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For This Baltimore Runner, Mental Health is Like Running a Marathon

Marathoner Denise Williams has had running come and go in her life, but now sees outdoor recreation as essential to her continued self-care.

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Denise Williams, 30, discovered Still I Run, a community of runners aiming to create awareness around mental illness and erase the stigma, while driving down to Richmond, Virginia to run her second marathon.

“I was just like, ‘Man, I’m doing all these miles. I really want to find a way to raise funds and just help spread awareness,’” she says.

Three years later, she is now an ambassador for Still I Run, using her social media presence to raise awareness and increase representation in the running community. “I was really open about my identity as a queer bi-racial woman and wanting to have more diversity and representation and I think that resonated with [Still I Run’s] mission, so I became an ambassador,” she says.

Mental health awareness and suicide prevention is a cause that drives both her professional and personal life. Williams has been running on and off for her whole life. Her first memory of running was with her brother, Jeffrey, as a kid. She remembers him as being an avid soccer player and all around star athlete. 

Together they would go to Fort Meade in Maryland and run laps on the track. “He was always way faster and more athletic than me, but as my big brother I wanted to be like him. That was a bonding experience we had,” she says.

That stopped when Jeffrey died by suicide in 2001 when he was fourteen. 

Williams joined track in high school, but soon had to drop the team to get a job and help her single mom, who is an immigrant from Thailand. 

It wasn’t until she was in college at Towson University that Williams began running consistently. “I hit a really low point and I remembered how good I felt running before,” she says.

She signed up for a half marathon to motivate her. And it quickly helped her replace some of the negative coping mechanisms she had taken on, like smoking. “You can’t really smoke cigarettes, have asthma, and run regularly very well,” says Williams.  

For the past eight years, running, cycling, and backpacking have been a regular part of her life. She keeps active for herself, but also as a way to raise money for different causes related to mental health and suicide prevention. With the help of her friends, family, and community, she’s raised thousands of dollars for suicide prevention, in honor of Jeffrey. 

Sticking With Self-Care

Williams often goes trail running with her dog, Sandy, who she rescued from the side of the road after a backpacking trip in Wyoming.

Williams works as a mental health social worker for elementary aged students in Baltimore. She goes to great lengths to support and provide resources to kids, their caretakers, and even the teachers who have been working even harder during the pandemic.

But she’s also adept at making sure she’s getting the self-care she needs. 

For her, running is something she’d call a macro self-care mechanism. “It keeps me healthy physically, but then it really helps me with keeping my anxiety and depression at bay,” she says. “That’s not to say that I haven’t had to use other coping strategies in my tool box, but it’s definitely, I think, been a life-changer for me. Just within the past year, definitely it’s been important for me in terms of stress management.”

It’s helped her take care of herself in order to keep taking care of others, she says. And she is grateful for the privilege to be able to practice self-care.

For Williams that also includes listening to what her body needs. That could mean snuggling her dog, Sandy, and watching Netflix all day or going out and doing a 20-mile bike ride. “I think just being kind to yourself and recognizing what you need that day and giving yourself permission to do that is important.”

At times, self-care for Williams has also included psychotropic medications to help with her Major Depressive Disorder, which is another thing she wished there was less stigma around.

“There have been a couple of times in my life where I’ve had to go on antidepressants for a short period of time. I think for anybody who is wary about it, if it’s making you feel awful, it’s probably just not the right medication for you,” she says. “I wish somebody had told me it would probably take some trial and error because then I probably would have been more open to trying it as an adolescent.”

When her psychiatrist helped her fine tune the right medication and dose, she remembers it being life changing and life saving. “I remember thinking, Is this how people are supposed to feel? I think I had just been depressed for so long in my life that I think that was my norm and I didn’t know that there was anything other than that.”  

The Journey Continues

Williams and her partner are currently training for the York Marathon now that they are both fully vaccinated. Marathons, or any run that challenges her, are her favorite.

“I feel like it’s almost like a metaphor for the mental health journey,” she says. There are miles where you feel on top of the world and invincible, but just a mile later you’re hitting the wall. “I feel like there’s a mental dialogue that’s going on during races, at least for me. You know you have people with their funny signs that are cheering you on and it feels very invigorating and encouraging. And there are other parts of the race where I feel like I’m totally alone. And maybe that’s a good time for reflection.” 

But beyond running she has bigger plans to shift the dialogue around mental health, starting with research. This summer she will start work on her doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

It’s a testament to how far she’s come. She admits that she almost dropped out of high school when her major depressive disorder and suicidal ideation got really bad. “To be able to say that I’m entering a doctoral program feels like a miracle to me,” she says, while acknowledging all the real work that she’s done to get there with therapy, self-care, and support from loved ones.

And because she’s come so far, she is able to pay it forward. “At UNC-CH, I’ll be working with my mentor, Dr. William Hall, and other faculty and doctoral students on elevating Black and Brown voices in the mental health narrative, by examining the intersectionalities of identity as they relate to mental and physical health disparities,” she says.

Current research surrounding mental health tends to look at a homogenous subject pool. However, Black, Indigenous, and people of color as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or asexual+ (LGBTQA+) communities experience higher rates of suicide and premature death, she says.

“I have not yet identified what my dissertation will focus on,” she says, “but I am passionate about using research to bolster equity work and help to shift the focus on communities and individuals who have been historically marginalized and oppressed (communities I identify with, personally), as they tend to suffer higher rates of trauma, growing rates of suicidality, and serious mental and physical health disparities. I want to examine protective factors and the resilience of our communities, in hopes of improving and saving lives.”

Help Is Out There

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health help or support, Williams recommends the following resources: 

The Trevor Project is a national organization providing crisis and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning youth. It offers many channels of connection (phone line, texting, online chat) for young people in crises or in need of a safe space to talk to with trained counselors.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7 and is a free and confidential way to receive support if you or someone you know is facing a crisis. With the signing of the National Suicide Prevention Designation Act into law, there will  soon be an easy three digit number that anyone can use when they are in distress, but until that goes into effect in July 2022, the full phone number is the best option.

Still I Run is a community of runners who aim to create awareness around mental illness and erase the stigma. They offer programs that allow runners to connect and support each other on their mental health and running journeys. Programs include a letter-writing campaign for people in need of an encouraging note, a scholarship program for people in need of resources to begin running, and chapters to bring runners together physically.