Mental Health Champions: “Every single day, do something that makes your heart sing” With Jenny Marie

I love the quote “Every single day, do something that makes your heart sing.” I try to live by that. This can mean having a cup of tea with a biscotti and reading a magazine. Or getting my hair or nails done, spending time out in the garden, or baking chocolate chip cookies. Whatever makes […]

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I love the quote “Every single day, do something that makes your heart sing.” I try to live by that. This can mean having a cup of tea with a biscotti and reading a magazine. Or getting my hair or nails done, spending time out in the garden, or baking chocolate chip cookies. Whatever makes me happy, no matter how small it seems. It makes a big difference to me. I do my best to be gentle with myself. That means forgiving and loving myself for me — flaws and all.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jenny Marie, a writer, speaker, and mental health advocate. She documents her experiences with mental health on her blog, Peace from Panic. Jenny is a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and presents NAMI’s in-school mental health awareness program, Ending the Silence. Speaking to high school students, counselors, and educators, she advocates the importance of mental wellness. Jenny is a contributing writer to the NAMI National Blog and to The Mighty website and is a moderator on mental health panels. She is married and has two daughters in their 20s. Jenny and her husband live in Southern California.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m recovered from panic disorder and my daughter is as well. My panic symptoms began when I was a young girl. I had no idea what was wrong with me but knew it wasn’t normal when my heart raced, I’d get dizzy and lightheaded, feel sweaty and shaky, and was afraid I’d faint. I also experienced derealization and depersonalization, which felt like living in a fog or dream, where things aren’t real.

I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents. I was embarrassed and didn’t think anyone could possibly understand. I thought I was the only person who experienced such frightening and strange sensations. I figured that’s just how I was and had to deal with it — on my own.

In my early 30s, the symptoms became more frequent and severe. I couldn’t handle it alone anymore, so I finally went to the doctor. He diagnosed me with panic disorder and agoraphobia.

It was an enormous relief to know that my scary symptoms had a name. I couldn’t believe it when my doctor told me millions of other people have this. I was even more amazed when he said it could be treated. That was the beginning of my recovery journey.

When my daughter was 8 years old, she started to have signs of panic attacks. By the time she was 10, panic completely interrupted her life. She had a panic attack at school and didn’t want to go back, in fear of having another one. She missed several consecutive weeks. I knew firsthand what she was going through, which broke my heart. But because I knew the symptoms so well, I recognized what was wrong and was able to get her help right away. She was treated by a child psychiatrist and returned to school. She’s now 24, and rarely ever has a panic attack.

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?

There are misconceptions about mental illness because it can be much harder to understand a disorder in the brain than it is to understand a physical disease. Here are some thoughts as to why stigma still exists:

· People may believe that someone with mental illness is weak and that he or she should be able to control their brain and be “stronger.” That’s nearly impossible without medical intervention. If someone has heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or a broken bone, that person is sick and needs treatment. It’s the same with mental illness.

Physical injury is understood and accepted. But a mental disorder is often ignored and misunderstood. For example, my daughter played basketball in high school. During a tournament, she tore her ACL. She had surgery and it took almost a year to heal. No one would ever have said to her, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you run up and down the court? Why is it taking you so long to recover?” With mental illness, that person also has a real medical illness that requires treatment.

· Some may think that having mental illness means that person is “crazy” or violent. These are generalizations and do not apply to the vast majority of people diagnosed with mental disorders.

· Mental illness used to be a taboo subject and, in some families, it still is. One of the problems with this is that mental illness is often hereditary. I have several friends who wish they would’ve known years earlier about their parents’ mental health issues. When they finally found out, they thought, “Now it makes sense. Too bad I never knew, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.”

Children who grow up with the belief that mental illness is something you simply don’t discuss, won’t want to admit if they feel anxious or depressed. They don’t want to cause their parents added stress or disappointment. The adolescent may feel “unfit” and left to deal with it alone. And even worse — he or she won’t receive treatment.

· If someone has never experienced a full-blown panic attack, deep depression, or thoughts of suicide, it’s difficult to understand what the other person is going through. Statements like “stop over-reacting,” “don’t be so dramatic,” “calm down,” or “get over it” contribute to stigma. Because it’s not that easy. If it were, the person living with the mental health condition would already be recovered.

Personal experience shows that logic does not work during a panic attack. “Just take a deep breath” isn’t going to stop it. Logically, I’m aware I’m in a safe place and not in imminent danger. But that doesn’t matter because at the time, it feels like I am. Adrenaline rushes through my body and the fight-or-flight response is going off when it shouldn’t be. Sometimes that burst of fear — the panic attack — is impossible to control. But that’s hard to truly understand unless you’ve had a panic attack yourself.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

My blog, Peace from Panic, started with the purpose of telling my story to inspire others. The main message: You are not alone. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and it isn’t anyone’s fault. There’s treatment available and there is hope to live a happy, productive life.

