Meet Julie Hersh, a Dallas-based author/speaker who is opening up the conversation about depression and suicide and how to protect your brain from mental illness. An outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, Hersh writes about her bout with mental illness in Struck by Living: From Depression to Hope. Published in April of 2010, Struck by Living is already in reprint and soon to be released in Spanish as Decidi Vivir. Hersh has been featured on Fox and Friends, PBS (KERA Think! with Krys Boyd), Dallas Morning News and numerous radio programs. She has shared her upbeat message in more than 100 talks. Her down to earth style makes the difficult topics of depression and suicide easier to discuss. Mental Health America of Greater Dallas awarded her the Ruth Altschuler Prism Award for her advocacy in mental health.
Hersh is sharing her story of recovery to encourage others to seek help and support brain health, early on. Her Struck by Living blog is featured on the Psychology Today website. Hersh is also active in civic service. She is a board member of the UT Southwestern Medical Foundation, a member of the Undergraduate Advisory Experience Council at the University of Notre Dame, participant on the International Society of ECT and Neurostimulation Patient Advisory Council, and on the advisory board for advisory board for UT Southwestern Depression Center and CONTACT. She is also an active supporter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A longtime supporter of the arts, Hersh is also a trustee for the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Museum of Art. We wanted to know more about Hersh and Struck by Living and she was kind enough to answer a few questions:
Dawn Tongish: Can you share some details of your personal journey to wellness?
Julie Hersh: In 2001, I went through a major depressive episode that resulted in three suicide attempts. In a period of about nine months I tried medication, psychotherapy, acupuncture, prayer and the spiral only escalated. Finally I had electroconvulsive therapy ECT and the results were miraculous. Nothing in my life had changed. I had the same children, husband and life, yet I felt 180 degrees differently. I felt better, but knew if I did not understand why the depression started, I was doomed to repeat the process. After about four years of psychotherapy and a lot of life changes, I feel like I know my tendencies better and can avoid depression. I still take a small amount of medication daily and practice my “Top Ten” list as best I can. Health isn’t a fixed position, but a state of balance I try to maintain. If I get thrown off, I just go back to my list and try to regain balance.
DT: Tell us about about Struck by Living and translating it to Spanish as Decidí Vivir.
JH: I published Struck by Living in 2010 and the response has been extraordinary. People from all over the world, of all ages, races and economic levels have contacted me to tell me the book spoke directly to them and helped them. Some of these people are or have been depressed themselves, others have used the book as a guide for how to help a depressed loved one. Sometimes this is pretty comical. One time a fully tattooed and pierced teenager told me the book felt like I was writing about her. Hard to imagine that a story about a 40ish soccer mom could serve as a mirror for this teen, but it did. Depression crosses all sorts of boundaries. The book has exposed me to stories of others that have left me in awe. People finish my story and feel compelled to tell me theirs. That’s a gift. One person who did this is Jorge Correa, a Chilean native who lives in Dallas. His wife Patricia was in Zale Lipshy suffering from depression, the same hospital where I received ECT. Jorge’s son heard me on “Think!” with Krys Boyd on KERA and told his father to read to Struck by Living. Jorge did. He felt Patricia would understand the book better in her native Spanish, so he translated it to her page by page in the hospital. When Jorge contacted me via email on my website, he realized that our son Daniel went to St. Marks, the same school where he taught. I mentioned it might be nice to have a Spanish version of the book, and Jorge translated it over the next 3 years. Jorge wanted to have another Spanish speaking person proof the book, so I called upon my friends Monica and Emilio Pimentel who are originally from Mexico City. Emilio explained that Mexican Spanish is different than Chilean Spanish, so we Mexicanized the book to reach a broader audience. Monica and Emilio jokingly called themselves “The Trashlators.” Another Mexican born Dallasite, Ramir Camu, designed the cover.
DT: Why did you come up with your list of Top 10 tips for Mental Health Brain Protection for adults and which one is the most challenging for you?
JH: When I first started on book tour, I decided it was too depressing to just talk about my depression. I came up with a Struck by Living Top Six (liked the alliteration). As I learned more and my husband pointed out that my first point of health actually had three points in it (Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition), it evolved into a Top Ten. I try to stress that this is not a prescriptive list, but hopefully one that will inspire. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, just a person who has learned from her own experience and research. At different points in my life, I anticipate that this list will be different. I have a Top Ten for College Students that I developed because I was frequently speaking with students at the University of Notre Dame (Struck by Living is being used as a text in a course there, so I try to visit once a semester and talk to the class). My first depressive break was as a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. Knowing what I know now about my own body and depression, I made a list of what I would have done differently as a college freshman to avoid depression. The lists overlap, but there are different points of emphasis. I encourage everyone to develop his/her own list for health. Every brain and body is different, so the same tactics for health will vary from person to person.
DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experiences as an author and speaker?
JH: There have been many. In 2012, I gave a talk where students from four different colleges converged for a “Walk for Hope.” They walked from different points all wearing a t-shirt of the color representing their school. It was about 800 students total – very fun event. Good to see so many young people engaged about this topic.But the most powerful are the individual stories. I had one businessman tell me he had a plan to end his life on a particular Monday. He got a copy of my book on the preceding Friday, read it, and abandoned his plan for suicide. I had a mother of three who had a violent suicide attempt tell me that the book gave her courage to have ECT. She’s now completely fine. I just met Patricia, Jorge’s (the translator) wife this week. She told me how comforting it was to read the book, look up and see a room that I described at Zale Lipshy. Jorge said that my husband Ken’s example in the book transformed how he approached Patricia’s depression. Instead of hiding her illness, he opened up to family and friends. They helped him. There are many more, but those are a few of my favorites.
DT: What keeps you inspired in the area of mental health?
JH: When I see people get better. People can and will recover, they just need to find the right treatment and life combination to get them there.
DT: Do you believe there will be a time when mental illness is perceived in society like any other ailment of the body?
JH: I hope so, but we have a long way to go. Right now we can’t see mental illness, and humans don’t do well with diseases they can’t see. Mental illness is about the same phase as infectious disease was in the early 1800s. There was a man named Ignaz Semmelweis who proved the life-saving impact of sanitation in a maternity ward. He obtained ramatic decreases in mortality by just washing hands. The other doctors, delivering babies in their macho-bloody (from other people’s surgeries) surgical gowns, laughed Seemelweis out of the profession and into an insane asylum. It took over 50 years before the medical community acknowledged the benefits of sanitation in surgery and began sterilizing instruments. I hope mental health does not take that long. When we finally make the connection between sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress and mental illness, we will begin to make real progress. Right now most people do not equate their behavior to impact on their brains.
DT: Do real-life stories like Struck by Living, and the tragic loss of a beloved entertainer like Robin Williams serve as wake up calls that mental illness needs to be addressed, talked about more?
JH: My concern with just talking about suicide is the focus is in a place which will never allow us to get ahead of the disease. Imagine a world where we focused all the energy on heart surgery, but did not educate people about the impact of smoking, lack of exercise and stress on their hearts. I would rather educate everyone on brain health before suicide is even a thought. College counseling offices are overrun with students needing help. We need to be teaching brain care as diligently as we teach dental care. Think about it, every kid knows about cavities and how to prevent them, but how many understand how to maintain mental health? We have to do a better job in prevention as opposed to reacting mental illness. As Dr. Kenneth Cooper says: “It is much easier to maintain good health than regain it once it is lost.” That maxim applies to the brain, just like any other organ in the body.
If you'd like to nominate a local resident for a BubbleLife community profile, contact Dawn Tongish at email@example.com or find her on Twitter at @DawnTongish.