Back in her late teens and into her early 20s, Maddie McCarthy remembers feeling like something was off: she had bouts of depression that could span weeks, even months, making her life seem more difficult relative to her peers.
“I was always struggling silently,” she adds. “I told my partner, but other than that I didn’t tell anybody. And I was always looking around at other people being like ‘what is going on? Why are these people able to do all these things and they all seem okay and I’m just struggling?”’ remembers McCarthy, who has lived in the Gunnison Valley for nearly a decade.
“Growing up, I didn’t get the education on mental health that I should have. Like most millennials, I was always anxious…I didn’t even know what that word meant [at the time],” she adds, noting that after a while, she turned to a series of more nontraditional, “hippy” solutions in lieu of more conventional mental health treatments, citing a stigma around professional medicine and a desire to heal herself.
She tried exercise, nutrition, blood testing, naturopathy, herbs, supplements, and more, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
“That never was enough, but there were stages where I would feel way better…then I’d always crash,” McCarthy recalls. “That went on for about seven years before I got professional help.”
McCarthy’s experience, and delay in seeking professional care, is not uncommon. Academic studies into mental health have found that the average time lapse between the onset of mental health symptoms and the first contact with professional providers is about 11 years, and some, sadly, will never see a professional.
For McCarthy, she sought help because she was on the verge of losing a job she loved, and her romantic partner of seven years. So she turned to professional care providers, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
She began counseling with a professional therapist, as well as prescription medication. “My life has drastically changed, and it feels worth living now,” she says.
“All those things I did on the natural route, I learned a lot of things that are helpful and help the medication and help with therapy…the big thing is that the medicine made such a big difference in my life.”
When McCarthy was suffering in silence, she recalls reading people’s stories about their mental health journeys online, and watching them on YouTube.
“People who had the same struggles as me, but they’re doing better now. And I was always like ‘someday—when I have things figured out—I want to do my part and be another person out there who can show [people] that things can be okay if you work at it and get help,”’ she remembers.
That idea first came to fruition with an initial print of t-shirts that read “Mental Health Matters” in the fall of 2020. Since then, the Mental Madness Project has expanded, and now includes a website with links to local and national mental health resources, Maddie’s story (and a link for others to share theirs), and an online store selling mental health awareness gear, with a new line of t-shirts coming in next month.
McCarthy says the store’s proceeds support the group’s events, primarily a weekly skate night on Tuesdays at the Gunnison Skate Park at 6 p.m.
“I got really into skating—roller skating and skateboarding—last spring, summer, and fall. We got together every Tuesday, a group of us, and we skated [together] and I would bring mental health resources,” says McCarthy of the event’s origins.
The skate meetups will now alternate weekly between the Gunnison and CB skate parks. At the last meetup, a live band showed up. “The Gunni park was full with people attending the Mental Madness meet up and to our surprise some friends showed up with amps, drums, guitars, microphones and serenaded us while we skated,” says McCarthy.
The group also held a larger event last summer at the Gunnison skate park, complete with music and yoga, that McCarthy plans to bring back this summer.
For McCarthy, the skate nights are a restorative space, an easy way to bring her community together at the same time and place each week.
“It’s good to be around other people, it’s good to get your body moving, and it’s good to be outside. Learning new things is [also] good for creating new neural pathways,” McCarthy notes, adding that the skate park atmosphere is an open space to all.
Looking ahead, the growing Mental Madness Project is eyeing two big public education projects, the installation of large, trailhead-esque signs at the skate parks and hopefully around town in partnership with other organizations.
McCarthy envisions that the signs can serve as both artistic pieces and information hubs, doling out tips about seeking professional help for mental health, locally available resources, and guidance for supporting community members.
She also envisions an artistic tent installation which would serve as both a welcoming shelter and cozy space for outdoor events, as well as a display for mental health themed canvas art. One of the tent’s walls would host a patchwork canvas sewn together in a show of community support.
McCarthy is also excited about the project’s Share Your Story campaign, where individuals in the valley can voice their own struggles with mental health in an effort to destigmatize mental health problems and create a more open, welcoming community.
From the project’s website:
“Share at any point of your journey. Share if you’re just awakening to your problems, in the depth of the darkness, or you’ve found some balance. We all have something to teach one another no matter where we are. Share as much or little as you like. Share what works for you & what doesn’t… Your vulnerability will give others a chance to relate, share suggestions & possibly save someone’s life.”
McCarthy adds: “We all have a story to share, and you can learn so much from someone and create solidarity and just be an inspiration [to others]…We want our Instagram and our Facebook just full of people’s faces with their stories and videos of people talking about mental health.”
For McCarthy, a pivotal point in her journey with the Mental Madness Project was meeting her future project partner Bailey Stewart. The two were introduced by a friend when they were both planning similar skate nights in the spring of 2021, McCarthy for Mental Madness, and Stewart for a group of local women. They chose to combine the events, and hit it off right away.
“I feel like I was instantly connected to her, and she connected to the project. Ever since then, she has been extremely supportive,” says McCarthy of Stewart, who creates much of the artwork for Mental Madness that you see on the website.
For Maddie, who goes by “Mental Maddie” on the website, the feedback she has gotten on the project has been incredibly affirming, and helps her combat the occasional feeling that her work is not having the desired impact.
“I’ve heard some stories of people getting on medication and going to therapy, and it’s been life-changing [for them],” says McCarthy.
To learn more about the Mental Madness project, you can check out their website, where you can shop their store, share your story, learn more about Maddie and Bailey, and delve into (and donate to) their upcoming education projects.