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Episode 1: Henry

ANDREA:

Welcome to Getting Thru - I’m Andrea Sonnenberg.

 

What is necessary to make more seismic shifts is to realize that. We have the ability to really destigmatize it, normalize it in our daily conversations individually, one on one with people in our lives.

 

Henry was finishing up his first year at U Penn. He had made some good friends - he was doing musical theater and singing in an a capella group which he loved. That Spring, he found himself at a luncheon with the university President.

 

HENRY: [00:30:39]

At the very end of the meal, she was like, I want to go around the table and I want to inquire about one aspect of student life that you think that is on your mind or needs improvement or whatever it was. 

[music cue] 

So when it came to me, that was sort of the first time. I had ever talked about my depression to strangers. I don't really know most people in the room, but I was like, this is an opportunity for me to. Be very open and hopefully. Have what I say be heard. In a way that will produce real, tangible change. [00:31:42]

 

ANDREA:

Henry wears his heart on his sleeve no matter what he’s doing.

 

HENRY: [00:08:23]

The first word that instantly comes to mind when you ask me, describe myself is sensitive. I’m probably one of the most sensitive people I know [00:08:29][6.1]

HENRY: [00:08:40] 

And I feel things on a very deep level, both positive and negative. 

when I'm feeling passionate about something, it just means that much more. Or when I'm feeling happy about something, I feel it with such magnitude. But. When I am feeling sad or when I'm feeling lonely, like those feelings are also magnified on the other end.

 

it's hard for me to cloak whatever I'm feeling. [00:10:32]

And if that means I cry in front of my friends or in front of my friends, 

Speaker 2: [00:11:11] It's incredible to be able to feel that depth of joy and emotion. But then, on the other hand, sometimes it ends up the despair and the loneliness can be really exacerbated. I do understand that, my son who struggled with mental health issues was very sensitive and that was the same thing.

HENRY:

Absolutely. [00:11:29]

ANDREA: [00:01:12]

So tell me a little bit about your family and your relationship with your family and their influence on you. [00:01:17][5.1]

 

HENRY: [00:01:19]

So I'm the youngest of five. We have a very close knit, tight family. 

Narration: And Henry’s whole family is musical. He remembers every car ride when he was younger had a musical theater sound track or a Carole King or James Taylor album playing in the background. Singing also gives Henry a cathartic and creative outlet. 

HENRY:

And that is really a big part of who I am. I love to sing. I love music. So growing up around that and being in a family that celebrates that is huge. [00:03:40][36.2]

And I think being the youngest of five with a sister who's 16 years older and sort of a lot of people are older than me with big personalities, it's sort of been a double edged sword and I think has definitely informed who I am as a person. I wrote my college essay about being the youngest of five and how that has shaped me.

 

Narration:

Growing up, Henry did his best to be the “easy” child. He describes himself as a bit more quiet than his siblings. This approach gave him the opportunity to be observant, but it also meant that he didn’t talk much about his big feelings. 

I sort of made it my duty to sort of just be the one that everyone can get along with, like, no, no big issues. 

 

HENRY: [00:04:25]

 I sort of set myself up by the end of high school, you know, sort of by that time, still not having really expressed or come to terms with any of the, I guess, more pertinent issues that I was experiencing, sort of set me up to a very interesting transition into college life when I was sort of for the first time on my own out of the. I guess I don't know, I guess the safety net of being constantly surrounded by family. [00:04:54][29.6]

ANDREA: 00:13:54]

So you recently graduated from college. What did you study at Penn? [00:13:58][3.8]

HENRY[00:13:59]

I studied English and music at Penn. [00:14:00][1.7]

ANDREA:

[00:15:23] How would you describe your college experience as compared to your high school experience? [00:15:27]

 

HENRY [00:15:29]

I would say, if I had to contrast them in the most stark way, my high school experience was very even keeled in, my college experience was very turbulent. [00:15:46]

 [00:15:53] I think in high school, because of the way that I had been in self-imposed, would be sort of stay easy.

