapy for the depression.¬† It’s very hard to make changes when you’re depressed. With that said, one relatively simple thing to do would be to try to notice how you feel when you use your phone (or any other activity that you are concerned/curious about). Does it alleviate your depression? Does it make you feel slightly better while you’re on it but worse after? Don’t judge yourself for these answers; you’re just trying to get in touch with how what you¬†do¬†makes you¬†feel.¬†If you begin to notice that your phone consistently worsens your symptoms, then you can use that insight as a motivation to use your phone less. But don’t forget: the point isn’t to arbitrarily restrict your phone time; it’s to get back in touch with your priorities in life. So if you are able, try to think about some of the things/activities that bring you joy. Then create an actual mission statement for yourself‚ÄĒsomething like, “I want to spend less time on Instagram so that I can spend more time on my garden.” And make a change to your physical environment to make that easier‚ÄĒleave your gardening shoes and sun hat by the door, for example. Any time you try to change a habit you need to be sure to identify a new habit that you want to cultivate‚ÄĒotherwise you’re restricting yourself with no purpose. Again, your ability to make these changes might depend on your level of depression, which is why it is important, in serious cases, to enlist the help of a professional.

Talk to the kids: Why you should tell your mental health story

This past Friday, as part of the real job, I had the pleasure of attending career day at one of my local elementary schools. During that time, I spoke with about 70 5th graders about what it’s like to be a State Representative, what I do, what my issues are, etc. In doing so, did what I always did: I spoke about mental health. I also made sure to be very clear – no euphemisms, and no sugar-coating. I spoke about having depression and anxiety disorders – what that means – and how I see a therapist as needed and take medication on a daily basis.

I make this part of an overall anti-stigma conversation. If I’m talking to younger kids, I broach the subject like this:

“Okay, let’s say you’re riding you’re bike, and you fall off and your arm is hanging at a funny angle.” (imagine me holding my arm at a funny angle) “What’s the first thing you are going to do?”

“Cry!”

“Yes, well, there’s that, but AFTER that.”

“Call 911!”

“Right! Exactly! You’ll call 911! And you would’t even think about it, right? You wouldn’t be embarrassed. Well, imagine having a mental illness….”

And I take it from there.

Sometimes, the kids ask me questions about this stuff. Other times, they delve into other areas of my career. In two of the three classes I had, the mental illness did come up. I was asked questions about it, and they were strikingly perceptive. Two that stick out in my mind:

  • Is suicide a mental illness?
  • Is it a mental illness if you do drugs?

And then a few kids opened up and discussed their own experiences – or that of their family – with mental illness. I know no one would be able to identify them from this, but I’d still rather not say what they said. Suffice to say – it struck me. It left a mark. And it reminded me of one of the many reasons I always discuss my mental illness, but particularly with kids: It can give them a little bit of hope. As many of you unquestionably know, one of mental illness’ greatest challenges is the way it warps your mind, makes you feel like you are alone. I want all of these kids to know that they aren’t alone.

This leads me back to my main point: Tell your story. Please understand I say this not to toot my own horn, but the smartest decision I have ever made in my life was to publicly discuss my own struggles with depression and anxiety. The experience has become astonishingly positive, and has helped me help other people. According to research, a contact-oriented strategy, one in which regular people share their own struggles with mental illness, can be invaluable towards fighting the stigma that keeps people locked in shame and out of treatment. Telling your story can provide incalculable hope to others who need it.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspective. Have you “gone public” with your struggles? What has your experience been like?

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

One of the most impactful memories of my life occurred somewhere in the late summer of 2012. At the time I was +220 pounds, and I’m about six feet tall, so this was way up on where I should have been. I had just eaten a ton and had the misfortune of standing on the scale, thus depressing myself more than usual.

Anyway, I was in my living room with my wife, sitting on the couch. My wife had completed her own significant weight loss journey a few years prior, dropping fifty pounds, so I knew she would understand my sadness over my weight and where I was.

So, there I sat, complaining to my wife about my weight. She was silent, nodding, as I listed how upset I felt at what I had allowed myself to do to my body. And then, finally, she asked me this question:

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

That was the question that changed my life. I mean, there I was, complaining about how miserable I was, and I hadn’t done a damn thing to make it better. That wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. How dare I complain when I hadn’t even tried to improve? So, right then and there, I decided to do something.

