According to a 2021 article published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, the decision whether to disclose a mental illness has individual and social consequences. Disclosure can increase social support and facilitate help-seeking, while secrecy may protect from stigma and discrimination. Despite the growing interest in mental health issues and the increase in educational resources and tools available to raise awareness, labeling and stigmatization is still ever-present. It is even more prevalent among mental health professionals working in the mental health field. Mental health professionals usually regard themselves as rather strong and invulnerable; however, mental health problems are often widespread among mental health professionals. Sometimes referred to as “wounded healers,” mental health professionals often face a serious type of stigmatization called self-stigma.
To discuss this topic, Kerry Yarlow interviewed Jon Schlenske to discuss his own experience with self-stigma.
Kerry Yarlow: Tell me where and how all this began.
Jon Schlenske: Over the last seven years, I have faced the most devastating and debilitating kind of stigma – self-stigma. Looking in the mirror, I have labeled myself broken, shattered and damaged. I have spoken terrible words inside my head and told myself I was not redeemable and did not deserve anything good. On the outside, I always kept up appearances. I have advanced in my career, spent countless hours making incredible memories with my beautiful family and painted a smile on my face that masked the internal anguish and torment. I have now chosen to rise above the self-stigma I have placed on myself by sharing my story. I hope that my unabashed transparency and vulnerability can positively help others and redirect them from the shame of self-stigma.
Kerry Yarlow: It’s amazing that you’re willing to share this, Jon. Let’s start from the beginning. What is your work experience and background?
Jon Schlenske: My career in the behavioral health, mental health, chemical dependency, addiction and substance use disorder fields has spanned two decades. After graduating from Whitworth University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Management, I then went onto graduate school and earned a Master’s Degree in Behavioral Science and Addiction Studies from the University of South Dakota. My leadership roles have included Program Administrator, Executive Director, Clinical Director and Chief Executive Officer in both the non-profit and for-profit arenas. Throughout my career, I have remained steadfast in advocating for a society where mental illness bears no stigma and individuals and families have opportunities for recovery. I have fought, and will always fight, to offer hope, promise and optimism to vulnerable populations.
I have focused my time and energy on improving and enriching the quality of life for those suffering from mental and behavioral health problems and substance use disorders by offering dedicated and specialized assistance for a lifetime of recovery. In their will to heal, everyone has an inherent capacity to learn and grow as they recapture what they lost. My perseverance, commitment, energy and compassion are helpful skills when showing people that they can achieve success in their recovery. My personal story is one of reclamation and restoration, and I use my history to assist others in their will to heal. Now, I would like to use my story to assist myself in overcoming the embarrassment that has stuck with me for far too long.
Kerry Yarlow: Yes, this is an important message to share. You said your family has faced circumstances that led to this. What happened?
Jon Schlenske: My wife, Jennifer, and I were married in 2006 and waited six years before deciding to have children together. When we finally made the choice to start our family, we each had successful careers in the social services non-profit field and shared a common goal of raising kind, compassionate, secure, well-adjusted and happy children who would see us model patience, empathy, responsibility and respect in our home.
Our oldest son, Cannon, was born November 2, 2013. To detail the unspeakable trauma we experienced throughout my wife’s pregnancy, during the birth of our son and in the days, weeks, months and years following would take pages to recount. To be honest, I cannot even really bring myself to put it on paper. It still haunts us.
One year after Cannon was born, we welcomed his brother Hudson (they are 12 months, six days apart). The years between 2013 and 2016 were harder than I can even put into words. My wife and I found ourselves fully frozen with terror hundreds of times and operating with such heightened levels of fear and anxiety that we were running on autopilot and – to this day – both have little memory of how we made it through. Panic, grief, dread, anguish, frustration and sadness settled inside us and numbed us both to the point of disassociation, but we never cut back on our demanding jobs or our other obligations. We forged ahead for each other and our two toddlers. Truthfully, on the outside, we appeared as if nothing was wrong, and we were managing our Cannon’s developmental delays (yet still no diagnosis nor reasoning) seamlessly. We were not. Or, more specifically, I was not.
Kerry Yarlow: Wow. Really challenging times. I’m so sorry. What happened next?
