Pilot reporters get personal, continue conversation about mental health

Lisa Schlichtman: Talking about mental health has the power to heal

Steamboat Pilot & Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman and her dog Pilot.

Mental health is not easy to talk about, especially in a community like Steamboat Springs. It’s easy for people to falsely believe they shouldn’t feel anything but blessed to be living in a place that many of us moved to because we thought it was paradise.

When the Steamboat Pilot & Today news team decided to pursue a series on mental health, we realized it might be difficult to find people who were willing to talk about their illness, and we wondered how the community would respond to our reporting on issues that make many people feel uncomfortable.

But now, as the series concludes, I’ve come to the realization that our timing was perfect. The pandemic was a great equalizer, and I don’t know anyone who wasn’t affected by the isolation, uncertainty and fear COVID-19 introduced into our lives. And as a result, many in the community seemed to be more open to engaging with our reporting, participating in the #Move4MentalHealth campaign and joining a conversation about mental health.

For me, talking about mental health struggles has the power to heal; it helps take away the shame and allows people to discover there are others who might be experiencing what they are, and through that connection, they no longer feel like they’re alone.

Over the years, I have struggled with several issues that impact my mental health — anxiety, which I like to call worry, as well as some sadness, which was suddenly amplified following the death of my husband, Mike, in a plane crash last fall. My grief journey is a story that’s still unfolding, and some days, it takes every ounce of my energy to get out of the bed in the morning and start another day without Mike.

Addiction is another issue my family has dealt with for generations. I am not an alcoholic, but I am the child of an alcoholic, and it took me years to realize the effect that had on my mental health. It also made me realize how detrimental it can be when people separate mental health from physical health and somehow classify mental illness, including substance use disorder, as something that should be handled differently than if someone was battling a physical illness, like cancer or diabetes.

I have learned through counseling, support groups and books, like “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie, that alcoholism is a disease. It’s not a sin, it’s not a moral failing, and it’s not a matter of will power. It’s also not my fault that someone I love chooses to drink even if it’s destroying their life and our relationship.

Alcoholism is an illness that must be treated, and recovery is a lifelong commitment. Some of the strongest people I know are those who are battling addiction and doing the daily work it takes to stay sober.

Working on this series has made me bolder when it comes to sharing my struggles, and I was inspired by six new heroes in my life: Mac Stilec, Andrew Stenehjem, Trevor “Apple” Mekelburg, Suzi Mitchell, Makena James and Chelsie Holmes. These brave individuals were the subjects of the weekly “Into the Light” profiles I had the privilege of writing, and their willingness to put themselves out there and talk about their own mental health battle was life changing for me and live saving for others.

The purpose of our “Out of the Shadows” reporting project was to shine a light on mental health in Routt County and get people talking to destigmatize the topic and spur positive community change. I think we have achieved that, and I’m incredibly proud of the work the Pilot & Today news team has done. It’s quality, impactful journalism, and it was accomplished by a lean team who also worked hard to publish a newspaper each day.

This type of reporting has a way of also changing the journalists involved in the project, and below, you’ll find personal essays written by some members of the Pilot & Today team who share how the series made an impact on their lives. So keep reading.

Alison Berg: Sharing personal stories builds 2-way trust

I was always the “good kid” growing up. I came from a very religious family, got good grades and was involved in school.

All of that changed when I was 19 years old and found myself locked in a jail cell. The offense was something silly — it’s never barred me from employment and is legal in more than half of the country — but the experience was one I think about every single day.

I dealt with a very traumatic experience in my first month of college. As trauma often does, it completely pulled me out of reality, and I had no idea where to turn, so I turned to something I thought could help: drugs and alcohol.

I was only in jail for a weekend, but every person I met that weekend shared a similar story — some form of trauma or pre-existing mental health condition, followed by addiction, a petty crime and then jail. Most were repeat offenders for crimes involving drugs. Most started using drugs after losing a job or being the victim of abuse.

In a place like Routt County, where everyone is seemingly so happy and life is perfect, it can be easy to sweep hard conversations about mental illness and addiction under the rug beneath the beautiful mountains, rivers and blue skies. But these issues exist here just as much, if not more so, than they do anywhere else.