In terms of weight loss, I got lucky in that my body was more amenable to losing weight than that of many others. I downloaded a calorie tracker from¬†Livestrong¬†and used that, and exercise, to shift my mindset. Staying in my allocated calories became like a game. And, over time, it worked. I dropped thirty pounds and kept them off. I’m in better shape now than I was in my 20s.

Now, that being said, in writing my blog entry earlier this week, I remembered this question and how it applies to mental health as well.¬†That entry dealt mainly with what I wish every “support person” knew about depression and mental illness, and one of the items mentioned was that none of us really¬†want¬†to be depressed, and we’d all love to get better.

Allow me to propose this question then, support people. It’s the question that you may want to ask when the depressed/anxious person that you love is in pain. You may want to ask it in the most non-judgmental, softest way possible. You also may want to ask it in a tough love sort of style, as my wife did to me:

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

Depression sucks. It does. And it’s taken me years and years to realize that it’s not a weakness and not my fault. Indeed, it’s not the fault of anyone who has it. But there is a big difference between not my fault and not my responsibility. All of us who suffer from some sort of mental illness have an obligation to¬†do something about it.¬†That may mean doing little things on our own time, like exercise or meditation. It may mean seeing a therapist or psychiatrist to discuss medication. But above all else, it means managing our disease.

Support people, here’s where you can come in. Ask us this question. If the depressed person you love truly wants to get better, they’ll need an answer. They’ll need to¬†do something about it¬†in order to get better or get through the rough patch they are in. It is a question I have to ask myself from time to time when things get bad. Sometimes the answer may be, “Wait a week and see if I’m this miserable still – if I am, I’m going to see my therapist.” Sometimes the answer may be, “I’m making a call now!” But above all else, there needs to be a real answer.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you ask your loved one or yourself this question. What has your experience with this been like? Let us know in the comments below!

Redemption: Coming out on June 5, and now available for pre-order

Alrighty. I mentioned this one in an earlier blog entry, but some fun personal news to report: Redemption, my young adult, science fiction novel that features a character with depression and anxiety, will be available on June 5. Even better, you can pre-order it for the Kindle here.

Summary below. And more later, or sure. For now, I’m gonna bask in the glow of this one. I worked really hard to make this happen. And I’m so excited that you will all get to read this story soon.

Twenty young people wake aboard the spaceship Redemption with no memory how they got there.

Asher Maddox went to sleep a college dropout with clinical depression and anxiety. He wakes one hundred sixty years in the future to assume the role as captain aboard a spaceship he knows nothing about, with a crew as in the dark as he is.

Yanked from their everyday lives, the crew learns that Earth has been ravaged by the Spades virus ‚Äď a deadly disease planted by aliens. They are tasked with obtaining the vaccine that will save humanity, while forced to hide from an unidentified, but highly advanced enemy.

Half a galaxy away from Earth, the crew sets out to complete the quest against impossible odds. As the enemy draws closer, they learn to run the ship despite their own flaws and rivalries. But they have another enemy . . . time. And it’s running out.

A presentation: Social Media & Depression

I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on Social Media & Depression for the Interlace Cultural y Desarollo Integral Mexicano de Lehigh Valley, a Mexican cultural group in my hometown. In the presentation, I talk about the frighteningly strong connections between Social Media & Depression.

The actual presentation is below. But here are the highlights:

  • As you can imagine, social media and teenagers and incredibly linked.
  • The networks that teenagers use are constantly changing, but at the moment, Snapchat and Instagram are the preferred networks.
  • The Hispanic community, as a whole, is overrepresentated on social media compared to other demographics.
  • Social media does make people depressed and social media use is correlated with higher levels of depression.
  • Social media depression can be combated by a change of mindset and by primarily remembering this:¬†Social media is not the real world.

The Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I mentioned this book in my entry the other day and I really wanted to discuss it more.  Hari is a journalist who openly discusses his own battles with depression and anxiety as a young man.  He, like many of us, was put on anti-depressants.  Like many of us, he found success with anti-depressants, only to find their effectiveness waning.  He goes on to discuss nine different types of depression and anxiety, ways to reconnect and the various social causes of psychological illness.  This book opened my eyes in a lot of ways.  Much of what was said rang completely true.  At the same time, I found myself incredibly angry at some of the arguments Hari makes.

Let me do the angry part first, because I think that made more of an impact, at least in my mind, because it’s more dangerous.

Hari basically argues that anti-depressants are effective only in the short-term, and only then for a placebo effect.¬† This argument is partially – but only partially – supported by science.¬† I will say that it really made me do some research and I was dismayed at what I found. The record of anti-depressants in terms of long-term effectiveness is not a positive one.¬† The link above is actually for a Google search, not a specific article, and I’d encourage you to do your own research.

