BAXTER-They came from all walks of life-a business leader, a health care professional, an educator and a student-but they shared one thing in common: mental illness.

The Brainerd lakes area community leaders took to the stage Thursday, May 31, at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter to share publicly their private struggles in the hopes it may help others.

Central Lakes College President Hara Charlier, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian, Essentia Health-Central President Adam Rees and Brainerd High School student Caroline Benson shared at the church gathering their personal "mental health journeys."

"I found myself in a situation where work was very stressful. There was a lot of anxiety. My work-life balance wasn't in sync," Rees told the audience.

"And what I found happening was my sleep started to get disrupted. ... But I'm very thankful I have a supportive spouse, and she helped me, with a family doctor, find an antidepressant medication that was very effective. ... And there was a sleeping medication that helped as well."

Kilian echoed Rees' comments concerning work-life balance.

"People spend a lot of time at work-more than probably any place else. We need to have these caring workplace environments, and I think a lot of the stress and how that manifests itself is at work," said Kilian, who was hospitalized for bipolar disorder.

"I'm going to take you back to probably, for me, was the lowest moment. ... I was laying face down on my living room floor ... and I was praying. ... My deal that I made with God that day was that if he'd heal me, that I would do everything that I could to help somebody else."

Charlier said mental illness has had a "prominent place" in her life and in her family's life "for as long as I can really remember," and she told the audience she had many suicidal thoughts.

"I was really focused on taking care of everybody else, and I didn't realize what was happening to me, and like what some of my colleagues talked about, I tend to be a workaholic," Charlier said.

"And when I was in the position where I had this new job that I had no confidence I could do, I put all my energy ... into finding a way to do that job, and so I went to work and everyone thought I had it all together. ... But then I came home and I cried every single night."

Nystrom & Associates President Brian Nystrom and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neifert were also part of the panel discussion to share their extensive experience with mental illness, but Benson, a 16-year-old junior, stood out among the speakers because of her youth.

"It got to the point where I just wouldn't get out of bed in the mornings, and I had to drop out of school ... and I just laid in my bed, all day, every day .. .and after two months, I was put into a hospital ... and from there it literally changed my life and saved my life," Benson said.

Benson mentioned Jake Haapajoki, the 16-year-old Brainerd High School student who died by suicide Feb. 21.

"This past year, we lost two classmates to suicide, and that just has to stop. ... If they had gotten help like I did, they would still be here, so I just want to make sure that everyone knows that there is help, and it's OK to get help," Benson said.

More than 1 in 4 residents in Crow Wing County have been diagnosed with a mental illness, but the stigma around it prevents people from reaching out for help, according to event sponsors Brainerd Dispatch, Essentia Health and Brainerd Lakes Chamber.

"At Essentia, we've seen at our emergency department triple the number of people present with a mental health crisis in the last six months," said Kathy Sell, Essentia Health marketing manager.

The Baxter church hosted a large group of those who attended the free event, and the speakers like Rees and Kilian said faith was one of the few things that brought them solace during their despair or time of need.

"This is important work, and it's very brave of the people who are sharing tonight," said Lisa Worden, a 45-year-old Brainerd resident who attended the hour-long discussion.

"I really appreciate the fact they are willing to do that ... to open up and be transparent about it. I think-like a lot of people-I know a lot of people that have had their lives affected by mental illness."

Depression and anxiety are more common than diabetes, with almost 28 percent of adults in Crow Wing County impacted by mental illness, according to a Crow Wing Energized survey. Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in America for those ages 18 to 44, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Stigma prevents people from receiving treatment. Our goal is to form a community where people do not feel that stigma and can reach out before they have reached a crisis situation. But reducing stigma starts with talking about it," Sell said.

If in a crisis or in need of help-or know someone who is-call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The phone line is answered 24 hours a day by local, trained volunteers providing free, anonymous and confidential advice.