As a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I present an in-school mental health awareness program called Ending the Silence.

Visiting high schools, I speak to students about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend. Teens learn about anxiety, depression, bipolar, OCD, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide.

I’m never sure who I’m going to reach, but many of them need the conversation to be opened. I assure them that it’s okay not to be okay. There’s help available and hope to get better. And the most important thing — they are not alone.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

I waited 20 years before I told anyone about my panic symptoms. I suffered in silence and was exhausted from hiding my secret. When the doctor gave me my diagnosis and treatment plan, I regretted not saying anything for all those years. The main reason I waited so long? Stigma.

Mental health courses and programs such as Ending the Silence weren’t offered when I was in high school. If they were, most likely I would’ve received medical help years earlier.

That is why I’m so passionate about talking to teens about mental health. I don’t want them to wait as long as I did. I encourage students to talk to a trusted adult about their problems so they can get help.

As future generations grow up learning about mental health and mental illness, the stigma will lessen and eventually end.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

· Individuals can encourage a loved one to get medical help and to stick with the treatment plan. Family members and friends should educate themselves about the disorder. Education is key. There are countless resources available that can be found online. Organizations such as NAMI offer courses for family members to learn how to best support their loved one. When people talk about their own mental health challenges, it helps weaken the stigma. It’s amazing that when one person speaks out, how many others can relate. It’s empowering to not feel alone.

· There’s a lack of understanding of mental disorders. Society can assist by supporting mental health educational programs. An example is a community mental wellness day, where seminars can be held and attendees learn about local resources. Schools can offer mental health presentations, such as Ending the Silence, for students, parents, and teachers. Schools can also add a mental health class to the curriculum. Employers can contribute to mental wellness by offering weekly or monthly programs such as yoga, meditation, or free or low-cost access to therapists. They can also support employees who need to take mental health days off work.

· Government can support those with mental illness by making access to mental health care easier, more accessible, and more affordable. The government should also require middle schools and high schools to offer courses on mental health. Every student should be required to take the class.

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?


My favorite type of exercise is to hike in the mountains near my home or take long walks. It’s great for me physically, but just as important, it’s good for me mentally. As I take deep breaths and listen to the stillness of nature, it clears my mind, giving me a sense of calm and peace. Stretching and yoga also help with deep breathing and mindfulness.


Writing is therapeutic. It causes me to look deeper into my own life and figure out what’s most important. Once I wrote a letter to my mental disorder (panic attacks) and was surprised how angry I still was, even though I had recovered years before. It felt good to get that out! With writing, I release frustration, sadness, joy, whatever I’m feeling at that moment. Saved as a special memory, like a photograph.

Meditate and Practice Mindfulness:

I used to be apprehensive about meditation. I had visions of sitting in a cross-legged position for an hour, trying to be quiet. I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be like that. I use an app such as Headspace for guided meditation and love that I can do it for just five to ten minutes and feel refreshed and calm.

Mindfulness helps me slow down and enjoy the moment. It also gets me through stress. Sometimes when I’m driving and feel panicky, I inhale for seven seconds and exhale for seven. I focus on what’s happening around me, like a song on the radio, wind blowing my hair, or a man walking his dog. Being mindful helps bring me back to the present and control my panic.

Self-care and Self-compassion:

I love the quote “Every single day, do something that makes your heart sing.” I try to live by that. This can mean having a cup of tea with a biscotti and reading a magazine. Or getting my hair or nails done, spending time out in the garden, or baking chocolate chip cookies. Whatever makes me happy, no matter how small it seems. It makes a big difference to me. I do my best to be gentle with myself. That means forgiving and loving myself for me — flaws and all.


Every night I reflect on the day and am grateful for moments, big and small. I can always think of several things, usually many more, that I’m thankful for.

Social Media Breaks:

Like many people, it feels as if I’m constantly on my phone or computer. At times I feel burned out from trying to keep up with it all: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, my blog, and emails. It feels great to allow myself not to keep up. And instead, spend time with family and friends. Engage in conversation and nurture “real” relationships.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Since my passion is in spreading mental health awareness to adolescents, I’ve been reading Middle Grade and Young Adult books that center on mental health. Here are some of my favorites:

All Things New by Lauren Miller

Because We Are Bad by Lily Bailey

Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

I’m thankful to organizations such as NAMI, Child Mind Institute, and Mental Health America for the resources they offer to those affected with mental illness and their families.

Celebrities, athletes, and famous people who use their platforms to speak out about their mental health struggles inspire me. Lady Gaga, Emma Stone, Mayim Bialik, Carson Daly, and Kevin Love are just a few who talk openly about mental illness and encourage others to do the same. Their message is so important: It’s okay not to be okay. You are not alone!

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