My Personal Journey: the Importance of Mental Health and Wellness


We live in strange times. It’s been a whirlwind of a year—from our pandemic, racial injustice, and tumultuous political environment to California wildfires. I ask myself daily what the heck could possibly happen today. And just to make things even more interesting, there are closer-to-home issues—managing the work-life balance, caring for children, and handling the realities of isolation and social distancing—that we’re also dealing with. Frankly, I’m not sure how much more most of us can take. 

So I’ve been thinking about wellness a lot lately. Mental wellness, to be more specific. And I’ve been having a lot of conversations with our HR team here at Firewood about the impact some of the stressors in our world today may be having on the wellness of our employees and their families, and how we can support them and each other. 

I truly believe that physical wellness and mental wellness are closely intertwined. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, that causal relationship runs both ways: studies have found that people with chronic medical conditions are more likely to experience depression, and people with depression are at a higher risk of developing physical illness. Mental wellness is absolutely critical to maintaining good physical health.

Mental wellness is something I hold near and dear because mental illness is part of my family story. It’s taken me years—so many years—to talk about my brother Damon Darren Havas, who lived with mental illness and passed away in May 2014. Damon’s death wasn’t a direct result of his mental illness, but I believe it played a significant role. His sudden death brought up a lot of sadness, confusion, and deep grieving. I had a constant feeling that perhaps I could’ve done more. 

Mental wellness is something I hold near and dear because mental illness is part of my family story.
Seeing the early signs

I grew up the only girl and youngest of four kids. All of us had our own personalities and my brother Damon, the third oldest (he was the baby boy and I was the baby girl), was amazingly clever, incredibly smart, quick-witted, and athletic. In his late teens, Damon was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, and was immediately put on all kinds of medications to help with his condition. It was around that same time that he had his first bout with mental illness. I’m not sure if it was the lupus, the medicine for his lupus, or something else that caused his initial psychotic episode, but his life was forever changed.

I noticed a change in everything about him—his look, his energy, his personality. He even looked at me differently, with a blank stare, a steady gaze. His mental state changed significantly. He was becoming a stranger. I was scared, and I know he was too. I was in high school at the time, and my other two brothers were in college, so talking about what was going on was hard. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it, or even an understanding of what “it” was. The distance grew between Damon and me, Damon and my brothers, and Damon and my parents. I told myself it was a passing thing. He’s fine. He’ll get over it. But what I had hoped would get easier, didn’t.

Living with mental illness 

By the time he was in his 30s Damon had stopped talking to the family, although he kept an open line of communication with me. That said, our conversations were sporadic. As I learned over the years, Damon could live very well on his own. He was living his life. He was passionate about his poetry and writing. But his mental illness didn’t go away. There were times we would talk and he seemed 100% lucid. And times when I struggled to drum up some semblance of a normal conversation. I just never knew what to expect. All I cared about was being there for him, to listen. 

Things took a new turn when, in his early 40s, Damon had a heart attack. I had just had my son—he was only six weeks old—when I received a call from the hospital. I was the only contact Damon had in his wallet. Of course, we packed up our newborn and journeyed from Northern California to Reno, Nevada, to help him. It was a trying time. Damon wasn’t doing well physically, and he was mentally distant. To make matters even more difficult, he was challenging everyone at the hospital—including its top psychiatrist—about his heart diagnosis. The doctors were recommending triple bypass surgery, and Damon wouldn’t have it.

At the time, my brother was still incommunicado with our family, so I was left with a decision: Do I listen to the doctors—and declare my brother unfit to make his own decisions—or listen to him? The former meant I would single-handedly take over Damon’s rights as a human being. This didn’t feel right. It wasn’t my place. I weighed the life-and-death options, and whether Damon could manage the aftercare of triple bypass living on his own. After many conversations with the top doctors at the hospital and my family, we all agreed to go with Damon’s preference for a stent. It was complicated on both sides, and fortunately, the stent worked. He left the hospital in days and life continued. 

