September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In an attempt to end the negative stigma around mental health— especially for men — therapist and mental health advocate David Romano came to JMU to speak about his struggles with anxiety and depression in Grafton-Stovall Theatre Tuesday night.
The event was organized by JMU counselor Janice Lewis and Assistant Director of Substance Abuse Prevention at the JMU Health Center Mindy Koon. The Health Center and the JMU Counseling Center co-sponsored the event.
In addition to being a therapist, Romano works with the nonprofit organization Active Minds. With an average of 1,100 college students committing suicide annually in the U.S., Active Minds is dedicated to mental health awareness and education for students. It has 300 chapters at universities around the nation, including one at JMU.
“We try to focus with Active Minds because we feel like the speakers that Active Minds have really relate to our campus community,” Koon said. “They’re authentic — their stories relate.”
Romano said his struggles with mental health began around the age of eight. These struggles were prompted by his self-image of being a “goofy and sensitive kid,” compared to the masculine and reserved nature of his father and brothers. This made him feel insecure because he felt left out and that he wasn’t “enough.” This insecurity eventually led to depression, accompanied by anxiety.
To compensate for this insecurity, Romano threw himself into sports, clubs and other extracurriculars to make himself appear “perfect” throughout middle school and high school. While trying to achieve perfection, Romano ended up putting immense pressure on himself.
“On paper, I should’ve been happy,” Romano said.“I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t, and I couldn’t make sense of this,” Romano said.
One day in 10th grade health class, Romano’s teacher passed around a checklist of depression symptoms, and Romano said he fit almost all of them. He later brought the list home to his mom, and they went to his doctor. There, he was officially diagnosed with depression.
“Two things were going through my head,” Romano said. “The first was complete embarrassment because to me, this meant I was a failure because there was something on paper proving that something was wrong with me. The second thing was, ‘No one can know.’”
Initially, Romano said he thought his depression would go away if he took his medicine and went to therapy. But in the subsequent years, Romano continued to struggle with his mental health.
In an attempt to alleviate his depression, he quit all the sports and extracurriculars he was involved in because he thought this would take the pressure off. He soon realized that these activities were “the only things keeping [him] going.”
As his depression and anxiety worsened, Romano looked for other coping mechanisms. During his junior year of high school, he began stealing, self-harming and indulging in alcohol to help “numb the pain.” Eventually, he was caught stealing, and that night, he attempted to take his own life. The next morning, he went on and pretended as if nothing happened.
“I felt like I was wearing this mask every single day, pretending to be this goofy, popular guy that everybody knew,” Romano said about the stigma he dealt with after his suicide attempt. “Keep in mind, at this point in my life, my grades were plummeting, I was pushing everyone in my life away, I had been arrested, I was engaging in very unhealthy substance use, self-injuring, had a suicide attempt and still I was more afraid of telling anyone what was going on.”
While trying to avoid people and “pretend that everything was OK,'' Romano was hiding in a bathroom stall when he got a call from his school counselor. His counselor called him in to his office — his father was there, too — and told him they knew about his arrest and depression and that he was going to get help. Because of his family and school’s support, Romano went back to therapy and got back onto his medications.
As Romano continues his journey with mental health, he said he still struggles and has bad days, weeks and even months, but he said continuing to reach out for help, going to therapy and taking care of himself is what keeps him healthy and stable.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” said Romano. “It’s OK to struggle. So, if you’re out there and you’re struggling, if you’re out there and you feel lost, please find the courage to reach out to someone, because I promise you if you do, someone’s going to reach back.”
Like Romano, Lewis said she thinks letting students know they’re not alone is important. She emphasized one way to help students feel comfortable with talking about their mental health is to “normalize” the conversation.
While one reaches out for help, both Romano and Lewis said that it takes time to find the right treatment. Romano compares this process to dating, saying that it takes a while to find the right person.
“David has a really powerful and hopeful message,” Lewis said. “I think an important one that is helpful to relate to is that sometimes, it can take time to find the right form of therapy and that often for folks, that is an ongoing journey.”
Contact Carley Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.