Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Standing Up for Mental Illness

By Suzie Cooney

photoby Darrell Wong copyright protected

A healthy mind and a healthy body go hand in hand—you cannot have one, without the other. As part of my work today I continue to stress the importance of staying active, as it helps lead to improved mental health.From childhood, mental illness has had a profound impact on my life. My mother, and three more of her six siblings, lived with mental illness. My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression when I was a young child. Since I can remember I was a caregiver and lived in a house that was full of pain and constant upheaval. My grandmother did what she could, but years ago there was confusion about what mental illness was and not much support.

As an only child it was overwhelming. I was fragile. I had no person, or no organization, to turn to for help or support. In an attempt to escape I moved out when I was 15 years old. Ever since then I have experienced feelings of guilt for leaving my family in a time of crisis.

Realizing I had made a mistake I returned to help. A saying of my aunt and uncle helped me stay strong and forge ahead in tough times. “The well must stay well,” they said. I did what I could to maintain by own mental and physical health to provide the best help I could for my mother.

But times were still difficult. What my mother had to experience was agonizing both for her and for me. All the doctors did was lock her up, drug her up and then put her back into society with no coping skills. Consequently, the situation repeated itself, over and over, as we moved my mother from one apartment to the next.

Finally in 1997, I moved her overnight to an amazing community of progressive care in Contra Costa County, California. For a year, my mother was furious with me for taking action this way, but eventually she realized it was the best thing to have happened. Today she is able to live independently with only weekly visits from her amazing case manager and her physician, Dr. Ziba Rahimzadeh, who has been with her for over 12 years.

Growing up in California, the ocean has always called to me. Three years ago, and living in Hawaii, I got started in the sport of stand up paddling (SUP). As a professional trainer and model, staying active was not only important to my professions but made my mind feel healthier as well. In 2009, I was injured in a freak accident, breaking both my legs. I was confined to a wheelchair for several months. My lower body atrophied in less than two weeks and I began to feel depressed.

For me, I knew that the sport I had just started only a few years prior was the way to get both my body and mind back. Being on the water was soothing, it comforted me, it made me feel connected and part of something.

After standing up and helping myself, I realized that stand up paddling was a viable way to help others achieve improved health as well. That’s why I’m honored to partner with NAMI in hosting a SUP event in the Bay Area. The founder of East Bay SUP and I had become friends through our common interest in stand up paddling. Through conversations she bravely shared with me how she had gone through periods of serious depression herself and how SUP helped her as well. I knew that we had to hold an event that would also help raise awareness for mental illness. So on June 4 in Oakland, Calif., we are holding the “Bay Area Stand Up Paddle Clinic” to help support NAMI.

SUP is very easy to learn and people of all individuals can learn. It’s an easy way to get people on the water and an effective form of relaxation and therapy. Surfing is currently being used to help U.S. veterans who have PTSD recover from the effects of war. And although some might be scared at first to get out here it’s often hard to get folks back off the water.

For information on the event: If you have any other questions about getting involved in stand up paddling you can visit Suzie’s website or email her at

For more helpful information go to:
A special thanks to the NAMI team!  See you all on Saturday. Please, never give up on the ones you care about or even yourself. Day by day, you will get stronger and healthy. This I promise.  And also, give out lots of hugs!  People love to feel loved. Suzie Cooney, CPT
Here is another link with more information to the event as well:


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