Anthony Purcell remembers countless dives off the coast of Miami Beach, but his dive on February 6th, 2010 did not go as planned. That morning, instead of slicing through deep ocean waves, he slammed head-first into a hidden sandbar. The impact of the accident shattered his neck, ruptured his spinal cord, and bruised his C5 and C6 vertebrae. In an instant, he went from being a strong swimmer to being unable to resurface.
After months of despair and despondency, Purcell’s family encouraged him to shift his focus away from what he could not do and onto what he could do. Today, through Walking with Anthony, he meets with hundreds in the spinal cord injury community and gives them the motivation they need to continue their battle for mental health.
The emotional and psychological effects of Anthony Purcell’s spinal cord injury
After he became paralyzed, Purcell had to relearn how to do everything from breathing to brushing his teeth, but that only accounts for one side of his long fight for recovery. When thinking about therapy for patients with spinal cord injuries, he notes that most people only look at the surface.
“After a spinal cord injury, physical rehabilitation is essential,” Purcell says. “But we still need to place greater emphasis on mental recovery. You need to regain a positive outlook and a will to move forward before you can heal.”
According to Purcell, the first year is the toughest in terms of mental health. “My early twenties were the best years of my life. Then, suddenly, I broke my neck, and the world was upside down. It’s enough to throw anyone’s mind for a loop.”
Purcell’s mental health deteriorated to the point where he no longer wanted to leave his house. Even though friends and family urged him to go out, he dreaded people watching him as he was transferred from the car to his wheelchair.
“That’s how mentally impaired I was and how ashamed I felt about my wheelchair,” Purcell says. “My inability to walk was not my biggest challenge. The late-night hours when I was sleepless and alone were the worst. My brain was on a continuous negative feedback loop, telling me I would never have children, never go on another date, and that my family and friends didn’t want me around anymore. After thoughts like this night after night, you begin to doubt your own worth.”
During the long year after his spinal cord injury, Purcell’s mental and physical health was poor, to say the least. However, as he began to strengthen his mind, his body gained strength as well.
Purcell started to find joy in small successes. Rather than obsessing over his inability to walk, he recognized and applauded his ability to perform things he had been unable to do even a week or a month before. Most importantly, he began to reach out and help other people.
How friends and family can support spinal cord injury survivors
A robust support system is extremely important following any major accident, but especially those as severe as spinal cord injuries. In the weeks and months after a spinal cord injury, it is critical to have friends and family checking in on the mental health of their loved one.
“When you get hurt, family and friends are the foundation of your physical rehab and mental health battle,” explains Purcell. “They are the ones in your corner, cheering you on, and telling you not to quit. These contributions may seem small, but they make a huge difference for someone battling those mental demons.”
Purcell encourages the friends and family of injury survivors to continue to offer support even when their loved ones are in a dark place. “The best thing you can do for someone in that situation is to have a conversation and ask them where they’re at,” he says. “Find out what they’re going through and offer as much comfort and positivity as you can. Pick up the phone or send a text to see how they’re doing. In my experience, if you’re not in a good headspace, talking with someone is the best idea. The conversation doesn’t have to be with a psychiatrist — it can be a best friend, a mother, a father, a cousin, a brother, or a sister. Just getting it out there and bouncing stuff off other people goes a long way.”
The mental health support Walking with Anthony provides to spinal cord injury survivors
A year after Purcell’s spinal cord injury, he hit rock bottom — even going so far as to research suicide methods online. That’s when his mother advised him to shift his focus outwards and use his experience to help others. He was reluctant, but she insisted, “Healing other people will heal you,” he affirms.
In spite of Purcell’s initial resistance, his mother launched Walking With Anthony and recruited his help. “We began assisting families and making a difference in people’s lives,” he remembers. “That helped me emotionally more than anything else. It gets me up each morning and keeps me going each day. As time went on, I realized how fortunate I was to be in a position to help other people.”
When Purcell reaches out through Walking With Anthony, he is on a mission to improve mental wellness. The organization provides financial assistance to families dealing with the enormous costs associated with rehabilitation, but the primary concern is strengthening injury survivors’ mental health.
“I offer guidance and act as a mentor,” he says. “I understand what they are going through. When they want to talk, I make sure to check-in. I tell them things will be okay, connect them with a rehab facility, and talk them through the battle. Above all, I want to give them hope.”