‘Running From Myself’: Reno Mental Health Advocate Struggles With Pandemic-Related Disruptions

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.

Bert Johnson / CapRadio

When you meet Russell Lehmann, the first thing you notice is that he looks like he just walked off the set of an action movie. He has built shoulders and chiseled biceps, because he spends hours throwing heavy weights around.

But it’s not just about his physique — working out keeps him alive.

“When I work out first thing in the morning and have a great workout, my social anxiety for the rest of the day is just gone,” he said. “Almost everything is gone: my body dysmorphia is gone, my OCD, my depression, my anxiety.”

That's why when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered gyms closed on March 17 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it came as such a blow to Russell.

“My jaw just literally dropped when I saw that on my phone,” he said. “I was terrified.”

Russell carries a heavy emotional load. On top of those other conditions, he also has autism.

In spite of all that, he’s a motivational speaker, mental health advocate and spoken word poet. He travels around the world, appearing at conferences and spreading awareness of the harm caused by the stigma around mental illness.

Mental health advocate and poet Russell Lehmann posed for a portrait near his North Reno gym on June 15.   Bert Johnson / CapRadio

 

He’s also active online, connecting with others in the mental health community and self-publishing his poems. They’re a way for him to articulate the pain he feels — and the daily triumph of persisting anyway.

In a recent piece called “Simply Exist,” Russell summed up the toll his mental illness takes.

“I’m withered. I’m worn. A decrepit soul, to be precise.”

Russell has to be uncommonly strong just to get out of bed. On the really bad days, he can’t.

Over the course of this story, he made several voice recordings of himself to document his experience during the pandemic shutdown. He made one of those on a day when he wasn’t able to get exercise — which led to a depressive episode by the early afternoon.

“I’m not tired at all,” he said. “But I am in bed with my blinds closed, because I couldn’t stand to be awake. It was too painful.”

COVID-19 restrictions have been disruptive for the entire country. But for people like Russell, they’re more than just an inconvenience — they’re a threat. On top of interrupting his routine, which Russell says is especially difficult for people who have autism, the pandemic has the potential to exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Herbert Coard is a clinical psychologist at  Renown hospital in Reno. He says many of his patients are struggling with the new normal.

“One of the variables associated with depression is isolation. Well, we’ve certainly built that into this equation,” he said. “We’ve decreased the contacts that people have had and because of those decreased contacts that they’re having, their senses of depression are increasing.”

According to Coard, that’s putting people with mental illness at heightened risk.

“We have seen some increase in suicidal ideation,” he said.

Russell turned to running as an alternative to the gym. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped. On another of the recordings he made — this one during an 11-mile run — he described the fear that drove him to keep going.

“I know that when I get home and I stop being active, the gates are going to open and all my mental demons are going to be rushing back in,” he said. “I just wish I could just keep running forever. Run away, really. But I’m running from myself.”

Russell’s devotion to fitness is a well-recognized strategy for managing mental illness. According to Coard, exercise can be an effective treatment for chronic depression in particular.

“One of the best protectors for depression is physical activity,” he said. “We call it behavioral activation, people doing things. Because if you do things, then guess what happens? You feel good about it.”

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.    Bert Johnson / CapRadio

 

For Russell, exercise isn’t enough on its own. He’s in therapy and takes medication, too.

His mom, Gretchen Lehmann, says there’s a huge difference between the days he’s been able to work out and the ones he can’t.

“If he has not been able to exercise, he pretty much is stuck,” she said. “He will often sit on the sofa with a blanket either over his head, or partially over his head. And that’s kind of his coping mechanism, is to withdraw and pull into his shell.”

Gretchen is grateful he’s found an effective way to manage his multiple diagnoses. But in an emotional interview with CapRadio, she also acknowledged it’s a day-by-day fight for him to survive them.

“I worry about him, but at the same time I know what he has overcome,” she said. “I know how hard it is for him to feel like there’s a purpose for all this suffering.”

Russell is open about the fact that he endures suicidal ideations as a result of his depression, but according to Gretchen, he tries not to dwell on them.

“He does talk about it when it gets, I think, to a crisis point,”  she said. “The rest of the time he tries to shield me.”

Herbert Coard says if people notice signs of severe depression in friends and family, they shouldn’t be afraid to check in.

