By Gabe Licht
By Jennifer Kotila
DELANO, MN During his 240-mile run across the state, Julio Salazar’s goal is to get people talking about mental illness and depression in order to break the stigma that surrounds it.
The run began May 3 at the Minnesota border near Watertown, SD, and Salazar reached Dassel Wednesday, staying with the Carlen family.
Continuing from Dassel Thursday morning, students from Dassel-Cokato Public Schools joined him for about four miles, and then he stopped at Allina Medical Clinic in Cokato.
He was impressed with the students’ awareness of mental illness, noting the students opened up to him as they ran together.
“Running four miles together gives you time to exchange thoughts,” Salazar said.
Following a brief visit at the clinic, he continued east. He is expected to reach the Wisconsin border at Stillwater Saturday afternoon.
“The reason I chose this route is because there are smaller towns,” Salazar said. “I know the stigma about mental health is bigger in small towns, where people really don’t talk about it.”
He drove the route last year, stopping every once in a while to tell people what his plans were for this spring.
“Some told me they suffered from depression, but were very quiet about it, like they didn’t want to be heard,” Salazar said.
As he makes his way across the state, Salazar is stopping and talking to those he meets about mental illness. He is also stopping at schools to talk about bullying, depression, and mental health.
“I’m looking forward to interaction with people to keep me running,” Salazar said.
The run is motivated by Salazar’s own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, which he kept silent about for years. He also has an uncle who died by suicide.
“It’s something very personal to me; I miss him a lot,” Salazar said. “He was one of my biggest supporters, and I wish he was here.”
Salazar himself was very close to taking his own life at one point, he said. He did not know a lot about depression, nor did he want to talk about it.
However, when things got really bad about three years ago, Salazar finally opened up to his doctor.
“I reached out to him; his response is what helped me the most,” Salazar said, noting if he had not talked to his doctor, he would not be here today.
Salazar’s doctor told him depression is treatable, and there are a lot of things that can help manage the illness.
“It can’t be cured, but it can be dealt with,” Salazar said.
That is one of the reasons he wants people to start talking more openly about mental illness and depression.
People need to know it is manageable and treatable, and they can feel better with the proper treatment.
Not only does Salazar want to give hope to those battling mental illness, but he wants to educate those who do not understand.
“I remember my wife when I came out and said I was struggling. She never knew anything about it,” Salazar said, noting she had never experienced depression. “I want to teach people like her what people like me go through.”
Those who have never been depressed do not know the pain that people who are depressed are suffering.
Those with depression often feel like they are a burden to people, or the world would be better off without them, and may talk about it.
“Don’t say they are just looking for attention or are drama queens,” Salazar said.
He added that people suffering with depression are in a lot of pain, and think about wanting to stop it all the time.
“I remember having so much pain,” Salazar said. “It’s not being selfish. It’s painful to have depression to the point where you want to stop the pain no matter what it takes.”
Living healthy with mental illness
“My message is, hopefully people will understand mental illness does not define them,” Salazar said.
He compared it to other health issues, such as diabetes or cancer, where people typically do not wait to seek treatment or feel a stigma about it.
“That bugs me, because there is a stigma; people are ashamed to talk about it,” he said. “By the time someone is dead, we can’t do anything about it.”
Salazar’s treatment was medication and therapy; after about a year was doing very well, he said.
Although Salazar still struggles with depression to this day, he does not hide it.
“When I wake up every day, I don’t know how my day is going to go,” Salazar said. “Sometimes I wake up and feel depressed and I don’t know why; back in November it took me 16 hours to get out of bed.”
Along with medication and therapy, running, reading and writing, and woodworking help Salazar manage his illness.
Salazar was a runner before seeking treatment, but he was getting injured a lot because he was not doing it right and would put on too many miles.
“I’ve been running healthy for the last three years,” he said.
It was about two years ago while out running, which helps with his depression, that Salazar had an eye-opening moment.
“On one of my runs, it came to my mind that people should talk about this,” Salazar said. “It became a dream of mine to do something about it.”
Building a movement while planning a race
Being a runner since he was a high-schooler in Costa Rica, it was only natural that Salazar decided to use that as his vehicle to get people talking.
He explained that runners run for a reason, and many of them do it for mental health.
“What better way to create awareness for something I care so much about, and affecting to many people running?” Salazar said.
Having always wanted to run across the state, and now finding a passion for mental health, Salazar combined the two. “It’s working well for me,” he said.
Helping with logistics was John Storkamp, who organizes ultra marathons in northern Minnesota.
“He’s one of the coolest guys you will ever meet. He was very excited about bringing awareness to mental health,” Salazar said.
He also talked to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which was very supportive of the idea, and said no one has ever run across the state for mental health.
A “Break the Stigma” Facebook page was created in 2014, and Salazar began selling T-shirts with the organization’s logo on them.
Knowledge and support of the project grew over the last year, with people coming up to Salazar at races to talk about it.
A running team was created to bring awareness to mental health, and both the men’s and women’s teams just finished a race well in North Carolina.
“Thankfully they are good, so they bring more awareness,” Salazar said, noting each of the runners knows someone struggling with mental illness. “With mental health issues, even if you are not affected directly, someone you know will be affected by it.”
The organization is now a non-profit, with a board of directors, and it is invited to different 5Ks, has followers in New Zealand, and a woman who wants to do a “Break the Stigma” 5K in New Jersey.
“People are excited I am bringing this to light and making it OK to talk about mental health,” Salazar said. “My idea is to inspire people to start their own project and create something to help others.”