What’s my problem, then?¬† Easy: Hari completely dismisses the biological causes of depression, issues that legitimately may require depression to address.¬† While much research needs to be done on the specific biological components of depression, it is clear that there¬†is¬†a biological component. To dismiss that – and to thus dismiss biologically based treatments – is problematic and pseudo-scientific.¬† I have real issues with that, and I think that Hari is being disingenuous at best – and dangerous at worst – with this type of advocacy.

But.

Hari makes other, very persuasive arguments – ones that ring true, in my mind.¬† The one that hit me the most was these: The social element of mental illness.¬† Hari goes through a series of arguments about how our society is making us sicker: We have lost our connections to each other as we are busier and get more absorbed in our various electronic devices.¬† We are bombarded by “junk values,” that encourage materialism over intrinsic values and real connection to people.¬† We live in a sick world – last week’s news from Parkland is a great example – that make us depressed.

This much really made sense to me, and if this advice was taken by all of us, could be transformative.¬† Society’s obligation to deal with the mentally ill has to do with much more than just treating biological and psychological causes of mental illness – we have to address the social ones as well.

Anyway, is the book worth the read? In my opinion, yeah.¬† I think you have to read it with an entire shaker of salt, and keep in mind that some of what Hari says isn’t supported by science.¬† But much of it is, and hopefully, you can read between the lines, find the things that work for you and go from there.

The struggle with blogging

Hello again!

I have kicked myself – repeatedly – for not blogging over the past couple of months.¬† As I’ve mulled it over, I’ve come to this conclusion: Blogging is hard if you aren’t quite sure what to say, or if you are afraid of running out of things to say.¬† I tried to get myself to blog twice a week but struggled with it, as there wasn’t always something good out there.¬† My readership numbers weren’t as high as I wish they were, so I sort of let this go by the wayside.

So, what changed my mind?

Well, a couple of things.¬† First, over a few days I had a few people say to me that they really appreciated what I wrote and that it helped them – or their family members – with their own struggles.¬† That really touched me.¬† I also finished reading a book –¬†The Lost Connections¬†by Johann Hari – that really fired me up and made me want to say a few things, both in a good and bad way.¬† And last is self-interest: I’m getting progressively closer to the release of my fiction book,¬†Redemption.¬†¬†So, all of those things combined set me off and hopefully kick-started my desire to write again.¬† I don’t know how often I’m going to do this, but I do know I want to do it more often than I am right now…which, okay, is never!¬† So yes, I’m on that!

I sincerely hope I can produce some interesting content for those of you who have been kind enough to read.¬† I can’t say it’s all going to be related to mental health/depression/anxiety, and to some extent, I think that was part of my problem – I limited myself too much.¬† That’s a broad topic, but it is not at all completely who I am.¬† I’m a mental health advocate, for sure, but there’s so much more out there, and I want to talk about more of that as well.

So, more later!¬† For now, I’m in the throws of campaigning (the full time job) and enjoying it greatly, but let me conclude by saying thank you.¬† I really appreciate all of you who have read the blog and gotten something out of it.

See you soon!
Mike

Why talking about mental illness helps

I’d almost make the argument that the thing that makes the most sense about depression is that it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Like, none.

Understand that this is just my perspective, but hear me out on this one.¬† Depression, anxiety, mental illness, the works, they make no damn sense.¬† I mean, isn’t one of the things that makes us human the ability to control our own thoughts and act independently?¬† “I think, therefore, I am?” and all that?

Which is why having a mind that works against you so darn frustrating.

Call me crazy here…okay, don’t, I do that enough on my own…but I think that one of the reasons that depression is so frustrating, confusing and mystifying is that it goes against the very thing that makes us human: Our ability to think.¬† Humans are fundamentally logical and emotional creatures, right?¬† I firmly believe that there is a piece of our own minds will always believe that it is in control.

Of course, that isn’t the case.

Even now, even as someone who has been living with depression for years and doing so in a very public forum Рit still makes no sense to me.  How is it that people who are so successful, loved and popular can still suffer so?  And I ask myself this question despite the fact that I am someone who has depression.

So, that brings me back to the crux of this blog entry: Why I think that talking about depression/mental illness in an open, honest and public manner helps, and why I always encourage others to do the same.

I think it helps us make sense.

