Jeff Yalden has been speaking in education and to school communities for the past 28 years. He started in 1992 while stationed at Cecil Field Naval Air Station Marine Barracks. One day, a phone call came into the office asking if a Marine would be available to come down to Apopka High School in Apopka, FL and speak to the Marine ROTC Cadets. Jeff, having just been meritoriously promoted to Corporal, said he’d be honored to drive two hours down on his day off and talk to the cadets.
Little did he know that this opportunity would lead him into a career he was made for and the man he has become as a result of taking the initiative on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Perhaps it was fate. Maybe it was his as yet undiagnosed bipolar II disorder, which kept him running full-speed-ahead – keeping him active and always wanting more out of life. For Jeff, bipolar is a blessing and a curse. It’s crippling and painful, and has almost been the death of him – but it’s also been a blessing because Jeff is resilient, hard-working, and always striving to succeed in business and in life.
Before therapy and medication, Jeff was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but after his diagnosis and being put on medication, he is a whole new person.
“I am proud to be a man that lives with mental illness,” he said. Being proud hasn’t come easy, and his greatest regret is that he has hurt people in his journey toward getting to know who he is – the man he is slowly becoming.
As a youth speaker in his early years Jeff didn’t talk much about mental illness. He talked a lot about resiliency, self-esteem, and life’s obstacles. Fast forward 28 years: Jeff spends his time focusing on and talking about mental health and suicide prevention. It’s like he’s come full circle – telling his story about where he was, what he has gone through, and now the going through and becoming part. Jeff wouldn’t want it any other way. Life is a journey. It’s not a race. He says this a lot, but he also says, “Get to know who you are and be comfortable with who you are not.” That is all part of the journey of life.
Jeff just wrapped up a week speaking to high schools in the Clearfield-Jefferson County of Pennsylvania. What a week it had been speaking at four amazing schools and to parents and community each night. On this day, Friday, Jeff was spending the day at The Meadows. A psychiatric hospital just outside of Penn State University. They had invited Jeff to speak to their patients. Jeff was inspired by this and was excited to be a part of it. Not that it was more important than any other talk or visit, but this one was different because he spent time as a patient in psychiatric hospitals at 16 and again at 22.
Jeff doesn’t talk about these visits in his presentations – and it’s not that he is embarrassed or ashamed. Quite simply, the subject doesn’t fit with most of these. It’s part of his story, but not significant enough to add to his usual talks.
On this day, though, he was proud to talk about it – especially to let the patients know that it was OK to be where they were. He made sure to tell them that they needed to be present in these moments and take in the support and guidance offered them before going back out into the real world where they are expected to live, reason and act accordingly.
It was nearly two hours of talking and answering questions. The staff thought he’d have their attention for maybe 20-30 minutes. Everyone was in awe about how incredible the patients were -attentive, inspired and and eager to want more.
Jeff is real. He’s not afraid to be brutally honest about his journey of living with mental illness. He is not skittish about being one with his audience and letting them know that it can be OK. You have to do the work, but paradoxically the work is so much easier than not doing the work. You can live a healthy life with mental illness, but you have to make your health a mindset and a priority each and every day.
If you are interested in Jeff Yalden coming and speaking to your school community or mental health event, please visit www.JeffYalden.com or www.TheJYF.org today. You’ll be a HERO when you invite Jeff Yalden to speak at your next event.
Check out Jeff’s new book, Teen Suicide: The “Why” Behind America’s Suicide Epidemic.