Encouraging mental health care through candor, courage, and conversation

Content Notice: This story mentions sensitive topics related to mental health, such as depression, PTSD, and self-harm.

 

Growing up, mental health was something that Eric Gonzales never knew about. The Atwell Survey Technician and father of two comes from a family that did not talk about mental health, which meant that many mental health conditions in his family were left undiagnosed or untreated.

“I don’t know anything about my family’s history of mental health, because we just never talked about those things,” Gonzales recalls. “I was actually diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but we never pursued any kind of treatment. I struggled with that and other conditions like depression and PTSD for years, never knowing that I could get help with it.”

More than 50 million adults in America experience a mental illness, which is defined as having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder outside of a developmental or substance-use disorder. Mental illness can vary in intensity, from mild, moderate, or serious, and affects all aspects of one’s life, from relationships to physical health to employment. Living with a mental illness can be extremely challenging, but Gonzales hopes his story can help encourage others to take care of themselves, have empathy for others struggling with mental health, and show that you can still live a life you are proud of, even with a mental illness.

Removing the stigma of mental illness

Gonzales’ mental health journey began with him in the dark about what mental health actually is, then progressed with him going through the challenges of uncovering and getting treatment for his own conditions. Today, he is now in a place where he understands the importance of caring for his mental health and is vocal about having daily conversations about mental health with his family—a total change from how he was raised.

“Everyone in my family goes to therapy,” says Gonzales. “It’s a part of our regular schedules. It’s a complete 180 from how I grew up. We talk about depression. We talk about PTSD. We ask each other if we’re keeping up with our medications, and what other actions we can do to take care of ourselves throughout the week. We even talk to family and friends about it if they ask.”

Gonzales stresses the importance of treating mental health like a normal topic. “It’s not scary and not something to be ashamed of,” he says. “It’s part of keeping yourself healthy, the same way we go to a doctor or dentist for periodic check-ups. We need to take care of our mental health just like we take care of our physical health.”

Gonzales with his daughters

A supportive network at home and at work makes mental health care more manageable

Setting time aside for therapy sessions and doing family mental health check-ins can get complicated. Gonzales and his partner Amanda work full-time; his daughters are active high schoolers with extracurriculars; and Amanda’s two children are in college with full schedules. In addition to getting everyone else to their therapy sessions, Gonzales also has to find time for his own. However, Gonzales has been able to keep up with his therapy thanks to the flexibility of his team and leaders at Atwell.

“Thankfully, Atwell has been very supportive about me taking time for therapy,” Gonzales says. “My supervisors see it as me taking the time to take care of myself and better myself, and I’m glad they support that. I would encourage others that are struggling with mental health or need a mental health day to be honest about it with your supervisor. You may be surprised with the feedback and support you get.”

Atwell’s culture of supporting mental health is not practiced everywhere, though. “I’ve worked at other companies that frowned upon taking a mental health day or time off for therapy,” states Gonzales. “It was uncomfortable to ask for that time or explain where I was going, especially when they seemed visibly unhappy about it. But here at Atwell, I feel like my leaders have more faith in me. They trust me to do what I need to do to take care of myself, and that I’ll still come back to do the work I need to do after a session.”

The ability to work remotely has also been a huge relief on his mental load. “It’s nice to have the option to work from home,” says Gonzales. “It makes it easier to take care of myself.”

Besides supportive teams and flexible work options, Atwell also offers mental health assistance and wellness resources through its health insurance plans, its member assistance program with the psychology firm MINES & Associates, and its AtWELLness program that offers discounts and reimbursements for costs associated with physical and mental health items or services. In addition, there are employee resource groups (ERGs) for establishing community and support.

The importance of community in mental health care

Although he’s a Texas native, having parents in the military meant that Gonzales moved a lot as a kid. He’s lived in multiple states across the U.S., as well as overseas in Europe.

“I got to travel to a lot of countries because we were a military family, but I did get kind of jealous of my cousins back in Texas,” he admits. “They grew up in the same place from birth to high school, so they have a tight community of childhood friends. For me, I had to start over so many times because we moved so much.”

As a teenager, he remembered feeling overwhelmed often. “I felt like I needed help figuring things out, but I didn’t know where to go,” he recalls. “I didn’t have the tools, and I didn’t know who to talk to.”

It wasn’t until he met his partner nine years ago that he recognized therapy was even an option. “Amanda is the one who suggested I talk to someone about what I’m struggling with,” explains Gonzales. “Thanks to her encouragement, I started therapy, which opened me up to a whole new community of support and connection. My knowledge of resources, people I can talk to, and methods I can practice has expanded and helped me quite a bit.”

Access to this expanded network was crucial when not long ago, Gonzales and his family went through a harrowing experience when a family member tried to take their own life. The support of his extended family, friends, and community were necessary to get through that difficult time.

“It’s nice to know that you’re not alone in this world; for a long time, I thought I was,” states Gonzales. “Even now, I still have days where I break down and cry. But there are people out there who can help. It could be a friend or family member. For me, even strangers have lent a listening ear and given me encouraging words to keep me going.”

Community support, including therapists and support groups, is an important complement to mental health care, equipping you with the tools you need to understand what’s happening to you and how to manage it effectively.

“Medicine only gets you so far,” Gonzales says. “You’ve got to know that yes, there are people who can help you through these things, and yes, you can learn how to better deal with it so it doesn’t overwhelm you.”

Taking care of mental health looks different for each of us

Music has played a vital role in Gonzales’ mental health journey. He plays his guitar or listens to music when he’s stressed, and it helps calm him down.

“I love everything from heavy metal to Motown,” he says. “I just pick the genre that I need in that moment, and the music frees my mind.”

He also enjoys riding his motorcycle and going for walks. Not only do these activities help reduce his stress, but they are also activities he can do with family, which helps with maintaining their own mental health and strengthening their relationships with each other.

Encouragement for those who are struggling with their mental health

Gonzales hopes more people become more open to talking about and hearing about mental health. He wants people to know that it’s not something to be frowned upon, laughed at, or feared.

For those struggling with a mental illness, he encourages taking one day at a time.

“Change won’t happen overnight, but your decision to choose yourself and your mental health is changing you for the better,” he says. “You will see it with time, so keep going. You will get through it. It’s going to be okay.”

The past decade has been an era of growth, understanding, acceptance, and connection for Gonzales, who is proud to call himself a survivor.

“I’ve been through a lot of difficult times in my life, and I’m still learning more ways to take care of my mental health,” Gonzales says. “But I value all of my life experiences. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. Through it all, I’ve become a good father, a good partner, and a better person, and I’m very proud of that.”

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