Jon Schlenske: After never even having so much as a traffic ticket on my record, two irresponsible decisions led to me being arrested twice between September 2015 and March 2016. The media quickly picked up on both events, and – understandably – the headlines were sensational and intoxicatingly scandalous, “Detox Director Arrested While Drunk.” Who wouldn’t want to click on that story? Some of the articles’ details were – as with most media representations – exaggerated and inaccurate. That was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as the realization and understanding that those stories, with their blown-up details, would live on for eternity on the internet and trail me forever. Self-stigma officially kicked in, and I began despising even the sound of my own name.
Kerry Yarlow: How did your job react? What about your wife and family?
Jon Schlenske: Throughout the legal ups and downs, my wife and family steadfastly stood by me with unwavering loyalty. They watched me work diligently to restore my profession and continue working in the career I love and believe in. I promised my wife that I would move ahead without regression and work tirelessly to try and maneuver around what could be found by Googling my name. The Board of Directors (at the non-profit where I worked at the time) and publicly stated that they supported me and would help me through whatever I was facing. support. My license was not revoked nor suspended. Our state licensing board concluded that I needed to address the symptoms and remain in therapy (which I did). I continued to work diligently on my individual therapeutic journey in the face of daily fear that my story is only a Google search away. I guess, outwardly, I strode ahead. Inwardly, I loathed all I was.
Kerry Yarlow: How did you begin to work past all of this?
Jon Schlenske: Well, while these circumstances were public, shameful and embarrassing, the more agonizing issues were still within our home and our family. Finally in July 2016, after two and half years of confusion, Cannon was diagnosed with Sotos Syndrome. At last, we had a small semblance of clarity. Yet, although we had answers, the challenging circumstances remained. We would be raising a child with an incredibly rare genetic syndrome about which little was known. Our younger son would have a special needs brother. We mourned the loss of the future we had envisioned. The upcoming years loomed ahead with shaky uncertainty.
With our Cannon’s diagnosis checked off our list, I needed to figure out why I had gone so far off path and been arrested twice in six months. Working in the field, I had always been relatively in-tune with my mental health and could typically sense when it was deteriorating. For years, I had managed it with proper medication and coping skills. Why had it gone past the point of no return this time? Why had I sought to remedy my depression and anxiety through alcohol and fleeing my family? Why had my usual ability to tackle my mental health slipped to the point of facing legal issues?
Kerry Yarlow: Did you eventually find out what exactly had happened?
Jon Schlenske: Yes. I turned to the wonderful psychologist I had been seeing since 2015 for help in finding answers. She took a deep dive into my symptoms and circumstances, including in the days, weeks, months and years, leading up to that six-month period and concluded that I had experienced two separate dissociative fugues. A dissociative fugue is when a person’s mental health breaks down to the point that he or she temporarily loses their sense of personal identity and impulsively wanders or travels away from their homes or places of work. It is caused by severe stress resulting from traumatic events the person has experienced or witnessed. Outwardly, someone experiencing a dissociative fugue shows no signs of illness, such as a strange appearance or odd behavior, making it difficult for others to recognize that anything is off. A person in the midst of a dissociative fugue often uses alcohol and/or drugs, which only exacerbates symptoms and causes more profound blackouts. When the dissociative fugue ends, the person often cannot remember where they are and/or how they got there. From here, they usually experience fear, confusion and even shame over the situation.
Kerry Yarlow: I am glad you got answers.
Jon Schlenske: Yes. Both arrests were amid a dissociative fugue. My situation precisely followed the guidelines for diagnosis. I had been living outside my window of tolerance for too long, and my brain finally had enough. My mental health was tattered, shredded and frayed, and I had not been open about with anyone – not even my wife. After the incidents, I found myself fraught with overwhelming shame, self-doubt and embarrassment and wanted to erase myself from my own life. I had spent decades advocating for open conversations surrounding mental health awareness and had given my heart and soul to de-stigmatizing mental health and recovery and was now making every attempt to hide what I had been through. I nearly crumbled with anxiety each time I thought someone may have seen the online articles and was terrified of meeting new people (which included starting new jobs), because I was positive they would Google my name, see the stories and immediately judge me and deem me a bad husband, irresponsible father, worthless leader and terrible person. Self-stigma overtook my life and incapacitated me. Again, I outwardly displayed strength, courage, resilience and determination. Inside, my spirit was damaged, and my mental health consistently plummeted. I endlessly waited for the other shoe to drop and lived with a frightening level of heightened awareness that today might be the day someone discovered the truth about me.
Kerry Yarlow: Self-stigma is hard to overcome. How else did it affect you?
