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‘Normalize it a little bit’

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A couple of weeks ago I met Drew Bergman, who came to the New York area to speak at a walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He’s also a regular speaker with the Philadelphia-area group Minding Your Mind, whose young speakers talk openly about mental health issues, including suicidal thinking. The next day, Drew was the keynote at the group’s annual fundraiser, where the video above premiered. You can see the speakers from the three-minute mark on.

Here, Drew talks about how he decided to speak out despite concerns about repercussions, a tech-friendly idea for engaging an audience that’s too nervous to ask questions, and his belief that public speakers can acknowledge that they still have suicidal thinking from time to time.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m Drew Bergman. I’m a 21-year-old Drexel student majoring in business marketing, and in a lot of ways I’m a normal, everyday college kid. However, I also have other part of my life where I work with Minding Your Mind. I travel around speaking to different schools, and I talk about my mental illness in hopes of starting a conversation and hopefully erasing the stigma of mental illness.

How did you get into this?

So in seventh grade, I had my first attempted suicide. It stemmed from the fact that I lived that American dream, but inside that nice house a marriage was failing because my father was an alcoholic. Which was hidden because he wanted to convey that image, until he was nearly in a drunk driving accident with my sister. That’s when everything had to end. We moved, switched schools. That’s when I started going to therapy, started self-harming. And at that age, I was prescribed a medication that had opposite side effects. That’s why I had my first attempt. It took me from not feeling well to there was no tomorrow. And then, fast forward, the struggles never went away. I was in therapy four days a week. But I was never active in my treatment. In seventh grade, no one taught me what mental illness was. I thought I could leave it all behind. School was an hour and 15 minutes away, and no one knew. But I very quickly realized I couldn’t cut that part of my life out. I was never happy. I kind of always was just there. I struggled in school, didn’t care about class. I struggled socially. I didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t comfortable with myself. And then halfway through my sophomore year, New Year’s Eve going into New Year’s Day, I just hit that point where I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I had my second attempt.

From there, I was in the psych hospital, doing that whole thing, and I eventually started going to my guidance counselor. I started working with him. I started going to group therapy, and I started to understand, you know, in my group there were kids from all different places. It was like “Wow, it’s not just one type of person, anyone can suffer from this.” So I started making progress, CBT, small positive coping mechanisms. I started getting better. Tiny, tiny goals. By junior year, I was like a complete 180. I had a 3.7 GPA, and in my senior year I had a 4.0. I became like the social kids, throwing the parties. I went to 10 proms my junior and senior years. Kids knew me as this really social, outgoing kid. But nobody knew my past, nothing about me. I kept it a secret because I was ashamed. But it got to the point where I felt I would never really feel better until I was honest about who I am. I approached the school with my guidance counselor, who had asked what is my end goal. I said I’d love to speak about it.

My junior year, I stood in front of my school. There were 1,200 boys in suits and ties who looked like they had it all together. For 16 minutes, I told them all I had gone through. The response, sharing their stories, made me realize it was something I wanted to continue. So I got invited with an organization that worked with schools in the area, and I talked about pressures that high school kids deal with. I was in the depression group, and I talked for just a minute. A parent in the group was a public speaking coach for Minding Your Mind, and she chased me down the hallway afterward and handed me her card: “Ever thought about public advocacy? I think you’d be great for it.” So at age 18, I had my first meeting with Minding Your Mind.

How does your speech go?

