Funding, awareness and education, tolerance, and compassion are key. Our government needs to do a better job at funding initiatives that educate the public, and even mental health professionals, on this topic. Creating awareness campaigns around mental health conditions can positively impact everyone, especially communities that would otherwise not have access to resources and aid. We, as a society, need to help debunk the erroneous beliefs around mental illness so that we can be more tolerant towards those who are suffering. We do this by courageously coming out and talking about this subject more openly, more honestly. And individuals, in particular, those who suffer from mental illness, need to find more compassion toward themselves. As mental health sufferers, sometimes we subscribe to the same misinformation, stigma, and erroneous beliefs about mental health conditions. We downplay our suffering and in turn, we hurt ourselves deeper. Compassion for one’s self is imperative in the healing process.
Asa part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Lorena Leonard. She is founder of The Gritty Girl (https://grittygirl.blog), a movement that fosters mental wellness and the pursuit of personal success regardless of circumstances. By using examples from her own experiences with adversity and post-traumatic stress disorder, and in collaboration with mental health professionals and other experts, Lorena provides tools that encourage mental wellness as a way to influence and galvanize women and girls to build grit and resilience — the keys to personal success. A Colombian-native, Lorena’s traumatic childhood while living in poverty and experiencing extreme violence during the drug war era contributed to a lifelong battle with mental illness. Despite her circumstances, Lorena beat the odds and found personal successful. Today, she is a marketing and creative director, a storyteller and a speaker. She has been the recipient of some of the most respected international marketing industry awards including the prestigious Hermes Creative Awards for creative writing and storytelling. With a communications career spanning almost two decades, Lorena holds an MA in Integrated Marketing Communications from Emerson College and a BA in International Relations from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me!
Long story short, I migrated to the U.S. from Medellin, Colombian when I was a young girl. In addition to living in poverty, I experienced incredible violence as a consequence of the drug war that plagued Colombia in the ’80s, I witnessed a murder, I survived sexual assault and was raised in a home where domestic abuse was the norm. These events led me through a life-long battle with various mental health issues and diagnoses that included bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, and more specifically post-traumatic stress disorder. I had never heard of any of these conditions until I was about 16 years old when I first saw a mental health practitioner after a failed suicide attempt. Despite my circumstances, however, and by the measure of my own grit and resilience, I was able to achieve mental wellness, allowing me to have a fulfilling family life and a successful career.
My story has a happy ending, but I realized that this was not the case for many others who were battling with adversity and mental illness. I wanted to do something to help women and girls navigate through challenging times, to provide them with tools to build grit and resilience so that they too could find personal success despite their circumstances.These events have brought me to this very specific path, but this is just the beginning.
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 various factors contributing to the stigma of mental illness. From my experience, the most common factors are a lack of education and erroneous belief that are perpetuated.
You cannot discuss something you do not know anything about nor understand. With no education around mental health conditions, it remains a taboo topic; a topic no one really talks about. This particular factor seems to be most prominent among very specific populations, such as low-income people, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. All of these are true for me. I was a low-income immigrant Latina living with mental health conditions I had no idea existed. Neither my family nor I could understand what was happening to me and so my illness went unchecked for a long time.
Furthermore, our society treats mental health lightly. On the one hand, we do not give mental illness the same weight we give heart disease, for example. Instead, we see mental health conditions as a sign of having a weak character and/or a choice an individual makes. On the other hand, we have mental health professionals who are too quick to add a label and prescribe medications that may not be of help to patients. Again, this was true for me. I received treatment that can only be described as ad-hoc but there was no real follow-up that fit my particular needs to ensure progress and safety.
And so both, the lack of education about what mental illness is and the erroneous believes around mental health conditions, create a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
The best way to tackle a taboo topic is by talking about it. And that is exactly what I’m doing. I founded The Gritty Girl where I openly share very personal stories about my battles with adversity, trauma, mental illness, and personal success. I also share tools for building grit and resilience, and, along with mental health professionals and other experts, I curate content for fostering mental wellness. Furthermore, I provide other Gritty Girls a platform to contribute to this topic with their own personal stories of struggle and victory.
