Greetings Rotarians!
As we journey together to accomplish RI President Gordon McNally’s goal to Create Hope in the World, District 6250 is off to a great start under DG Michelle McGrath’s leadership of prioritizing mental health awareness.   We are learning more about the topic and our engagement and intentional conversations are likely to help us improve and care for others within our district and communities as we prioritize Service Above Self.   I am especially grateful to serve on our district’s Mental Health Task Force with other Rotary leaders who are supporting and empowering each other while creating a safe space for others to bring their whole, authentic selves to social connections.  When we do that, we provide comfort and care while Creating Hope in the World.
Because there are many misconceptions regarding mental health, people often are not aware that a friend, family member or oneself may be experiencing a condition associated with it.   Many of us actually believe that something really bad has to occur in order to experience mental illness. 
Did you know that simply defined, mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  Mental illnesses include medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.  This year’s overall goal is to increase awareness of what mental health IS or is NOT. Through our District Dispatch, we’ll try to do that by being inviting, sharing our stories that reflect our vulnerability and being understanding of other’s perspectives.  I certainly have had some history in all of those areas. My desire is to share a small portion of that history through a difficult time in life. 
In 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic and while I was transitioning into the position as President of my local Rotary club, my mother began a journey towards what doctors referred to as ‘a sustainable quality of life’ after being diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after being told of her condition, she went into a state of depression. The medical community of doctors, nurses and others caring for her didn’t communicate that to our family right away, but instead began treating the condition through medication.   Our family began to see a woman who’s lively personality became somber and someone who always had something to say become a woman of few words. When the doctors did inform us of the change in my mom, they described it more like a mental health issue related to a mood disorder. What is a mood disorder?  It means someone is feeling down for a significant period of time and is not getting better with the normal things that you do to make them better. My siblings and I would share stories, tell jokes and attempt to change the dynamics of the present moment by the things we said to our mom but that didn’t soothe the pain or generate the smile we were hoping for. As we deepened our intentional connections with each other, we became more vulnerable about how we were feeling which caused us to connect to our mom and each other differently and effectively. We then embraced the ray of light that we saw in her eyes and in her desire to live. The ‘snappy teller’ of our private childhood stories was back among us! The experience taught my siblings and I that what our mom was feeling and experiencing was real and that any of us could have spiraled towards the same condition at any moment because of the challenges we were dealing with involving her medical situation. I also learned that it was important to understand the mental health triggers or stressors which could potentially hinder our mom’s journey. Mental health triggers or stressors are actions or situations that can lead to an adverse emotional reaction. They can be internal or external and I wanted to be intentional about increasing my awareness of these since the road ahead of our family had just begun.
The fourth question contained in the Rotary Four-Way Test - Will it be beneficial to all concerned? became quite applicable to my life as I began to ponder how those close to me could benefit from ways I chose to apply what I was now learning. As I began to witness bouts of mood disorders my siblings were experiencing, I chose to bravely address the situations utilizing tools that I now had in my ‘tool belt’ with intent to reduce further exposure or impact to our mother and help my siblings become healthier and stronger towards supporting each other. To my surprise, these tools helped my family, members of my club and others in my community who were also dealing with their own challenges during the pandemic. What an awakening; my journey put me on both sides of the fence as an observer and recipient of the very thing I had to learn how to understand and manage for myself and for others.
I’ve grown in this space and have become more enlightened over the past two years. I can honestly say that I laughed a lot and launched intentionally towards better health, mentally during my year as President of the Rotary Club of Madison.   My mom didn’t become a sustainable life survivor but one positive outcome from the experience is that I now have the honor of primary caregiver for my adult sister who has a traumatic brain injury. Every step of the former journey prepared me for the current responsibility. Today, there are times when both my sister and I have moments in memory about our mom that ‘swing our moods’ and touch our hearts, deeply. I can now recognize when those opportunities present themselves, but I also know how to resist the potential dive to ‘sit there somberly’.  I’ve also encouraged others in efforts towards taking charge of their mental health and am more open to conversations about this topic.
 Here are a few tips I learned on my journey to minimize stress and live courageously:
  1. Take time to be intentional about self-care;
  2. Surround yourself with good, positive people that you can be vulnerable with about life situations;
  3. Talk to a professional or a friend if you experience mood shifts; starting a conversation or becoming a part of one meant to help identify what your experiencing.
Lastly, as I reflect on the year ahead for Creating Hope in the World, I am careful to remember the ones who have taught me to be brave and courageous when dealing with challenging situations and that we all have something to offer others while working towards outcomes we want to see.  
Rotarians, let’s be the HOPE that we want to see and “Thank you” for allowing me to share my story of learning and how it has expanded my choice to Create Hope in the World.