I didn't know myself fully and didn't have access to the depth of emotion that I do now, so I think that probably helped me to sort of be a little bit more even keeled. But I also wasn't being myself at all. I in high school, I if I felt anxiety or did feel. Bad about something, it was much more difficult for you to share it. I would sort of, whereas now if I'm feeling a certain way, I want to talk and talk and talk about it, I would sort of be a little more shut off [00:16:34]

 

And also in high school, I was not out as a gay man. And so I think that also was difficult because and it wasn't that I didn't think I would be accepted, it was just that I wasn't comfortable in my own skin yet. But that also took a toll and that I sort of. You know, when those conversations have come up, I sort of try and avoid them and it just felt weird to have to sort of be quiet about a part of my identity, which definitely informed my high school experience. [00:17:10][30.0]

 

ANDREA: [00:18:30]

So at what point in college did you come out? [00:18:32][2.7]

HENRY: [00:18:34]

So I came out right when I got to college. Pretty much like the first week there, because one of the great things about Penn is that it's universally known as like one of the most LGBTQ friendly places where students go to college. It's on a bunch of lists. So like when I got there, I immediately met so many people who are out and comfortable and that sort of inspired me. So I have a clean slate like  I'm ready to take the step. And it was a great thing and I’m so glad that it happened. [00:19:05][31.0]

 It took me a while to get very comfortable talking about it, because I was still in this in-between space where I was like I was out, but I wasn't necessarily. I didn't want to necessarily make that the first thing that people knew about this, cause I think. You know, I just want to be me 

I think it took a while for me to feel comfortable wearing it as a badge of pride and worry and accept and making it a part of me was part of who I was. And so I think that took that definitely took time to sort of figure out how that would sort of. You fit together in my identity, but overall, it was a very positive thing 

 

Narration:

At the beginning of freshman year, Henry was getting involved with musical theater and an acapella group. But despite the community he found at school, that first year was really challenging. 

HENRY: [00:20:59]

mid-September. I think once the dust had settled and I realized that like. The initial summercamp energy was gone, and this is sort of real life and this is where I'm at. That's when. The waves of emotion that I guess I had not fully fleshed out from my high school years, combined with increasing anxiety started to hit. So about mid September, I. You know, I guess I just really felt lost. [00:21:41][41.8]

[00:21:58] I remember there was one Saturday afternoon in mid-September of freshman year. I was like crying. It was like at 3:00 p.m. I didn't really know what to do with myself. I found that, like, the weekends, especially for me at first, were really difficult because there was no structure. I'm someone who thrives on structure and sort of being expected to, like, make my own plans with people I didn't really know and like and figure that out when I didn't even know what I really wanted or wanted to associate myself with was really overwhelming. And so I remember I called my mother and I was sobbing. I'm usually not someone who at that point at least sobbed, just kind of randomly right crying. And that was the first time I was like, I think you should maybe go seek out some help

Narration:

So Henry reached out to the University’s counseling center, which took some effort, because while treatment was available, Mental health services weren’t advertised to students the same way other resources were- they weren’t even open on the weekends. And the culture at Penn didn't help either. Many students use this term “Penn Face” - the face you put on to show that you can handle anything. And all of this contributed to the stigma Henry felt when he first started treatment and began using medication. 

 

HENRY: [00:23:16]

right off the bat after the first couple sessions, and I would just cry and cry and cry I was diagnosed with clinical depression and got put on medication. It was simultaneously comforting to have sort of a name attached to what I was experiencing, but also very disarming because. Depression was a very stigmatized word, and, you know, there was nobody in my immediate family who would ever even talk about. Like a real diagnosable mental health condition. 

 

Narration: But naming his experience was the first step in understanding how to treat it.

 

HENRY:

I mean it definitely was the right label because I was struggling a lot my freshman year. And, you know, it was. Getting out of bed in the morning. To go take a shower, even was like it felt like someone was asking you to run a marathon. I really felt like it was so hard. There are many mornings when my my roommate would have to come physically lift me up or else I wouldn't move. And many nights where I was supposed to go to a party or supposed to go out to dinner, but I would just retreat to my room, retire to my room. Sobbing. And sometimes it was without reason, which was even the more scary thing to sort of sadness because of sadness. 

