Dare To Speak Up – #submitthestigma With Erin Herle (Interview)

“I start the discussion.”

After her father’s suicide two years ago, Erin Herle started the campaign #submitthestigma. Her message: mental health is just as important as physical health, and it’s vastly unrecognised. Since its founding, Erin organises charity seminars all across the US. Dealing with mental illness herself – generalised anxiety disorder, ADHD and bouts of depression – she recognises that life with mental illness is not always easy, but it’s something we need to talk about. 

How do you think or hope #submitthestigma helps other people to deal with mental illness?

The biggest way we can submit any kind of stigma is by being comfortable with whatever topic we may be avoiding. Mental illness has a stigma, because it’s misunderstood despite being extremely common. In the US, 1 in 5 adults will suffer from a mental illness in any given year*. I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t help people by treating them, but it’s amazing to see how powerful communication can be. So that’s what I do. I start the discussion.

* statistic by National Alliance on Mental Illness.

How do you do this?

I make my journey very open and I post about my struggles. This gives other people the confidence to do the same. Even if it’s just wearing a patch or reposting a link, it shows support. And if they take a step further and use the platform to open up about their own experiences, it can be really cathartic. People support them and they realize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of after all. So that’s my goal – to normalize mental illness.

Erin organises charity seminars all over the US. Follow #submitthestigma on Facebook to stay updated.

“Even if it’s just wearing a patch or reposting a link, it shows support.”

What are your future plans or goals with the foundation? 

I want to run more seminars. Right now it’s been pretty do-it-yourself, but my sister and I have plans to create a more structured format. This way, more events can happen, even without our presence. As much as money makes things easier, it’s not the money that I care about here. It’s the support, discussion, and community that I hope to initiate.

You must have had a lot of people reach out to you to share their personal stories. How does this influence you personally and how do you respond?

At first, when I was going through my own grief of losing my dad to suicide, it made me feel so much better. And then it got to the point where I wasn’t sure how to respond anymore. There was a time where people were contacting me every time a friend or loved one took their own life. That’s heavy stuff. I will admit that it gets to me at times.

But I appreciate every single person who thinks of #submitthestigma when going through times like these. We can’t shy away from it. So I respond as much as I can and if there are specific concerns or questions or a call for help, I do what I can. It’s not uncommon for me to refer people to professional help, or just relate to them and let them know they’re not alone in how they feel. That’s the best thing I can do in my position.

Do you think mental illness has a place in the jiu jitsu scene? 

We care so much about our physical shape in jiu jitsu. Injuries, unfortunately, are common. From a jammed finger to a mat burn, to a broken arm, to a torn ACL. But what people don’t recognize is that mental health is just as important.

And it’s there: we call it mat therapy, we talk about how jiu jitsu saved our lives, gave us a support group, helped us set goals, lose weight, achieve things we thought we couldn’t. Those are all elements of good mental well-being. We’re already doing it, we just don’t realize it. A lot of people who struggle with depression and anxiety find homes in jiu jitsu academies. There are so many of us who found what we were looking for, including myself.

Training at Marcelo Garcia.

“With jiu jitsu, we are already supporting each other mentally. We just don’t realize it.”

When you are dealing with mental health issues, some things in jiu jitsu can become tough. How do you advise to deal with negative feelings, in training?

I think it’s important to recognize when it’s you and when it’s outside factors. We need to take care of ourselves. If you’re feeling a certain way about the training or the environment, communicate it. Sometimes people are not friendly, sometimes people aren’t emphatic, sometimes training is just not conductive to our livelihood. But don’t be afraid to assess it.

The same feelings can affect your performance, maybe even more in competition when you experience more stress. What is your advice to deal with this?

I get really nervous when I compete. One time I took anti-anxiety medication in the morning before a tournament when I normally only take it at night. And my performance was awful. I had no fight or flight feelings. I just wanted to chill. That helped me realize that nerves are necessary. We need the butterflies, the jitters.

My biggest advice is to embrace it. What other situations can produce such a reaction in you? For me, I can’t name one other circumstance that would make me feel so intensely without it being negative. This is something we have control over, something we do because it brings out the best in us and it’s amazing. It’s a rush I get nowhere else.

