WEST VALLEY CITY — Sgt. Josh Hansen joined the U.S. Army at 30 years old soon after 9/11, he said, because he wanted to be someone who could protect and serve his country.
After Hansen's first tour in Iraq in 2004-05, he returned feeling depressed, he said, because "the civilian world" was "chaotic and unstructured" compared with military life.
Within six months of completing his first tour, Hansen joined a unit and found his way back to Iraq. He was hit with explosives eight times before being sent home because of his injuries.
This time, Hansen's return home was like "the depths of the dark pit of hell" and only got worse when four of his veteran friends took their own lives, he said. Hansen gained 45 pounds and said he found it almost impossible to leave the house.
"I just existed, and that's all it was," he said. "It was horrible until I got a grip that I needed to have a purpose in life."
Hansen said he tried to focus on eating right, exercising and getting professional help. Those simple things helped to pull his mind out of a "mass depression," he said.
To share his ideas with other veterans, Hansen created Continue Mission, a nonprofit organization intended to bring Utah veterans together for recreational and other activities.
Continue Mission and other nonprofit groups, along with those who live with mental illness, their family members, and mental and medical professionals in the community united Tuesday for the Power of the Mind Conference put on by Utah's chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
"We are the only conference in Utah that brings all of these people in together. Then we all have an opportunity to learn from each other," said Jamie Justice, the alliance's executive director. "Professionals are no longer the scary professionals, and consumers are seen in a different way."
Robyn Emery, a mother whose children deal with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said her mindset played a huge role in handling her children's illnesses.
"I really dove into educating myself," Emery said. "I threw myself into the libraries and books, knowing that the more I knew, the better chance I had for helping my kids, and so I think that everybody does it differently, but we all do something to arm ourselves."
Chris "Wonder" Schoeck, a recovering alcoholic from Queens, New York, said he manages the various mental issues that he has by bending steel. Schoeck strives to be a strongman, just like the entertainers from the vaudeville era who were famous for bending metal.
Schoeck performed at the conference. He appeared to bend a 6-inch spike in half, rip an entire deck of cards, contort a horseshoe and bend a structural steel bar. Bending steel requires "the ultimate embodiment of concentration" that is "almost therapeutic," according to Schoeck.
"Bending steel gives me a very personal sense of self-esteem that is not even comparable to an alcohol-induced sense of euphoria," he said.
In addition to the immediate thrill bending steel gives him, Schoeck said the effort and time he puts into being good at bending makes him feel successful. He encouraged the 300 participants at the conference to delve into a healthy hobby or activity to make them feel successful.
Schoeck's steel-bending is a metaphor for honing in on one task and improving in life bit by bit, according to Hansen.
"He had a purpose and had a goal," Hansen said, "and honestly it doesn't matter if you are bending metal or taking a walk around the block; you've got to take your baby steps. He had a purpose, and that's what we all need."
Hansen said learning how to revert one's mindset is the key to overcoming any mental illness.
"I'll always have post-traumatic stress," he said. "I don't know if that's ever something that will go away, but now I am in control, whereas before I let it control me."