I firmly believe that the idea that we aren’t in complete control of our emotions and thoughts is a truly alien one, something that most of us struggle with on some base level.¬† To that extent, I think that talking about mental illness helps.¬† It helps us process what’s going on in our brain and make sense of the thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing.

I obviously don’t have all the answers to mental illness – if I did, I’d be a lot richer, and at least a little bit happier.¬† But I would suggest this: If you are one of the people suffering in silence, do what you can to change that perspective.¬† Talk about it.¬† You may not have access to a supportive network of family or friends, but I think you’d be surprised at the amount of online support groups that you can participate in – anonymously or not.¬† Even the act of sitting there, and formulating your feelings, can help process your emotions and make a positive difference in your life.

And, on a personal note: I’ve found that this blog has helped my advocacy tremendously, and not just because it gives someone else a chance to read my thoughts.¬† By putting “pen to paper,” so to speak, it gives me a chance to organize my thoughts, examine my feelings and reevaluate the way I handle my own recovery.¬† It’s also helped me to rethink some of my public advocacy, in particular the portions related to stigma – it’s not just¬†stigma¬†that matters, but¬†self-stigma.¬†¬†

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.¬† Am I onto something here?¬† Let us know in the comments, and have a wonderful day!

Going meta: Observations and topics for the future

So the this blog is now a few months old and I wanted to take a second to note my experiences in writing it so far.¬† This is not the first blog I’ve ever run – it’s the third, I think – and there are, as you can imagine, a few things that make it stand out.

First, some comments about the audience for this blog, and this came as a surprise.¬† There aren’t quite as many people reading it as I had hoped.¬† That’s disappointing.¬† But, what is surprising is the level of engagement.¬† My posts here get more likes and comments than they ever did on any previous blog.¬† That’s surprising and interesting.¬† It tells me that the people who are interested in mental health are passionate about the topic and want to engage with it.

Second, a realization about the topics.  The most popular entries for this blog are, in order:

  1. What you should know if you love someone with depression
  2. A shameful disparity: Minorities and mental illness
  3. 4 ways to stop an anxiety attack
  4. Depression is more than feeling sad

What connects these entries?¬† Well…not a lot, actually.¬† Not that connections all four of them, anyway.¬† Numbers 1, 3 and 4 all provide some unique insight on mental illness.¬† #1 was far and away my most popular entry, and I think that’s because it’s something with which people can sympathize.¬† The lesson, for me, is that people seem to really be interested in entries that provide some level of up close examination for mental illness, and that is what I will continue to try to focus on.

With a few exceptions, the entries where I focus on more public policy aspects of mental illness are not as well read.

So, going forward, here are my plans for this blog:

  • Provide that unique insight:¬†Without sounding too much like a self-aggrandizing schmuck, people – particularly those with some sort of mental illness – seem to truly appreciate this discussion – and I don’t just mean the blog.¬† I think others like hearing that there are people out there, like me, who are in recovery.¬† I will continue to blog about that topic, and try to make sure that people know there is hope, regardless of what sort of mental health disorder you suffer from.
  • Serve as a resource for families & friends: The most popular blog entry – one which discussed what family should know if they love someone with a mental illness – was an interesting lesson for me.¬† We constantly talk about people who suffer from a variety of diseases, but we don’t focus enough on the caregivers.¬† That’s something I’d like to explore more as the blog goes forward.
  • Explore the interaction between technology and mental illness:¬†¬†I’m scared – really scared – about our over dependence on technology and social media.¬† I worry about how this may affect mental health.¬† I’ve written a little about the topic in the past, but I really think this is one that is going to blow up over time.
  • Discuss public policy and mental illness:¬†I know, I know – I said above that those entries aren’t as popular.¬† That being said, they are still read and I think they serve a useful purpose.¬† Like it or not, mental illness is largely affected by public policy, a topic I am all too familiar with in my real job.¬† For both my readers – and for me – it’s something I am going to continue to focus on.
  • Promote my book:¬†If you’ve made it this far, you get a secret – in the first half of 2018, I’ll have a fiction book published.¬† I’m not going to reveal too much of the details yet – don’t worry, I will! – but know that it is a young adult, sci-fi adventure – one that deals with mental health and living with depression and anxiety.¬† You can expect to hear more about this one later.

Now, all of that being said, a blog isn’t a blog without readers.¬† So, let me ask you, my friends – what can I answer for you?¬† What questions would you like to see this blog explore?¬† What topics are you interested in?

Let me know in the comments below – and thanks so much for reading!