Editor’s Note: Awarded the Mental Health America Ruth Altschuler Community Advocate Prism Award and selected as one of the 2010 Distinguished Women by Northwood University, Julie Hersh is an outspoken advocate for mental health. She speaks about the “Top Six” things she does to stay well, but encourages us all to develop our own wellness plan. Her Struck by Living blog is featured on the Psychology Today website.
In less than a year since release, Struck by Living went to second printing, touching the lives of thousands of people. Hersh’s informed yet approachable style allows her to reach audiences that range from high schoolers, parents, social groups, counselors to psychiatrists. Hersh has spoken to student groups and mental health professionals at a number of major universities (Stanford, University of Notre Dame, Utah Valley State and University of Pennsylvania). In addition to positive press on Fox and Friends, PBS and in the Dallas media, Hersh testified on behalf of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to the FDA. Profits earned through the sale of Struck by Living will be donated to programs and research to promote mental health.
After earning her BBA at the University of Notre Dame, Hersh worked in high-tech product development and marketing/sales in Silicon Valley. She “retired” from a lucrative sales management position after the birth of her first child. A long-time member of the Cooper Center, Hersh ran her second marathon at age 50. She is Chariman of the Board of the Dallas Children’s Theater, a board member of Southwestern Medical Foundation and active supporter of the Suicide and Crisis Center, CONTACT and other non-profit organizations. She lives with her husband and two children in Dallas, Texas.
Last spring, I shared my struggle with clinical depression to a group of Stanford graduate engineering students. I doubted that they’d relate to my story. After all, they’d made it. Stanford engineering, tops in the world, planted in Silicon Valley; how much more potential could a future hold?
I was wrong. Inherent in potential is the steep cliff of failure. These students had made it to the top so far, but still hadn’t secured jobs. Coming out of Stanford, a standard job wouldn’t do. They felt the pressure to go from one of the best schools in the world to one of the best jobs in the world. Anything less, would seem a failure. Like the crew of Apollo 13 (even though these kids only saw the movie), they knew: Failure is not an option.
One woman from Nigeria told me about a suicide that had occurred over the last few years within the graduate engineering program. This death came and went silently, without explanation. “In my country,” she said, “When people ask ‘how are you’ they wait for an answer.” She described how Nigerians stop in their daily tasks to listen to each other. She admitted that not a lot gets done, but people seem happier. In contrast, she described the engineering students, so deep into their work that they rarely make eye contact. The other students nodded.
The problem identified, one asked me the solution. The answer popped off my tongue. “Get some friends outside of engineering.” They all laughed. I backpedalled for a more tactful response, but I’ve seen this problem more than once. Similar people congregate, often skewing the importance of an issue for that group. Business people, doctors, soccer moms or lawyers in a cluster often build brittle, lopsided solutions. Small items become life or death. A homecoming mum becomes critical for social existence. Being named a Partner becomes synonymous with life success. Being right outstrips the best outcome.
Over time, the hysteria of group myopia chips away at one’s psyche. For people like me, those thousand cuts lead to a mass hemorrhage of depression. My tourniquet for wellness requires me to step outside my social comfort zone. I purposely seek out people who think differently than me. Their different perspective allows me to gain clarity on my own life.
When I give audiences my top six means for keeping my depression at bay, my sixth and perhaps most important tactic is to have friends who are fun and who have a sense of perspective. I mingle with people who are older, younger, of different faiths, gender or interests. With variety, myopia becomes difficult to sustain. I learn that there is often more than one answer to the same question. I learn to laugh at my own stubbornness.
What the Stanford students have yet to realize is that although it’s wonderful to work hard toward a goal, the weight of looming potential will not lift with that first job. With one goal met, the next sprouts legs and sprints ahead. As my husband says, “There is no there, there.” For me, the best balance lies in enjoying the race at a pace that’s mine. Sometimes fast, other times not, I’ve learned (and continue to relearn) to listen to others, but also hear myself.
For more information about Julie K. Hersh visit her Struck by Living website.