I take the time I need. We live in a society where we are constantly connected to others, and when discussing mental health people can associate “being alone” with the negative connotation of isolation. This isn’t always true. Sometimes we do need time to ourselves to relax and reset, and that’s okay. The important thing is knowing when it will be beneficial to our mental health and when it can be detrimental.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Brandon Novak. He is a former professional skateboarder, film and television star, and New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Dreamseller. He is also a person in long-term recovery from addiction, and an advocate for addiction and mental health treatment resources in America. He currently serves as a Community Outreach Representative for Banyan Treatment Center and travels the country as a recovery speaker. Brandon speaks at community events, schools, fundraisers, and in the media to help raise awareness and break the stigma that is associated with addiction and mental health disorders.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mypersonal experience with addiction and mental health is what led me to the point I’m at today. Many people may recognize my name; I was a professional skateboarder traveling the world with Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek by the age of fifteen and I starred in the legendary CKY video series with the Powell-Peralta skate team. I was the first professional skateboarder to ever be endorsed by Gatorade and appeared in commercials alongside NBA star Michael Jordan. I also starred in the infamous MTV Jackass movie series and on the hit television show Viva La Bam. By my early twenties, I had reached multi-millionaire status. But I also struggled with addiction and mental health issues for that entire time.
Eventually, I became hooked on heroin and lost everything that I had worked so hard for. I ended up homeless on the streets of Baltimore, in and out of inpatient treatment centers. It took me thirteen stays in treatment before I finally got sober. Now I have more than three years clean, and I put everything I have into helping others who are still struggling with the same issues that I faced. I take every opportunity I can to help the next person who is struggling to find recovery. I put my phone number out there so that anyone who needs it can reach out to me for help directly. I know that I can’t recover from addiction or issues with mental health alone and that others can’t either. When people call me I answer, and I tell people “let’s figure this out together.” I’m connected with resources all over the country and I make sure that people get linked up with the help they need. Now I work with one of the leading addiction and mental health treatment centers in the country, Banyan Treatment Center. They have locations all over. They have a primary mental health program that treats people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and lots of other issues. They also offer a full continuum of care for addiction treatment, and really help people get back on their feet. Anyone can call me at any time; my phone number is (610)546–2608. If I don’t pick up, someone else will and I will always get back to them as soon as I possibly can so that no call for help ever goes unanswered.
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?
I think that there’s still a stigma surrounding mental health issues due to the lack of open conversation regarding the topic. We haven’t normalized it enough yet and we haven’t made people feel comfortable enough to come forward and ask for help. They’re still scared of what people will think of them, how they’ll be seen, etc. These are the things that we as a society as a whole need to work on.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I want to make mental health and addiction more of a conversation. I want it to be something that people discuss at the dinner table. We need to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay. I encourage them to come forward and I try to make people feel comfortable asking for help. People need to know that they are worth the help and that they deserve it, and they need to feel like people care. That they can get better. Nine times out of ten, when people call me they say, “Novak, if you can get better, then I can too.” At the height of my struggles, I was deemed unfixable. My mother had bought me a cemetery plot because she thought I was going to die.
I had been in so many treatment centers that everyone just thought I would never recover. I lost everything I had. But here I am, more than three years later with continuous recovery. I’m employed now. I’m a homeowner. I’m responsible, and I’m helping others. Now I spend my time traveling the country speaking about addiction and mental health. I now know that my personal experience can help others. I speak at events, at schools, in prisons, and to patients who are currently in treatment centers, sitting exactly where I once sat. I know what they’re going through first hand, and I relate to them. I make sure that they know that they aren’t alone. I educate parents, speak with government officials and law enforcement officers, and hold free community forums for people to come together and discuss these issues so that I can raise awareness of the resources that are available to those who need them, and also to their family members and loved ones. Most importantly, I encourage people to call me on my cellphone if they’re looking for help.
