Owning the Struggle – Syanne’s Story on Confronting the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

“I had a mental break the morning before work one day. I had intended on going to work, but I started having dissociating symptoms. I felt very detached from myself… like I couldn’t feel my body – odd, paranoid.

I already had a lot of suicidal thoughts for weeks. I grabbed my keys and got in the car and did not feel right at all. I could not feel my hands on the steering wheel. I had the impulse to run into a tree because I couldn’t feel anything and I wanted to feel something – the same thing that cutting would do for me. When you’re in that state you just want a relief, and I was panicking .I called my friend and she didn’t answer, so I was going to drive into the tree. But then she called me back… And told me to go straight to an urgent care. My friend stayed on the phone and distracted me until I got there. She saved my life.”

Syanne’s story is a story one in four individuals can relate to in some way or another. It’s a story of someone who is trying their best, but their mind gets in the way. In fact, their mind has completely other plans – illogical, fearful, exhausting plans.

In a TED Talk from June 2012, Ruby Wax, an American actress, author, and mental health campaigner, spoke of her time being institutionalized. She said mental health disorders come with a package: Shame. “When any other part of your body gets stick, you get sympathy.” Discussing mental health brings exposure, compassion, and understanding. With more than 40 million Americans affected by a mental health condition, everyone knows someone who is suffering – sometimes silently. Now is the time to let those people know you’re here, and you’re listening.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re opening the package to illuminate what’s truly inside: Hope. “If we don’t talk about this stuff, and we don’t learn how to deal with our lives, it’s not going to be one in four [people with mental illness]; it’s going to be four in four,” Ruby said. Join us in raising awareness as we share the story of Syanne Centeno, 25, a local of Charles County, Maryland, and the former Miss Maryland 2015 for the Miss World Organization.

Syanne has been hospitalized in mental facilities three times in the past, with her most recent hospitalization due to psychosis and suicidal thoughts associated with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). As a public figure, Syanne found the stigma surrounding mental illness to be extraordinarily difficult, and wanted to share her experiences in an effort to confront and break the silence around mental health diagnoses.

“Most would never imagine that a beauty queen would have mental health challenges, but I wanted to break the stigma and show that anyone can be inflicted with a serious mental illness, despite what can be seen on the surface. It is important for women to know that if they are struggling, it is okay to seek help – no matter what your background is.”

Syanne was just 8-years-old when she started to develop an eating disorder. Having just moved to California from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a young and anxious Syanne felt she didn’t fit in with the other kids at school and began starving herself as a way to cope.

“My mom was always fighting with me to eat. I started hiding food under my bed and that’s how she discovered what I was doing; because my dog found it,” Syanne said. “She was very upset, and a little bit angry, but I think that was fear-based.

My mom always encouraged me to eat, but it was hard for her, especially because it got worse as I got older. I know [my parents] wanted to help me, but nobody else in the family dealt with this so it was a new concept to them. It was a very taboo topic.”

At 16, Syanne was hospitalized for the first time in an eating disorder clinic. Prodded, poked and scrutinized day after day, Syanne described the ordeal as one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. In November 2008, Syanne’s parents pulled her out after only a few months of treatment. They were upset about her care and felt it was harmful mentally. They were right.

By December, Syanne was in full relapse mode, and in January 2009, she attempted suicide by trying to overdose on one of her prescription anxiety medications. Syanne was placed in a partial hospitalization program for adolescents where she had in-patient therapy during the day, but was able to come home and sleep in the comfort of her own bed at night (not to mention see her dog). A junior in high school at the time, she credits the group therapy sessions to helping her learn she wasn’t alone in her struggle.

“That’s where I met my best friend, Shelby. She was there for the same thing – attempted suicide. We became very close, very fast. We always had people to lean on. It felt good to have that kind of relationship with someone who actually understands.”

Syanne did really well for a few months, but relapsed come summer. By graduation, Syanne wasn’t doing much at all due to her low immune system and continuous sickness. “I was 19 and 79 pounds.”