 

Narration:

And Henry felt sadness even during concerts when he thought he should be excited and happy. 

 

HENRY:: [00:25:20]  

I remember my brother Jonah came to see me for my first a capella show and I could not speak to him. [00:25:20][124.2] we walked around campus and I was completely silent because I was so. Was just so sad and so. So unlike myself, it's almost like I'm talking to a stranger. It was a very weird phenomenon. I remember like after my first acapella show, I felt so excited for it. It was like this is something I've been working on and it might make me feel happy. But I remember after the second show. There has to be a going after party, but I a party room was like sobbing on the balcony 

 

Narration:

It was after that second a cappella show that Henry decided to open up to a few friends. 

 

HENRY:

[00:28:22] end of November, December, I had it was my roommate and then my other. Really, the close friend who is now my best friend in the world  named Hannah and I really opened up to them about what I was going through and you sort of laid it out all out on the table because at a certain point, I also couldn't really hide it at all. I, I you know was honest, said like I had been diagnosed with depression. I'm on medication and this is where I'm at. Let's talk about. All the dark feelings I was having, whatever it was, what I realized was. In those initial conversations, even if neither of them were able to necessarily connect with everything I was saying, there was a piece of what I was saying, that each of both of them could grab on to and be like, oh, I understand this aspect of it. I understand this aspect of it 

 

Narration:

These small things that his friends related to, helped Henry realize he could share his experiences with them.

HENRY:

Even if it wasn't like you also have depression, you have depression, it was like, oh, you. Part of what contributes to depression is that you feel anxious about the lack of structure, me too. Or, part of what makes you go into, go inward, is that you are like nervous about what other people might think? I feel that way too. So like, having that realization was a big moment for me because it inspired me to try and be more open [00:30:01][98.7]

 [00:30:12] but also it was therapeutic for me to feel like people were relating to aspects of what I was going through. 

 

 [01:05:52] So maybe there have been moments where, like, I feel like on a university wide level, there is a stigma attached to it because the resources are not accessible. But I've never where, if I've shared my experience with one person, that they shame me for it or that day or that they hold it against me. They may not be able to understand it. They might not be looking at a single aspect, but at least they're willing to listen to it. And so I think that's huge. Is that. What can be even more monumental than or what is necessary to make more seismic shifts is to realize that. We have the ability to really destigmatize it, normalize it in our daily conversations individually, one on one with people in our lives. [01:06:45][52.8]

 

Narration:

And it was these conversations and experiences that culminated at that last week of his freshmen year, when Henry found himself at lunch with the university President. Remember, Henry had never spoken to strangers about his depression, but the students had just been asked to share their experience of student life and he saw that this was an opportunity. 

HENRY:

[00:30:39] And so I sort of unleashed about, you know, what my experience freshman year and how I felt. Going through the depression and not feeling the support that I needed to be feeling from the university, 

Speaker 1: [00:41:12]  Yes, there are an abundance of resources for wellness, both student organization, there's a student helpline, there's there's caps, the psychological service. There are so many. A, they were not common knowledge enough, and B, the students who are probably most in need of those things are the least likely to go out and seek it. (Last take is best)

Narration:

Henry explained how the culture surrounding wellness at the university contributed to the stigma he felt. He didn’t want Penn Face to be something to be proud of and when he was unable to go to class because of his mental health, he didn’t want to have to lie about it.

ANDREA:

[00:35:06] Why was physical health so much more comfortable to talk about? Why was that a more valid excuse? [00:35:13][7.4]

HENRY:

[00:34:46] It's so much easier to write an email saying, I have a stomach bug or I have a cold and I'm not coming in, rather than like I have depression and can’t get out of bed. [00:34:54][7.6]

HENRY:

 [00:35:37] And so all of those things, I sort of unleashed that all at this lunch. And it was a surprise to myself that it all came out. But then so I left the lunch and then the next day, I received an email from the the provost at the university, 

 

Narration:

The provost invited Henry to be on the search committee for a new university position called the Chief Wellness Officer. So that summer Henry helped to hire that person. And the next year he joined the Student Wellness Advisory Group - helping to increase awareness and accessibility at the school.

