Interview with Iris McAlpin founder of the new humanitarian campaign

As part of my blog I (MM) believe it’s important to share common and shared experiences, by highlighting the link between physical health and mental health.

I’d like to introduce you to Iris McAlpin (IM) who is a Los Angeles based coach, writer and mental health advocate. Iris launched #TheNewHumanitarian campaign on her Instagram account @TheNewHumanitarian. There she discusses the daily issues faced by those recovering from eating disorders and other mental health issues, and shares the tools and tips she picked up on her road to happiness.  Her intent with #TheNewHumanitarian is to show people that self care isn’t selfish, and spark a global movement toward awareness, acceptance and support for everyone affected by psychological disorders.

MM: Can you discuss the reason behind, why your raising awareness of mental health illnesses on your Instagram profile?

IM: Absolutely! The reason is simple. Just about every single person on the planet has been touched by mental illness. If not personally, then they have a friend, uncle, cousin, father, mother, brother, sister, neighbor…someone they know has battled depression, addiction, something. And yet it’s this big secret for everyone. It’s still taboo. It’s still a source of shame for so many. The only way to eradicate the stigma and shame is to bring it out into the light of day. I hid my struggles for most of my life, but when I started to see how rampant these mental health issues really are, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer.  

People need to know it’s OK to struggle, and know that it’s possible to heal. I figured if I could inspire even one person to let go of the shame, and keep working toward healing, it would be worth it. It hasn’t just been “worth it”–being a voice for those still suffering in silence has been the most fulfilling I’ve ever done.     

MM: When you have experienced depression, and are in the low moments, what advice would you give to people about how they can ground themselves?

IM: This is such a great question, because grounding yourself is exactly what’s needed, but people don’t often look at it that way. They think they need to just “cheer up!” or “tough it out!” and that’s not realistic. Getting grounded however, is possible. I am a big fan of mindfulness meditation, because it gets you grounded in the present moment. I have never been one of those people who meditates for an hour at a time–I find doing what I call “micro-meditation” even more helpful in dealing with anxiety and depression, in terms of getting through the day. It involves just getting present to your physical surroundings, and fully connecting to your 5 senses, for a matter of seconds. You can do that 100 times a day, without having to carve out long stretches of time to meditate.

With depression it can often feel like the world is ending, but when you really allow yourself to get present to things as they are RIGHT NOW, you can see that nothing terrible is happening. You can experience being safe. You can shut down the negative mental chatter for a moment, and sometimes that’s all it takes.        

MM: From your own experience with depression what was the breaking point for you to make a positive change. And what advice would you give to people to break negative subconscious behaviour? 

IM: Well, that’s kind of a trick question. If something is subconscious you can’t really change it, because you’re blind to its existence. That being said, one of the greatest ways to bring those things into the foreground of your consciousness is to do self development work. It took a LOT of work for me to see what was really going on under the hood, so-to-speak, and it approached it from many different angles. I read countless books, I studied psychology and neuroscience, I went to therapy, counseling, group therapy, transformational programs like The Landmark Forum (which is awesome, by the way), and they all showed me things about myself that I wouldn’t have been able to see on my own. So if someone came to me asking for advice, I would first ask what they’re drawn to. If they’re not drawn to anything, which can happen with depression, I would ask them what sounds the least horrible, and start there. If you can tolerate reading, but don’t want to talk to anyone, start there. Start where you can–anywhere–and then expand. The trick is not to get stuck, so I encourage people to step outside their comfort zones after a little while, and try new things. Even if they have to force it at first. It’s worth it.     

As far as my breaking point, I wish I could say I just had one low moment, but the truth is I had many. I lost relationships, jobs, friends…it cost me a lot. I think my biggest turning point was when I was 19, and I hurt my boyfriend by being unfaithful. I was extremely depressed and had really low self-esteem at that time. I was seeking attention and validation to make myself feel better, but when I saw how damaging and hurtful it was to someone I cared about, I couldn’t live with it. I knew something had to be done.   

MM: In your experience, how important is the link between physical health and mental health? 

IM: I think they’re inextricably linked. Human beings are living, breathing systems, and all parts of the system are connected. Can you be physically healthy without being mentally healthy? Sure. And can you be mentally healthy, but be physically unhealthy? Sure. They do compliment one another though, and that isn’t just based on my opinion or experience. The relationship between exercise and mood has been shown consistently across a large number of scientific studies, to the point that there is really no debating it anymore. Physical activity and exercise have a positive impact on mood. End of story.  

Personally, I really love running, so when I’m running consistently, I feel better on just about every level. I also find that if for some reason I can’t do it for a while, I get really cranky, so my experience definitely supports the scientific findings. There have been times in the past when I’ve overdone the exercise, and been obsessive about it, and that isn’t good for your mind or body. I definitely don’t recommend that, but regular moderate exercise is a big part of my mental health regimen.              

MM: Having a mental health illness could be seen as a weakness, but in your experience how is it actually a strength?  

IM: Like most things in life, it’s all about how you relate to it. If you relate to it as a weakness and burden, it is. If you relate to it as a learning opportunity, and a vehicle for growth, it becomes a tremendous source of strength. I am incredibly grateful that I had depression and an eating disorder for so many years. Yes, it was awful in many ways, but the person I had to become in order to overcome them, is a person I never would have had the chance to be if I hadn’t been through that. I had to get to know myself on a really deep level, which has allowed me to understand others on a deep level. That understanding has enabled me to help others with my coaching practice and eating disorder recovery courses, and that never would have been possible without that experience. I wouldn’t trade that for anything! So I think if you’re willing to learn from your illness, and willing to do the hard work it takes to overcome it, it will be the greatest source of strength in your life. It takes a considerable amount of work, but it’s so very worth it.     

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