By Chris Dart, Sports.Good.is
To the uninitiated, Brazilian jiu jitsu would seem like a terrible activity for a person with anxiety. After all, the grappling-based martial art looks like it’s comprised of people simulating murder with their bare hands.
But for Erin Herle, Brazilian jiu jitsu, know as BJJ, has become a crucial, therapeutic activity—and eventually, a source for activism.
Herle, 27, comes from a family with a history of mental illness. Over the course of her adolescence, her once outgoing father retreated from the world more and more. By the time Herle was in her 20s, he was suffering from depression, living largely in one room, drinking, chain-smoking, watching movies, and avoiding people as much as possible.
Herle struggles with depression, an anxiety disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In 2009, as she was first coming to grips with her illness, she stumbled onto jiu jitsu via an online forum—a man was selling cupcakes to raise money to get to the Pan-American Jiu Jitsu Championships.
“We were both in Southern California, so I was like ‘Let’s take this opportunity to hang out,’” Herle tells GOOD “When I met up with him, he brought me to this tournament.”
2016 BROWN BELT LIGHTWEIGHT EUROPEAN CHAMPION!! I'm elated, ecstatic, relieved, proud that I accomplished this goal. Thank you to my sponsors @doordie #hyperfly, @digitsuonline, #nypizza for the support. Thanks to everyone who helped my prepare: MGA @hyperfly_mikeymain @hobokenjiujitsu @giannigrippo and countless others. My first brown belt tournament in the gi, I can't wait for more. #Ycth #submitthestigma
She was hooked. It would take her another year to actually start training, but jiu jitsu quickly became a major tool in her quest to manage her various conditions. On the mats, she was forced to confront her anxiety head-on, but in a safe, controlled environment. In her training partners, she found a supportive community.
“It really helped me,” Herle says. “I found my people. I never had anything like that (sense of belonging) growing up.”
Before long, Herle was competing regularly and winning often. As a blue belt, she decided to start competing in BJJ full time.
In July 2015, Herle was living in New Jersey, where she had moved to be with her boyfriend. Late one night, she got a call from her aunt, back in California. Initially, she ignored it.
“Then she texts me like, ‘I really need to talk to you.’ So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, something is wrong.’”
Her father had committed suicide.
“My dad was depressed and isolated,” she says, “but we never thought he would take his own life.”
Herle decided to use jiu jitsu as a platform to talk about mental illness. At her next competition, the Pan American No-Gi Championships, she won the bronze medal in the open weight absolute division. When she took the podium, she held up a sign reading “Submit the Stigma of Mental Illness.” (In grappling-based martial arts like BJJ, one of the ways to win a fight is to get your opponent to “submit,” or “tap” out to a choke or hold.)
“I realized that I wanted to use (the platform) as an opportunity to tell people about suicide and mental health,” she says. “Like ‘Ok, this happened to me, and I’m going to make it a positive somehow.’”
Herle says she only told a handful of people before holding up the sign. She says that, at least initially, it didn’t feel like people were receptive to her message.
“No one really approached me about it until I started posting about it online and making the website and spreading more background,” she says.
Once the site went up, Herle quickly discovered she wasn’t alone. Many people were, on some level, using BJJ to help manage their mental health. For Herle, it’s about being able to exist and engage without the specter of mental illness looming—and indeed, there have been studies suggesting participation in martial artsmight have a positive impact on mental health. Some of these effects also result from participation in other athletic activities, but some seem unique to martial arts.
“It allows me to focus on just that moment,” Herle says. “Just that technique, just that roll, just that match. So for the length of class time, I'm all there. And jiu jitsu is so much like chess and you have to have both muscle memory and quick thinking.”
Other tournament champions began holding up “Submit the Stigma” signs. #SubmitTheStigma became a hashtag, and Herle began selling #SubmitTheStigma gi patches and donating the money to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. When that wasn’t raising money fast enough, she started to do a series of charity seminars at BJJ schools across the United States. So far, she has raised roughly $20,000 and sold hundreds of patches. Now, she’s is in the process is developing another seminar.