The way my story is done is, I open with Robin Williams, that whole struggle, how society reacted. The stats. And then I say 40,000 people passed from suicide last year. Four years ago, I was almost one of them. That’s when kids shut up and everyone looks at me, not like, “What’s this kid gonna tell me about anything?” It’s real. I tell them it didn’t come about totally randomly. I get into my childhood. My sister is a Division I soccer player, my brother is getting a PhD at Hopkins. My family looked like it had it together. But my mom slept on the  couch every night, my dad was a functioning alcoholic. And what happened was, one day he nearly got into a drunk driving accident. And my mom came home that night and my dad was passed out. We looked around the house. We didn’t know he was an alcoholic. He was very closeted. My mom knew. But I never knew. We started going around the house, my sister and I, to find proof. He could hide his cans and bottles. In his cupholder, he used to mix Gatorade and vodka and go wherever in the car. That’s where we put two and two together. That was the drink. And so my mom came home, and there was a screaming match. My dad passed out. I remember throwing a beer can at him, we were so upset. No one’s ever talked to him about it. He doesn’t remember. But a few days later, there was a For Sale sign. Like that part of my life I thought I had was over. That American dream was gone. It was like, “Wow, everything I’d ever known is gone.”

And so from there, I go into how it affected everybody. I struggled to really understand as the youngest child that my dad couldn’t get past his disease. I started to show some of my symptoms of depression. I started acting out, losing motivation. I was lacking emotion. I didn’t feel I had purpose. I didn’t really feel anything. At that point, I turned to self-harm. It was like cutting, seeing blood was like, “OK, I am human again.”

I also self-harmed in high school and had the opposite purpose. I was just feeling a lot of pain. As the cutting continued, it wasn’t enough, so I attempted suicide. I continued therapy four or five days a week and went into high school, where there were pressures of being in an academic environment, doing well … I just wasn’t there, not understanding.

That unhappiness just got worse until that night. And so from there in my speech, I  talk about being in a psych hospital. Everyone creates this image, they call it the loony bin, the stereotype movies give it. But really, it was just a hospital for kids like me. Wow, mental illness can affect anybody. Every kid in there has a story. And then I take it to being released, having to hide myself in school, with people asking where I was. I remember texts and calls: “Are you missing? Did you die?” And again, there was such a stigma that I couldn’t say I was struggling, I wasn’t crazy, I was hurting. I would come up with lies, say food poisoning, whatever, so they didn’t know. I started shuutting people out and working with my guidance counselor.

From there, as I was becoming more social, I didn’t know how I wanted to tell them. When I learned that one in five kids suffer from mental illness, that’s how I decided what I wanted to do. In my speech, I have 20 percent of people stand up in the room. It’s visual, so impactful. Then I tell them to go into the cafeteria and ask them to visualize how many people would stand up.

We all have that perception of the kid in the corner with the hood over his head. You’d never think a kid like me would suffer, or Robin Williams. But really, it can affect anyone. The one line I always use is, I wanted to speak for voices that no longer could be heard. Whether their attempts were completed or they aren’t comfortable talking about their story.

So then, I spoke at my school. It was just an unbelievable experience. I  remember sitting in the dining area for visitors, and all the kids were walking in, patting me on the back. I wasn’t different from anybody. A lot of kids had been through struggles. From there, I explained how I got involved with Minding Your Mind, and I do a very brief thing about what mental health is, because a lot of people don’t know. It’s how we feel any given day. Happy, nervous, whatever. But when we feel stuck in a rut, maybe we’re experiencing mental illness. I go into common themes. One, that they make you feel alone, like you’re the only one in the world who knows what it’s like. I remind them: one in five. And the other theme is, it’s said when you’re in crisis, you are looking at life through the perspective of a drinking straw. So I say, if you think about it, see how much you can see out of a straw. When I look at life through that straw, I don’t see what my life can become. I don’t see going to 10 proms, college, being the best man at my brother’s wedding. That’s why so many people each year attempt or complete suicides.

The final thing is the invisible backpack, the thing everyone carries around with us wherever we go, and no one knows what’s inside. Pressure, whatever it is, we throw them all in, push them in, and never take the time to identify any of those stressors until eventually it gets too heavy. I say if your backpack is too heavy, find coping mechanisms, someone to talk to. If you know someone with that backpack, help them find help. And the final thing is to never judge. We have no idea what anyone is carrying around.

I tell the kids, you looked at me when I came in and you would never expect the story I just told, because it’s invisible and it’s something I carry around all the time. And then I transition to having them text to a Google number, and so there’s questions they can send in. On Wednesday, I spoke to 400 people and had 285 questions in the next five minutes.