“You can not make somebody suicidal by asking them if they’re thinking about suicide.”

But he cautions that if someone has gotten to that point, it’s critical to get outside help. “That’s really outside of your ability to help them,” he said. “In order to keep yourself healthy, it’s time to pull in the professionals that can help you.”

Ultimately, Russell finds strength in sharing his perspective and fighting the stigma associated with mental illness.

“The toughest challenges are reserved for the toughest people,” he said. “I know that through my challenges I can spread hope to others, through my speeches and writings. So that’s what makes it worth it.”

Russell’s been back in the gym for a few weeks now. He says getting back to his old routine is already restoring his hope for the future.

And a lot of Russell’s speaking engagements are being rebooked as webinars — he says sharing his experience virtually makes him feel almost as good as the in-person appearances he’s used to.

But the pandemic is far from over — in recent days, Nevada’s case numbers have started to climb again — and that could mean more changes to come.

For Russell, that uncertainty is a challenge in itself.

“The key for me will be to implement the flexible thinking I developed during the shutdown.”

If you’re in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.   

5 Mental Health Tips During COVID

                            sactownmag.com

Due to COVID-19, our world has been turned upside down. Restaurants once full of lively conversation now sit empty and desolate. Schools are vacant, our educational centers now in the hands of parents and the students themselves. Sporting arenas are dark and silent, a surreal scene for many as sports has historically been our main outlet as a society during times of uncertainty.

While we have all been hit hard during these times, the autism community has been especially affected. Routine is sacred to those on the spectrum, while the fear of the unknown can cause debilitating anxiety and depression. Suffice to say these trying times can be detrimental to the personal, professional and academic progress an individual on the spectrum has made.

Many people are struggling to maintain their mental well-being right now, however as those with autism are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis, it is imperative that we offer all the resources we can to them.

Below I highlight 5 strategies you can implement into your daily schedule to help maintain your mental health during these trying times.

  1. Become Your Own Best Friend

If it is one person we can completely and entirely rely on throughout the course of our lifetimes, it is ourselves. It is important that we remember to be kind to ourselves during these unusual times. Loneliness and isolation are rampant and can have detrimental effects on our well-being. However, if looked at from another perspective, can also bring great insight and strength.

I was pretty much a societal recluse from age 11 to 23, so isolation is not new to me. I learned, however, that with isolation comes solitude, and with solitude comes wisdom. Now is as good a time as ever to look inward and learn about who you are and what your heart truly desires in this life. Writing down your life’s purpose is a great reference point to look back on during normal times when you feel like you may be lost in life or on the wrong path.

Take some time during this period to nurture yourself. Every morning before I get out of bed, I tell myself “Good Morning” and whenever I’m struggling I give myself a hug and say “I love you Russell”. It may sound corny, but when our brains process self-affirmations said out loud, they literally develop the neural networks in order to become more efficient in self-care.

Self-love is the hardest love, but it is also the best love. The Buddha once said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection”.

  1. Exercise 

Exercise has always been great for the mind, however with all gyms being closed and outside activities cancelled, it can be difficult to find ways to stay active. Personally, the gym is my number one self-care tool, so having that tool taken away has made these past six weeks extremely challenging.

When we think of exercise, we tend to think of lifting weights, hiking, jogging, sports, etc. However, there are many activities you can do around your house that are beneficial to your mental and physical health. These can include dancing to music, yoga, walking your dog, yard work and even cleaning (fun, right?).

When the weather is nice and I am not too depressed, I have been going for long runs in the beautiful Sierra-Nevada foothills, however lifting heavy weights is vital for me as it fulfills my sensory-processing needs for the day. Unfortunately, I don’t have weights at home, so I must fall back on body weight exercises such as isometric (no muscle contraction, basically you stay frozen in place) squats, lunges, pushups and crunches.

All in all, anything you can do to clear your mind of worries and accelerate your heartrate will serve as a great coping mechanism during these times, and after.

  1. Explore the Arts

Perhaps the most difficult of tasks for parents during COVID is helping their kids adjust to the changes in schedule and routine given school closures and the cancellation of most extracurricular activities.

With social interaction all but gone for now, this is a great time to introduce the arts as a vehicle to promoting emotional integration and intelligence. Whether that be through poetry, painting, music, etc. the arts have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and promote neuroplasticity in the brain.

