Shoes slap against the ground, bringing up clouds of dust. Blood pulses through veins; hearts pound against rib cages. Air unevenly rushes in and out. The rugged nature, the sun, the numbers on a track — everything whizzes past.
It’s in moments like these where Lena K., a rising sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, finds their safe space. Sometimes, it’s just Lena and the achingly rewarding feel of running; other times, they crack jokes and form memories with their tight-knit cluster of friends on the college track and cross country teams.
But in the fall of Lena’s junior year of high school in 2018, they couldn’t run cross country like they always did.
After being hospitalized for the first time in their life for suicidal ideation, all Lena wanted was to go back to their normal life. Instead of being in an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), they could run, like they did each year. They could once more epitomize “normalcy.”
For Lena, there is no start to their mental health journey, nor an end. In middle school, Lena remembers first learning about mental health in their school’s health class—and yet, they never reflected on their own mental health in the process.
“I’ve never really associated mental health with myself,” Lena said. “I thought I was fine, that my loneliness, my sadness, etc was normal and would dissipate over time, but it never really did. It just got worse. And the worse it became, the more and more I’d push those feelings away. It just became a vicious cycle.”
As time went on, Lena started learning more and more of what mental health was. Google searches abounded.
It wasn’t until Sophomore year of high school, though, that Lena received help for their mental health—not willingly, but because they had been confronted by a school counselor after a teacher noticed cuts on their hands and wrists.
Lena began speaking with the school counselor, and later moved into therapy mainly for their depression and anxiety. But then, in their junior year, everything changed.
That was the moment when Lena became hospitalized in the fall of 2018. Until then, Lena’s life had fallen into a rhythm: there was therapy once a week. There would be the cross country team. A hospitalization, and the IOP that followed, upended everything—most of all, the normalcy Lena had been clinging to.
Lena recalls the clinicians at the hospital asking Lena what their goals were. Lena’s answer was simple: I want to return to normal. I want to go back to normal life.
“Yet I didn’t really know that I couldn’t return to ‘normal normal,’ because something about that normal life—the past wasn’t working. So things needed to change. I needed to change,” they said. “I was hospitalized because I was in denial that I needed help.”
At first, though, the possibility and openness to change seemed as far as the sun slipping beneath the horizon each evening. Not only did the IOP Lena began upset their normal schedule, but it was “really difficult” for Lena: recovery required vulnerability and emotional energy, for them to confront what they had been hiding from, and for their mother to take a leave of absence from teaching to attend a family group in the IOP. The trauma they had been ignoring for years had now become front and center in their life.
“I wasn’t very willing to engage in therapy at first, because I just didn’t think that I needed to be there—I didn’t think that I could change,” Lena said.
It took time for the tables to turn. It was a couple of weeks into treatment when Lena first realized something that stuck with them: that there was no shame in self harm or depression, nor shame in not fitting into the semblance of normalcy. And that change wasn’t as far as the horizon line, but instead within eventual reach.
“It might not be immediately, but I just have to put in the work,” Lena said. “And that was a longer process than I would have liked, so I’m definitely proud of myself for making it through that.”
Change isn’t as linear as a line on the horizon, though, or something one can always wrap their fingers around. Lena, who characterizes their mental health journey as “full of ups and downs,” found their experience following their graduation of the IOP program in January of 2019 to be just that. They had a suicide attempt and were hospitalized once more, but, three months later, they experienced a literal up: a journey to Peru.
Over Spring break of 2019, Lena traveled with their high school peers to Peru for a service trip. To this day, it’s a “monumental” experience for Lena; because of their past suicidal ideation, they often weren’t allowed to be alone or be as independent as they wanted to. Yet, here they were, with a set of classmates in Peru.
One day, they hiked up Rainbow Mountain, a mountain in the Andes region that, just like its name suggests, is composed of a dazzling array of colored earth. Even with Lena’s cross-country experience, the hike was grueling; from a starting elevation of 16,000 feet to a final elevation of 18,000 feet, oxygen levels thinned out.
When they got to the top, though, it wasn’t just the oxygen levels that took Lena’s breath away. The view was incredible—miles upon miles of colored earth swirling together like a river; clouds framing the peaks as if you might reach out and touch them—and the wind rushed around Lena in powerful gusts, stealing all other noise with it. In that moment, all else vanished. It was just Lena, standing there. All they could hear was their own voice echoing in their head.
“And I was like, holy sh*t, Lena, three months ago you tried to kill yourself. Now look at you. Look where you are—look how far you've come,” they said. “It was the combination of a lot of hard work—everything that I put into my health, and also my amazing support team, literally culminated on top of the world.”
Lena would never forget that moment. To this day, it’s the moment they’re most proud of in their mental health journey.
Since then, the winding road full of ups and downs has continued for many miles more. The segment of the road that encompasses the pandemic contained both. At the beginning of the pandemic, the pavement led upward: Lena, who had been a senior in high school, found that their anxiety improved. Without the interactions that used to govern their day-to-day life, their social anxiety dissipated.
