Focus on helping others: I focus on helping others feel less alone. Be the Light Campaign has saved me in more ways than one. It inspires me on the good days and gives me a purpose to keep going on the hard days.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Melissa Syler. Melissa is the founder of Be the Light Campaign. Melissa was born and raised in northeast Ohio and moved to Atlanta in 2013 to pursue a career in the hotel design industry. She currently lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. Be the Light Campaign is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to end the stigma of mental health and to create hope for those in need. From simple, random acts of kindness towards the homeless, to hosting community events, the mission of Be the Light Campaign is to spread hope and compassion to all. Be the Light Campaign has collaborated with SYLVANIA lighting and country music singer, Jessie Chris, to celebrate and inspire acts of kindness across the United States. Be the Light Campaign volunteers have written over 1,200 letters of encouragement; collected coats, blankets, personal items, notebooks and pens to fill over 300 bags to give to those in need; held “Hope for the Homeless” events across the country; and placed Be The Light Campaign stickers on five continents. They are continually adding programs to spread light to more people.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
This campaign was founded on my own personal experience with depression and anxiety. I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for my support system inspiring me to get help. Our mission is to inspire and be the support system for those who may not have one. I don’t ever want someone to feel as alone as I did while struggling with my mental health — to feel like they have no options. So I took action. Currently, I work in the retail design industry in Columbus and Be the Light Campaign is my passion project, which I work on during nights and weekends. My goal is to be able to run Be the Light Campaign full-time in the future.
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?
People fear what they don’t understand. Every mind and every experience is different which makes understanding mental illness difficult. Thirty years ago cancer was not talked about openly; it wasn’t understood and only whispered about. But now, after years of breaking that stigma, humanizing the illness and informing the public with new research, it is openly discussed. I hope this will happen with Mental Health. Over time the general population will become more informed, pulling in more understanding, compassion and ending the negative stigma. Every day more research is being discovered and many celebrities are using their platform to help normalize mental health. I believe that our culture is on the right path to ending the stigma — it is just going to take some time.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
We are focusing on the importance of a support system. It’s not just about the mental health warrior (the individual living with a mental health condition), but also about the ally (their support system). We host “Hope for the Homeless” events and give hand-written letters of encouragement to those in need since a large population of those living on the street have some mental health issues. We are inspiring our volunteers and followers to start close to home within their communities, groups of friends or family members. 1 in 5 Americans* have a mental health condition so chances are that we all know someone who is currently struggling or has struggled in the past. Mental illness isn’t a far off problem that others deal with — we are all surrounded by it. The way to combat this epidemic is to offer kindness, compassion, and understanding. Learn as much as you can from sources like NAMI and reach out to those around you. Check-in with them and see how you can be supportive. We have created Mental Health Cards to help start the sometimes difficult conversations. Conversations can save lives — they saved mine.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
In 2014 I hit rock bottom. On one of the darkest days of my depression, I called my mother crying “it’s coming back” — the thoughts of not wanting to be here or to live through another day. I struggled with mental health issues during college but thought it was a one-time thing; you deal with it and move on. I was terrified that it was coming back. I remember that moment vividly. I was sitting in my Atlanta apartment alone, stressed out and working on a client deadline, drinking belligerently to cope. I was quickly spiraling out of control. My mother told me to take some deep breathes and we would come up with a plan. I needed to be proactive in getting help and seeing a doctor. She calmed me down and made me feel less alone and shared hope with me.
This difficult conversation saved my life. This was just the beginning of months of not-so-pretty recovery and it got a lot darker before I saw any light. But this set a plan in motion. It put me on the path to get help instead of hiding my struggles. During this recovery my support system stepped up and supported me in a way I didn’t know was possible. They genuinely wanted to know what was going on in my mind and how to help. These conversations started Be the Light Campaign.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals: Choosing kindness and compassion instead of hate and fear. The way to end the mental health epidemic is through personal relationships. Asking for help if you need it or stepping out of your comfort zone to check in on the people you know and care about who are struggling.
Society: More education on mental health and resources available need to be taught in schools and shared with the general public.
Government: Reduce cost. Put pressure on drug companies and mental health facilities and insurance companies. It is completely unaffordable to get help whether it is therapy, hospitalization or medication. I was in thousands of dollars of medical debt when I finally got the help I needed. Every day I was battling myself knowing that I needed therapy to get better, but it was adding so much financial stress to my life. I’ve heard from so many people that they don’t ask for help because they can’t afford it. Something must be done.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
• Focused activity: I use cooking and painting to help slow down my mind and allow myself to focus on one thing at a time. Both of these activities are also creative outlets that help bring out your “inner child” which also reduces stress.
• Dedicated emotional time: Whether my emotions are of worry, grief, or anger, I dedicate a specific amount of time to deal with them. I was laid-off during budget cuts in 2016 and I told myself I would let myself be a mess, feel sorry for myself and cry as much as I needed for one night. I let it all out. The next morning I woke up at 6 am and started updating my resume to apply for new jobs. I know it may sound ridiculous but it really does work! If you hold in your emotions they will find a way of creeping up on you later. So let them out for a specific time.
• Unplug: I take one day a month and completely unplug from my cell phone and computer. I just focus on my self-care on those days.
• Getting outside: Whether a walk to a local park or taking a weekend trip to go hiking, getting out in nature really grounds me and has a way of putting all my problems into perspective.
• Focus on helping others: I focus on helping others feel less alone. Be the Light Campaign has saved me in more ways than one. It inspires me on the good days and gives me a purpose to keep going on the hard days.
• Laughter: a good dose of humor can fix anything!
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
TEDtalks on mental health. They discuss mental health research in a quick and entertaining format.
NAMI.org is a great tool, filled with research and resources.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Thank you for this opportunity!