I’ve wanted to write this for a while. But finding the words—the right words—has proven more difficult than originally anticipated. It’s not that I don’t know what to say. Rather, this is something that’s massively important and hits close to home. Both for me personally, as well as just about everybody alive. In this day and age, I’m betting mental health (or struggles with mental health) have directly affected your life. Whether you realized it or not.

People are suffering. More than you know. According to MentalHealth.gov, here are the stats:

1) One in five American adults have experienced some sort of mental health issue.

2) One in 10 young people have experienced a period of major depression.

3) One in 25 Americans have struggled with a serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

4) Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.

This is literally a life or death situation. That’s why it’s been so hard to find the right words to put on this digital page. There’s so much to be said. So much that needs to be said. And I want to do my best articulate it. To shed light by drawing on my own experience and struggle. To help somebody that’s hurting—even if it’s just one person.

I hope these words prove worthy of that cause.

Why Mental Health Isn’t a Matter of Willpower, Mood, or Attitude

Have you ever had a doctor tap your knee with that weird-looking mallet? The knee-jerk reaction is strange, right? You’re sitting there on the table in the doctor’s office, comfortable and relaxed. Then the smallest tap suddenly sends your leg into action. Without even trying, your foot’s swinging through the air.

It’s a reflex. X leads to Y. In this case, the light tap leads to the knee-jerk reaction. It’s automatic. And it’s a good thing because that’s exactly how your body is supposed to work.

But what if your automatic reactions didn’t work the way they’re supposed to?

Instead of X leading to Y, what if it led to Z? Or A. Or F. Or Q. Reflexes are automatic responses. You can’t simply control or change them. I mean, you can try. But eventually, reflexes win that battle.

Mental health is similarly automatic and impossible to overpower by sheer force of will.

For those affected, it’s the default response—even if it doesn’t make any rational sense. Because honestly, most of the time it doesn’t. Most of the time, there’s no reason to feel crippling anxiety. But people do. Most of the time, there’s no reason to feel crushed under the weight of depression. But people do. Most of the time, there’s no reason to feel any of the debilitating effects that accompany mental health problems. But people do.

Mental health: it matters.

And you can’t will it away. You can’t “fake it ’till you make it.” You can’t just shift your mood or change your attitude. It isn’t that easy. It’s never that easy.

But I haven’t always known this. For years, I tried to will it away, to fake it, and to just be happy. For years, I only made things worse.

Depression and My Own Detrimental Denial

It’s okay to feel sad. Expected, even. Let’s be real, here, life’s hard. It’s rife with disappointment and frustration. Things rarely go as planned. Of course you’ll feel sad. That’s how things should work (X leading to Y).

It’s okay to be sad sometimes. But debilitating depression is another story. That’s when X leads to anything but Y.

For me, it got bad—really bad—during my freshman year in college. Putting it lightly, that was a devastating year. The reasons why are unimportant for the sake of this piece. But rest assured, I was struggling. Hard.

I felt hollow, apathetic, and worthless. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep at night or find a reason to get up in the morning. I felt nothing in the day-to-day and was merely a shell going through the motions of human activity.

I was swimming, deep in depression. But nobody knew. I made sure nobody knew—not even myself.

Back then, I viewed mental health and depression very differently. I think most people did. It was something we all knew about, but mostly avoided. For whatever reason, it was like a sign of weakness. It was as if anybody that felt depressed was just being overly sensitive and needed thicker skin.

That’s why denial seemed much better than being vulnerable enough to admit the truth—to myself or others.

In her TED Talk, Brené Brown says, “For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one: Do not be perceived as […] weak.”

Depressed, ashamed, and in denial, I waited—silently suffering—for my mood to finally match the facade I kept up. It only made things worse.

I faked it, but never made it.

The Vicious Cycle: Feeling Depressed Made Me Feel More Depressed

Logically, there was no reason to feel the way I did. On paper, I had everything going for me. I should have been thrilled about attending my dream school, grateful for my amazing friends, and buoyed up by the support of an incredible family.

But I didn’t feel any of that. I didn’t really feel anything at all. And I hated myself for it.

Every time I felt depressed, I hated myself more. The negative feedback loop and self-talk were both ruthless and unforgiving, making everything worse:

“Who are you to be have this woe-is-me attitude? Do you realize the how many people would give anything to be in your shoes? Yet here you are, wallowing in apathetic depression. How dare you. You have no reason to be sad and every reason to be happy. What’s wrong with you?”

I’d feel sad and depressed, then feel sad and depressed for feeling sad and depressed. The downward spiral had no end. I couldn’t win, so deeper and deeper I fell.

The worst part? There’s no “rock bottom” with mental health. Not in my experience, at least.

Our minds are powerful. When it comes to mental health issues, they’re in control. And when they’ve sent you careening down a bottomless chasm, it feels like there’s no way out.

Suicidal thoughts—or worse, intent—aren’t a byproduct of hitting rock bottom, they’re a byproduct of feeling stuck in a perpetual state of worsening misery. It’s a sad reality that it feels like there’s only one sure-fire escape. But when things are that bad, it’s impossible to avoid the thought—even if there’s zero intent.

I’ve been there.

I’ve felt things get worse and worse. I’ve felt the weight of my own negativity pulling me down. I’ve felt the hopelessness—the anguish—that accompanies mental health problems. I’ve felt like there’s no escape.

But there’s always a way out. Always.

Recovering My Mental Health

It’s important to note that the road to recovery never really ends. You never really make it to a point of immunity or inoculation. With the right trigger, mental health problems can episodically rear their ugly head at any time. But the magic of recovering lies in developing the resiliency to better handle things when it does.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. After silently suffering for far too long, I finally did.

