As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Sierra Marling. She is a purpose-driven entrepreneur and public relations professional. Her ability to identify problems and create solutions has allowed her to extend her efforts towards alleviating homelessness, improving technology literacy, and issues of education within Appalachia. She is currently working on her newest venture, Appalachus, while also promoting economic growth through her business, Semper Public Relations. Her desire to elevate Appalachia comes primarily from growing up in the coalfields of West Virginia, but her need to make the world a better place seems to be a relentless personality trait. Sierra enjoys defeating her entire family at Scrabble, playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends, and reading whatever she can in her spare time.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m an incredibly empathetic person, but I’ve always tried to stay informed. As a matter of fact, I remember reading my aunt’s encyclopedias whenever I was in elementary school to indulge my interests in foreign cultures. Imagine the dread that I felt whenever I found out that my favorite animal, the giant panda, was endangered.
This dread is what fuels me; it’s the same feeling I get whenever I see someone in need of a group being persecuted on the news or in my community. I want to prevent that feeling for myself and other people.
That’s what drew me to purpose-driven public relations and entrepreneurship.
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?
The stigma behind mental illness comes from the mishandling of society’s cognitive dissonance. We have an entire Internet of ideas with seemingly unlimited communities and spaces to share. This is great! But we, as democratic users of the Internet, have to become more intentional in our spaces and culminate only the positive for innovation to continue.
For example, instead of posting about how ridiculous someone may be acting or creating a meme about the behavior people exhibit when they’re experiencing symptoms of their mental illness, which is something people may do whenever they feel uncomfortable or aggravated, recommend them to online sources of information or support groups.
We’re also normalizing mental illness in the media in all the wrong ways. We can stand behind celebrity figures all we want, but if we can’t stand behind our friends, kids, and peers with mental illness and recognize the challenges from that, what does it matter? We need to show that issues such as depression and anxiety are serious, life-threatening, and present in our lives.
We’re not making mountains out of molehills, people just can’t see the whole mountain yet.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
My work is currently focused on providing resources and mentorship to LGBTQ+ Appalachian youth. This will be done through an app, currently in development, which takes users on a journey to discover their sexual identity, a mentor/match, and plentiful forums to ask questions in a safe space, plus bountiful, accredited resources to find even more answers.
Here’s a brief journey map:
You go into the app, build your profile, take the SexID Quiz, get your results, get directed to articles, books, etc., and then you are free to roam the app. From there, you can post to forums, find more information, get matched with mentors/counselors, and talk to others about your experiences.
Appalachus is meant to connect pieces of a puzzle together to form a clear line of research and assistance to find your identity and normalize the experience, giving those who use it to confidently “come out” as “xyz” with a full understanding of what that means. I want to take the guesswork out of finding yourself. This knowledge is empowering, and if everyone is doing it, then they’ll be able to see the issues that some of their peers are facing, even if they are a cis-straight person.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I do this because I’ve seen first-hand that LGBTQ+ individuals are constantly under attack from Appalachian teachers, policymakers, and communities. We’re seeing this right now from Republican Delegate Eric Porterfield in West Virginia; it’s a pattern of behavior from the region that will not dissipate without action.
I found myself curiously exploring relationships with both boys and girls whenever I was around 12 or 13, going as far as to “date” a girl. The repercussions were strong and unexpected, especially since I did not come from a strongly religious family.
At school, my vice principal and other school officials harassed me, peers actively targeted and isolated me, and I was not allowed to use the restroom without supervision. This was not subtle discrimination; I was openly taunted by authoritative figures and classmates, sometimes even during class.
This did not end whenever I got home. Whenever my mother found out that I was seeing a girl, she slapped me in the face and called me a slut. I was also forbidden from going to church, both because I usually went with this girl and because I “didn’t respect the Bible anyway”.
The message was loud, clear, and hurtful. I was no longer brave enough to be open about my identity.
Fast-forward a few years and I had moved away from my small town. While I still lived in Appalachia, I lived somewhere a little more tolerant, a college town. My hometown was on the news. The superintendent in my hometown was openly refusing to follow through with the Obama administration’s directive to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
After speaking personally to the superintendent to voice my concerns, it was woefully clear that school personnel had no real understanding or training to deal with LGBTQ+ students and had no problem openly discriminating against these students’ rights. This also made me realize that the problem wouldn’t leave just because I did. Appalachia (and the US in general) is bringing up its most diverse crop of kids yet!
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals should be checking on their friends, even the particularly strong ones, offering them guidance and compassion, and encouraging them to build relationships that are healthy. They should be protesting the actions of the government whenever they impede on the rights of the mentally ill. They should be challenging their own preconceived notions of what mental illness looks like.
Society should be trashing this hustle culture, making realistic expectations for the 24 hours we all get in a day, and showing all types of diversity in the media. Collectively, we have to take the appropriate response to our cognitive dissonance and change our behavior.
The government should be giving us universal healthcare so that we can all meet our basic medical needs and treat our more complex ones, taxing the rich to fund communities’ initiatives for happier, healthier citizens, and giving citizens a shorter workday so that we can explore ourselves beyond our work.
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. Be informed
Nothing makes me more anxious (lately) than world news, but the best way to prepare myself for the day is to read a variety of news sources. Then, I feel confident that I understand the day’s biggest issues and can properly orient myself to my environment. It might sound odd, and maybe it’s because I’m a debater, but I just feel better if I know that I can’t be caught off guard for my personal beliefs or stances. There is no better shield than fact.
Closing yourself off from everything to dedicate deep thought to your most troubling issues is one of the best ways to find clarity, which brings peace.
Seriously. It works. I fire my personal karaoke machine up at least once a week!
I can belt the lyrics to the most empowering (or trashy, no judgment) music, dance around, and feel like a brand-new woman with minimal effort. Something about doing this always makes my heart feel lighter; I think it’s the innocence of the whole thing. Like, it’s about being heard and having fun, not being good.
My local gym has a bunch of supportive individuals with open mental illnesses. They’re also there to escape, and they never have any issue with talking through my issues with me. Well, unless we’re doing cardio, then I kind of can’t.
Sometimes, especially whenever I find myself at a real low point, crying is unavoidable. It took years for me to figure out that it was okay to do this, probably because I come from a real “don’t cry” family. I’ll feel the tears start, tie back my hair, and bawl it out alone. The best part? The deep, restful sleep that comes after. I wake up feeling refreshed and emotionally bare like I wiped my slate clean.
6. Relatable Comedy
It’s incredibly soothing to see other people getting up on stage and talking about the stuff everyone does in a funny way. It makes me feel like my life is normal, enjoyable, and sparks new light into everyday things. My partner and I have many inside jokes based on comedy specials we’ve watched together after a particularly terrible day.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls inspires me by reminding me of home. The story takes place in Welch, WV, a place similar to my hometown, and the author’s tumultuous relationship with her parents reminds me a lot of the issues between me and mine. I have a good cry every time I read it.
In One Person by John Irving grounds me by taking notice of and worrying for “sexual suspects” and for also writing about bisexuality with fervor.
Sylvia Plath’s work and life inspire me, as she’s someone with whom I deeply identify with, which used to really frighten me. However, her work and experiences actually gave me a deeper understanding of my own battle with mental illness and identity. She was truly a pioneer in the portrayal of mental health.