I’m also working with my employer, Banyan Treatment Center, on the new initiative #BeTheLight. The initiative is designed to shed a light on mental health and to help break the stigma that so often comes with it. For someone struggling with depression, or anxiety, the world can seem like a dark place. They feel alone, and they feel hopeless. Just how a candle brings light to a dark room, we need to bring that same warmth to people who are in their darkest hours. I know that access to treatment needs to improve. I know that there are people who may not be able to afford the resources they need. So, we started a scholarship program called Roots to Recovery. Anyone who is in need of addiction treatment, who doesn’t have insurance or financial means, can apply on our website www.banyantreatmentcenter.com. The candles that we sell on our website with the hashtag #BeTheLight go to benefit this scholarship. Every sale goes towards helping someone who is in need of treatment. My hope is that even if people can’t buy a candle that they use the hashtag on social media, let people know that there are free scholarships available, and encourage people to start talking about these issues.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
The story behind #BeTheLight and Roots to Recovery are pretty straightforward. We know that there’s a need for mental health and addiction treatment resources, and I know that people can’t always find these resources even when they are looking for them. I want to help expand access to treatment and not only that, but I want to help open up a dialogue surrounding these issues. Without national attention, the stigma won’t ever be broken. Until people, lots of people, start talking about this sort of thing out in the open on public platforms those who are struggling won’t feel comfortable coming forward. And we need to change that. People need to know that they can come forward and that there are people who are waiting to help them. I’m waiting to help them.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals, society, and the government all need to do the same thing and it’s the easiest thing to do, though it can often seem like the hardest. The most important thing is just to talk about mental health. To talk about addiction. To talk about the resources that are available. We’ve hidden in the shadows for too long. It’s time to open up, to say “I’m struggling,” “I’ve struggled,” and “It’s okay.” We lose people every single day to mental health and addiction. More than 72,000 people last year alone died of fatal drug overdoses. There isn’t a single person who can honestly say that they haven’t been affected by mental health or addiction, or know someone who has. We need to realize that those who are recovering from addiction and mental health aren’t “Bad people trying to be good,” they are “Sick people who are trying to get well.” We also need to make treatment more accessible to those who need it. Not only do we need to make the resources that do exist more visible so that people can find them more easily when they’re looking, but we need to expand upon and improve these resources. There should never be a waitlist for someone to get into treatment.
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?
The things I do to promote my own wellbeing are the same things that I suggest to others:
1. I help others who are struggling. This might seem like something I am doing for them, but it is something that I am doing for me too. I can’t keep what I have unless I give it away. The whole purpose behind recovery is to spread the message of hope and to help the next person to recover.
2. I ask for help when I need it. I know that I can’t do this alone, and no one else can or should have to either.
3. I participate in a 12 Step fellowship. There are many, and I encourage people who are seeking recovery to find one that works for them. There are even fellowships for those whose loved ones struggle and need the support of other families who have gone through the same thing.
4. I stand behind what I believe in. Again, this isn’t something many people may think of in terms of promoting mental wellness, but to live with conviction and authenticity is something that genuinely makes me feel good.
5. I take the time I need. We live in a society where we are constantly connected to others, and when discussing mental health people can associate “being alone” with the negative connotation of isolation. This isn’t always true. Sometimes we do need time to ourselves to relax and reset, and that’s okay. The important thing is knowing when it will be beneficial to our mental health and when it can be detrimental.
6. I get involved. This is another thing that might seem like it benefits other people rather than myself, but there’s the saying “it takes a village” and it’s so true. The more I get involved in the community, the fellowship, and so on, the more people I have around me when I need someone to lean on. I’ve built a network and a support system for myself, which ensures that I am able to remain in recovery. The most important thing to realize is that we cannot do this alone.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
You can follow my employer, Banyan Treatment Center, on social media. They are one of the leading treatment centers in the country and regularly publish blogs, share resources, and encourage discussion on their pages. On my public Facebook page there is a list of community events that I am involved with or speaking at that are located all over the country, so no matter where you are you can find a recovery event near you. Additionally, there are plenty of recovery-centered sites and publications out there; Keys to Recovery Newspaper, TheFix.com, The National Alliance for Mental Health (www.NAMI.org), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.SAMHSA.gov ) are all great resources.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!