Don’t buy into the sickness speech if you’ve been diagnosed. And if you haven’t been diagnosed, take time to recognize we are all just facing challenges of varying degrees — don’t be afraid to take time to listen, or speak up. We ALL have a story, and we all experience the ups and downs of life. Some of us have strong genetic predispositions, and as was my case, some of us experience events as greater challenges in life. That said, you can do this — you can rehab your central nervous system just like your knee, ankle or shoulder. That isn’t saying you have to shout from the rooftops about your story in order to heal, but don’t isolate yourself. Stop telling yourself you’re sick because you have a mental health challenge. Believe in yourself and your ability to live a healthy life — and find practices to build a mental health routine. We call these practices “TSRR” or Trauma and Stress, Release and Rewiring, and they are listed on the homepage of our website, to help as many people as possible find what works for them, and develop their own healthy routine.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Eric Kussin. He is the founder of the Global Mental Health Alliance, We’re All A Little “Crazy” and the #SameHere Movement. The Alliance and Movement identify its unifying message by the American Sign Language sign for “Same Here” in its imagery. The global movement brings together individuals from platforms all over the world — athletes, entertainers, practitioners, and everyday people — to share that we ALL face challenges in life that impact our mental health. It’s the commonality of the human experience that binds us together as one tribe. In his early years, there wasn’t anything to suggest concern about Eric’s mental health. He was the smiling happy middle child of three brothers, He played in every sport he could possibly register and won awards each step of the way. There was no reason to question how he adapted with the traumas his family experienced, moving from one to the next. Eric continued staying active and involved in life with no clue that his “front-row seat” to events was altering his development. However, serious changes were quietly happening and lying in wait. His family’s traumas were affecting the way he was growing, adapting, and developing, beginning to create patterns in his brain. Slowly over time, a new “normal” developed. Overall, life seemed to be fairly uneventful as he adapted. He took his passion for sports into the board room and became a successful pro-business sports executive with both the NBA and NHL, at both League and team levels. Then in 2015 after a medication change, Eric began to feel himself falling. Thankfully, his employer at the time (CEO of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and their ownership group) was understanding and approved leave to attend to his mental health. Eric returned to New York and the support of his family. In 2017, he was faced with a diagnosis of severe PTSD, Anxiety, and Depression. As Eric began to heal, he was able to better understand and identify with his challenges. It was his lifetime of struggles that finally peaked and he could no longer ignore it. It was then he discovered that his many childhood experiences led to his current challenges. He’s been able to use both his professional and personal experience to establish support and strong foundations along the way that allow him to cope without actually addressing his mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
We all have a story — one that affects each of us in ways it might not have the same impact on others and that makes all of our experiences unique.
My story began as I watched my older brother struggle through surviving serious injuries, being diagnosed with cancer at a young age, another accident where he lost partial vision in one eye, and finding out his cancer had returned, septic shock from the chemo treatments and the need for a kidney transplant courtesy of my father. Although these things weren’t happening directly TO me physically, they were, mentally. My family spent many days lost in uncertainty wondering whether my brother would live or not. I didn’t know at one point when he was in a three-month coma if he would even be able to talk to me if he ever woke up again. At the time, I wouldn’t have said any of these things we endured were horrific.
Shortly after all of these health hurdles with my brother, his waking from the coma, and his remission from the second Cancer, I lost three close, seemingly healthy friends in the same year tragically to heart conditions.
I still had no idea at that point that all of these things happening around me and to me were busy creating certain patterns inside me. It wasn’t so much what was happening to my body, but to my brain as well.
In 2014 I moved to Florida to take on a role as the Chief Revenue Officer of the Florida Panthers hockey team. I was excited. I dove into it with all the thrill of anything I take on.
Then, in 2015 I spoke to a psychiatrist I had been seeing and mentioned concerns about how I’d been noticing lowering levels of engagement in my life. He changed my prescription from Lexapro, which I’d been taking for about 10 years, and put me on Paxil. That was all it took, and I plummeted. I spent two and a half years not able to live, some days not even able to get out of bed, staring at the ceiling, essentially “dead to the world.” But at that time, I learned how everything from genetics and environment, diet, life experiences, injuries and recovering — it all contributes to how we develop physically and mentally. Most of it happens before we even become aware. As adults, some of us figure out the hard way that something’s not right. So we learn how to cope in a society that isn’t very friendly to those who are open about our struggles.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Absolutely. There’s a conversation out there telling people to keep quiet because it’s shameful to admit you’re struggling. It’s a mindset that says when it comes to mental health, you’re either sick or your not — us vs. them — and you are better off keeping up with an image. Look at this question itself — it mirrors how our society views this topic. That’s all we hear, 1 in 5 have a mental health disorder/are mentally ill. If that’s the case, and we continue to perpetuate that message, what about the other 4 in 5 the message isn’t getting through to? How about how the stress and trauma building up in their systems? We place people into buckets of the disorder instead of understanding that mental health affects us ALL to varying degrees.
The image of the 1 in 5 is the fallacy.
The fact is that health is simply that. It’s health, and we need to evaluate it on a spectrum. We don’t judge a bodybuilder for going to the gym to work out for hours on end each day to get “healthier” physically. We tend to reflect on people that have workout routines as being “healthy” because they focus on their bodies. But that’s just physical health.
Why then, are we compelled to judge someone who sees a psychiatrist, counselor or therapist, labeling them “sick” when they are seeing someone to keep themselves to be mentally healthy? Mainstream America treats our mental health as an issue where everyone is expected to “get over it” or “suck it up” to keep adding to the bottom line and contributing in a positive way.
