Dhayana Estrella-Conklin: Healing from the inside out

WTU Force Structure Sgt. Estrella-Conklin, her husband Richard and their "fur baby" Odin enjoy a morning hike. (Photo Credit: Courtesy, Sgt. Dhayana EstrellaConklin)

By Annette P. Gomes, Warrior Care and Transition

Anxiety, depression and hopelessness. These are emotions associated with mental health. According to the Center for Disease Control, one in five adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition, a topic we draw attention to during the month of May.

It's a subject Sgt. Dhayana Estrella - Conklin says she's all too familiar with after a car accident nearly claimed her leg.

Estrella-Conklin was fortunate. Quick thinking Soldiers applied Army combat skills which aided in saving her leg. Temporarily confined to a wheelchair and bedridden, the New Jersey native says the "real work" began as she recovered at Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Unit. She says while most focus on their physical changes, the mental aspect of recovery is often overlooked. She also believes that the many stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental health are a growing problem in the health community.

"I think one of the most surprising things about my road to recovery was the impact the accident had on my mental health. You cannot see it, but it is no less there. I was so highly motivated to walk again that I didn't think that my emotional and mental health were affected as well," Estrella-Conklin said.

"Over time my emotions became overwhelming compared to my physical symptoms. I convinced myself that the heart palpitations, nausea and sudden blood rush were normal. It wasn't, it isn't and it never will be. I realized what was happening to me were panic attacks. I got my days mixed up and confused appointment dates. I was devastated because I felt my memory was being affected from this accident. It was affecting every aspect of my life."

According to a 2014 study by the Journal of American Medical Association of Psychiatry, nearly one in four active duty members showed signs of a mental health condition.

"Discovering that you have been impacted emotionally by the trauma you have experienced is much more common than we think. The experience that Dhayana Estrella-Conklin described is spot on. We see this more often than not when a Soldier comes to the WTU for a physical injury related to trauma," said Sandra Loader, a Senior Social Worker with the WTU - North Capital Region.

Loader explains that many Soldiers place their focus on the physical aspect of healing and they realize later that the trauma has affected who they are on multiple levels.

"The good news is that the effects of their trauma are treatable and we would encourage Soldiers not to suffer in silence or try to self-medicate away their symptoms," Loader said. "Trying to manage [the mental and emotional trauma] on their own can lead to problems that truly effect their careers such as job performance, substance abuse and relationship problems. It can become overwhelming quickly."

Determined to heal, Estrella-Conklin reached out for help with her issues.

"It was immediate, I was tested and diagnosed with several types of anxiety. I was ashamed, confused and hurt," Estrella-Conklin said. "But after being diagnosed, I slowly realized that the next step was finding a way to live with this new reality. I began doing any type of therapy you can think of. Although I still have a difficult time controlling my physical and mental symptoms sometimes, I'm happy to feel more in control of my life."

"This is a very important step. You shouldn't be afraid to reach out for help just as Sgt. Estrella-Conklin did," Loader said. "Listen to your friends and family when they suggest you are not the same. The WTU has a lot of tools to help you feel better and to learn to manage these issues going forward. We want you to be the best version of yourself going forward whether you stay in the military or become a civilian. It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help," Loader explained. While many suffer in silence, Estrella-Conklin has a stronger message for those facing mental health challenges.

"Continuous therapy and upkeep is vital in helping individuals to stay on track. Through the help of my physicians, I no longer feel ashamed of associating myself with my anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By changing my perspective, I found a way I could continue living happily," she said. "My diagnoses are no longer "disorders" to me, they are assets. My obsessive compulsive disorder means I am super organized and methodical. My anxiety makes me super aware of my surroundings and I've learned to trust my basic instincts. I have managed to save my life out of the darkness of my disorders. It's important to stay in the light."

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of mental illness at https://go.usa.gov/xNbXB