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Note: This post talks about mental health and suicide. For anyone struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-SUICIDE), which is available 24 hours a day to help you.
It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, a topic I thought I’d never talk publicly about. And I talk publicly for a living, so that’s saying something. As the chief public affairs officer at MoveOn and an MSNBC political analyst, you can often find me talking in front of a podium or in front of a camera about the day’s top news stories.
A lot of the time, I’ll connect it back to my personal story. For example, when President Trump made derogatory remarks about Haiti, I talked about what that meant for me as the daughter of two Haitian immigrants. But in the immigrant community I grew up in, we didn’t talk about mental health. I was taught that it was something to keep quiet about, something you handled on your own. I internalized a lot of that shame and stigma, and, like the community I grew up in, have largely stayed quiet about mental health.
But as I began writing my memoir, “Moving Forward,” I knew I wanted it to be honest and vulnerable. Because life isn’t always sunshine and roses — there’s hard stuff too. I wanted my book to be a guide for everyone who has been told “no” in their life. What kind of roadmap would my book be, I thought, if I didn’t talk about the times in my life where I’d struggled, too?
So, for the first time in my life, I’m opening up about how I struggled with mental health when I was younger. In the book, I talk about the pressure of growing up in an immigrant household to succeed and how that pressure made me feel like a failure when I wasn’t able to meet those measures of success. I wrote about how that pressure grew so big, and my sense of failure so strong, that I felt like my family would be better off without me. At one point, I attempted suicide.
It’s not easy to write those words. But it’s also not easy to struggle with your mental health, especially in a world that continues to stigmatize it. We need to make it easier to talk about, because talking about your struggles is often the first step toward getting help. And getting help is possible.
I should know. It took some time, but I’m at a place in my life where I know how to keep my mental health in check. And I want to talk about what I do to stay healthy because I think we don’t talk about mental health nearly enough in this country. Mental health is just as much a part of our well being as our physical health.
One part of my routine is going on long runs as often as possible. I ran cross country and track in high school, and I’ve found that getting outside and out of my head is invaluable to staying balanced. I still find long runs to be one of my sure-fire ways to relax, and fit them into my schedule whenever I can. For a lot of people, physical exercise can be a crucial pillar of staying healthy mentally, not just physically.
Another component of my mental health regimen has been going to therapy regularly, a different kind of workout. It took me a while to come around to it, though. Therapy was looked down upon in the community I grew up in. If you needed to go to therapy, you were both weak and focused too much on yourself. The remedy, according to my family and friends? Keep your head down, and work harder.
But hard work wasn’t working for me. I’d always been a hard worker, yet was still struggling. In grad school, I finally realized I needed to see a therapist. Luckily, I was able to see someone through my school. I know it’s not always easy or affordable to get the help you need, but if you can fit it into your budget, no matter what your friends or family say, I highly recommend it.
The last key to building up my own mental health has been sharing more with my own family. I grew up being told to keep my problems inside. And that’s what I did. But so many of my problems stemmed from thinking that my family would be better off without me. Because I never shared that with them, I never gave them the chance to correct my thinking and never allowed them the chance to help me.
Being more open with my family about problems I used to deal with alone has been one of the biggest game-changers for my mental health. Of course, everyone’s family is different and some people may not feel safe talking to their family about mental health. I encourage everyone to find the people they consider families, which may not be the family you grew up in, and try to be open and raw with them, even when it’s hard. Something else that I recommend: check in on your friends, your loved ones. Reach out to them and ask how they are managing and coping in their daily life. You will be surprised what people tell you and how checking in on someone will create a domino effect.
Being open about my mental health isn’t easy. There’s still such a stigma around talking about it. But this Mental Illness Awareness Week, I’m proud to share about the steps I’ve taken to becoming healthier. Because if my story helps just one person, it’ll be worth it.
Karine Jean-Pierre's roots are in politics, from grassroots organizing to working on presidential campaigns. She worked in the Obama White House, managed political campaigns nationally and locally, and now serves as a political analyst for MSNBC, the chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Her book "Moving Forward," out November 5, 2019, is the story of how she found her call to action and how you can, too.