Mental Health Advocate Kelsie Igasan

Sep 5, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Mental Health, Sports, Steven Sanchez

by Steven Sanchez

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.

The Covid-19 lockdown has been one heck of a roller coaster ride for most Americans. The ones who are most definitely feeling the effects of this quarantine are the mentally ill. Mental health issues are rising among adults during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The facts are disheartening. From June 24 to 30, the CDC reports that U.S. adults reported mental health conditions in higher numbers due to COVID-19; out of more than 5,000 respondents who were contacted in late June, 25.5% of adults between the ages of 18-24 reported having “seriously considered suicide” due to the pandemic. The numbers show that 40.9% of adults say they’ve had at least one mental health affect, including symptoms of anxiety or depression (30.9%), symptoms of trauma or stressor-related disorder (26.3%), and starting or increasing substance use to cope (13.3%). They’ve also kept track of suicide since 1999, and the suicide rates around the country have risen by 35% over the last 20 years. The Journal of the American Medicine Association concurs with those facts, based on the most recent available data (2018). These numbers show the highest age-adjusted suicide rate since 1941.

These are every disparaging facts. It seemed like we were already facing a deadly pandemic as it was. You add a virus to the mix and it was basically insult to injury. With there being doubts of a cure, and with everything else going on in the world, it apparently seems, for those in doubt of wanting to live, that they see no light in sight. One Central Valley woman has been through that uncertainty, and she was able to come out of the darkness as a stronger and wiser woman.

Clovis-based mental health advocate, Kelsie Igasan, knew what the darkness was like, and knows first-hand on how to get yourself out of that pit of misery. She was a former nationally-ranked high school cheerleader turned drug user, then juvenile delinquent, addict, and suicide survivor. Now, the wife and mother of four spends her days helping to bring awareness about traumatic brain injuries and how they relate to mental health, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. The former Buchanan Bear has come a long way from being the one who needed the help.

Kelsie Igasan

Her troubles began in high school during her cheerleading days. In the mid 2000s she was just another bright-faced cheerleader in America on the sidelines of football games under the Friday night lights chanting, tumbling, doing backflips, kicks, and doing jumps in front of fans. No one knew that her smile was just a mask hiding aches and pains that were slowly worsening. These young women are obliged to attempt feats of injury-defying stunts that most won’t dare to do, most often doing it without medical attention or supervision. Doing moves like spread eagles, hurdlers, toe touches, and pikes in mid-air, these acrobats’ lives rest on the hands of those below who are responsible for catching them. If they do—it’s a successful routine, if not—disaster!

There were no stretchers or EMTs handy, after a fall or botched routine; the culture was to just walk it off and do it again. No one made the connection between concussions and cheerleading at the time, and still to this day, the medical field doesn’t. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has only recently been brought to the American consciousness. Unfortunately for Kelsie, no knowledge was given to her that the sport she loved and was so passionate about was basically killing her. That would eventually lead to her downward spiral. “It made sense to me that all those falls learning gymnastic and stunt routines could have drastically affected the way I act, think, and feel,” reveals Kelsie. “Having a concussed brain is a major triggering factor to poor decision making and lack of impulse control, so it impacts the layers of health in the body we need in order to make healthy decisions. I believe many of my layers were sick at this time and being concussed contributed.”

Kelsie as a cheerleader

That’s where her cocaine habit began. She would do it on and off campus—it didn’t matter. Her grades suffered. What she considered fun and rebellious turned into a full-blown addiction. She was dependent. Things went from bad to worse, not only in school, but at home. When she reached her breaking point, she was sent for a short stint in rehab, where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 16. A falling out with her parents led to a fight which led to her mother calling the cops on her. It was during her time in the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus that her spirituality developed. She read the entire Bible in her cell, and incarceration gave her time to reflect on her life. “I absolutely asked myself: how [did I go] from athletics to addiction and a cheer mat to a jail cell in a year? It was the darkest time of my life waking up in a cell for six months with only books and my thoughts for 24 hours a day. It forced me to face myself and my decisions,” Kelsie reflects.

After her release, she moved to Kansas, and was introduced to meth. A few months passed, and she returned to the Valley, continued her habit, and at 19 she found out she was pregnant. After the revelation she got sober, sought therapy, and became a Pediatric Phlebotomist for Children’s Hospital and stayed sober for three years. But that high came crashing down. In April of 2017 she was in a minor car accident where she slammed her face into the steering wheel suffering a concussion. Shortly after the accident, she was changing her second son’s diaper in the middle of the night. The toddler kicked her in the exact spot she hit her head. That’s when she relapsed.

