TAMPA, Fla. — May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it's an opportunity to look at everyone's mental well-being as most of us suffered in the last year with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide all growing.
Twenty-eight-year-old Johnny Crowder knows about the subject all too well. He's suffered from mental health issues since he was a child.
"It was feeling like I was a burden on other people and feeling like things wouldn't get better," he told ABC Action News Anchor Wendy Ryan.
Crowder admits that growing up was a challenge at all ages.
"As a toddler and in elementary, middle, high school, I was self-harming, hallucinating, never lived a normal day as a child," Crowder explained.
And during those years, Crowder tried to die by suicide three different times.
"It wasn't necessarily that I hurt today. It was that my vision of the future was so bleak that I didn't want to stick around for it," he explained.
Crowder has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But over time he realized he wasn't broken. He just needed to learn what was happening inside his own body.
"The more that I could separate myself from my diagnosis, like instead of saying, 'I am schizophrenic,' I would say, 'I live with schizophrenia,' and that tiny little nuance in conversation helped me develop my own identity outside of my diagnoses," he explained
After years of therapy and education, Crowder is now a mental health advocate, asking others to talk about mental illness the same way they talk about a physical illness.
"I want mental health to become a mainstay in the cultural conversation as a whole," Crowder said. "Either with your friends, in your workspace, or even hopefully most importantly, in the home, where you're speaking to your spouse or speaking to your kids about this kind of thing regularly. So that they grow up with some semblance of truth around mental health."
Part of Crowder's recovery includes self-care practices, leaning on his faith, and looking at his tattoos as visual reminders of how far he's come.
"It's not that I wanted to be dead. It's that I wanted peace. And so getting a tattoo that talks about death helps me remember which part I actually wanted. I didn't actually want to die. I just wanted peace," Crowder explained.
But for anyone still struggling, he says please know, you are not alone! And if you think anyone's life would be better without you?
"You're wrong. You're wrong! If everyone who cared about you right now texted your phone, it would melt in your pocket. We just don't say it enough," Crowder said emphatically.
Suicide Not an Easy Way Out
"Death only sounds like a relief for people, who are in loads and loads of pain, where they see no other way out," explained Dr. Colleen Cira, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
Cira said there are several myths concerning suicide, especially believing those who die by suicide are 'acting selfishly.'
"For somebody who's in it, it's like being down in the very dark, deep well with nobody at the top, necessarily that they can hear or see offering to help or assist. And so at some point, people let go," she explained.
Cira also said suicide is not an 'active choice.' The person in pain simply sees no alternative. And suicide is not the "easy way out" either.
"Survivors of suicide often will say that that was the most painful point in their entire life is the moment right before. So there's nothing easy about suicide," she said. "Suicide is a part of the human experience. It is not reserved for just a selected few, who struggle with mental health. This is a human problem."
The numbers prove that fact. According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, there were over 48,000 recorded suicides in 2018. It's the second leading cause of death for those 10-to 34-years-old and the fourth leading cause of death for people 35 to 54. And, there were more than two and a-half times as many suicides in 2018 than homicides.
If you're worried about someone you know, the signs that someone might be struggling include: withdrawing socially from day-to-day activities, not wanting to talk or plan for the future, and parting with important items.
"Nobody's moving. There's not an estate sale happening. They're just giving away their belongings for a reason, you're not totally clear about. That is also a sign," Cira explained.
Don't Be Afraid to Reach Out
"It's okay to not be okay. What's not okay is not reaching out for help when you need help and assistance. And that's what I would tell anybody in the community," explained Clara Reynolds, who's the President and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
Reynolds said this past year has been mentally exhausting, with many just needing someone to listen.
"So a lot of the work that we are doing is being that unconditional support. That support that's not going to minimize your feeling or negate your feeling. We're going to support you and how you're feeling right now, give you a chance to just be heard and then we're going to problem solve together," she said.
But if you're worried about a loved one, who won't reach out for help; Reynolds said try being honest.
"'I am worried about you. I am concerned about you. I love you as a friend. I have seen you change in this way. Are you okay?' And just letting a person just be able to talk about it,'" she added.
And if you're feeling utter despair with no way out, call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211 right away. Someone is there to help 24/7.
"There is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help. You don't wait until you have a stroke before you get help for your high blood pressure. It's the exact same way with behavioral health," Reynolds said.
Free Resources Can Help
"Covid did not create mental illness, but it has created mental health challenges," explains Natasha Pierre, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Hillsborough County
Pierre said after a year of this pandemic, many feel an endless amount of anxiety and fatigue.
"We've been dealing with a pandemic, but life didn't stop. So, there's still people dealing with cancer, and heart disease, and divorce, and breakup, and children with special needs," Pierre said. "The rest of life didn't stop. Our bills didn't stop. So when you add something significant as an entire pandemic, on top of life, it gets heavy."
Pierre said that heaviness can be mitigated by practicing any form of self-care, even if you think you're too busy to do it.
"It's not selfish to take some time to replenish, to revive, to refresh, and then come back to work the next day clear, focused, and ready to go," she advised.
If you're concerned about the mental well-being of someone else, Pierre believes we must get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.
"If it means saving a life, ask 'Are you thinking of suicide? Do you have a plan?' And if they have a plan, do not let them out of your sight,'" Pierre said emphatically.
There are free resources to help everyone right now:
- Crisis Center Of Tampa Bay at 211 any time of day or going to: https://www.crisiscenter.com/
- NAMI Hillsborough has a helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
- If you're in a crisis, you can text NAMI to 741741. or go to their website: https://namihillsborough.org/
- You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Life-Line at 1-800-273-talk or 1-(800) Suicide.