Damon went back to his daily life, and everything seemed to go in the right direction. He monitored his health, remained independent, and continued to focus on his writing. Although he was still very distant from the family, my conversations with him became more frequent. 

Fortunately for all of us, a year before he passed Damon reached out to reconnect with our family. I was hesitant but, as with the hospital decision, he knew what he wanted. And he wanted to reconnect. 

That year, 2013, we spent our last Thanksgiving together as a family. And as a Jewish family, Thanksgiving—for us—was the big event. While I had no way of knowing it would be my last time with my brother in a family setting, it was one of the most memorable and authentic several days we had ever spent together as a family. It felt great to be together!

My last time with my brother in a family setting was one of the most memorable and authentic several days we had ever spent together as a family.
Removing the stigma

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) defines mental illness as a condition that affects someone’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood—something that can deeply impact their day-to-day living and may also affect a person’s ability to relate to others. While mental illness is not always something you can see, there are common warning signs and symptoms

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly one in five US adults experienced mental illness each year. In July 2020, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 53% of US adults reported that worry and stress over the coronavirus had negatively impacted their mental health, and more than one in three adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

More than one in three adults in the US have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

Dr. Vivek Murthy and Dr. Alice Chen, two people I greatly admire and respect, are experts in the study of loneliness and its impact on both mental and physical health. According to Drs. Murthy and Chen, loneliness is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety as well as heart disease, premature death, dementia, and even a shorter lifespan. They recently shared their insights on how we can care for each other and manage our own mental health during this pandemic:

During this time when so many are struggling, there are small steps we can take that can make a big difference. We can start by thinking of one person in our lives who may be frightened or lonely and making an effort to support them, whether that’s lending a listening ear or offering to bring them a home-cooked meal. 

We can build uninterrupted time with loved ones into our days (even 15 minutes can make a difference). We can put away our devices and give people our full attention during conversations. We can seek out opportunities to serve those around us, recognizing that service is a powerful antidote to loneliness. 

These simple actions can change our lives for the better. When this action is taken collectively, it can help build a people-centered culture.

Source: CNN Opinion

Mental illness can cause shame, isolation, and loneliness not only for the individual, but, as I learned firsthand, for those who love them as well. My brother didn’t let his mental illness define him but those around him did. They saw the crazy guy, the person who wasn’t doing well—would he ever get better? 

Because people with mental illness don’t necessarily look like they’re sick (and because it’s not something that people like to talk about) there’s a stigma and they are often judged differently than those who have physical ailments. But they shouldn’t be. My brother’s mental illness was a physical affliction, much like a broken arm. According to a National Institutes of Health page on mental illness and the brain, “as scientists continue to investigate mental illnesses and their causes, they are learning more and more about how the biological processes that make the brain work are changed when a person has a mental illness.” 

Now more than ever we need to bring the topic of mental health out into the open and talk about it. Over the years, I’ve spoken more openly about Damon and his illness, also making it a point to ensure that Damon’s illness didn’t define him. Acknowledging the numbers not only helps raise awareness and lets people know they’re not alone, it’s also a necessary step in destigmatizing a condition that touches us all. 

Because people with mental illness don’t necessarily look like they’re sick they are often judged differently than those who have physical ailments. But they shouldn’t be.
Damon: My brother the poet  

My brother’s sudden and unexpected death came from heart failure. In our many conversations during the last years of his life, he reminded me how focused and dedicated he was to his poetry and his desire to share his work with the world. It was his outlet to expressing who he was. 

After Damon passed, my dad and I talked a lot about Damon’s wish to see his work published. With the help of my niece, Isabella, we took many of his poems and published his site, This is what I want Damon to be remembered for—not the stigma of his mental illness, but his passion. I am honored to be able to share his legacy. 

To my brother, who will never be forgotten.

If you or someone you know is affected by mental illness, there are resources available. For advice and additional resources, NAMI HelpLine and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline (both US) are available 24/7 and Befrienders Worldwide offers support helplines by country.

About Lanya Zambrano

Lanya Zambrano is co-founder and president of Firewood.