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On the 6th of February The Ben Raemers Foundation hosted a premiere for two shorts films. Titled SMiLe, the films featured Aaron Herrington and Nick Jensen. The two spoke openly about their own mental health experiences and fielded questions in a Q&A discussion alongside Vaughan Baker and two mental health professionals. The screening felt hugely important and unlike any other 'skate' event we've attended previously.
The next day we spent some time with Aaron, who is pro for Polar Skate Co and co-owner of Chrystie NYC. He was kind enough to provide more context regarding his experience of being a professional skateboarder and managing his mental health.
Can we start by talking about how you got involved with The Ben Raemers Foundation and the short film we saw last night?
I got involved with The Ben Raemers Foundation through Rob Mathieson, Rob is Ben's best friend. I travelled with Ben a lot with Converse and he was a good friend of mine. After Ben passed away, Rob contacted me about doing the SMiLe video piece focusing on mental health awareness and Time to Talk Day. He knew some things about my own struggles in my own life through things I'd put out there on the internet or in interviews, so it seemed appropriate and fitting. So yeah, he contacted me about that, and now I'm in London!
Why is it important for people to be able to share these stories?
It's important because our parents, and previous generations, often hold the belief that going to therapy or speaking about your feelings makes you a weak minded person, or a soft person, particularly in men. There's this viewpoint of men being tough, being able to handle a lot of things, never really expressing emotion because you're supposed to be this strong don't bring it up kinda dude.
Women can often be viewed as the ones with problems, that showing emotions means they’re irrational or even crazy - when in reality it's men that have the problem when it comes to being open about their feelings. Getting people to openly talk about their experiences is really important because it challenges that stigma.
The more that men talk about it, especially within skateboarding, the more it becomes acceptable and easier for people going through things to voice what they're experiencing. From that, they'll be able to get an opinion and either seek the help that they want or need, or continue down the path that they're on. It's very important to talk because it challenges the stigmas and ideas that people have about mental health.
"Getting people to openly talk about their experiences is really important"
I worry sometimes that the term 'mental health' can be used too much as a blanket term for a myriad of experiences. Could you explain what your diagnosis is and what that means in a real sense?
I would totally agree, the term 'mental health' or 'mental illness' it's almost romanticised in a way, it can be quite commercial, when you ride the metro in NYC you see adverts for 'free clinical testing for bipolar or depression with marijuana'! On social media you see people and their bio might say '21, influencer, bipolar, schizophrenic' - and their whole thing is this Instagram account about their mental health and they may not even have got a diagnosis.
I got diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. A lot of people have general anxiety, but this is more of a feeling of always being anxious rather than feeling a little off. I take medication for that because it's too intense. I'm Type 2 Bipolar, but I am in the process of getting a different diagnosis. The more I research the more, I guess, soul searching I do, the more therapy, means that I'm leaning more towards Borderline Personality Disorder. Which is also stigmatised, people often think borderline is similar to schizophrenia - but it doesn't mean you have multiple personalities, it's more having issues with relationships and issues communicating with people.
I think the term 'mental health', it's not a negative term, but I think it's a term that should be used a little lightly. I worry that people now are like 'I don't sleep well, I have a mental health issue'... yes and no. I don't ever want to discourage or discredit how people are feeling, everyone's feelings are valid. It's only been the past 30 to 40 years where mental health has really been considered seriously from a medical point of view. The more people, and men, talk about it, the more it will change the perception of the word and it won't be seen so negatively or so intensely.
Within skateboarding, what are ways that companies can make things easier on their riders?
Most importantly it's about awareness and communication. I am going to use Thrasher as an example. They do the AM Scramble article, I was reading the most recent one and they had the 'Do's and Don'ts' of trying to get on a skate team. It's all amateur skaters and then TMs and professionals talking about how to blow it and how not to. They specify certain things and the way they're talking about these individuals, I mean no disrespect to anybody, but you don't always know what these kids are going through.
I've had my own experiences where I was overindulging, people just thought I was partying too much, in reality I had a lot going on in my head. I had to get to a point of voicing what was going on and how I was feeling, then there started to be an acceptance and understanding of it. 'Aaron doesn't like flying, let's try to give him as few connections as possible' or 'Aaron doesn't sleep super well, let's put him with Jake (Johnson) or Dela (Brian Delatorre) who he's good friends with, they'll room together'.
I think being aware, and communicating with your team manager and your peers is important. Letting them know how you feel, allowing them to be aware of it, it doesn't hurt anything to put that out there. No one should feel ashamed or discouraged to express how they're feeling to their teammates, TM or whoever, because it's only going to help them out.
Jerome (Campbell) was great for me, I partied with him so many times, but when he got sober he could see my behaviour was still the same. He was able to give me really good advice. Lee (Berman, Converse TM) too, I expressed a lot of the shit that I was going through to him, he was really good at helping me understand things and was really understanding of who I was. That made travelling easier. If TM's just knew a little more about you, you shouldn't be afraid to talk about that, it's going to make travelling easier, your career easier, particularly if you're struggling with some stuff. Like I said in the video, if your friends don't know or people don't know you're just by yourself struggling. Always express yourself, I feel.
"No one should feel ashamed or discouraged to express how they're feeling"
Do companies in the US provide healthcare for their riders? If so, is there mental health provision within that?