The patches are a way of spreading awareness and getting people to start conversations about mental health with their training partners.
Among them was Valérie Brosseau, who is finishing a psychology degree at the University of Toronto, as well as volunteering for a number of crisis hotlines in the region. She also has struggled with mental health issues and says that BJJ has been a crucial part of her fight to maintain balance.
“It's multi-faceted,” she said. “I sweat. I am engaged. I am stimulated and challenged. So it keeps me occupied and goal driven.”
As soon as she heard about Herle, she felt the need to reach out and get involved.
Brosseau was catching up with a friend at a BJJ tournament. “I was talking about my struggle with mental illness,” Brosseau says. “She said ‘Yeah, I know a girl who holds up signs.’ And she started telling me about Erin. I sent (Herle) an email, and we just really opened up to each other and realized that we had a lot in common.”
Brosseau has become what Herle calls her “right hand” in Canada, handling distribution of the #SubmitTheStigma gi patches and generally getting the word out.
“It’s been really sweet to see people reach out to me and be like ‘Yo, I’m having a tough time, can we talk about it?’” she says. “That’s the spirit of the initiative, to make talking about it accessible to everyone without having that fear of judgment.”
Thomas Beach, 27, won a gold medal as a blue belt at the 2009 BJJ World Championships. A year later he took silver as a purple belt, and the following year another silver as a brown belt at the World Jiu Jitsu No-Gi Championship.
Beach was lucky to make it past 15.
Now a black belt, the Toronto-area instructor says jiu jitsu “literally saved my life.”
“There was violence, drugs, blah, blah, blah,” says Beach, who left home shortly before his 15th birthday. He tells GOOD his life was “chaotic.”
Some of that chaos was due to the fact that Beach was struggling with a host of undiagnosed mental health issues including obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and a panic disorder. His brother, meanwhile, suffered from bipolar disorder.
“I was always taking care of him,” he says. “bailing him out of jail, getting calls in the middle of the night ’cause he was having problems with people, saving his ass.”
All the while, Beach was fighting in the streets.
“I fought a lot as a kid, and I was thinking about fighting (professionally),” he says. “I started by trying to do some MMA (mixed martial arts), and a few months in, I found that I was really enjoying the jiu jitsu aspect of it. Eventually, I just wanted to do jiu jitsu.”
Jiu jitsu gave him stability, order, and a sense of purpose.
“I started training three times a day,” he says. “I sold all my stuff and rented a small room and started working at the gym, cleaning the mats, putting up posters, handing out flyers at the mall—just doing everything I could.”
It also brought him acclaim and recognition. Beach’s list of accomplishments in BJJ are almost overwhelming, including the aforementioned medals.
When he first heard about Herle’s campaign, it struck a chord with him, both because of his own struggles and because he too had recently lost a friend to suicide.
“I watched the story she put up about her father, and it just really hit home,” he said. “I watched that video, and I was crying.”
Beach reached out to Herle and asked if he could start selling the patches at Toronto BJJ, the gym where he teaches. He also plans to put together a series of Canadian charity seminars.
“I want to get Erin doing a seminar up here,” he says. “But I also want to do one of my own. I want to send more money to National Alliance for Mental Illness.”
Brown belt lightweight no-gi world champion! I had two matches and two submissions. Toeholds and wrist locks are the two things I've been working on so I'm so happy I met my goals. And I'm also ecstatic to have my family here with me on this day and to have the platform to spread the message: #submitthestigma of mental illness! Thank you to my coaches, training partners friends and family.
For Herle, the campaign is only just beginning. She’s planning more seminars, more patches, and more videos. But most importantly, she’s hoping to start more conversations. She wants BJJ practitioners to take the message of #SubmitTheStigma out of the gym and into their broader communities. And she wants people to help each other get help.
“I’m an advocate for professional help,” she says. “Talking about it, that’s amazing, but you need to seek treatment and recovery. Jiu jitsu is a great supplement, but it’s not a substitute for professional help.”