#submitthestigma Interview with Erin Herle

Erin Herle is an accomplished brown belt under Marcelo Garcia, an IBJJF world champion, and is the creator of the Jiu-Jitsu Journal. She has also been a photographer at numerous major grappling events. Recently, she has created the #submitthestigma campaign which focuses on assisting those who live with mental illness as well as promoting good mental health.

JJT: Submit the Stigma is a campaign to help raise awareness and support for those who live with mental illness. What specific types of support does the campaign provide?

Erin: The campaign’s existence in itself serves its goal of bringing awareness. In fact, I keep the name of the campaign as #submitthestigma in a hashtag form because I want it to be seen as a way of sharing, a way of showing how simple it is to add it into your vocabulary, captions, or content. Fortunately, mental illness isn’t a foreign concept or a disease that no one has ever heard of. On the other hand, people have their existing notions about mental illness and mental health and that can be even tougher. Rather than simply supplying new information, there must also be a process of debunking myths.

The support I want to bring to our Jiu-Jitsu community is knowledge and a forum for discussion. Once I posted about the campaign, I had strangers messaging me about their own personal dealings with mental illness whether it was themselves, or their loved ones. Some even said that their closest friends and family were unaware of what they were going through. And so it’s working as far as making people feel comfortable enough to talk, but the next step is always encouraging professional help and self-help. For that, I’ve sort of linked up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have affiliates all throughout the country and they offer programs for those suffering, support groups for friends and family, and overall information that covers the entire scope of mental illness. By providing that resource and even my own experiences with the mental health system, I can hopefully aid in the well-being of members in our community.

I’ve also been gathering the stories of these amazing people who have been an open book to me. I’ll be posting them on the website, www.submitthestigma.org , so that others can relate, see how common mental illness is and reaffirm that Jiu-Jitsu really is a type of therapy that can help with the maintenance of positive mental well-being and recovery.

JJT: What are some of the issues you believe that people living with mental illness face when discussing their struggles with people who don’t necessarily understand what they are going through?

Erin: Speaking from my own experiences as a teenager, I rarely wanted to alarm my parents with my feelings and emotions that were rather extreme at the time. It’s hard to explain that you don’t feel like getting out of bed some days or that your chest gets tight and you freeze at the thought of going to the gym. Those things can be mistaken for laziness or weakness. It’s hard to convey that it’s not something you have control over and that you’re not trying to be difficult. It took many, many years for me to go into talk therapy, and that was by my own hand as a 22-year-old.

Once diagnosed and getting advice from a professional it becomes significantly easier to explain what’s going on. Even still, you’re going to hear from people that you’re just being negative or that you just need to “think positively”. While the latter can help, it’s not that simple. Being in a healthy, positive environment like a Jiu-Jitsu academy where you’re
engaging in exercise, gathering social support, and achieving goals big and small, that helps. It helps a lot.

JJT: It seems as though many people believe mental health is something that can be controlled simply by deciding to “get over it”. How do you believe we could better educate these types of individuals?

Erin: Talking about it helps. Speaking from personal experience is effective. Directing people of our community to resources of knowledge like the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I took a Mental Health First Aid course that teaches how to identify crisis and symptoms of mental illness, how to be of help to someone suffering, and how to encourage someone to seek professional help among other things. The 8-hour course gave me the tools to recognize potential mental health problems and I believe everyone could use this knowledge. I’m looking into becoming an instructor so that I can run these courses for the instructors, academy owners, and the brand leaders of our [grappling] community. If we respect first aid for physical ailments, why not become first responders for mental health?

JJT: What resources would you recommend for people who are struggling with their mental health?

Erin: I will always promote professional help. You can start by making an appointment with your general practitioner or family doctor and they can refer you from there. Dealing with doctor appointments and insurance can be very burdensome so if you have someone that is willing to help, and I am 100% sure there is a family member or friend willing to do so, have them make the appointment. And if you’re that someone trying to help, be that step and make it easier. The good news is that today, most insurance plans in the U.S. will cover mental health. From there, a plan to get your mental health on track will be made and you’ll have the supervision of a mental health professional to fall back on. If immediate help is needed, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255 and online [HERE]. If you would like help for locating mental health services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association has a helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or online [HERE].

JJT: If a friend at Jiu-Jitsu were to approach a training partner and express that they may be struggling with their mental health, what could that training partner do to help?

Erin: The same applies to the above resources. The best thing anyone can do when they either notice someone struggling or have been approached about a mental health issue, is to relay concern. Tell them you would like to help them. If they’ve asked for the help, that’s even better. Think about when someone comes to you with a constant headache, or their arm is aching. You would offer up your concern, and your help the best way you know how. Mental health is no different. Direct them to their existing doctors or the resources for specialists above. Listen nonjudgmentally most of all, and don’t shut down their emotions and/or concerns.

JJT: You’ve said before that Jiu-Jitsu saved your life in regards to your mental health. Would you mind sharing how it has done so?

Erin: I think Jiu-Jitsu has gotten me out of my own head, so to speak. From day one I was taken out of my comfort zone and into some weird, baggy robe and onto a mat where I was expected to be in close contact with someone I just met. Luckily for me I knew a couple of the guys in the gym when I first started. Learning the moves, the leverage, the possibilities and capabilities of my own body, that was sincerely motivating. There is a steep learning curve in the first year or two and it was addicting. Even though I was working 30-32 hours a week at a travel agency and taking on a full class load in college, I was making training a priority. In turn, I had to manage my time and prioritize much more. I wasn’t hanging out with the usual crowd all the time, spending all my money on burritos and Coca-Cola (well, that stopped about a few months in).

For me it was the first time I had something that was purely my own. It wasn’t girl scouts or a family affair. I was supporting myself by paying my own tuition and for my own gear. It doesn’t take long to get to know your training partners. It gets considerably less awkward once you do and humor goes a long way when you’re new to positions. I looked forward to each training session because I was going to hang and joke around with my friends; I’d be getting into shape and sweating things out, absorbing moves like a sponge, validating my abilities by securing moves and submissions in live training. And I was having fun most of all. By the time I started competing I found a lot of worth in what I was doing, proving myself on a stage-like mat and facing a lot of anxiety.

Even today, over 6 years into training and competing, I still deal with anxiety and upsets. But I’ve learned not to panic or make any excessive movements. I’ve taken to trusting my experience and the support of my team to get me through it; through anything even off the mat.

JJT: How can the Jiu-Jitsu community help your campaign?

Erin: On March 21, the day after the 2016 IBJJF Pan Jiu-Jitsu Championship, I am hosting a charity seminar at Studio 540. Instructors include Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles, Caio Terra, Romulo Barral, Gianni Grippo, Abraham Marte and Kristina Barlaan. All proceeds will go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Please sign up for the event by donating the suggested donation of $25 or more [HERE]. Also, I am still asking for raffle and silent auction donations to be given away throughout the event.

I am continuing to gather stories about how Jiu-Jitsu has helped with mental well-being and would love to gather as many as possible. You can send them to my email erinherle@gmail.com.

And of course, spreading the word, talking about mental health and prioritizing mental well-being just as you do your physical well-being. The more common we talk about it, the more beneficial Jiu-Jitsu becomes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here