I'm not entirely certain to be honest. Through my sponsors I do not receive health insurance which is totally fine and fair because I am an independent contractor. I'd imagine that people on the level of Nyjah Huston and Ishod Wair at Nike receive health insurance. Or the Olympic team, they're probably on some kind of health insurance programme.
In the US, having health insurance is honestly almost more difficult for you to get mental health help. So much of it is out of pocket and private practice, they don't want to take your insurance in the first place. They want to get paid in full, not what your insurance would pay them. They generally don't care whether you have insurance. With healthcare in general, I broke my knuckle, collarbone all sorts of stuff, and it's been cheaper for me to not have insurance and handle it that way.
In the States if you can't see somebody or get in with a psychologist or a psychiatrist the best option is just to go to a mental health clinic or hospital. You will see somebody either that day or the next, you'll be prescribed medication, you'll be counselled and put into the right hands until you at a point to speak to somebody outside of that hospital or clinic. There's a lot of suicide awareness and mental health awareness out there, phone numbers and people and places you can call or contact to get that help and support. (Editors’ note: we will list some of these at the end of the interview)
What have you found beneficial about therapy and why would you encourage others to seek it out?
Man, I'm a huge advocate for therapy because of my personal life. Everyone has their own experience of growing up, what I am learning is that, although I love my parents, I have a lot of anger towards them, without really realising it. A lot of inner child stuff, which kinda sounds foolish and immature to think about. The therapy that I'm in, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which we spoke about a lot last night, it helps me to understand the way people talk to me and the way I react to their response. It gives me tools to take a step back. Ok, that person is feeling this type of way and that's because they're having an issue in their own life and I can't control that or take it personally. If I'm feeling a type of way, I can now distinguish what is making me feel that way and try to change it. I used to depersonalise a lot, and now I have tools to be able to tell myself that when I do feel that way and I get the anxiety from it that I remind myself 'you've always felt this way, you've always experienced your point of view through your eyes, and your brain has just become hyper aware of it'.
The thing I get from it, and why I'd encourage others, is you learn a lot about yourself that you may not want to learn, but that's part of the healing process. Even though I've learned a lot of negative things about myself - like I'm not the best communicator and not the best person at times - it only now makes me strive to be a better person because I'm more aware of it. I can take that into my relationships with loved ones, my friends, family and also my career. Most importantly, into my career and my loved ones.
I ruin a lot of things that I touch, that's why I went into therapy, to figure out why I'm destructive. I used to be addicted to chaos, I'm still addicted to chaos, so it's trying to understand that. If you're a pro skateboarder or someone that works a full-time job and your outlet is drinking or drugs, that's totally fine, but there's nothing wrong with going and speaking to somebody either. People might see that as weak or shameful, when it's honestly the strongest thing you can do. We suppress so much stuff, we compartmentalise and put things away in our mental closet so often. You need somebody to communicate with who can get those things out of you and enable you to see them from another viewpoint, to where you can feel comfortable to talk about them.
"I'm a huge advocate for therapy"
I take mood stabilisers and anxiety medication, it's a scary thing going into it, but if you don't try or don't try out the therapy you could be suffering alone forever. I highly recommend it. I spoke negatively about it in the past, wasn’t into it, but once I started doing it I was like 'what the hell have I not been doing these past years of my life?' I had people advocating for me to go since I was 21, and I'm 30 now, and I've known I've had issues since I was a teenager. Fast forward to 30 and now I have to deal with those things I've suppressed for years and years. But it's all positive in the end. No one should ever feel discouraged.
Is there a particularly valuable lesson or experience you've had in terms of better understanding and managing your own mental health?
I'd say the most valuable lesson that I have learned is that no one is perfect and everyone struggles. Actually, no. The most important lesson and the biggest thing that I've taken from therapy is that we're all human, we're all connected, and for us to get upset with somebody or say someone's crazy or invalid - we need to realise we're all very, very similar. We all have emotions, like the woman from Mind said last night: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue in their life. There were 100 people in that room, statistically 25 of them are going to deal with something. I would repetitively say the biggest lesson is we're all human beings and we're all doing the best we can, we're not perfect, striving for perfectionism can be a good thing, but don't beat yourself up about it. It all takes time, things won't happen overnight, therapy and medication isn't a quick fix but it's definitely worth trying.
Something I felt was maybe missing from the discussion last night was the importance of just general health, you're vegan for example
Chris Jones touched on it during the Q&A last night. He talked about the benefits of yoga and physical activity and things like that. Obviously your general wellbeing is very important and should be taken just as seriously as your mental health. Listening to your body is good. I eat what my body craves and what makes me happy, even if it's not necessarily vegan. There are times I want to eat things that make me happy because they’re familiar or make me feel better. Don't forget to breathe, don't forget to drink water and get some colours on your plate! I give advice better than I take my own, but yeah eat some green stuff, drink a lot of water and be physical. Don't take life ultra seriously, but still take it seriously…
Thanks to Aaron for taking the time to share both his experience and his thoughts with us, and also to Nick Jensen and everyone at The Ben Raemers Foundation. You can find video of the Q&A discussion as well as the SMiLe short films on the Foundation's YouTube page. If you can, please donate to the Foundation so they can continue to organise events such as this.
If you or someone you know is struggling please check out these support services:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273 TALK Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741
Trevor Project for LGBTQIA+
A global list of resources is available here.
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