When I was asked to write about mental health and the criminal justice system, I felt it was really important to talk to people who are hurt most by addiction and the criminal justice system. These people are often overlooked or pushed to the side by society, and I think, as journalists, it’s important that we treat them with the same level of respect we would show elected officials, business owners or anyone else — as people with important stories to share.

While the two men I spoke with had different experiences that led them to homelessness, the themes were similar: Both struggled with mental illness and had cycled through the criminal justice system over and over again and never truly got the help they needed.

While the defense attorneys, police officers and prosecutors had differing opinions on the solution, they all agreed on the problem — societal issues have been forced into the criminal justice system, and the justice system hasn’t been given adequate tools to handle those issues.

People don’t just wake up and decide to use drugs or commit crimes. Trauma, poverty and a lack of mental health support lead some to make the choices they do. Federal and state government haven’t adequately funded mental health resources, so people who can’t afford therapy or rehab often wind up in jail.

While I was in jail, I told my cellmate about my own traumatic experience, and she told me to “go get help or you’ll end up back here.” I was incredibly fortunate to have been in a place where I could afford therapy.

I thought for a long time about whether or not I wanted to share such a vulnerable part of my life publicly, knowing that those who view me as a professional will be reading it, but I ask members of this community every day to share their vulnerable moments with me, and I think it’s only fair that we, as journalists, humanize ourselves and trust the community with our personal stories the way we expect them to trust us.

Dylan Anderson: Reporting about addiction leads to self-reflection

Steamboat Pilot & Today Reporter Dylan Anderson

On one of my first nights in town, I heard the phrase, “Steamboat is a drinking town with a skiing problem.”

A bartender and I were chatting, and after he asked who wrote the horoscopes that appear in the Steamboat Pilot & Today, he said the phrase.

It didn’t strike me as much then, just a jokey saying about a town.

Fast forward to this spring when the news team started to work on “Out of the Shadows.” I reported the part about addiction, and those words popped back up in my mind.

Outside of D.A.R.E. programs in middle school and high school, I admittedly didn’t know much about substance use disorder or what resources were available, even though addiction has affected several family members.

One thing I stressed in meetings was that we should try to walk people through the process of seeking help when possible, because when I tried to think about what I would do if seeking help, I had no idea where to start. Daunting was a word that often came up to describe the process.

As I learned more about addiction, I couldn’t help but think about it in the context of my own substance use. Seeing how few drinks qualify as binge drinking makes you think about the nights when you probably drank too much.

I also wanted to know how addiction can be different to deal with in ski towns like Steamboat, and I asked everyone I talked to about their thoughts on the “drinking town, ski problem” phrase. While addiction is a much broader problem than just Steamboat, they repeatedly said the culture of the town makes it harder to get and stay sober.

Again, I evaluated my own experience. While my social life hasn’t flourished during the pandemic in Steamboat, I would estimate almost everything I have done with other people has involved drinking.

I rarely go out with friends without it being at a bar or brewery. I have a beer koozie that goes around my neck when fly fishing, and I’ve perfected my strategy to keep a beer cold until I reach the summit of a hike.

Drinking is a large part of the social scene in Steamboat, and I have lived that firsthand. When talking with people in recovery, they frequently said they needed to find new outlets, make new friends and change how they celebrated holidays when they got sober.

There are a lot of people working to reset the narrative of Steamboat as a party town. They want to increase services for people dealing with addiction, make the community more welcoming to those in recovery and make a sober lifestyle more normalized.

Again, that is a daunting task. But if I learned one thing from people in recovery while reporting this story, it certainly is not impossible.

Shelby Reardon: Making mindful changes

Shelby Reardon

Normally, I don’t have this much trouble starting a column. Usually, I begin like I’m having a conversation with someone. But we don’t generally have conversations about mental health.

That’s the whole reason the Steamboat Pilot & Today felt this series was important: We need to talk about mental health challenges because they are everywhere.

