Executives on how they overcame depression/mental illness

During the first week of October, the nation is encouraged to recognize the impact of mental illness on every aspect of life—from our relationships to our performance in the workplace. Though historically, this type of illness isn’t widely discussed and rather, is considered rather taboo, pop culture, activists and leaders are breaking through the barriers and giving a voice to this all-too-common struggle. Considering more than 16 million adults are clinically diagnosed with depression at any given time, this number is said to be gravely underestimated since many aren’t comfortable baring their soul or battle.

To lead not only a healthy, but a happy routine, accepting your feelings is step one. But getting there? Not so easy. Many people who have mental conditions suffer from low self-esteem and a negative self-worth, making it that much more difficult to move forward. Luckily, brave executives who have not only suffered themselves but have overcame their conditions share their stories and wisdom:

I changed jobs

Founder and owner of The Teen Life Coach, Cyndy Etler, was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) after a severely abusive childhood. She wanted to help kids who had the same detrimental experience and became a high school teacher in an effort to be at the front gate, able to identify any signals. However, when she relocated to a non-union state, she found the authoritative dynamic in schools to be a trigger for your C-PTSD.

“I was fine in my classroom with my students; my teaching was stellar, as were my performance reviews. Yet I struggled with irrational fear when I was in the school setting outside of my own classroom. Despite my bosses appointing me to committees and telling me, literally, that she loved my work, I had a constant feeling of dread; a conviction that I was ‘being discussed behind closed doors.’ ”

To rid of these symptoms, Etler tried everything: antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, EMDR (a form of therapy), as well as early morning yoga or meditation. Ultimately though, she decided to leave the environment that was causing her angst and start her own company.

“After a stretch where I forgot to refill my prescription, resulting in my not taking my anti-anxiety medication for a few weeks, I told my therapist, ‘I feel okay. Can I just stay off the meds?’ She said, ‘Yup, as long as you keep doing yoga every day,’ ” she explained. “For me, the removal of the major contributing factor and the consistent practice of yoga has been enough to create mental and emotional homeostasis.”

Quitting your job might not be the solution, but stepping back and identify what is contributing to your negative feelings is, according to Etler. “What is a trigger to some past issue? Is it something you need in your life but aren’t getting?” she suggests. “Once you’ve determined the source of the pain, brainstorm simple, doable strategies you can undertake today to shift the dynamic. Ideally, those strategies will build to a larger, longer-term goal that will alleviate the issue on a grand scale.”

I found something that healed me

Founder of the Blazn app, Tramese Byrd developed a brain tumor while on active duty. It grew and was left undetected for months, even though he could feel his body and mind declining, without knowing why. This stretch of time caused PTSD, depression, and anxiety, ultimately resulting in the complete shut down of his body.

“I lost 20 pounds, developed a stutter and could not look at people in the eye. I was having mood swings because my hormones were out of balanced. I began to run away from people, and time in and out of conversations,” he explained. “It became impossible to function in normal everyday life so I hid from everyone and everything.”

He became mentally unfit to stay at the United States Air Force Academy, and as he put it, felt useless and unable to do the things that used to come naturally. Once the tumor was discovered, he could move on with his life.

“After my diagnosis, I was able to work out what had happened to me. I began to meditate daily. I had to forgive myself for all the people that got hurt during this time. I also named my pain, I call her ‘tumor me.’ Tumor me hurt a lot of people during that year, and I began to seek out each and every person that may have interacted with her. I began to share my story because it seemed to be helping others,” he shared.

To begin to move forward with his life, he decided to make a ‘tumor bucket list’ and set to see the world. After visiting 14 states and four countries, he realized cannabis was having a positive impact on his cognitive abilities and attitude. Legal to treat depression in many states, this form of therapy might seem unconventional, but it can be effective.

“Each step of the way, I learned more about the healing effects of cannabis. I could feel my quality of life returning, and I began to engage more with the world. Cannabis afforded me the opportunity to truly reflect on myself, and heal my body and mind,” he explained.

If this drug isn’t the answer for you, Byrd says to seek help ASAP and figure out what will work. “For a long time, I felt like I was going insane. I was getting sicker but I was so ashamed and embarrassed of what was happening that I remained silent,” he continued. “Always surround yourself with positive people, those that truly know you, and watch over each other.”

I stopped giving my power away

Chief Executive Catalyst at Forever Fierce, Catherine Grace O’Connell, almost lost her life to Lyme disease, following a decade of searching for answers. As she went through several tests with many doctors, she not only felt depression but also despair. Because she was isolated much of the time bedridden with seizures, she missed the connection she used to have with others.

“I had led a very active and independent life which was suddenly gone with the disease progressing very quickly. I had given up hope. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of living,” she explained. On top of the symptoms from Lyme disease, O’Connell shared she was sexually abused as a child and continued to have a history of serious trauma and abuse throughout her life.

The turning point, if you ask O’Connell was on November 11, 2014, when out of the blue, her daughter asked: “Mom, what would you do if you were well?” In an instant, she responded with: “I’d travel. I’d travel the world.”

“I was shocked by the positivity and I remember grabbing my laptop and instead of searching for Lyme protocols or Lyme survival stories, I began dreaming of travel and creating bucket lists. Hope began to return. I stopped thinking in terms of illness and began thinking in wellness. I didn’t get well in an instant. It took time. But, I made an inner decision to get well,” she explained. “I began changing my focus to wellness, dreams, creating bucket lists and hope and I began to get well. Working on my mindset and my belief system is a ritual for me in order to break the pattern of falling into depression.”

Within a few weeks, her daughter would come over and get her dressed to take photos. She then set up an Instagram account. She started sharing her story—and people asked her for help. “I sent my cell phone to every single person and before I knew it, I had a business. The next year, I would launch a blog, a radio show, a social service campaign, a media production company and an international community to empower women at midlife,” she explained.

All of the momentum gave her a purpose — and taught her the most valuable tip: Don’t give your power away.

“I learned there was a big difference between being victimized and choosing to stay a victim. I had internalized much of the trauma and abuse. I repressed and suppressed everything. Finding my voice was the beginning of saving my life,” she explained. “I had no self-worth or self-confidence. My advice to others is simple. I’m not special and no different from anyone else. If I can do this, anyone can. Guard your thoughts zealously, especially about yourself. And find ways to connect, to create and to serve. Also, passion and purpose are an integral part of a healthy mindset and mental health.”