But then, they left for college, and everything went downhill. As senior year summer melted into the new school year, Lena moved across the country. The leap from San Francisco to the New York tristate area brought new challenges. Everything was new—new people, new school, new town, new climate. The sheen of novelty couldn’t seem to wear off, and it overwhelmed Lena.
“It was a big change that I don't think I was ready for,” they said.
Eventually, that would lead to Lena being hospitalized in the fall of 2020 for another suicide attempt and attending eating disorder treatment after.
“Quarantine definitely brought a lot of new things out that I didn’t realize were there,” Lena said. “But for better or for worse, because they would have come up eventually—I think COVID just brought that up all immediately, so it was a little stressful in the moment, but in hindsight, I’m glad I went through that when I did and now I have that behind me.”
The latest stretch of the road comprising Lena’s time in college is also filled with upward twists. One of their favorite parts of college is running track and cross country with a group that has become a “family” for Lena.
“I absolutely adore them,” Lena said. “Running has always been an outlet for me, and with this group of people, I had an immediate support system.”
Beyond that, Lena finds their safe space in themselves—when it's just them and the computer, their face illuminated by the soft blue-white glow of the screen. Oftentimes, the room becomes filled with the clicking of keys as they type away, writing.
Lena’s writing isn’t creative writing, nor the ‘Dear Diary’ style of journaling; rather, it’s an open, undefined space for them to pour out all of their thoughts and emotions. Almost all writing goes on one particular document on Lena’s computer that they’ve had for 3 years. Today, it’s around 110 pages long.
“My saving grace on a day-to-day basis is writing,” Lena said. “When I don’t feel like I’m capable of talking to someone else about my emotions in the moment, or maybe when I can’t because it’s just not available, I put it on paper, which really helps me.”
As Lena progresses through college, the road keeps on going, new pavement added with every day that passes, every minute.
“It's been a long road with different turns that I never thought I would take, and it’s a never-ending journey,” Lena said. “I really do think that I am past the point of hospitals and IOPs and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) and all of that. But all I can do is try my best.”
Lena’s journey is what inspires them to work in mental health advocacy. They started small, with a mental health organization led by teens who wanted to change the conversation. When Lena first happened upon SafeSpace while photographing one of their events a few years back, they knew they wanted to join right away.
“I was at the point in my mental health journey where I wanted to give back to the field and the community that had given so much to me,” Lena said, “so I was really looking for any advocacy experience I could get.”
Lena is still a part of SafeSpace today, albeit from a distance, working on managing and designing the website. After college, they hope to go to graduate school and become a clinical psychologist—which, as Lena remarks with a smile, you can probably guess where the idea came from.
The field of mental health as a whole is extremely close to Lena’s heart.
“It saved my life—I wouldn’t be here without the peers and professionals that have helped me along the way,” they said. “And so I feel like I owe the rest of my life back to that world in any way possible.”
Through their work in mental health advocacy, they feel fueled by an ever-burning purpose. And, as Lena explains, advocacy does not conform to one definition—it can be small, so small you might not even notice it.
“I think any sort of advocacy is good advocacy,” they said. “You don’t have to go give, like, a TED talk to be an advocate. You can start by having an honest, open conversation.”
If someone makes a suicide joke, for example, Lena suggests calling it out and saying, ‘hey, are you sure you want to make that joke?’ Lena also points out that one can advocate for themselves on a day-to-day basis by speaking up, emailing, or whatever else works best.
Whichever it is, “advocacy starts within the self,” as Lena put it.
Today, Lena is able to talk about mental health openly, a huge change from the time when they pushed away acknowledging their own mental health.
“In the present moment, I can talk to pretty much anyone about it—whether it’s my own journey, what I’m proud of, or maybe if I need help—because I’ve had a lot of experience with that. I mean, I’m talking to you about it,” they said. “But if you talked to me three, four years ago, the answer would have been no, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about my mental health.”
Back then, weighed down by shame, they didn’t want those they knew, whether parents, peers, or coaches, to hear the “bad side” of anything. Consumed by a burning need to be the most productive, capable, and perfect version of themselves, the fear of disappointment governed everything they did and didn’t do.
“I thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness, and that I could do it all by myself and didn’t need help,” Lena said. “I wanted [my parents] to see me as their perfect child that gets good grades—but we’re all human, so that’s not feasible.”
Whether growth and change appears to be within reach, as far as the horizon line, or a mere mirage, Lena has learned from their experience that everything takes time.
“It never really ends, but it does get better—and that takes so much time. It was a long process of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, of getting to this place where I do advocacy work on almost a daily basis,” Lena said. “And now... I genuinely enjoy talking about my mental health, or just mental health in general, to anyone and everyone. I’m pretty proud to be where I am today.”