High, she went to the top of her building thinking that her efforts for a clean life weren’t successful. She believed that her family was better off without her. The memory of her as a mother to her children was an improvement than seeing her for who she was in person. “Just before I attempted I prayed to God. I asked for his forgiveness and I told him I was sorry. I begged God to hold me in his arms,” Kelsie laments. Moments later, she leapt.

Fortunately, she survived. She was sent to the level one Trauma Facility Community Regional Medical Center as a 5150-attempted suicide with a broken tibia/fibula and subdermal hemorrhage (brain bleed). It was there that the revelation was shared to her about the reason for her suffering. It was the concussions. After years of asking and trying to figure out why, it was the puzzle piece that finally fit and gave Kelsie the relief she needed knowing that those dark moments were fueled by trauma.

The sad thing is when it comes to CTE and concussion issues to sports participation amongst our youth, cheerleading doesn’t get the same respect. Most circles don’t consider cheerleading a sport. It’s that lack of respect that has been the contributing factor on why the medical field and organizations don’t make medical assistance amongst cheerleaders a priority. It’s usually contact and physical sports that get all the attention like football, hockey, rugby, lacrosse, etc. Kelsie wants that to change. “We are risking our lives for the love of a sport and there needs to be medical staff on hand and cheerleading needs to be deemed a sport in all 50 states. There should be a cheer room with the proper mats and equipment like any other sport. More cheerleaders need to share their experiences and truth. This sport deserves the same respect as any other sport.”

After the suicide attempt she left the hospital with the diagnosis of multiple sports related traumatic brain injuries. She would later be named the Ambassador for the Central Valley Concussion Consortium. It was then that she found her true calling, by helping others, and bringing knowledge to an issue that at one point people felt stigmatized to share.

She has become somewhat of a celebrity through her outreach and by telling her story of recovery. She’s been to The Children’s Movement of Fresno, Clovis Community Health Watch, and has been featured, quite frequently, on local news stations like MedWatch Today and Fox26. She has given countless interviews on radio stations, podcasts, newspapers, and other publications. Her story received national attention as a subject for Inside Edition. Kelsie never would have thought that much attention would come of her sobriety, and is taking it all with a grain of salt. “I never could have imagined this would have happened after all the terrible decisions I have made. I shared my story many times and felt so ashamed. It was very hard to wrap my head around the reality that people were connecting with my story. I share this story because if it stops one person from ending their life then it was worth every uncomfortable moment I’ve encountered. Vulnerability saves lives.”

She credits her Christian faith as an important reason for her living a sober life and having the courage to share her story to the masses. “Those emotions and that fear pushed me into my Christ-centered recovery program, Regeneration. I was sharing my story and I was not prepared for it and that’s because I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus yet; I just knew I prayed, he saved me, and he was using me…but why? In my suffering, public suffering, I dug deeper into my faith,” Kelsie reveals passionately. And it’s been her faith that has been her protective shield, from dealing with naysayers and critics who have said disparaging things about her and her background. Being in the spotlight comes with its disadvantages but as long as she has her religion, she will always remain strong. “I know people won’t understand, I know people will question me but you know what? No one ever changed their communities by being like everyone else. My heart behind my message is to help people. I share the story to reach the person who needs the hope.”

You can now consider her a church girl. Being all about the life. The singing, and the praying, she loves it all. You see her at first glance you’d believe she would’ve been a churchgoer for all her life, but in actuality, she came from a family that didn’t have a belief system. So, once she dove into the world of religion, she had help, but when it came to family, it was she who walked the path alone. During this realization, she felt that maybe turning to a higher power when she was younger and having it be a family affair could have made her life different. “Yes, I do believe some type of faith could have not only helped me overcome my obstacles but also provided comfort to my family as they faced those obstacles with me,” says Kelsie. “Let’s be real, everyone struggles and no one’s family is perfect. My parents had their own issues alongside my issues growing up and I believe they needed support just as I did. Having faith is a support system. Being a part of a community that shares in that faith with you, no matter what that faith is, is just another layer of support, and the more support we have the better our brains heal and function.”

