It’s been two years since I wrote about my struggles with mental health, in response to the escalating mental-health issues occurring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
I was surprised that so many readers reached out to tell me that I wasn’t alone, and that they appreciated I was willing to be vulnerable and share my journey. Some explained to me their personal experiences. If there was an opportunity, we talked, listened and gave each other a hug.
Two years ago, I did not realize that just talking about my struggles would help reduce some of the numbness. It helped me to relax my clenched jaw. It helped me sleep a little longer through the night. It also helped me manage my own feelings, anxieties, insecurities and personal baggage.
I wish I could say I was better at receiving critical feedback, but I’m slowly getting there. Slowly.
Even with all my personal growth, the last two years haven’t been easy. As the pandemic was peaking, I lost one of my seasonal lifeguards to suicide. It was followed several months later by my father passing away, then the loss of a second seasonal lifeguard to suicide quickly after.
Along the way, I not only learned to better navigate my own journey. I came to understand the need to be there for each other. Even on the job.
Reeling from the first death, I contacted my therapist. I informed her that I was going to call the parents of my seasonal lifeguard, and I didn’t know what to say or if I should even call. I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. My therapist calmed me down and said it was okay to call and that it was even okay to not to know what to say. “Just call,” she said.
So, I did. I spoke with the lifeguard’s mother. It lasted about 20 minutes. I learned a lot about my lifeguard. She had been battling mental health issues for many years. She loved lifeguarding and wanted to work as a regional park lifeguard since she was young. She took a lot of joy from coming to work, and having the 2020 season postponed due to COVID was hard for her. I also shared information about her daughter — that she was an exceptional lifeguard and that I had wanted her to apply for advancement, but she shyly declined.
Her mother thanked me for reaching out, and I thanked her for sharing and her time.
Because of that conversation, I was better prepared to handle my father’s death and the second lifeguard’s passing.
But it also helped empower me to reach out and ask others, “Are you okay?” I came to appreciate the importance of asking that question.
Most appreciate that I asked. Some share their challenges: the isolation, the passing of a parent, the struggles of re-entry into daily life. All these things, plus a bunch of topics I didn’t mention — climate change, civil unrest, the economy — have put a strain on everyone’s mental health.
I think it’s appropriate to check in with people, and do it often. I have a seasonal lifeguard who battles with depression and anxiety. We talked on a regular basis during the season and now do so every few weeks in the off-season. She gave me permission to share her experience.
Sometimes she calls when she’s having a panic attack. In those cases, this is how the conversation usually goes: I ask her if she’s in a safe place to talk; she says she is. I ask how she’s doing; she says not okay. I ask if she wants to hurt herself; she says no. I ask if she’s current on taking her medications; she says she is.
Then I ask what’s going on and what seems to be triggering her. She goes into detail, and I listen. Most of the time I just listen and assist a little with reframing. I remind her that she is valued, she is a phenomenal lifeguard, and that I trust her in leading others in emergency situations. She thanks me, I thank her, and we hang up.
It’s important that we as an industry remove the taboo of discussing mental health — that we normalize it just like any other medical condition, such as diabetes, epilepsy, etc.
We’ve taken steps at my agency. This summer, my seasonal head and assistant head lifeguards wanted to make sure mental health resources were available to all seasonal lifeguards. They also requested additional training on what to do when staff bring up these issues at the workplace. I asked the seasonal leadership to form a committee to work on this task. I then met with human resources and a representative from our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) regarding the request from the seasonal staff. The EAP representative met with the leadership committee to explain all the services and resources EAP had to offer.
We decided to develop and record a digital presentation, then make it available online so all seasonal staff could watch at their convenience for the remainder of the summer season. Also, I met with the EAP rep to schedule training for next season, so leadership is comfortable in supporting mental-health issues at the workplace.
When I think of lifeguards and swim instructors, I believe they physically train hard and continuously to maintain their peak level of rescue readiness so that, as public servants, they can ensure their communities are water-safe. We need to train just as hard so we can combat and de-stigmatize mental health. None of us knew what havoc a global pandemic would bring, but we must prioritize mental health for ourselves, our workers and our communities.
I know for myself, the journey has been difficult — at times to the point of paralysis and hopelessness. Having a strong support system that included access to a therapist and supportive friends and family helped me climb out of that dark hole.
Even when I’m at my best in self-care, that dark hole is there. I’m not in it, but I’m standing next to it. And while I stand there, I try to keep others from falling into that hole. If they do fall in, I offer my hand to help them out.