As a poet, I can tell you that there is no better catharsis for my daily struggles then to write them down and create a piece of art from them. Reading back my poems to myself out loud also helps me process my feelings more efficiently as I am using my visual and auditory senses to dissect my emotions instead of having them just float around in my head with no outlet.

  1. Meditate

Meditation and mindfulness play an instrumental role in promoting a healthy mental state, regardless of the state of our external circumstances. Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, “You can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf”. This I have found to be so aptly true, for we can utilize the steadiness of our inner-being as an anchor to weather turbulent times such as these.

Similar to number 1 on this list, you can use your current isolation to sit alone with yourself in order to realize that your thoughts are not real. Anxiety and depression, specifically, all boil down to our thought processes and patterns. Take this time to be curious about how you think. Meditation does not need to be sitting down in the lotus position for hours on end. It can be practiced informally throughout that day by just simply being mindful of how and why you think the way you do.

As the romantic poet Novalis once said, “The path of mystery leads inward”.

  1. Hone the Most Underrated Skill: Perseverance

Humans are an incredibly adaptable species, and perhaps our most underrated collective skill is perseverance. As mentioned before, the gym is instrumental in maintaining my well-being. I usually workout two hours a day, six days a week, and couldn’t have ever fathomed I’d go this long without stepping foot inside a gym. Yet when you are forced outside of your comfort zone, magical things can happen. While it is by no means an easy feat, when we are in unfamiliar territory with regard to our routine, the flexibility of our thinking increases and adapts to the new environment, stimuli and circumstances around us. If we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones on a continual basis, our self-confidence also increases and we begin to feel a sense of empowerment and fulfillment. As I always say, in order to promote your personal growth and development, you need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable!

Throughout my life I have continuously found success through my struggles, and COVID-19 will be no different. After all, how many times, in hindsight, have we come to kiss the feet of adversity? Using our hindsight from previous struggles to develop foresight for future challenges may be one of the most beautiful gifts in life.

This is a great opportunity for parents to educate the children that the only constant in life is change. Through a controlled environment such as their home, parents can ask their kids how unexpected change makes them feel and how best to deal with the emotions that change brings up. These practices can then be generalized into the real world in the post-COVID era.

In the end, COVID-19 will serve as a permanent reminder for us all to be mindful of the challenges faced by others. Collective struggle brings us closer, and it is my hope that after this pandemic passes, we will be a more kind and compassionate society.

Follow Russell's journey on Instagram and Facebook.

 

Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum Cope During Coronavirus

Coping with Coronavirus - Autism

Q: How can parents help their kids adjust to the changes in their schedule and routine given school closures and the cancellation of most extracurricular activities?

This is a great opportunity for parents to educate the children that the only constant in life is change. Through a controlled environment such as their home, parents can ask their kids how unexpected change makes them feel and how best to deal with the emotions that change brings up. These practices can then be generalized into the real world.

With most physical activities being canceled, this is also a great time to introduce the arts as a vehicle to promoting emotional integration and intelligence. Whether that be through poetry, painting, music, etc. the arts have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and promote neuroplasticity in the brain.

Q: What should we expect to see in kids regarding increase in anxiety, including meltdowns? 

Individuals on the spectrum generally have increased sensory needs, and during a time such as this those needs may not be met.

Expect an increase in defiant behavior from younger children as well as increased anxiety, depression and perhaps OCD. Always remember, however, that a behavior is a by-product of a past experience and/or emotion. Instead of punishing your children full stop, initiate a dialogue to figure out the why and what behind their actions.

Q: How we can best support children who are experiencing increased anxiety and meltdowns?

The literal definition of the word "compassion" is to "suffer with". Simply be there for them. Listen more than you talk. Give them a hug or a shoulder to cry on. Just by simply being present with your children an increased comfort will be felt throughout the household.

Q: Any ideas for helping kids stay “busy” and engaged in activities they find rewarding and engaging. 

This is a great time to think outside of the box and get creative. Scavenger hunts, board games, dress up, old family videos. Think of what you parents did with you during a rainy day and implement that into your routine.

We keep our kids so busy these days that it is also important to give them time to simply relax and rejuvenate, especially due to the increase in stress this situation is causing.