Syanne had isolated herself – deleted social media, lost touch with her friends, and was in and out of the ER constantly. It wasn’t until she was watching TV one day that Syanne became motivated to change. “I was watching the news about a kid who killed himself due to bullying. I was bullied when I was younger, and I just got really angry and wanted to do something about it.” Syanne began volunteering her time with various organizations and schools to share her story – but it wasn’t enough. “I had this realization that if I wasn’t well, I couldn’t encourage other kids to be well. It didn’t seem like I could be a role model for them unless I made a change for the better.”

Syanne began gaining weight back naturally and has continued to gain ever since. At 21, Syanne’s interest in pageantry sparked as a way to further her advocacy. She landed her first title as Miss Frederick United States 2013, winning again in 2015 as Miss Maryland World.

“It was fun but it was a lot of work and pressure – having to look perfect all the time; smiling all the time, even when you didn’t feel like smiling,” she said. “After winning, I went to New York for a modeling contract. I wasn’t sleeping and was going to events constantly. I would go online and search my name and would find bad things people   were saying and that really tore me down.”Syanne went on to compete in Miss World America 2015, the preliminary to Miss World, where she placed in the top 12 nationally. “I beat myself up over it. I did not think that was good. I obsessed over my placement and the what-ifs.” Pageantry helped Syanne, but it also brought her down. “I started isolating myself again and was very paranoid about what people thought about me. I was suicidal and cutting. I started back-tracking a lot.” To top it off, Syanne lost her beloved grandfather around the same time she began feeling the void the lack of pageant participation was creating in her life. Syanne was officially diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in the fall after the pageant, and had a mental breakdown in December 2016. “I was upset that I wasn’t in pageants anymore, I didn’t feel fulfilled and I didn’t feel good enough,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was.”Syanne entered a second partial hospitalization program and was released at the end of January. “I think it helped me more this time because I’m an adult now and made the decision to help myself instead of being forced. I took ownership of my struggles and got help.” Now, Syanne is learning how to be comfortable with herself and her story. Back in 2014, she wrote a book called Confessions of a Survivor about her adolescent experiences, anorexia in particular. “It was helpful, but I wasn’t honest about the fact that I was still struggling. I felt like I was still hiding.” Syanne hopes to write another book in the future, but one where she’s completely forthright. “If I’m still going through something, I want to talk about it and be honest. Because if I don’t, it just shows that mental health is easy, and it’s not – you can deal with it your entire life.” Attitudes about mental illness won’t change until people stop treating it like it’s something you can just get over easily. “You can relapse. Most people do struggle to some extent even after they’ve ‘conquered’ something – that’s normal,” she said. Syanne stresses that being honest with the people around you is the only way you’re going to get better. “It might seem scary, but you can’t get to wellness if you’re not going to tell someone you trust that you’re struggling. You can’t do it alone,” she said. “It’s a consistent battle with not wanting to burden people, but the real burden would be if they lost you.”

Mental Health Fast Facts

Age of Onset
Did you know half of mental health conditions begin by age 14? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website says that the normal personality and behavior changes of adolescence may mimic or mask symptoms of a mental health condition or signs of drug addiction. Early engagement and support are crucial to improving outcomes and increasing the promise of recovery. Stay in the know and learn more about mental health conditions signs and symptoms at nami.org and stopoverdoseil.org.

Belief in Sympathy
According to the Center for Disease Control, only 25 percent of adults with mental health issues believe that people in general are sympathetic toward those struggling with mental illness. This is problematic because those who are experiencing symptoms may be reluctant to seek help, or even worse, not feel comfortable talking to others about their condition. If you suspect that someone you care for is struggling, don’t be scared to let them know you’re there to help. It could make all the difference.

Rachel Lytle
Southern Maryland native and Penn State Alumna, Rachel works full-time in marketing and is a freelance writer for a variety of women's lifestyle publications. She has a passion for mental health advocacy and enjoys to play tennis, travel, and spend her spare time with family and friends.