One of the ways society can support people with mental illness is to normalize it by recognizing that it’s a spectrum and fluid. What depression means to me might mean anger to you, and chronic fatigue to someone else. And the depression that you experience as a teenager can be vastly different than post-partum depression. It’s really about “mental health” which is something EVERYONE needs to be aware of. Just as society values taking care of our bodies, we need to value taking care of our minds and emotions.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Elena Joy Thurston.
Elena Joy Thurston, a public speaker, activist, and conversion therapy survivor, is changing the mindset surrounding the LGBTQ+ experience. After growing up in a turbulent home, joining a conservative church as a teenager, putting herself through college, marrying, and birthing four beautiful children she realized she was gay. She enrolled herself in gay conversion therapy in an attempt to save her marriage and her place in heaven. The “therapy” had devastating consequences. Self-awareness tools were pivotal in her healing.
Thurston was able to share her story in a TEDx talk that went viral and paved the way for national speaking engagements. She has since begun to use social media to create exposure for her new non-profit, The Pride and Joy Foundation. It is her hope to revolutionize the LGBTQ+ experience by bringing self-awareness into the conversation, for both community members and allies, to spread the idea that when self-awareness is built, safety for marginalized populations increases exponentially.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
My parents are from New England, one from a staunch Catholic background, the other Episcopalian. There was a lot of family tension and drama so they moved to Arizona with their two kids. I was born after that, so I’m a native Arizonan and didn’t really understand the family tension. My parents divorced when I was 8 and life was chaotic. By the time I was 16, friends had introduced me to the Mormon church. I felt like it held all the answers of how to be a good person and have a great family so I jumped right in! My poor parents, here they had moved across the country to get away from religious drama and they turn around to find me in the baptism font!
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
As I have joined the LGBTQ+ community and learned from them, I’ve realized we have a lot of damaged queer adults in the world. Damaged from experiences in childhood and as adults in our society. Now they are trying to raise their own healthy families and the training manual doesn’t exist! It can feel so isolating! At the same time, we have LGBTQ+ youth that are looking for help and support, at risk of becoming damaged themselves. Even if they are lucky enough to have supportive parents, these parents are at a loss at how to best respond when their kids come out to them, and how to support them in loving ways. Our Foundation uses self-awareness as the primary tool to break the damage cycle and build mental health and resiliency for all of them.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Well, that’s a story! So I joined the Mormon church at 16, got married at 20, and ten years later, had four kids. I was 37 when my youngest started school and I realized I didn’t recognize myself or the voice in my head. Instead of being self-aware, I literally tried to run from it. I lost myself in weight lifting and long-distance running, as well as church service, in an effort to “find myself again”. Finally, I was forced to admit that I wasn’t attracted to men and I was fully in love with my best friend.
The horror of this realization pushed me to enroll in conversion therapy. It’s illegal in a few states, but not enough. I had no idea it was a practice never proven to be successful and in fact, it has a 57% suicide rate, which is where I ended up. It took a lot to work through the healing process, including an in-depth study of self-awareness. I never wanted to end up in that place again, having ignored myself and what I wanted for so long that I took desperate measures.
In my healing, I shared my story over and over again. I quickly realized how much it affected people. Queer people of course, but also family members of queer people, and best friends, and aunts and uncles. The fact is that I lived a straight, conservative life for 37 years. I was the minivan mom down the street and it was powerful for my peers to realize that if I’m at risk of losing my life both figuratively and literally, so are they.
I realized that self-awareness (or Emotional Intelligence or Mindfulness, all the same to me) is the universal key for everyone. For straight parents who don’t realize they have internalized homophobia that dictates their interactions with their kids, to the straight-pretending parents who feel completely trapped, to the straight uncle who wants to be that support person to his lesbian niece but has no idea how to do it and feels like a jerk for asking questions.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Honestly, my trigger for starting the Pride and Joy Foundation was the Coronavirus. Up until March of 2020, I had been touring the country speaking to groups about the damage of conversion therapy and why we need to embrace self-awareness so that the demand for it goes away. That fateful month, I had 7 speaking engagements cancel in 24 hours and our world changed.
I was talking to a friend about how frustrated I was and she asked me what happened in the moments right after I spoke. I responded, “Honestly, I usually spend another hour talking to people offstage. Most people literally just want a hug.” And she said “How do you offer that hug after the talk is over?” and it finally clicked!
We needed a way to come together and support each other in family roles. We were all stuck at home, so I couldn’t hug these families in person. Virtual community, it is! Eventually, we will have a yearly summit and even better, a summer camp for LGBTQ families and their allies! Can you even imagine? Spending a week in the pine trees doing arts and crafts and rock climbing with other families that totally get you. Even straight families who just want to intentionally raise their kids to be allies. It’ll be incredible!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
So we’re still in the fledgling stages. But the most interesting thing that’s happened so far would be: we are working with a really amazing artisanal soap maker for a beautiful custom PRIDE soap to sell for our Grand Opening. She just posted the sample photos to her audience, which is huge, much bigger than mine. She called me that night in tears.