HENRY:

[00:38:05] you know having all these avenues to really be proactive about it was very therapeutic in my own journey. 

You know, I still think there's a long way to go in terms of how we how we shape discourse about mental health particularly. For people at colleges, universities, where there is definitely a mental health crisis. I mean, I believe during the time it was that we would get emails there at least once a year, we got an email about someone committing suicide.So. It is monumental and I think I saw the first seeds of it becoming an issue that's on the forefront of everyone's mind. [00:39:21][31.0]

ANDREA: [00:45:49]

So you've been pretty open about your story, and I want you to tell me a little bit about that. What was that like and were you nervous to talk about it at first? [00:46:02][12.6]

 

HENRY:[00:46:03] It's definitely gotten more comfortable as time goes on. As I, you know, as I work through the emotions, they became easier to talk about, easier to concretize and and easier to articulate as I sort of got in touch with them. I think the big turning point in terms of my openness was I you know, at the beginning of my junior year of college, I had my cousin Sophie had just launched a company called The Conversationalist, which is now and has grown tenfold. but at that point it was the first stages. It was just a website with sort of articles and podcasts. 

at this point Instagram had floated the idea of removing likes. And my cousin asked, she was like, can you write an article talking about what your thought on this? I know you have an interesting experience with social media, can you just write an article

 

I wrote the whole story from start to finish and and talked about how social media played a big role in it, I spoke about how I went through and I began to go to bed and sort of how social media played a part in that, because I would go even more inward when I felt like I saw that other people were just fine, contributed to that that narrative of I'm alone in this because so many other people are posting about the incredible experiences they’re having [00:48:47][17.7]

Narration: The article started getting a lot of circulation. Two days later, it was reported in the Jewish Journal, a local Los Angeles publication. People Henry didn’t even know began reaching out. 

I was completely blown away by how impactful it was and how people took so well to it, and most importantly, how many aspects of my story people related to. And I think that was a big turning point for me. And realizing that I have if I am as open and authentic as I can be. It's going to encourage others to do the same 

 

ANDREA:

Having these conversations about mental health has helped Henry understand that mental and physical health are connected. Another project he worked on at Penn was to merge Student Health services with counseling and psychological services.

HENRY: [00:43:52]

I am hopeful that we will see very soon that that mental wellness is placed on an equal level as physical wellness and that, you know, writing that email to a coworker professor saying, I can't come and take that therapy is just as valid as I have a dentist appointment. [00:44:15][22.6]

ANDREA: [00:44:15]

Yes, I agree. I'm a big proponent of parity for mental health and physical health. One just happens to affect the brain. The other affects the other parts of your body, so I completely agree with you. [00:44:25][9.6]

 

HENRY: [00:44:26] And they're very and they're actually very, very, very interconnected. 

Very often the cause of physical issues is mental and sometimes if I woke up feeling physically sick, that would affect my mental state like there. [00:44:42][16.8]

ANDREA: [00:44:43]

Oh, yes, yes. Intertwined. Yes. And that's what wellness is. I mean, you really make a really good point it's the total being of a person. [00:44:55][12.3]

Speaker 2: [00:59:45]

Let's go back to social media, because that is such a trigger for so many people. And I would love for you to describe your relationship with social media and your mental health, how they relate to each other and how you avoid the compare and despair aspect of social media. [01:00:07][14.6]

HENRY: [01:00:08]

I have a very fraught relationship with social media. I. It was definitely a very big contributor at first to why I was struggling a lot because. Nobody was posting saying, I'm having a bad day or nobody was posting, saying, I feel lonely today. It was always like, look at me, look at all my friends we’re all so happy. Look at this thing that you weren't invited to. It just was not it was fueling emotions I had already been feeling and made them even more like the magnitude was increasing. 