I am proud to have helped start these conversations by contributing to the series, but it’s up to the community to keep the dialogue going. I’m sure there are people who still may not feel comfortable talking about their struggles, but I hope this series inspired them to silently make some changes. I know I have.

I have never been more aware of how much alcohol I drink than now. In Steamboat Springs, it’s so easy to have a drink every night of the week. After volleyball Thursday night, we gather and drink. We have dinner with someone, we drink.

I decided I didn’t like that. Something about realizing I had a drink the past six nights made me feel dirty. I’m not holding myself to a strict schedule, but I’m trying not to drink during the week. I hate saying it’s not easy ordering a lemonade over a beer when some people genuinely struggle with that choice. It is a weird experience, though, going out to a brewery with friends who order beer and not getting one. I can’t imagine the pressure and discomfort someone in recovery feels.

I know my actions aren’t shattering the stigma around sobriety, but maybe it’ll make ordering a nonalcoholic drink a little more normal. Maybe it’ll make my circle of friends a little more aware of their alcohol intake. Perhaps they won’t question the next time a friend or family member opts for a soda rather than a glass of wine.

Around the holidays last winter, I started feeling overwhelmed, unproductive and unhappy with what I accomplished each day. We were renovating a new place and preparing for a move. My heat went out in my current apartment, I was financially stressed while trying to buy gifts, and the pandemic was finally catching up with my self-motivation and productivity. Even my boss, Lisa, picked up on this down phase of mine, something we talked about during a spring one-on-one meeting.

I listened to an Ologies episode called “Awesomeology with Neil Pasricha.” Pasricha and host Alie Ward talked about journaling and how it has the power to rewire your brain. So I started journaling in December and have written down three things that brought me joy nearly every night since.

Turns out, journaling really works. Every night, I reflect and consider what brought me joy. No matter how frustrating or exhausting the day, I end it by thinking of three delightful things.

Months into this, my brain has been trained to find small joys rather than lamenting on a major downfall of the day.

Journaling and a run can’t solve our deeper traumas or serious mental health challenges, though. We should feel as comfortable asking for help with our mental health as we do asking for help with our physical health.

Starting that first sentence is difficult, but each comes more easily than the last.

Kari Harden: Talking about suicide is important

Throughout the course of my interviews and research, suicide got a lot easier to talk about. At first, it felt like a rock in my throat — something I felt uncomfortable even bringing up.

I thought a lot about the experiences of suicide in my own family and my life and asked questions of my family members I never had before.

When I talked with others about this series, I found that many people do want to talk about it and share their stories.

I thought a lot about Gretchen Sehler and felt pained by her pain but remain in awe of her strength and her courage to share.

I thought about suicide a lot. And it was hard. And dark. I vividly pictured the suicides of people I know and the people who shared stories with me during the course of my reporting. I thought about what they might have been thinking and feeling in their last moments. I thought about the people who found them and the people they left behind.

I’ve tackled a lot of tough topics in my career as a reporter, but nothing quite like this — nothing with so much social taboo. These stories aren’t easy to read or write. But I am so grateful for an editor and colleagues determined to take on this topic and readers willing to continue the conversation.

It is sad and scary subject matter, but I really think we all need to spend more time thinking and talking about suicide and thoughts of suicide. Because something in my brain changed when I talked and thought about it more — it felt less prohibited, less scary and more acceptable as something that is part of being human and something that impacts a lot of people. And it’s not just talking. It also can be opening the door to helping people feel better and maybe even saving lives.

I evaluated where I fall on a spectrum of suicidal thoughts. Have I ever thought what it would be like to end it all? To swerve into oncoming traffic? Yes — for maybe an instant. To end something that feels too hard to deal with in that moment. … Haven’t a lot of us?

But is it an option always on the table for me? No. Not ever, really. I don’t think I could ever do it. I’m terrified of death.

In thinking about “life preservers” that keep us afloat, I now have two tiny humans totally dependent on me. They keep me too busy and add too much joy to let my more depressive thoughts gain ground. For that, I feel very grateful. And for my wonderful family and friends, especially over the past year of unprecedented challenges and changes for all of us, which is a good reminder of the power of practicing gratitude — a potent nonpharmaceutical antidote.