That’s the main thing she credits as the biggest step towards recovery: support. Wherever you can get it, find it and use it. With her it’s her family, especially the love of her life, Tim Igasan. She met him when she was 15. After high school, he came back into her life and they fell head over heels in love. That relationship developed their connection further as they both serve, or have served, in the health care system. He’s a nurse and she was a licensed phlebotomist, so the passion to help others brought them closer together.

It didn’t start out easy. When they began dating, out of respect, she wrote him a four-page letter warning him about her addiction, and gave him the decision to stay or leave, knowing the facts. He chose to stay. When she attempted suicide, the former Marine was right there by her side. Kelsie had nothing but the most loving things to say about him, “Tim is everything to me. He has loved me at my best and loved me harder at my darkest,” shares Kelsie. “He baptized my older son, his step son, and he led us to Christ. His example of faith has easily been the most profound thing anyone has given me in my entire life. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and protected our children. He saved my life and gave me a living example of faith that has not only changed my life but the next generation of our family. He contributed greatly to my healing which has allowed me to transform into a mother my children deserve.”

Kelsie found a way to recovery, but unfortunately it isn’t the same for everybody. For one thing, some can’t afford rehab. The average cost is $20,000. That doesn’t sit right with Kelsie. “Money needs to go toward the portion of care they desperately need but cannot afford. We are asking for addicts who often have nothing, not even a home, to find twenty grand for treatment? That’s crazy. We will never solve this problem if the solution is not even an option for most people. It would be nice if established treatment centers provided grants to community members who cannot afford treatment.” That why it’s a challenge for some who are suffering to find a center that has their best interest at heart instead of those who are exploiting their pain for financial compensation.

Second, it’s the stigma of mental illness, and asking for help. Even after all this time, people still are afraid to confront the shame that society puts on those who are recovering from addiction, and improving their mental and physical health. Sometimes the hardest part is just asking for help. For Kelsie, yes, her faith did help her; not just religious faith, but faith in herself that she could do better; this is key. “I believe that faith is one layer of healing that matters. I don’t believe it’s the only answer but for me it answered many questions. When I addressed my brain injuries and my faith, it provided me the parts of my problems I was missing and ultimately led to answers,” Kelsie says.

Kelsie on “Inside Edition”

The road to recovery isn’t the easiest thing. It won’t be a cake walk, especially since in order to move forward you have to look back in order to heal. Kelsie’s version is pretty intense.

“During the 12 Step program, on Step 11, Intimacy, it asked me to choose a location and have an intimate moment of prayer with God. I chose to go back to the place I attempted suicide to make peace with the shame, fear, and guilt that lead me to that moment. I knew the only way to overcome the memory of that moment and to fully understand what led me there, was to return there. I needed to face the woman I was as the woman I became as a result of it.”

During our correspondence, she kept referring back to the cold, hard fact that in life one only overcomes the darkness by suffering—that it can make us stronger, and we learn the most about ourselves when we do. It’s something we don’t want to go through, but it’s something that can drive us toward that path of recovery and liberation. That’s why Kelsie lives by the motto: “The Butterfly Inside.” The acronym is TBI, which also stands for traumatic brain injury. She believes there’s a butterfly inside each and every one of us, waiting to emerge from the darkness and confinement of this world, and will set us free. She’s confident that other people in this world can, too. Her favorite passage from The Bible, Mark 9:23, is one that can be applied to all of those who seek to become a better version of who they are: “All things are possible to those who believe.”

If you’re suicidal and need help, call the hotline:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

For more information on Kelsie’s story:

Superintendent Yovino calls his August super star “unique”

TBI – The Butterfly Inside: My story of how Sports Related Traumatic Brain Injuries led to a life of Addiction

MedWatch Today: Healthcare Hero, Kelsie Igasan Gives Back to Trauma Survivors
Former Cheerleaders Warn of Concussion Risks in the Sport

Steven Sanchez is a film graduate of UNLV. He’s a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and music manager. Obsessed with movies, comic books, and rock ‘n’ roll. A football fanatic, big fan of the Oakland Raiders. Enjoys reading and collecting vinyl records. If there’s a rock show in town more than likely he’ll be there. Loves his grandma’s home cooked meals. He has a twin sister and most people call him the pretty one. You can learn more about Steven on his YouTube channel and on Instagram @stevensanchez5807 photos and videos.


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