Numerous people in her personal community had reached out to her in response. They hadn’t known she was an ally (she’s also a former Mormon) and people that she had known for years came out to her. Others simply shared how someone they loved deeply had been affected by homophobia and exclusion, and how much it meant to them that she was supporting LGBTQ families. Her life opened up in a big way that day and it was really cool to be with her in that moment.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My first year of trying to figure out how to help people with my story, was honestly all about healing. I knew I could make a real difference but I had decades of programming to unlearn. My first business coach was Amber Lilyestrom and she was exactly who I needed. She asked the right questions and helped me get back in touch with my emotions, especially surrounding my worth and if I even “deserved” to be impactful.
I then joined a mastermind group with Catalyst Branding, ran by Jennifer Maggiore. She kicked my butt, in the best way possible! She helped me really refine my message and to see how needed it was. She epitomizes what it means to be an ally and that itself was so good for me to experience. She shows me what allyship in action really looks like. She actually brought up the idea of creating the non-profit months before I finally did it. Once I realized I needed to continue the hug for my audience, it was easy to move forward because the framework had already been created.
My biggest cheerleader is my partner and girlfriend, Kristen. We are still together and co-parenting the four kiddos. She was the very first to say “YES!” when I told her what I wanted to do and even though it’s taken a ton of our personal resources, she’s all in. Whether it’s using our savings to pay for website fees, or making dinner and doing homework alone because I’m doing another podcast interview, she’s a huge reason this is a success.
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 feel a lot of the stigma comes from the American concepts of self-reliance. Get ‘er done. We value independence and grit. We want our heroes to start from the bottom and claw their way to the top. American heroes aren’t in therapy sessions. Our worth is very much grounded in our hustle.
The other side of that coin is religion. When I was struggling with depression and anxiety, the faith community’s response was “Are you reading your scriptures? Are you praying enough? You must not be worthy of God’s blessings right now so do better.” The problem was clearly me and that’s why I spent so much time trying to “fix” myself instead of asking for help.
Luckily I think it’s changing. My dad never asked for help with his depression, only admitting he’s dealt with it his whole life, at age 76. I got into therapy and the needed meds at age 38. My son is a senior in high school and he straight out asked me for therapy and meds if needed. My daughters are 9 and 12 and see a therapist as well. It’s not shameful in our family, it’s considered self-care and healthy.
The fact is that there’s a genetic component, both in mental illness and in what medications are helpful vs harmful. So in the midst of my research of my own issues, I made sure my kids were armed with knowledge so they could be proactive and not reactive to their own mental health.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
One of the best ways we as individuals can support our loved ones with mental illness, is to remove our own bias around it. Ask ourselves the tough questions like “What do I even know about depression? What actually causes it vs. what I think causes it? What was I taught about mental illness vs what do I actually believe?” Once we’re aware of our own story around mental illness, we can be supportive authentically. Whatever we say or do will be true to who we are, which will make it impactful.
One of the ways society can support people with mental illness is to normalize it by recognizing that it’s a spectrum and fluid. What depression means to me might mean anger to you, and chronic fatigue to someone else. And the depression that you experience as a teenager can be vastly different than post-partum depression. It’s really about “mental health” which is something EVERYONE needs to be aware of. Just as society values taking care of our bodies, we need to value taking care of our minds and emotions. Emotional Intelligence is invaluable to our society. Imagine every child growing up in a home with emotionally intelligent adults as parents? Talk about a game-changer.
The government can support those who struggle with mental health, first with supporting holistic care. Insurance will cover my broken arm but not my broken heart or mind? My children (and our society) need my heart and mind a lot more than my arm. Can you imagine if anyone who had the fleeting thought of “I wish I could talk to someone about this and figure out how to communicate my emotions better” could actually do it?
How can we lower the barrier of entry for those wanting to go into social services? My good friend has her bachelor’s degree in nursing and three special needs kids. She wanted to take everything she’s learned in her motherhood and become a psychiatric pediatric nurse practitioner. Do you know how much she could help both parents and children with her background?? But to get that degree is five years and $60k+. She decided to not put her family through that.
How can we offer default therapy to every family in the first five years of parenthood? (not to mention teenage-hood) How can we teach self-awareness skills in schools, starting in kindergarten? Government has the ability to institute all of that change.
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?
My best wellbeing and mental health strategies in no particular order:
- Therapy. I can barely afford it financially but I can’t afford not to. Because of my experience with conversion therapy and suicidal ideation, I will be at risk for the rest of my life. Those tracks in my brain have become well worn grooves. As was told to me recently by a therapist I met at one of my talks, I’m only a survivor until I become a statistic. I have four children that mean the world to me and I will do whatever I need to, to be here for them. Even putting the cost of therapy on a credit card.