What do you do with them?

We go through and try to find the ones _ because obviously, kids are kids _ but try to find the ones where it’s, “What do I do if someone is in need or if I need help?” Or about how they can have positive coping mechanisms. Some will ask about my family and how they’re doing. There’s a lot about mental health, how it’s affected by genetics. So what we do is scroll through and find the ones we most want to hit. And we say we’re here afterwards if you want to talk.

Do you answer to the entire crowd?

Yes. There’s anonymity. Originally, I did note cards. I love that handwritten way. However, in an auditorium you can’t go around and collect them. It takes a lot of time. This a way of expediting.

Where did the idea come from?

One of our speakers is good with tech. I was like, “This is a great idea.” So this Wednesday was the first time I tried it

What’s next? Minding Your Mind spoke to, like, 600 schools last year?

It’s dependent on funding. To continue branching out. We know that what we do works. First off, we’re free of charge. We never want to deny anyone the right to do that. It really helps every school. All we’re asking for is a time and a day, and you open this conversation. In terms of future expansion, if we can get funding, more grants, more private donations, more alliances with other organizations, we want to continue to grow. We just opened an office in north Jersey, for New Jersey and New York schools. We have Pennsylvania, I spoke at a state convention in May or June, so then we got a lot of attention from areas of Pennsylvania. And when I spoke at a national conference in D.C. with SADD, we got contacts from all over the place. Of course we would love to go out, but we need help with at least travel expenses. Right now, a drive is fine, but a flight and hotel, that adds up.

But it seems like right now, everything is within possibility. Not many organizations out there do what we do.

You’re paid for what you’re doing?

Correct.

The speakers, do you have to be perfect? Other people who do public speaking have told me they feel like they can never admit they still have suicidal thinking from time to time.

I always say this is something I will battle the rest of my life, but if I monitor it, if I’m exercising, reducing stressors, I’ll able to live a normal and productive life. Just as I’d be able to do if I had heart disease or diabetes. It may be a little harder at times, but you can do it. You’re not abnormal. And during the Q&A, one big question comes up: “Do you still think of suicide?” I say, “Yeah, this is a part of my life.” It was something for so many years that I trained my brain that suicide was the answer. If I failed a math test, it wasn’t “I’ll do better on the next one,” it was “This is what I can do to eliminate my problems.” So now my brain is trained to think that. For me, the darkest time is at night, when I’m at home alone. And that’s why I try to occupy my day, so I can go home and fall asleep. I’m scared of those nights, but I tell them I’ll never do that again because I can see what life has become in just five years. I tell them there is always light at the end of the tunnel. It always gets better. We have our shitty days. We all do.

Do you say “shitty” at schools?

No! We all have our down days. At a university, yes. I think one of the big things is to say, “Listen, I’m one of you, there’s no difference between us.” If I’m politically correct, dress very professional, I convey a very different interaction. I’m a student, I know what kind of public speakers I like to have. I wear jeans, a button-down. I’m one of them. There’s no difference except that I wanted to speak out about my story.

How can society better do messaging around this?

Find ways to make this not such a taboo topic. So we don’t have to like, drop this bombshell on people and say, “This is suicide.” We can throw in a visual on a commercial ad or something, stats. Where it’s not like always, “Oh god, that’s so down.” When you see ads for medications for depression, it’s so down, a gray screen. It doesn’t have to be like that. Yes, it’s a part of that, but there’s also a huge portion of people who are living, going day to day, with no signs, or they hide them better than others. I think, to normalize it a little bit. Those commercials and movies where they glorify suicide and mental illness, it’s hurting our ability to get this widespread.

Normalize. Some people don’t like that word.

Schools made that argument: “Once you’ve brought up, will it happen?” No. It’s something that’s happening everywhere. Whether or not we talk about it, kids see it, hear about it. This is not giving them ideas, it’s educating them, because no one talks about it. If you’re not educated in school, they will find it elsewhere, and it might be negative ways of portraying. Just because we educate people on drugs, it’s not to say, “Kids, go do drugs.”

