5 Runners Share How Medication Plays a Role in Their Mental Health Toolkit

It’s time to break down barriers and reduce the stigma around medication, because you’re not alone.

For many runners, it’s not just about the PR; getting out for your run also comes with many mental health benefits. Studies back up how exercise can boost your mood and cut your risk of depression.

But running shouldn’t be the only outlet you have to turn to for your mental health.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and that number has grown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Additionally, it’s important to remember there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to mental illness, and for many, there may be multiple factors influencing mental health that need to be treated. The only way of knowing is to seek help, arm yourself with as much information as possible, and make the decision that is best for you, both around medication and talk therapy, Denise Williams, a Baltimore-based clinical social worker and mental health advocate, told Runner’s World.

If you feel that your mental health is affecting your daily life and you could benefit from additional help—such as talk therapy or medication, such as antidepressants—know you’re not alone in asking.

Here, five runners, all are part of Still I Run, a community of runners for those who are affected by or know someone affected by a mental health condition. Each has a very different story to share about their own mental health journeys, and hope to help lower the stigma of medication for mental health.

This runner created a mental health community

Sasha Wolff—the founder and executive director of Still I Run—told Runner’s World that she started running just for fun, getting out maybe once every couple of weeks. But everything changed when Wolff was hospitalized for depression and anxiety 10 years ago in April.

While in the hospital for a week, Wolff said that she developed a toolkit to help her deal with her depression. Hers includes running, therapy, and medication.

“Those three things help me be the best I can be, and when one drops off, I notice it mentally and physically,” Wolff said. “[For me], running on its own isn’t therapy, it works when it’s part of a toolkit.”

Wolff, who was first diagnosed with depression in college, has been on antidepressants since 2003, but she didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, because it made her feel like she was less than others.

“Now I realize it’s just as common as needing medication for heart disease or diabetes,” Wolff said. “I went from it being totally stigmatized to posting pictures of the meds I used to be ashamed of.”

“[For me] running on its own isn’t therapy, it works when it’s part of a toolkit.”

Eventually, when she felt comfortable in her own skin and opening up about her history with mental illness, Wolff decided to start a community to help others. In 2016, she launched Still I Run, a nonprofit and community that promotes the benefits of running for mental health and assists people in getting the help they need.

“I want to be here so people don’t have to suffer in silence, and can feel so much better knowing there are other people experiencing the same thing and experience running together.”

This runner runs to combat PTSD

Running has been a part of Arturo Valdez’s life since middle school, when he was on the track team. He continued to run when he joined the military, as part of physical training. And after two deployments, he began to run more for his physical and mental health—he once ran a half marathon when deployed in Italy, and last May, he ran at least one mile every day in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Running, getting out there and clearing my thoughts and negativity, really helped with dealing with my mental health,” Valdez told Runner’s World.

When Valdez was deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2007, he lost several good friends, including his roommate. Upon returning to the United States, he said that everything that he experienced in Iraq caused his mental health to be up and down, like a roller coaster. Additionally, he struggled with nightmares, and he cannot be around loud, popping noises like fireworks.

Valdez was nervous and scared to ask for help. He said he had a lot of pride and that as a man, had a hard time coming to terms with being the one who needs help, rather than being the supporter for the family. But he realized getting help is normal—and now, he’s completely comfortable talking about his mental health.

“You still have your pride, still have manliness, you still have whatever drives you each day, it doesn’t diminish you or make you any less of a person,” Valdez said. “It’s okay to ask for help.”

Eventually he was diagnosed with PTSD. Medication, along with counseling and running, has helped him sleep better and improve his overall mental health. He doesn’t bottle up his feelings when he’s struggling, and he makes sure that he always has someone to talk to who understands what he’s going through.

“It’s okay to ask for help.”

“Not being alone is my primary tool, I make sure I’m with somebody at all times or have someone I can reach out to,” he said.

This runner is a postpartum depression survivor

Patricia Morse has always been active, even playing club volleyball in college, and as an adult, she ran consistently for two or three years before stopping.

“I feel better after I do it. My body doesn’t necessarily like me, but my brain does,” Morse told Runner’s World.

Shortly after Morse gave birth, she struggled immensely with her mental health, which led to a postpartum depression diagnosis six weeks following her first postpartum visit. Morse’s midwife helped her get on medication, but there were no psychologists in her area who specialized in postpartum depression. Morse’s symptoms didn’t ease over the next several months, and after having what she called a “complete meltdown” at her parents’ house, she decided she needed more help.

“My daughter was not quite two at the time, and she [woke up] upset about a dream, which is a trigger for me even now. My mom noticed [my reaction], and sat me down and said, ‘you need to go see your doctor.’”

In 2014, Morse was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, and she tried a few different antidepressants until she found one that worked for her. Additionally, she rediscovered running, realizing the crucial role it plays in her mental health toolkit, and she crafts on the side as an outlet to help clear her head.

“The best way I can describe it is it’s like a TV that’s a static channel, with no picture and the volume all the way up, doing those things help tone it down,” Morse said.