There are also incredible components of social media. For me, when it comes to my music, it's been very positive. I've been able to share on a bigger platform and I've been able to connect and make friendships with people who are also other artists and creators. 

In that way it can be very beneficial. But I also think it can be very harmful 

There would be many times I remember I was with my roommate Hannah when this happened. One time. I would open Snapchat watching those stories, and then I got off the app and I would just feel like it had made me tangibly sadder in the room. And she was like, What are you doing? And I was like, I don't know, like, why am I looking at this if it's making me feel so much worse about myself? So I just deleted off my phone for like two months. Then when I felt like I was in a place where, like, if I had looked at it, it wouldn't make me feel upset I redownloaded it. What's nice, what I think people should know is that. Every person's relationship with social media is different and that if it serves you well, that's amazing. If it's not serving, you will delete it because it's going to make you happier, 

It's not worth it. It's so not worth it. [01:03:14][8.9]

 

Narration:

But even though Henry regulates his social media use, and is so involved and open, he is still coming to terms with his big emotions, realizing they might always be part of who he is.

HENRY: [00:51:57]

I still struggle with depression a lot. It's not something that I experienced really bad freshman year and now it's gone like I'm still on medication, I still see a therapist, I think over the years as I worked through it and as I've gotten to be more open about it, I've learned. A lot of ways to cope with it and how to identify triggers that might. You know. Prompted me to enter a depressive state and sort of that I have a lot more in my toolkit on how to navigate it, but it's not gone, I don't think it ever will be. [00:52:39][58.1]

ANDREA: [00:53:11]

What are some of your coping mechanisms when you realize that, you know, you're getting to a not good place? [00:53:17][5.9]

HENRY: [00:53:17]

I have a lot actually. I've developed a nice little arsenal of weapons. Which is easier said than done because there are times where I sort of have to sit in it and feel it. but. OK, for example. This is separate from my depression. I got really bad anxiety about flying. That, for me is sort of a trigger on the anxiety side of things. But but this tool has also translated to some depressive moments, so my therapist said when the. Sometimes when you're emotionally charged out of 10, no matter what you say, no matter what you're trying to say to yourself rationally, it's not going to work because you're out of pain emotionally and that's going to occur. So we have to bring you down to a seven or six. And then really. And then you can really. Or really have a bit more of a natural conversation between the emotion and the rationale. And so. In the flying situation, what I was told to do was overwhelm my senses so that I get out of my head and have engaged and grounded in the space around me. So for me, that is while we're taking off on the plane, rather than sitting and staring out the window in my head, I am listening to music and engaging my hearing and wondering then eating a snack. So I'm tasting something and I'm and I'm doing the crossword puzzle. So I'm like touching something and I'm engaged in something and overwhelming my senses. Helps me get through the 10 of my emotional charge so that when it's down to a seven or six, I am able to navigate a little bit more rationally. [00:54:51]

 

HENRY: [00:55:08]

Whether that's for me, I have like a couple of TV shows that I know I turn on when I need to be grounded and comforted or I. Run over to the piano and start playing music, or I call someone and and just have a gun and either talk about how I'm feeling or just try and get them to play a game, whatever it is, as much as possible for me. You know, when the emotional charge out of 10 being in my head isn't necessary, the most helpful thing and sometimes it happens. But I think identifying when those wounds are going to come, engaging my mind in some other way, even if it's for five minutes, so that my emotional charge goes down to seven or eight. Then I can allow that then helpful and easier from other people and I'm able to help myself in a more productive way.

 

Narration:

Today Henry is out of college and starting a new job. He still sings and writes music, posting songs on tik tock and instagram. 

 

Although he is beginning a new chapter, he is still working harder than ever to live with his intense feelings and to advocate for all kinds of wellness. 

HENRY: [00:52:41]

right now I'm in a big life transition. Right. And so I've been feeling it. I've been feeling that aspect of my emotions more deeply in the past couple of days, and that's OK.