My journey with The Gritty Girl has just begun. I am still brainstorming, strategizing, and creating ways in which I could be of service. While I am not a certified mental health professional, I am intimately familiar with the topic of mental wellness. I am carving my way into an area that is quite new to me. I am new to promoting, influencing, and galvanizing others into overcoming their obstacles with mental health conditions and forging their own success stories. The natural next step is to use my experience as a spokesperson and publicist to bring The Gritty Girl’s mission to women and girls in a live setting. I am actively seeking opportunities to speak publicly to audiences that can benefit from the stories and tools I share.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about my story and wondered: all things being equal, why do some of us “make it” while others continue to struggle throughout their entire lives?
Despite the lack of education around the topic of mental illness, I was able to overcome adversity and become a success story rather than a statistic. I realized that my own grit and resilience were the factors that allowed me to better deal with my circumstances, that gave me the ability to gain control of my mental wellness, and that provided me with fulfilling family life and a successful career.
Sadly, this is not the case for many others who suffer from mental health conditions. It occurred to me that my story of beating the odds could help inspire women and girls to build grit and resilience so that they too can be successful because I truly believe that anyone can achieve personal success regardless of their circumstances. This is the reason I embarked on this journey with The Gritty Girl. My goal is to empower others who, much like I did, feel lost but are aching for a better life and for peace of mind.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Funding, awareness and education, tolerance, and compassion are key.
Our government needs to do a better job at funding initiatives that educate the public, and even mental health professionals, on this topic. Creating awareness campaigns around mental health conditions can positively impact everyone, especially communities that would otherwise not have access to resources and aid.
We, as a society, need to help debunk the erroneous beliefs around mental illness so that we can be more tolerant towards those who are suffering. We do this by courageously coming out and talking about this subject more openly, more honestly.
And individuals, in particular, those who suffer from mental illness, need to find more compassion toward themselves. As mental health sufferers, sometimes we subscribe to the same misinformation, stigma, and erroneous beliefs about mental health conditions. We downplay our suffering and in turn, we hurt ourselves deeper. Compassion for one’s self is imperative in the healing process.
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?
I have various strategies I use to promote my own wellbeing. Here are the 6 I’ve found most useful:
1. Participating in Therapy Sessions — finding the right type of therapy and the right fit with a therapist was crucial for me. Over the years I had seen many therapists but had never felt either a connection with these individuals nor did I find the sessions to be of help. That was until seven years ago when I found a psychiatrist who was charismatic, understanding, insightful, and extremely helpful. She educated me and helped me understand my emotions. She also provided me with tools that I use to this day to manage my symptoms.
2. Practicing Mindfulness — before mindfulness became a buzzword, this same therapist introduced me to mindfulness techniques that have been a game-changer for me. I now have a variety of mindfulness exercises that I tap into whenever I need it.
3. Noticing emotions as they appear — this practice is part of my mindfulness toolbox. Where is a particular emotion coming from? How does it make me feel? Do I feel it physically, if so, where? etc.
4. Rational Brain vs. Monkey Brain — instead of allowing a bad feeling to overpower me and blindly reacting on that feeling (the monkey brain), I tap into my rational brain to dissect the feeling and seek out what is true. I’m able to separate a made-up story based on emotions and see the reality based on facts.
5. Yoga — having a regular yoga practice has made me a much calmer person. It’s a moving meditation, a physical exercise, and is literally a breath of fresh air (pranayama).
6. Writing — I’ve found that writing about my trauma has been therapeutic. Yes, it’s challenging and it brings up a lot of buried emotions, but it also takes the weight off my shoulders.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I can’t say that there is a specific resource that inspired me to be a mental health champion. My own experiences with adversity and finding success later in life inspired me to advocate for other women and girls that may be experiencing mental health issues. Having said this, I do gravitate towards memoirs from authors who, like me, have experienced adversity and trauma. A recent memoir I read, which I found to be very profound and empowering is “The Size of Everything” by Erin Cole and Jenna McCarthy. I also listen to Radically Loved, a podcast by Rosie Acosta, a yoga teacher and holistic health coach, who also battled with and overcame depression and anxiety.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
It was my absolute honor. Thank you so much for allowing me to speak about my own experience with mental illness and my work with The Gritty Girl.