What can I do to create positive change in the world? How can I have an impact on something that is greater than myself? These are the questions that took on a sudden urgency for Amber Lyon at the start of the coronavirus crisis in early 2020.
Amber knows firsthand how challenging life can be for those suffering from mental health issues. Having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II in high school, she has spent the last decade learning how to take care of herself. She has experienced how hard it can be to get quality care and ultimately feel better, and over time she noticed that the system does not set people up for success and became frustrated by the lack of resources available to people who need help. One of these people was her close friend and former colleague, Andrea. Isolated by COVID-19 with no easy access to mental health services, Andrea died by suicide in March 2020.
This tragedy caused Amber to re-evaluate her priorities and ultimately spurred her to make a big career move into mental health. In August, she joined Spring Health as the newest senior account executive to further the company’s ambitious mission: eliminating every barrier to mental health.
In this employee spotlight, Amber shares the details of her own mental health journey, as well as what motivated her to transition to a new company during the pandemic to do more meaningful work.
To start, can you tell us a bit about your own mental health journey?
I’ve always struggled with my mental health. When I was young I felt a lot of anxiety in social situations and for as long as I can remember I’ve had a hard time loving and accepting myself. I always felt like there was so much pressure to be the best and I was never able to measure up. Then as I got older I would have these intense feelings of sadness and anger, and it was really hard to express myself because sometimes I felt out of control. It was weird though because I am an energetic and positive person by nature, so I felt like I was keeping a big secret and just trying to hold it together.
When my very first boyfriend broke up with me in high school I went into a deep state of depression for months. I wouldn’t really leave my home, I lost contact with friends, and didn’t eat very much or participate in social activities. My parents didn’t know what to do so they made an appointment for me to see a therapist. I continued to go to therapy throughout high school and over time we noticed a really prevalent pattern of these ups and downs in my mood: very, very high and very, very low. Finally, I took a behavioral health assessment and got diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
This was shocking to me at first. I was like: What is this? Am I crazy? Is anyone ever going to love me? Am I going to be okay? Those questions helped me ask my family about the medical history of my relatives. It turns out that personality and mood disorders run in my dad’s side of the family. Finding this out helped me feel better — it wasn’t just me, and there was a biological reason why I was more likely to have this condition than somebody else.
In college I went through the gamut with therapy and medication to manage my mental health. I would have depressive episodes, then go into hypomania, which are those periods of an elevated mood, that made me feel good and resist the help I was getting. But then I would inevitably crash again and go back to therapy and medication. That is the really wicked thing about this disorder, when you are in those elevated episodes you really soak it in because it feels good, but you always know in the back of your mind that it wasn’t going to last. I was exhausted and started feeling like I was never going to feel “normal.”
Then post-college, my life sort of unraveled. I got married right after school to my high school sweetheart and moved to New York City from Idaho. Looking back, clearly I was hypomanic in that time — things were so perfect it was like everything around me sparkled. However, within a year and a half, I found myself in the middle of a divorce and my dad suddenly died. Here I was 2,700 miles away from my family and closest friends and I was dealing with two huge losses that honestly just crushed me. Most days it was hard to get out of bed, and then when I actually was able to muster up the energy to do things they weren’t very healthy. For example, I started partaking in risky activities, which is a tell-tale sign of an episode for folks with bipolar disorder. This was certainly the darkest period of my life.
This rock bottom was a wakeup call for me. I had the realization that while I had been relying on therapy and medication to feel better throughout my life, I wasn’t being honest with myself. I never really accepted my diagnosis and until I did I was going to keep running into a brick wall with my recovery. While therapy and medicine are important, I actually needed to rewire the way I thought and spoke about my mental health in order to take control of it.
I started sharing my truth with the people in my life and “owning” it. I learned how to set boundaries with people and find routines that help me stay on track and feel good about myself. I started exercising regularly and practicing meditation. I learned how to vocalize my feelings and challenged myself to sit in discomfort instead of letting it consume me. I go to therapy every week and I express myself creatively in ways I’ve never tried before. I know it sounds cheesy but once I accepted my flaws I fell in love with myself, which has made managing my mental health a million times easier.
While I still have my ups and downs they are much more manageable these days. I’ve actually come to appreciate the depth of my emotions and it’s made me a more creative and vulnerable person. The moment I committed to the practice of well-being I feel like I cleared a path for me to develop more authentic relationships with the people around me and become a more vocal advocate for mental health.
Thank you for sharing your story. How did these experiences influence your decision to join Spring Health?
The catalyst for me was when one of my best friends passed away last year. Her name was Andrea. She had just left her job at the company where we both worked and moved down to Austin, Texas, to start a new life for herself. But when COVID hit her new employer delayed her start date indefinitely. She was taking on a lot of debt to survive and was isolated without any friends or family nearby. There were no easily accessible resources available to her and she ended up committing suicide.
The news obviously devastated everyone. Andrea was a sunshine type of person that lit up the room with her smile. It was even worse because it was the beginning of COVID so no one could support each other in real life and mourn together. I racked my brain about the possible signs I missed and started to feel very angry that the system we live in failed her. When someone needed help the most she felt alone. No one should ever be in the headspace where they feel like death is the only viable option. If Andrea had just been able to chat with a professional or had a therapy appointment to look forward to…. who knows how different things would be.
And then her loss had me think about my own journey, I had no resources like Spring growing up and obviously my road was really complicated. I can think of at least two times where I contemplated the same outcome and it’s so hard for me to say that, I’ve literally never said that outloud to more than a person or two. But people can feel that low, and us pretending it’s rare and sweeping it under the rug is not a winning strategy. I’m sure that if I had a mental health benefit like Spring Health the last decade would have probably been a lot easier for me.
COVID put a lot of stuff in perspective for me. I wanted to align my career with something that I personally identified as being a really important mission. When I joined Spring Health, I thought that if I can prevent one single person from doing what Andrea unfortunately felt like she had to do then this is the right place for me.
What do you like most about working at Spring Health?
What I like most is the mission. Everyone I talk to at Spring Health is super passionate about what we’re doing. One of our core values is “Members come first” and I think that is always at the forefront of all the initiatives we are working on, and when it’s not I have the psychological safety with my team to bring it up. And also working here has given me a space to really find my voice and kind of “walk the walk.” It’s so cool to me that I work somewhere where I can bring my whole self to work every day — I know not everyone is that lucky so I recognize the privilege.