Health And Wellness

I Was In A Mental Health Hospital: The Exercise That Changed My Life For The Better

Photo: NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock
woman jugging

On Sunday, April 17 of 2011, I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. It was a decision that saved me and altered the course of my life forever. You see, on that day, I checked myself into a mental health hospital. I was in the midst of a mental health crisis and I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

I had been struggling for years with depression and anxiety and everything came to a head on that particular day.

I was lucky to be with someone who suggested I check myself into the nearby psychiatric hospital. I didn’t want to, but after years of struggling with depression and anxiety, it all came to a head at that particular moment in my life, I needed to do something or I wasn’t sure I’d still be alive.

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I spent a week at Pine Rest Psychiatric Urgent Care Center.

Over the course of those seven days, I was given a care team that helped me straighten out my medication, get back on track with therapy, and develop tools to use for managing my illness.

One of those tools was developing a healthy habit. When I was released from the hospital, I took that advice to heart and put on a pair of neglected running shoes even though I had no intention of running

Making a connection between movement and my mental health

My goal was to walk my dog, even though I really didn’t want to. I’m glad I pushed through because that small walk made me feel accomplished.

Yes, it was just a walk, but having just been released from a mental health hospital, I managed to put on shoes and go outside to walk the dog. If you’ve ever dealt with depression, you know those small wins mean a lot! I didn’t just feel a sense of accomplishment after that walk though; I intrinsically felt better after being outside and moving my body.

I didn’t just feel accomplished after that walk though; I intrinsically felt better. Being outside and moving my body made everything feel better. That first walk after hospitalization eventually turned into regular walks, those walks turned into speedy walks, and those speedy walks into a jog.

After a few months, I was getting faster, going out longer, and traversing farther distances and I started feeling better about myself. Running, along with therapy and medication, slowly brought me back to life! I was so giddy with excitement that soon I wanted to connect with others that ran for mental health.

I couldn’t be the only one out there, right?

Photo: Author

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Searching for community

I spent a couple of years looking for a group of people that ran for mental health and came up empty-handed.

I thought about starting something myself, but I was nervous because it meant I needed to share my private struggle with mental illness. That damn stigma had me scared out of my mind. What would happen if I shared I had depression and anxiety? Would people perceive me differently? Would future employers look down on that? Would I lose friends? 

Those deep feelings of shame around having a mental illness bounced around in my brain for a while, up until I read Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown. In it, Dr. Brown explains that vulnerability, while scary, can transform lives. When we step into the arena of life as our full, authentic selves, we can connect with others on a deeper level and open ourselves up to find greater meaning in our lives.

Something about that book clicked with me and shortly after, I made the decision to start a group for runners that ran for mental health reasons by myself and I would start by sharing my story first.

On October 10 (World Mental Health Day) in 2016, I launched Still I Run: Runners For Mental Health Awareness with a Facebook page and a website I built myself, sharing it with family and friends. I honestly didn’t think it would do anything more than help me find a local group of individuals to run for mental health with. I was wrong.

Shortly after I put my story out there, I had friends and family reaching out telling me how brave I was for sharing, and some even sharing their own mental health journeys with me. Eventually, I had strangers reaching out, telling me how happy they were to have found a group that runs for mental health.

After a few months, I realized that there was more to Still I Run than I thought. There was a clear need for community and education around running for mental health, so in 2017, I started the process of turning Still I Run into a non-profit organization.

RELATED: I Love My Son, But His Mental Illness Makes Me Not Like Him

Photo: Author

Still, I run today

The years since I started Still I Run have been a bit of a whirlwind. That tiny Facebook group I created all those years ago is now a national non-profit working to promote the benefits of running for mental health while also creating a safe place for mental health running warriors to connect.

In 2020 we launched the Starting Line Scholarship, a program aimed at helping people overcome barriers to running for mental health by providing them with gear, training, and entry into a 5K or 10K. The year after that we officially started our Run Chapter program, which seeks to bring the Still I Run community to hometowns across the country.

In addition to those programs, we also onboard over a hundred Still I Run ambassadors every year who vulnerably and bravely share their personal stories of running for mental health. 

When I made that brave decision to check myself into a mental health hospital over a decade ago, I never, in my wildest dreams, believed I’d find myself being the head of a non-profit, but here I am. What was one of the most painful periods in my life turned into me finding my purpose and passion in life.

Running helped save my life and if I can help save another life through my story and my work with Still I Run, then my journey with mental illness is worth it.

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Sasha Wolff is a writer and founder/executive director of Still I Run, a community of warriors promoting the benefits of running for mental health. Her work covers mental health and fitness topics and has been featured in Lifehacker and Women’s Running.