Jon Schlenske: Self-stigma had exhausted and depleted my confidence. It decreased my capacity to cope, increased stress, made me feel less than, drove me to a sense of unworthiness and even caused me to feel contaminated and disgraced. Again, I kept up appearances but felt nervous, fearful and despondent most of the time. I write this, now, in 2023 with the purpose of ending my self-stigma and moving on from what happened eight years ago. Yes, the news articles will indefinitely remain on the internet, but disclosing my side of the story and sharing my individual journey releases me from the clutches of humiliation. I can hold true to what I have spent my career telling others: mental health struggles should not be a source of shame. We all face them, at one time or another, and it does not need to be a big, dark secret that we must navigate alone. We can lean into others and trust in our community of friends and family to be there as support.
Kerry Yarlow: How did you overcome it?
Jon Schlenske: I committed myself to surmounting and conquering self-stigma. These are the steps I took.
- Ongoing counseling and therapy – I was reluctant to admit I still needed therapy. The dissociative fugues had occurred, and – as a result – my medication had been appropriately adjusted, and I had hashed out the trauma the led to the dissociative fugues. I was fine, right? Nope. I needed regular and routine therapy to admit to the level of self-stigma was impeding my life and work to address it. I mistakenly believed my mental health struggles were a sign of personal weakness, and I could control it without help. Again, nope. Counseling assisted in educating myself about what I had been through. It also helped me regain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-judgement.
- Refrain from isolating myself – I spent many years entirely disinclined to talk about the scary mental health crises I had faced. I built a wall around myself and decided it was best to only interact with people who already knew the story and the background surrounding it. Oftentimes, I even felt the urge to isolate myself from them and shut myself away and completely alone. I had to fight against this and push myself to reach out to people I trusted for the compassion, support and understanding I needed.
- Do not equate myself with the headlines and negative media – I am not a “… drunk and disorderly leader…” On two occasions, I exhibited thoughtless and reckless behavior as a result of untreated trauma that had comfortably settled into my brain and created dissociative fugues. My mental health was not in a good place. However, I have worked through those terrible times. I am not a bad, dangerous, threatening and risky monster. I am a thoughtful, kind, considerate, helpful, caring and composed leader, husband and father. I am empathetic and sympathetic towards others (probably more than ever after what I went through), and I ensure people feel safe, welcomed and secure in my presence.
- Continue to reduce mental health stigma everywhere and for everyone – I am aware of my attitudes and behavior and practice emotional intelligence when discussing mental health. As I always have, I continue to choose my words carefully. The way I speak can affect the attitude of others, and I am responsible for my words. I work to educate others by sharing facts, challenging myths and resisting stereotypes. I openly, honestly and intentionally treat everyone with dignity and respect and always offer support and encouragement to anyone facing mental health struggles.
- Focus on the positive – I know this comes across canned and superfluous, but the simplicity behind it is what makes it so effective. Mental illness is only one part of anyone’s larger picture. I know this from firsthand experience. Having my name splashed all over the media in a negative light felt like the utter collapse and downfall of everything I am. It was not. Those situations were just a small part of a much grander life full of happiness, successes, accomplishments, achievements and joy. That was a blip on the radar in my story; it was not my entire story.
Kerry Yarlow: Those are positive steps. How has it helped you? How are you now?
Jon Schlenske: For several years, I lived with the consequences of self-stigma. It was a barrier to my mental health recovery, reduced my self-esteem and caused me to devalue all I have to offer others. I vow to not let it steer my life any longer. My thoughtful advice to those suffering from self-stigma is to gain perspective. Depression, anxiety or whatever you’re facing is something you have. It is not who you are, and it does not define you. You are much more than your diagnosis.
Also, share your mental health journey with others. Sharing your story can be empowering for others who are also struggling with a mental illness. Use your story to prove that harmful stereotypes about mental illness are not true and to encourage others to speak up and seek help.
And, finally, share positive messages about mental health. Use social media, or another approach, to openly discuss mental health and to share validated information about mental illness and treatment. This includes speaking up. If you suspect that someone may be in a crisis or is struggling with their mental health, send messages of support and assist them in getting the help they need.
Now is the time to create influence and eliminate prejudice, ignorance and shame. We can create a unified and consistent message that disorders of the brain are not a weakness or flaw but instead are legitimate and treatable disorders of the body, no different than heart disease or cancer.