The Invisible Battle: Exploring the Silent Mental Health Struggles of Spinal Cord Injury Survivors

Growing up in the Sunshine State, Anthony Purcell regularly dove into the waves off Miami Beach. On the morning of February 6, 2010, however, his dive did not go as planned. 

That morning, Purcell struck a hidden sandbar headfirst, broke his neck, bruised his C5 and C6 vertebrae, and injured his spinal cord. In a split second, he transitioned from being a confident swimmer to being paralyzed and unable to resurface from the water on his own. 

Even with access to therapy, Purcell struggled with depression and hopelessness. Today, Walking with Anthony enables him to meet with hundreds of his brothers and sisters in the spinal cord injury community, and empower them to fight for mental wellness with renewed assurance and purpose.

How a spinal cord injury altered Anthony Purcell’s life and impacted his mental health

When Purcell went from able-bodied to paralyzed, he had to relearn how to do everything from brushing his teeth to breathing. “I had to figure out how to live in a new body,” he recalls. “It feels like you are a baby having to learn all the little things able-bodied people take for granted, and that’s just the physical stuff.”

Purcell observes that most people only go so deep when considering rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries. Though the physical challenges have a lot to do with a person’s recovery, he says the fight was primarily in his mind.

“You obviously need to rehab physically when you have a spinal cord injury,” Purcell reflects, “but we need to talk more about rehabbing your brain. Before you can recover, you need to reclaim a positive mental outlook and the capability of moving forward.”

In terms of mental health, Purcell believes the first year is the most difficult. Embarrassed by his lack of independence, he pulled away from everyone. “If you can imagine, I was living my best life in my early twenties. Then, bam! I dove into a sandbar and broke my neck. Mentally, that really messes with you.”

Purcell refused to leave the house. When his closest friends told him they wouldn’t take no for an answer, he wouldn’t allow them to transfer him out of the car while anyone was watching.

“That’s how weak my mind was and how embarrassed I was to be in a wheelchair,” Purcell recalls. “A lot of people think the worst part of being paralyzed is not being able to walk, but it’s way more than that. The worst part comes when you are alone at night. Questions loop through your brain like, ‘Will I ever have kids? Will I ever meet a girl? What do my family and friends think about me now?’ You start to think that you’re not good enough.”

Like many people who survive a spinal cord injury, Purcell learned the first year is the hardest. He was weak physically and mentally, but once he decided to work on his mental health, improved physical health followed.

“Once you are in a positive mental state, you can turn around and say I’m not going to listen to these demons anymore,” says Purcell. “You can choose to help others and feed your brain in a positive way. Today, that’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going. Just like retraining your physical body, achieving mental health takes time. You learn to recognize the dark thoughts and replace them with ones that are positive.”

Purcell began celebrating small victories at rehab. Instead of focusing only on walking, he started to notice whenever he did something he couldn’t do a week or a month prior, celebrated that as progress, and told himself he was moving in the right direction.

Why mental health struggles are so often ignored by spinal cord injury survivors

While he was in the hospital following his injury, Purcell received services from a psychiatrist, but never felt that mental wellness was a focal point of his rehabilitation. “We need to spotlight the role mental health plays in a person’s recovery,” he asserts. “Regaining mental strength changed everything for me, and it’s unfortunate that it is so often neglected. No one talks about the loss of things like going out for a run, brushing your own teeth, or going to bed when you want to go to bed. No one tells you about the mental impact of needing a nurse’s care. Mentally, it’s an epic battle, and that’s why we launched Walking with Anthony.”

How Walking with Anthony offers the mental health support that survivors need

Purcell launched Walking with Anthony one year after his spinal cord injury. At that point, he was extremely depressed — even researching how he could take his own life.

One day, Purcell’s mother told him it was time to start a charity and shift the focus onto other people. He resisted the idea, but she told him, “Healing other people will heal you.”

Despite Purcell’s objections, his mother started the organization and got him involved. “I started helping families and making a difference in people’s lives,” he remembers. “More than anything else, that fed my mental health. I began to see that I was lucky to be put in a position to help others.”

Today, Walking with Anthony receives hundreds of calls from individuals needing assistance. “I introduce myself to the families first because I remember when I was in the hospital, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone in my situation. I explain that I am here to give them guidance and be a mentor. When the patient is ready for a conversation, I check in. I tell them everything’s going to be okay, set them up with a rehab facility, and, most importantly, I talk them through what’s going on in their brain. My main goal is to give them hope.”

While Walking with Anthony helps families financially with rehab costs and the heavy expenses of a spinal cord injury, Purcell never forgets the focus is mental. “I make sure I’m there to give as much as I can,” he concludes. “Where most people look at a spinal cord injury and only see physical needs, I know most of the struggle is mental.”

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