- Medications. By the time I finally was put into emergency care, my brain chemistry was seriously off. Like many people, I had the perfect storm of genetics, unresolved childhood trauma, trying to help aging parents while raising my own kids, and lack of self-awareness. All together that meant my problems went undiagnosed for way too long. I’m currently on two daily meds, down from four. I have hope for the day that my other strategies will be enough and I won’t have to take the pills. But if that never happens, I’m just grateful to be here and I’ll take whatever my doctor tells me to.
- Daily Journaling. At the beginning of my divorce, I had to prove to the judge that I was a fit mother in order to share custody of my kids. I began a pretty intense routine of self-care in an effort to prove I took my mental health seriously. That included journaling, meditation, and mindful movement. Every single day. Journaling is powerful because it’s been proven to decrease anxiety and improve memory and focus. I had disengaged from my emotions for decades and journaling helps them come back online.
- Meditation. Yes, I’m the soccer mom who also meditates on her pillow every single day. With apps like Calm and Headspace, meditation is super accessible. I am most effective in my business and life when I meditate. It’s like it finally closes down the 437 tabs that are constantly open in my mind, and gives me moments of total peace and clarity. It’s priceless!
- Movement. I intentionally move my body every day. Because of my past, I wasn’t cleared to go back to running and weight lifting until recently. So for a long time, movement meant daily walks and yoga in my living room. Now I get to do running intervals through the neighborhood and weight lifting in the garage. My son lifts with me and that’s become an incredible time for us, we’re both chasing personal bests. I have a quote on the garage wall, “This is where anxiety goes to die.” And for me it’s so true.
- Talk Time. It’s still really hard for me to figure out what my anxiety triggers are. It’ll be ten o’clock at night and I’ll be pacing the kitchen, unable to figure out what is making my heart race. The next day, I’ll be chatting with my girlfriend and I’ll finally realize that an email I had received the previous day had really upset me. I just really have a hard time figuring out what my emotions are doing and using my words is my best method for figuring it out. Once I’ve made the connection of what’s causing the panic attack, I have strategies to process them. When I am able to recognize a trigger, first I journal, then I talk it out with my people, and then if I still need to, I bring it up in therapy. One pattern I have been able to recognize is the word “should”. If I’m should-ing all over myself or someone else, there’s definitely anxiety (and not self-awareness) at play.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
So many!! I am a mental health media junkie!!
- Okay, first Judgement Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein. One of the hardest books you’ve ever read but holy moly, it’s a game changer.
- When it comes to sexuality (which is hugely impactful on mental health regardless of how you identify) the book Come as you Are by Emily Nagosaki, it will rock.your.world. If you are a woman or like to have sex with women or both, you need this book. Also, you deserve good sex. If no one ever told you that before, I’m telling you now. You deserve great sex. And so do our kids.
- On social media, Glennon Doyle is a prophet. Her newest book, Untamed is freaking amazing.
- When I first came out I read Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. Oh my heart, it literally saved my life. I’ve since become one of her minions. Her new podcast Unraveling Us, is also incredible. She’s just so real!
- Speaking of podcasts, For the Love by Jen Hatmaker is definitely worth a listen. She’s the only religious person I’ve been able to listen to without getting anxiety, and I think it’s because she swears too. 😊
- I am a huge fan of smart comedy for mental health. One of my goals is to literally laugh to tears at least once a week and sometimes I have to turn to media to make that happen. Have you seen the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette on Netflix? She’s literally inventing a new type of comedy and it’s incredibly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
- My personal guru is a guy named Peter Crone. He doesn’t have a book or a podcast so you kind of have to dig to find him, he just barely started an Instagram account. He does a lot of interviews for other people, podcasts and YouTube, and every single one has impacted my life. His ideas of how to live and become self-aware are radically effective. Someday I will thank him in person.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
In our world, visibility is life. Literally. Every single time I am highly visible and vulnerable, either on a podcast or in a post or in a media interview, I receive messages from all corners of the earth. Women have told me that they were just waiting until their kids graduated high school so they could end it, they didn’t know it was possible to embrace lesbianism later in life and have the family still. I hear from kids who have come out to their parents and now they blame themselves because their parents have filed for divorce. I hear from 70-year-old men whose brother took their life 50 years ago and they’ve never felt comfortable talking about it before. It is HARD to be so vulnerable and the hate mail is real. But the impact I have saves lives. Period. Especially my own.
Do you want to impact the world? Get to know yourself, like who you really are, and then go. Be vulnerable, be brave, be visible = change the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
@elenajoyexperience on Instagram
Elena Thurston Experience on Facebook
Elena Joy Thurston on Twitter
Dozens of podcast interviews are out there and my TEDx talk is at http://tedxcos.org/Elena
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!