The #SameHere movement is one of inclusion — we ALL face challenges. We may not all get the disorder level, but the stats of 40+ million and 1 in 5 only perpetuate the stigma further. This is an “us” topic…there’s nobody out there in the “them” category anymore.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
We’re All A Little “Crazy” wants people of every niche, genre, profession, label, to understand that mental health is who they already are. We bring together groups to speak about this at K-12s, on college campuses, with corporate offices, pro sports teams, public safety conventions, and other locations. Each of those programs is named after the #SameHere concept: Schools, Sit-Downs, Safe, Sports. We present information to help educate people via the power of vulnerable story-telling of people in the public eye. We introduce them to everyday people, practitioners, entertainment, videos, and music. We take a formal program and heavy topic and we make it fun. We’re also working on a less formal setting we like to call #SameHere Socials so people can get together and connect. The priority at any of our events is to help people understand they aren’t alone. We do that by getting people together and giving them a chance to share and heal if it’s needed.
We use our webpage and social media channels to allow “#SameHere Heroes” to share their stories of challenges into triumphs with our community. This sharing is healing for both who are opening up and those who read. It shows we aren’t alone in our battles. We can get better. We are there for one another, because challenges and triumphs happen to every human, no matter the background.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I can honestly say it was begging to be launched. I shared my story online and offered to speak with others, even privately. I only had one social media channel when I shared — LinkedIn. In a week the story was read over 100k times and I had over 400 calls to return as far as away as China. It was so intense and highly requested that we launched the campaign to help others find the support they need for their own mental health. The reaction to sharing my story is what helped me realize this is a universal problem — it’s not the 1 in 5 we all too often hear about, exclusively.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
A) Don’t buy into the sickness speech if you’ve been diagnosed. And if you haven’t been diagnosed, take time to recognize we are all just facing challenges of varying degrees — don’t be afraid to take time to listen, or speak up. We ALL have a story, and we all experience the ups and downs of life. Some of us have strong genetic predispositions, and as was my case, some of us experience events as greater challenges in life. That said, you can do this — you can rehab your central nervous system just like your knee, ankle or shoulder. That isn’t saying you have to shout from the rooftops about your story in order to heal, but don’t isolate yourself. Stop telling yourself you’re sick because you have a mental health challenge. Believe in yourself and your ability to live a healthy life — and find practices to build a mental health routine. We call these practices “TSRR” or Trauma and Stress, Release and Rewiring, and they are listed on the homepage of our website, to help as many people as possible find what works for them, and develop their own healthy routine.
B) Society needs to recognize that we are all affected even if an individual doesn’t have a mental health diagnosis. Statistics are only telling us that we have IDENTIFIED 18% of US Adults in that study. That doesn’t include those who manage to function on a plateau and never get help. That 18% certainly also affects others around them, where they work, in their community and so on. As a society, we have an obligation to work together in a way that helps us all. We won’t do that by putting people in boxes with labels that stop us from communicating or makes people feel like outcasts.
C) Our government needs to leverage the same values for mental health as they do for physical health. Consider ways to incorporate increasing mental health benefits in corporate America. Strengthen the laws to protect people who have been diagnosed with what most call “mental illness.” That’s the stigma. If you have a diagnosis, why are you treated differently than someone who has a diagnosis such as cancer in your employers’ eyes? We need to mandate mental health curriculum in ALL schools, not just 2 states (currently NY and Virginia). That curriculum needs to be provided TO the schools, by working with nonprofits and organizations such as ours that have professionals on our boards and can provide beneficial information and avenues to learn through a variety of techniques that fit an individual’s best way to learn.
What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1) I took the ‘art of living “happiness” program’ when I first learned about natural ways of healing, not just putting a bandaid on my symptoms. I was the only male, the only one under 40 at the time, and only one born in America at the class. But I picked up a tool, a breathing Kriya, that I still use to this day.
2) I go to Yin/Restorative Yoga classes, and again am often the only male in the class, but it helps to release stagnant energy from my system.
3) I practice EFT/Tapping, to release stagnant energy from various meridian points in my body.
4) My doctor has taught me about many natural supplements my body needs to properly function — and I follow his recommendations closely.
5) I make sure that my diet is balanced, as there is a strong connection between the brain and gut. This involves having greens with every meal, replacing cow’s milk with almond milk, and making sure my processed sugar intake is as low as possible (it’s hard for me to cut it out completely)
6) I work to share my story as much as possible. I still have folks reach out to me after reading my story, looking for ways to heal. I invite those conversations in addition to our formal presentations because they are like therapy sessions for me as well — I just wish I had more time to get back to everyone immediately!!!
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Unfortunately, we have a problem in society with how we consume mental health information through the media. We hear about celebrity stories of diagnosis alone, and their erratic behavior or in the unfortunate cases like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, catastrophe. We need to TALK, in person, about mental health and our common everyday battles. Twitter, articles, and morning show sound bites are not enough to show how common mental health complications are. Too many people simply won’t get the memo because struggles with life that interfere with our mental health automatically drive a person into isolation.
I like to read anything about the somatic experience, how the body is affected by life, and how our mind responds. My favorite author is Malcolm Gladwell in how he makes us think about the world in a different way than we normally would. His angles are always fascinating. I keep up on the latest research with the practitioners on our alliance, to make sure I understand the latest in terms of what may/may not help people cope, health, and ultimately thrive. I also travel to try different practices and act as the guinea pig for others. I recently came back from a trip to Indonesia to take a one-week intensive course in Qigong meditation that I loved.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!