How many of us walk around wearing a mask appearing like we have it all together? Then when we get home we fall apart because our insides are hurting. When the going gets tough, how do you power through it? What if it’s just too much to bear and your mind is hurting, too? Do you think to reach out and find help, or do you focus on your pain and refuse to look up? One woman stepped out of her comfort zone and decided to reach out and let other folks know they are not alone. “What do you do when you’ve carried all this weight and you feel there’s nobody there to help you?” People are suffering from the inside out.
“Growing up I didn’t really know a whole lot about mental illness and really taking care of your mental health. I just didn’t know how important that was until I was in my thirties. In my family, it was just swept under the rug.”
“I want to uplift my community.”
Essence Jones has created a movement; through her darkest days she found the strength to help herself and others. The beauty of her story is how she has broken free from silence to embrace her struggle and empower others. Essence sat down with me in an interview at Minnehaha Falls. Little did I know that it was a place that held part of her story. Not far from where we sat was the last place her cousin was seen alive. She has lost two cousins to suicide, far more than any family should have to endure in their lifetime. Essence, too, has hit rock bottom after dealing with depression. She contemplated leaving her son with his father and escaping the pain. Essence is a mother who fiercely loves her child so facing such a decision was a wake-up call. “When my husband and I were separated (I had full time custody of our son). I was hurting so bad inside and dealing with heavy issues, I was actually contemplating leaving my son with his dad and not coming back. I knew that was my breaking point because my son is the joy and love of my life and to be in a place where I was thinking about abandoning him was a wake call for me. His dad is a wonderful dad, but me walking out of his life like that, I knew I needed to get help.”
Because Essence was open and honest about her feelings, people around her started to open up, too. In the past, her family was very secretive and kept to themselves. “I wish we talked more about mental illness sooner in our family. We just assumed if someone in our family was hurting it was because of drugs, alcohol, or a variety of things it could have been, but we weren’t looking at the root of why.”
Essence found that others among her friends and family had been down the dark road of mental illness. An uncle had schizophrenia and her mother had postpartum depression. Two cousins had dealt with depression and unfortunately it ended in suicide. When she was growing up, Essence felt like mental health wasn’t talked about. It just wasn’t addressed and people were left isolated. She wrestled with the question of how do we support each other? The truth of the matter is that mental health is just as important as physical health. Her bravery in being open about mental health has allowed others to break their silence and through that Essence has found hope and strength.
“After my cousin Andre’s suicide, I needed to take action and it need to come out. That’s when Protect Your Crown began.”
“The first discussion I had was with a group of men at H. White Men’s Room Barbershop in North Minneapolis, MN. I was kind of worried because as we sometimes know men don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. I didn’t know what the turnout was going to be or how the discussion was going to look like. I just wanted to find a safe space for them to speak their mind. I invited women to come and observe, but I let them know it’s an all men’s discussion and the floor needs to be theirs’. We had a great turnout. There were different men from all walks of life that ranged from ages 14-50. The conversation started with, ‘Why don’t men like to express themselves emotionally?’ The first answers were, ‘As a colored man in today’s society, we are expected to be this strong black man and to be able to support everybody. We’re not supposed to hurt and we’re not supposed to show any emotion or cry, because that’s what we were taught. This is how it’s supposed to be.’ Another gentlemen, who happened to be a veteran, opened up and said he has PTSD. You wouldn’t have had a clue he dealt with that unless he was willing to open up. He said, ‘I needed to reach out and get help because I don’t know how I would have gotten throughout life without help. My mental health is suffering and it’s also affecting my relationships.’ The more one person came forward, and then another. Men kept stepping up and spoke their truth. One of the takeaways I saw was the old folks began speaking to the younger folks and sharing their wisdom and saying, ‘It’s okay not to feel okay, just as long as you are responsible and take action to take care of yourself. Seek out the resources that you need, because you are our future and there are some things that need to change.’ It was a great 2 hour discussion for men to speak with other men.”
Essence isn’t a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist yet she knows she can help others. She has recognized that mental illness thrives in silence. Essence feels that if we reach out and identify with others we can help one another. Unfortunately, that is the last thing most people dealing with mental illness want to do. There is stigma and shame, as well as judgment, that keeps people from reaching out. Essence wants to provide the resources for her community to deal with their mental health.
“What I try to do is put resources out there. I work really close with NAMI. Sue (executive director of NAMI Minnesota Chapter) is a big fan of what I do.” There are free support groups through this program that are for individuals that are suffering from mental illness.”
“As I’ve reached out and opened up to others, I’ve discovered that a lot of people around me, including some of my friends, are dealing with a variety of mental illnesses. I had no idea. One of my friends I knew since the first grade had a nervous break down. She was institutionalized for a couple of months and was suffering from an uncommon mental illness called Trichotillomania. I had no idea. Then I found out that I had two other friends that were also suffering from the same illness. I had no clue. So I am learning more and more by doing this and just getting people talking and opening up.”
“I call it a movement because of its power at the grassroots level.” The first gathering Essence hosted to get people together to talk about mental health was arranged on Facebook. She hosts gatherings, facilitates change, provides resources and blogs her own journey. She is still working on finding ways to cope with her own mental health issues. It is her fearlessness that inspires others.
“We are growing. We are working on newsletters that will provide “Tips of the Month” with topics ranging from eating the right foods, to meditation, spotlights on therapists and mental health professionals, so we can build a directory for people and their specific needs. An example is Jasmine Boudah, author of “Mothering Through the Pain” which are stories of mothers who have suffered in silence, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not everybody goes with medication or does therapy the same way and that’s okay. We just want to be a hub for people to start getting help and have a direction and options for where to go. I know for me it took about four medications to finally get it right.”
“My husband and I have reconciled our differences and we are together with our beautiful son, Michael.”
Admitting you are struggling is the first step. Showing up to one of these events or getting help is another step.
“I’m not just trying to put a discussion out there and then being done with the discussion. I want to see how people are progressing. I want to see what they took from the discussion and how they will be applying them in their daily routines. I want them to continue to work through it. We all have good days and not so good days. And on those not so good days what are some of those takeaways from the discussion or tips I shared with them that they are applying to help them through that bad day. I want to put them to work and move away from the discussions and do it.”
“At the same time as I am helping others and working with these reaching out programs, I am healing myself.” From a blog to a community experience where people can connect directly or indirectly. Her movement is called Protect Your Crown.
See more of Essence’s personal story here: https://protectyourcrown1.com/about/
Check out Essence’s web series called Protect Your Crown Beyond the Walls that highlights individuals from all walks of life that are dealing with a mental illness or mental disorder and how they are coping with it and successfully living with it.
“I pray. I’ve learned that prayer without work is dead.”
Essence’s biggest message and what she’s learned is that despite your struggles with mental illness or mental disorder, you can still succeed! “It’s okay not to be okay. Just because the people around you don’t understand or tell you you’re just being ungrateful and there are others that have it worse than you, it’s your truth. You know your heart and your mind. Know that your story is valid. You can get up and move and take it one day at a time. Don’t get discouraged. Your life is worth living. Just because you have depression doesn’t mean it has you.”