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HMC Executive Director battling anxiety and depression

Posted on 10 October 2016 by Calvin

As Michael Jon Olson works his way back to full-time hours, he opens up about his struggles

michael-jon-olsonIt wasn’t easy to admit to himself, but Michael Jon Olson (photo right, photo by Tesha M. Christensen) is anxious and depressed.

The Hamline Midway Coalition Director was out of the office for much of the summer due to his health condition but is working his way back to full-time.

He expects his recovery to be two steps forward, one step back with some days feeling like he’s gone only one step forward and fallen two steps back.

It all started when he bought a house
Olson has been active in community organizing since he bought a house in the challenging Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1995. While there, he served on the Ventura Village Board of Directors. Next, he was employed as program coordinator by the Seward Neighborhood Group, and, in 2005, he was recruited to apply for the executive director position at the Hamline Midway Coalition.

“I enjoy the diversity of the work,” explained Olson. “I get to work on a lot of different kinds of issues.”

Plus, he finds it appealing to have a hand in the development and evolution of a city.

An indefinite medical leave
But in July of this year, Olson’s health had deteriorated such that he could no longer do the work he loved, and Hamline Midway Coalition went to a low-power state. He realized it was the pressure of the work that was causing his poor health.

“He was trying to fight through it, but a few months ago he came to the board and told us what was going on,” recalled HMC Board President Steve Samuelson, who called Olson “a tremendous asset for the neighborhood.”

Samuelson added, “It’s one of those things that people don’t like to talk about. But I think bringing it out into the open is good for everyone.”

Out in the open
In December 2015, Olson caught a serious viral infection that hung on for weeks and disrupted his sleep patterns.

While vacationing in Mexico in February, Olson began experiencing sensations in his ears. Initially, he thought it was simply water stuck there from swimming. A few days after he returned home, he caught the flu. The sensation in his ears continued, and, in April, he was diagnosed with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

Over the next several months, the diagnoses continued to add up: hearing loss in his left ear, Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (a misdiagnosis), Tensor Tympani Syndrome, and Misophonia.
Finally, a specialist suggested his physical symptoms were due to anxiety.

“They’re all indicators of an anxiety disorder,” explained Olson. He pieced things together slowly over time “to understand that the physical symptoms were manifestations of anxiety and depression.”

He doesn’t know what came first, the physical symptoms of his ears or the depression, anxiety, and insomnia. “It’s impossible to untangle,” Olson said, but that’s what he began trying to do.

Anxiety and depression are hard to treat
He didn’t want to accept his diagnosis. So he had a CAT scan and an MRI, and he was evaluated for brain cancer. “I was looking at everything for some explanation besides anxiety and depression,” Olson said. “There was a part of me that didn’t want this to be anxiety and depression.

“If you have a physical malady, that’s easy to see and treat. Anxiety and depression are so much harder to diagnose and treat.”

Olson started trying different medications and scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist—for three months in the future, the soonest opening available. He went to see chiropractors, a homeopath, a psychologist and various other specialists. He stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine and cut down on refined sugars.

At one point, he had lost 40 pounds and was on the verge of developing an eating disorder.
Then he hit rock bottom. On Aug. 30, his dark suicidal thoughts drove Olson into a psychiatric emergency room.

There he was finally was able to meet with a psychiatrist.

“One of the things I’ve learned from this is how poorly our medical system is set up for dealing with all of this,” observed Olson.

His general practitioner prescribed the first depression and anxiety medications, but no one had sat him down and said: “You know what you need? A psychiatrist.”

The emergency room psychiatrist began tweaking his medication, prescribing one for the long-term and another for short-term symptoms.

His current psychiatrist has adjusted his medication again. “Part of the process is figuring out what medications will work,” remarked Olson.

It’s not an easy task considering that his body does not metabolize antidepressants well, a result confirmed by the P-450 genetic test. The test explained some of his earlier reactions to the medication.

Anxiety and depression are widespread
All along, Olson’s struggle has included feelings of self-loathing “because I wasn’t able to work or be fully present in my home life,” he said. “When you’re in that kind of state, suffering from anxiety and depression disorder, you can’t help but think those things. It’s where your mind goes.”

He has often felt like he destroyed the wonderful organization he built, something his board of directors assures him isn’t true. They remind him: “You didn’t choose this. You are dealing with a medical condition. Nobody chooses to struggle with these kinds of issues.” Intellectually, he knows this is true, but he can’t always help himself from feeling otherwise.

Through his struggle, Olson has learned just how common anxiety and depression are. When he talks with friends and others he knows, he’s often told they’ve also suffered from anxiety and depression, or someone they love has.

“I think it is a bigger issue than we acknowledge in this culture,” remarked Olson. “I want people to know how widespread it is.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.

Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44, and it affects more than 15 million American adults in a given year.

“The number of people struggling with depression has increased by 10 percent every decade since 1910,” pointed out Olson.

While the medical system is better than it used to be, it still isn’t well equipped for dealing with anxiety and depression, said Olson. “We don’t understand how the mind-body connection works.”
He thinks there is much to be learned from some of the alternative practices, such as yoga and mindfulness techniques.

One of the big issues right now is that the system is fragmented. “It’s not like you can walk into a center for anxiety and depression, and see specialists who will work together as a team. It’s up to you to put things together when you’re in a really bad state of mind.”

Mind-body connection lost
Olson hopes people start recognizing that the roots of the anxiety and depression affecting so many is due to our cultural practices. “We are a very individualist society and people don’t have strong bonds of community. We, as a species, came of age in very tight-knit tribal or clan communities.

There have been studies done that show where this still exists you don’t have the level of mental illness, of anxiety and depression, that you have in our society.”

Today, technology disguises itself as a community, but Facebook, Twitter and such are very different than face-to-face encounters, Olson observed.

“What we’re learning about mental health illnesses is the loss of mind-body connection,” he pointed out. “We spend so much time in front of screens we lose our connection to our body and other people.”

Regaining that connection is an important part of his healing process.

HMC in reflective period
As he returns to work, HMC is embarking on an effort to redefine itself.

hmc-staffOn Sept. 1, Melissa Cortes moved from volunteer to full-time employee, filling the community organizer role vacated by Kyle Mianulli in July. Christine Shyne has been contracted to lend a hand in the office as needed.

Photo left: Hamlin Midway Coalition is no longer on a low power state. Melissa Cortes (left) has filled the community organizer role vacated by Kyle Maniulli in July. Christine Shyne (right) has been contracted to lend a hand in the office as needed. Executive Director Michael Jon Olson (center) is working his way back to full-time. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

“Regardless of my situation, the organization is in need of a good reflective period,” observed Olson. “We’ve really come through a very active, very involved period with a lot of balls in the air. Part of that is what contributed to my getting overwhelmed.”

Several projects, that the HMC served as fiscal agent for, need to be wrapped up and closed out, including the Friendly Streets, Better Bridges Initiative; St. Paul Healthy Transportation for All; and the Midway Mural Project.

HMC also recognizes that funding challenges lie ahead, and wants to prepare for them.

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