I gave myself permission to accept the reality of the situation. I was depressed. After that, I also confided in a friend. Actually, to call Alden Simmons a friend cheapens the true depth of our relationship. He was, is, and always will be my brother. I’m forever grateful for the support he offered. Support I desperately needed.

Soon enough, I started meeting with a therapist and had a prescription for antidepressants. After years of denial and deepening depression, both were long overdue.

But there was a problem—I didn’t feel different. Which, sadly, was depressing in and of itself. (Cue negative feedback loop.)

Now, it’d be unfair if I didn’t give Ann Broadbent, my first counselor, the credit she deserves (which is a ton, by the way). She helped me unpack deep pain at the root of my poor mental health. Pain I had spent years avoiding. This was paramount. Without it, I never would have been able to work through everything.

It helped. But I didn’t feel any different.

For me, neither therapy nor prescription meds seemed to work. We even tried several different antidepressants in an effort to find something that made a difference. None did anything significant. After several, I settled on one but felt more or less the same.

Important note: Just because I didn’t respond to therapy or medication is not reason for anyone to avoid either. They exist for a reason and offer relief. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t pull out all the stops in your own battle with mental health. And like I said, they did help. I simply needed more. If you’re wondering whether or not to see a therapist or doctor, the answer is probably yes.

Things continued feeling mostly similar until I found a couple strategies that, for me, made more of a difference with my mental health than any sort of counseling or prescription ever did.

The Two Things That Made (and Still Make) the Biggest Difference for My Mental Health

Neither of these are any sort quick fix or life hack. In truth, they probably wouldn’t have led to such life-changing effects if I hadn’t first sought help from professionals. They set the stage so that these principles could make a lasting impact.

The biggest reason why they made such a noticeable difference is also a simple one: I had control. Therapy and medicine helped, but both felt like they were largely out of my control.

I’d go in and talk with a therapist (thanks to moving a couple times, I had a few), but leave without tools or action steps that I could take to improve how I felt. Most times, I’d leave the office feeling even worse than when I walked in.

Maybe it’s simply because I never found the right therapist, but therapy never helped me feel better.

The meds didn’t seem to help either. And I had even less control over those. The doctors did their best to write the right prescriptions, but it felt like it was mostly guess and check. Plus, the way my body and mind responded to the medication was completely out of my hands.

Maybe it’s simply because I never found the right antidepressant, but meds never helped me feel better.

Aside from keeping my appointments and taking my pills, it felt like a lot of sitting back, waiting, and hoping for the best.

But the best wasn’t coming.

I wanted a more active role in my recovery process. Apparently, I needed one too. As soon as I started taking initiative with the things I could control, my mental health began to improve in leaps and bounds.

Here’s what has consistently helped me the most:

1. Doing Something Kind for Others

Tony Robbins says that suffering comes from a focus on yourself. To snap out of it, find a way to give more.

Right next to raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, helping people is one of my favorite things. This is exactly why. I get way more than I give when it comes to being kind. Plus, the recipient gets a lil somethin’ somethin’ too. Everybody wins.

And it doesn’t matter what it is, something as simple as a smile can be contagious. The smallest things have potential to make a day—even if it’s yours instead of theirs.

Simple acts of kindness are more selfish than selfless.

A few of my favorites? Genuinely complimenting complete strangers, striking up conversations with the cashier at checkout, and hearty hellos when I see someone I know.

Whenever I do something kind for somebody—anybody—I feel good. Every. Single. Time. And the effects are instantaneous.

Genuine kindness and meaningful happiness are directly related.

2. Doing Something Fitnessy for Myself

Here’s a fact: Exercise gives you endorphins. Here’s another: Endorphins make you happy.

Which is great, but it has nothing to do with why I count on fitness helps to improve my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, I like an endorphin high as much as the next guy. But this is about more than that.

It’s not about the confidence that often comes with being fit either. As a formerly self-conscious chubster, I know exactly what it’s like to feel comfortable in your own skin for the first time. It’s amazing. Life-changing. But this is about more than that.

This is about more than feel-good chemicals. More than toned arms and tight abs. And more than feeling that special brand of fitness-inspired confidence.

This is about doing hard things.

Life’s hard. It’s a fantastic ride full of fun adventures, but it’s hard. Good news, though, you can do hard things. We all can.

The gym serves as a training ground for confronting and conquering hard things.

Fitness mirrors the human experience—it’s hard, a bit of a crazy ride, and can be all kinds of fun. As such, training transcends the physical result. You’re working a lot more than your muscles in the gym. You’re training resiliency, strength of mind, and your capacity to do hard things.

With that, you’re better equipped to face anything life can throw your way.

Mental Health: It’s Why I Do What I Do

I’m a fitness professional. I enjoy helping people lose fat, gain muscle, and get stronger. I’m thrilled as I watch people set and reach lofty goals. And I love seeing the people I work with transform. But none of that is why I do it.

Fitness completely changed my life. I do what I do to help other people experience the same sort of transformation.

And I love what I do. It makes me feel good. Coaching takes the two things that have always helped me feel happy, combines them, and turns them into a career.

For me, being a great coach isn’t about the weights and plates, bars and bells, arms and abs. It’s about something that matters so much more. It’s about mental health.

The testimonials that really hit me in the feels are the ones that tell me about the positive effect my coaching has had on their mental health. At that point, everything else is just awesome cherry on top.

Fitness goals matter. But mental health matters more. And that’s why I do what I do.

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