Morse got involved with Still I Run in 2016; she connected with Wolff after seeing someone at a race wearing a shirt. Now, Morse helps out in a mentorship role for the Starting Line Scholarship, where she encourages runners or even (virtually) does their training plan with them.

Morse encourages others to ask for that help if they need it. Asking for help and asking about medication is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign you’re making yourself a priority, and if anybody tells you otherwise then they have a stigma in their own mind, Morse said.

“That’s what we need to fight toward, is stopping that stigma,” Morse said. “Mental health is physical health, just like heart issues, broken bones and sore muscles, so why can’t we talk about what’s in our heads?”

This runner is a teacher who has found personal balance

Brian Reip, a Maryland public school educator, has battled Severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression for about a decade. But it wasn’t until more recently, when he started taking anti-anxiety medication, seeing a therapist, and running consistently, that he felt his mental health was in a better place.

Reip started running in 2014, when he was working with a trainer to get healthier and lose weight. Once he got in the habit of running, he was hooked. He found running to be a constant throughout the ups and downs of life. Reip’s trainer encouraged him to do a race; he worked his way up from a single 5K, and has since completed six half marathons, five 10-milers, and countless other races.

In addition to running, Reip also started taking anti-anxiety medication about three years ago and has seen a therapist weekly for about five years. But what really helped his mental health was finding a community. He came across Still I Run after one of his colleagues died by suicide. Now, he helps launch chapter programs across the country and is going to take on a project where he specifically reaches out to men about mental health.

“Training and taking on these distance running challenges and sharing the benefits of running with the Still I Run community have played a huge role in creating a sense of personal balance,” Reip said.

He also suggests not writing off therapy if the first person you contact doesn’t work out, instead try different therapists until you find a fit.

“If you’re thinking about looking for those things to help, therapy, medication, or running, you’re already in the mindset of recognizing that getting help is important,” Reip said. “Don’t get discouraged if you try a couple things before it works, it took me many trials and errors to find a combination that worked.”

This runner took charge of her holistic well-being—while encouraging others to do the same

Denise Williams, a Baltimore-based clinical social worker and mental health advocate, originally discovered her love for running in 2000; her older brother Jeffrey’s passion for health and fitness sparked her own.

But when her brother died by suicide in 2001, she was subsequently diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) at 10 years old. This led her to be in and out of therapy, and on and off of medications inconsistently throughout adolescence. She was home-schooled for a short time in middle school due to symptoms of MDD, and hospitalized in high school briefly for the same reason.

As a biracial Asian American child, Williams said that in her mother’s culture, there are implications around “saving face”—that means “bad” things or issues that might cause humiliation or scandal aren’t openly discussed. Because of this mindset, Williams was hesitant to seek professional help for a long time.

“With all the stress, my mental health declined dramatically over the years,” Williams told Runner’s World. “I was tired of feeling like I was drowning all the time, and I desperately wanted to get my mental and physical health back in order.”

In 2013, she signed up for her first half marathon. Through training, she traded some negative coping mechanisms for healthier alternatives, and never looked back. This also meant getting professional help—including therapy and medication.

“Running and regular exercise helped to keep my extreme lows at bay, and it was not until later in graduate school and my training as a social worker that I realized the brain science behind this—studies show that running can actually help to heal the traumatized brain,” Williams said. “Without knowing it at the time, in many ways, I think that running saved my life.”

Williams utilizes coping strategies she has built over the years, including focusing on her physical well-being. For her, this means a plant-based diet and fewer processed foods, and she runs or cycles multiple times a week.

As a vegan, Williams regularly takes dietary supplements to ensure she has enough Vitamin D and other necessary nutrients to regulate her mood and monitors her nutrient intake as recommended by her doctor. Sometimes, her MDD symptoms (extreme sadness, lethargy, sleeplessness) may tie to vitamin deficiencies.

“In many ways, I think that running saved my life.”

Under the guidance of mental and physical health professionals, she also takes herbal supplements commonly utilized in Eastern medicine but have documented positive effects on stress and mood regulation. In the past, she has taken prescribed psychotropic medications for MDD and GAD to help get over what felt to her like insurmountable obstacles. She said the medication helped her maintain a daily routine, ensuring she could get out of bed in the morning and take her dog for a walk.

“Having a medication management routine is integral in maintaining my mental and physical health, as there is a symbiotic relationship between this and my ability to run on a regular basis,” she said.

Williams recognizes there can be a lot of shame and stigma attached to medications. Or, people may worry that psychotropic medications will unnaturally alter their brains and negatively impact their personalities. In regards to talk therapy, some are understandably nervous about sharing personal information and problems with a near stranger.

“Regardless, my advice to you is this: If you are struggling with debilitating mental health concerns, you should speak with your primary care physician, a psychiatrist, therapist, or others in the mental health realm that you trust to explore and consider your options and what works best for you as an individual,” Williams said.

If you are struggling with your mental health, it is okay to ask for help.

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