I feel lucky that I don’t have the challenges faced by some people, but I also want to get more honest with myself — about the parts of me that might be considered a little “neurodivergent.”

The biggest takeaway, which I heard over and over and what I experienced myself, is that we all need to get more comfortable talking about mental health, mental illness and everything that goes along with it.

So that’s why I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is and talk about my own struggles, even though I really don’t want to. And we need to be willing to ask others, “How are you?” and then take the time to really listen to their answer.

Mackenzie Hicks: There’s no shame in admitting you’re not OK

Mackenzie Hicks

I went to therapy for the first time when I was a sophomore in college. I was juggling 19 hours of coursework, and I was learning quickly that journalism is vastly different than creative writing. I was used to doing well in school without too much struggle, but I was barely pulling a C in my second year of Italian, and I was barely holding my head above water in my first official reporting class.

The pressure to succeed at all cost — pressure I placed on myself — had turned me into a walking, crying, meltdown mess. My mom finally called my closest friend at school, and she gave my mom the name of her therapist. I had my first panic attack the day of my appointment after getting lost on my way to the therapist’s office.

I had never given much thought to therapy before then. I struggled in high school emotionally, but doesn’t everyone? I made good grades and had a few friends. I didn’t party. I was what most would classify “a good kid.” But I put myself under immense pressure to have top grades, get into a good college and, probably the most problematic, be liked by everyone. My first therapist would tell me I was a classic people pleaser, who also happened to have extreme social anxiety. People can’t dislike you if you blend into the background.

Therapy turned out to be the best thing I could have done for myself. It forced me to examine those issues and confront them. One great story is about me throwing pennies in various places on campus and picking up every single one while my therapist watched. It was a way for me to break my social anxiety, because, yes, I was too embarrassed to pick up dropped change. Now, I pick up every penny, dropped by myself or not.

Working on the “Out of the Shadows” series helped me realize I was back in a place where I needed help, and instead of not knowing how to ask, it encouraged me to talk to a co-worker/friend about it. Normalizing the discussion of mental health issues is so important for us as a society. There should be no shame in admitting you’re not OK. There’s a lot of societal pressure to be happy and enjoy life and just be thankful because it could always be worse, but honestly, it’s OK to admit things just kind of suck.

I was so inspired by everyone who came forward to tell their stories. It takes so much strength to stand up and share your mental health journey, because it is a journey. I’m so thankful to everyone who participated in #Move4MentalHealth as well. I was able to share personal stories with complete strangers and feel like I was finally a part of a group in Steamboat Springs outside of work. I had to step away after the first couple of weeks, because I had to take the first step back on my own mental health journey, but all of you who shared and posted helped me take that step.

Finally, I have to applaud the incredible journalists who reported this series. I have been moved to tears by the stories they took the time to document, and I know the stress of taking on those stories has been difficult. But they did so with a determination to bring Routt County’s mental health discussion out of the shadows.

Katie Berning: A new wellness community is born

I am blessed to have a family that normalized feelings. I never had the stoic Midwest experience. I have seen my mom cry. I have seen my dad cry. That gift has helped me be able to be open to the mental wellness journey I find myself on.

The “Out of the Shadows” reporting series, along with monthly therapy sessions and regular exercise, has helped me engage with the people in my life more openly. The #Move4MentalHealth component of the series was inspiring. The community of strangers, neighbors, co-workers and friends that has grown over the past six weeks amazed me.

Those moments of vulnerability and sharing were lifted up with words of encouragement from people who likely have never met. I hope the #M4MH community grows, whether on Facebook or in person.

In a place that lauds its Olympians and grueling races, it was nice to strip competition away and leave space for people to share what really helps them. I saw comments saying posts helped others feel less alone. I saw comments of encouragement. All of it was so uplifting.

I would like to use the #M4MH community idea to create that supportive environment with my friends and family. If there’s one thing that can help, it’s not feeling alone in the ups and downs.

Working with the newsroom on the series has brought to light the conversations that were stuck in the shadows for so long. Hopefully, that light can continue to shine in the community, so we can all be open and accepting of the experience of others.

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