As far as the stress, keep things in perspective. Don’t ever have a fear of losing. Just focus on having your best jiu jitsu show in whatever match is in front of you. Just that match that you’re about to fight. Don’t look at who you may fight after that. You give everything in each fight because if you don’t, and you lose, you’ll miss the chance to even fight another match. Do your best. It may sound trite, but it’s important.

Go ahead, that’s your moment. Picture by Guardeiras.

“Nerves are necessary. We need the butterflies.”

More personal: how do YOU deal with negative thoughts?

I have depressive episodes a lot. I usually sit on my couch and watch TV and play spider solitaire on my phone. I lose motivation to do anything I actually love. The only thing that will never change, though, is getting up and going to the academy to train. People are counting on me to be there and it’s the one thing that keeps me in check. A lot of my symptoms surface as low self esteem and negative self talk. Recognizing when I’m doing that is important. So I try to correct myself. Otherwise I settle into bad social behaviors that only provide me instant gratification and eventually tarnish my reputation or connections with people.

With regards to competition – in interviews you say that you still have downs sometimes. But at the same time, you go out there, compete and bring home the results. How do you do this?

For competition, it’s like a show. And the competition nerves will always override depression, or anxiety. That’s how I feel, anyway. I don’t get the results I always deserve because of my lack of confidence and self esteem. It definitely affects me.

This time for Worlds I actually wrote down “2017 BROWN BELT LIGHTWEIGHT WORLD CHAMPION” and put it on my bedside table. Every day that I woke up, I said “I am the…” out loud to myself. I took a picture of what I wrote, put it on my lock screen and wallpaper on my phone. And then in the days leading up to the tournament I wrote in my journal over and over “You are a World Champion.”

I was literally writing to myself. It feels weird at first. But imagine writing in third person “You, you’re good at jiu jitsu and you have what it takes to be a World Champion.” How does that feel to hear? Having that “outside” support is motivating. Even though it’s just you telling you.

Erin became brown belt lighweight European Champion in 2016, her first brown belt tournament in the gi.

“Having “outside” support is motivating. Even though it’s just you telling you.”

Some types of medication (i.e. antidepressants or stabilisers) might influence athletic performance or impact weight. How do you think someone could deal with these extra factors in training or competition?

It’s a gamble, of course. As with any medication, it may not be the first one that works. I had an opportunity to try an additional medication to curb my anxiety. But I refrained, because I figured it would numb me too much to compete. Tell your doctor you train, compete, all that. They’ll understand. Listen to your body and be aware of any changes.

As for the weight, when I recently asked to go back onto Ritalin, my new psychiatrist actually asked me, “Are you trying to get back on this so you can lose weight more easily?” That’s a concern, of course, because these stimulants do suppress appetite, but I assured him that I do need it. Of course when I’m cutting weight that can be a benefit, but it’s not what’s going to make me lose the weight. Only discipline can do that.

Picture by Jits Art.

“Tell your doctor you train and compete. They’ll understand.”

Do you think your jiu jitsu reflects your personality? 

I joke that my jiu jitsu is like a noodle. I’m hyper flexible, so I play a lot of spider, I go inverted to recover, and my knee slices can be used from anywhere. And my personality is similar. I’m all over the place sometimes, and I’m not a rigid person. I’m spontaneous. I actually hate strict routine. There must always be room for change. I can’t even work in an office. I don’t want to be at the same place every day at the same time. That’s why I work freelance. My jiu jitsu is flexible and adaptable. So I’d say it resembles me pretty well.

Thank you for your time Erin! Want to stay updated on the events around #submitthestigma? Head over to the Facebook , and click to follow. You can support the cause by wearing a patch, available on the website. Erin’s next big fight will be the EBI 12 – The Female Flyweights, on July 30th. 




Rose is a brown belt at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy Amsterdam (Checkmat). Besides being one of the co-founders of Ladies Only BJJ, she is a junior doctor MD and holds a MsC degree in Sports Sciences.

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