A lot of speakers find that people don’t talk in the audience but have whispered conversations afterward. Does that sound familiar?

Whether whispered or on those note cards. I have to look at them to see if there’s any indication if they’re at risk. You’ll walk past the popular kid who’ll look the other way while handing you the card, and you never expect it. One of the most touching stories is a kid who committed to a university for football. He filled out the note card front and back about his internal life versus external life. Everybody loves him, he’s popular, going to school, may go to the NFL, but inside he hates himself. He’s never happy, miserable all the time. You look at him, and I was like … He ended up reaching out to me afterwards. And the whispered conversation, faculty or students turn to me and say, “I get it. I know how it feels, it’s something I’ve dealt with.” Very few of them step up. I just had my first student ever last week. After I spoke in the Q&A, he expressed that he had dealt with it and still does. The first kid ever. And I had spoken for a year and a half. Because typically, kids don’t even ask questions. If they raise their hand, that means they’re interested in topic or have been affected. As much as I try to say, “Guys, nobody’s judging, this is an open dialogue, this is a safe haven. I’m here for you, to help you.”

But there’s still silence?

But there’s still silence because of that judgement. No matter what I say, how many times, there’s still just that barrier. But as we see now, people will text it, write on a note card. But they can’t say it.

Any ideas for changing that?

My only idea I ever had was incentives, but I haven’t done it. I don’t know.

What about the fear of repercussions about speaking up?

I know for me it was a huge concern. I didn’t know whether to put it on my college application. Because I ended up failing my sophomore year; I failed math because my math teacher was the only one who failed to work with me. And so I didn’t know whether to put that on the application. In my head when I was 18, I thought that putting on my college application that I was in a psych hospital, having dealt with depression and a suicide attempt, that it would be a liability. And if anything happened, they would be held accountable. And also when I started speaking out, I knew my name would be Googleable. And that was petrifying. In my head I’m like, “I’m in business marketing, what if I enter the business world? Will I not get a job?” And medical insurance, will they not want to pay the bills if I get in a crisis? Will the fact that I had been hospitalized go against me? I was like wow, because I’ve gone through this, I’m in a category of not being trustworthy, So those thoughts, constantly.

I think at any age, people are scared of what will happen if they admit they aren’t perfect. We think perfection exists. And it doesn’t. I think being able to acknowledge and accept and be aware of imperfections helps you be aware of so much. I think people who work to keep it perfect are the ones who struggle the most. They can’t reach out, because it’s embedded in their head that they have to be perfect.

You spoke out anyway, despite your concerns. Why?

I think because I’m proud of it. To this day, I’m proud to be an advocate for mental health. Whether that makes me crazy in people’s eyes or not, whether that denies me jobs, I am speaking out about something I’m passionate about and know is worthwhile. It can have whatever repercussions, but I know at the end of the day I’m making a difference. And I’m happy. I’ve never been as happy in my entire life as I am today, because of this.

Who else are you?

I am, you know, a family person. I’m best friends with my two siblings, extremely close with my mom. Family means everything to me. I’m an incredibly outgoing kid, I go out on weekends, have fun. I love to try new things, I love to travel. I’m a big foodie, so I’m always trying new restaurants. It’s like, I feel like … This is the hardest question! I’m the average 21-year-old who just happens to have this story. Aside from that, I’m your everyday person.

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1 Comment so far Join the Conversation

  1. It was a pleasure reading your story, not at the beginning but later when you got the help you needed and came out on top. Very inspirational.
    I’ve been thinking much less in the way of self harm lately and have spoken with my doctor about getting off the anti depressants. I don’t like the ‘flat’ feeling that I’ve had for what seems like all of my life. He agrees with me and he’s weaning me off them right now. Too soon to tell if it’s going to work but at least I’m trying.
    Reading your inspirational story is a great help, thank you.
    peter

    Reply

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