 

But my advocacy is not going to stop just because I'm not in the university space. I'm still very connected to the university and to that wellness officer. But I will continue to put my experience on the table for people to see whether it's putting into my music or posting about it or. I just recently joined the board of an organization called JQ International, that sort of operates at the intersection of Judaism and the LGBTQ identities. And I'm sort of using that as a platform to talk about mental health in that space. And that's sort of the reason that I joined in the first place. But at some point. So I think there's a lot of ways that I hope to continue to advocate the the. And for me, the primary form of advocacy is just being open about what I've gone through. To me, that's advocacy too. [01:19:58][57.9]

 

ANDREA: [01:08:16]

I'm wondering if you could tell me any advice you might give to someone who's confronting your issues today. Who? [01:08:23][7.3]

HENRY: [01:08:26] You have made it through 100% of your bad days. Sort of like this too shall pass. But I would say two things that have helped me make more about me, but that maybe everyone can take a little piece of it. One is that my therapist and I have described a term for something that I used to do a lot more called self gaslighting, where if I would feel a if I was feeling something at a 10, something's being really big to me. That I knew other people weren’t being affected by, there was an extra layer of self judgment saying, why do you feel so big? Why is this feeling so big to you? This is ridiculous. Like everything in your life is great. Why are you feeling X, Y, Z thing? But that was just compounding the emotions I was feeling and making it that much worse, because not only was I feeling so terrible, right, but I was making myself feel terrible about feeling so terrible. So what I think is has been really helpful for me is when I am experiencing an emotion or a feeling, not judging it, but experiencing it and give my giving myself the space to feel it is so helpful and actually helps me get through it a lot more quickly than if i’m quick to judge it or quick to dismiss 

That's the first piece. And the second piece I would say is. You know, I think. It. As much as possible, because everyone's in a different space, but. It's for me, the most therapeutic. Thing that I have done is have is. Have more real conversations of people in my life about either what I'm feeling or what they're feeling or both, and it's really scary to do and it's very uncomfortable. And sometimes you might not even feel like you have a way to articulate how you're feeling. But for me, that was the big stepping stone for my. Personal growth was being able to have conversations 

having someone just sit there and listen. It makes a world of difference, and I think the more we can lean into into. The one on one is how we how we talk about an individual basis, that's really going to be what contributes to the stigmatization. Of mental illness on a larger scale. [01:07:37][33.5]

ANDREA: [01:12:26]

So how do you define success for yourself? 

HENRY:: [01:12:30]

I define success. It's hard, I think. I don't like to define it so much [01:12:38][7.6]

 I think success to everyone is completely different and should be different because everyone is different. And so what my success is, is very different from what any of my siblings successes or any of my friends. And that is amazing and should be celebrated. [01:14:02][17.8]

ANDREA: [01:14:04]

Well, maybe we should call it fullfillment.

HENRY: [01:14:07]

yeah, I think that's a better term, [01:14:08][1.3]

ANDREA: [01:14:08]

right. How do you define fulfillment for yourself? And and do you feel fulfilled as a person [01:14:14][5.7]

 

HENRY:

[01:14:15] that's so much more important because you're living in your body on a Day-To-Day basis and success like sometimes success can be. Defined by how other people view you or how other people externally are viewing your trajectory, but none of that matters if you're not feeling fulfilled and you're not. You're not feeling authentic in your own skin because that's that's all that really matters. [01:14:41][25.6]

ANDREA:

[01:14:43] Do you feel fulfilled as a person now? [01:14:45][1.5]

HENRY:

[01:14:46] I feel a lot more fulfilled now that I'm speaking openly about. What I what I want, know how I feel, 

For me. Fulfillment is. Being true to who I am, and because of that, I'm able to connect on a much deeper level with other people. 

So yeah, I think I am feeling pretty fulfilled and. And I think that is so much more important than my ability to feel happy all the time or to feel like I have achieved success in my life or if I'm feeling it on the day to day basis that I am being who I meant and being open about it, that is enough. [01:15:58][72.3]



 

Getting Thru is made possible with the support of USC Hillel through the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative. It is produced by Hannah Beal, Micah Smith and me, Andrea Sonnenberg. Original music by Micah Smith. 

 

Thank you for listening.

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