Many people interested in fitness want to do more than just improve their bodies. They use their efforts from training to also focus on and improve mental health. Cherissa Jackson is the Chief Medical Executive of American Veterans and the founder of Project Give Hope, and she understands that one coincides with the other. Jackson believes that working on physical health helps mental health and vice versa.
"I see physical health and mental health as a marriage," Jackson said. "If you take care of your physical health, your mental health will follow."
Veterans across America are dealing with various mental and physical issues that require medical attention. Jackson works to provide these veterans with the advocacy and guidance they need to HEAL This stands for Healthcare, Evaluation, Advocacy, and Legislation. This is more than a job for Jackson, it's a calling.
“I tell people all the time that this is definitely my God-given purpose for my life. I believe that leading the HEAL program for AMVETS is truly my goal.”
Jackson doesn't just work with veterans, she's one herself. A native of Allendale, South Carolina, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and served 23.5 years and 14 days. Captain Jackson explained that she followed in the footsteps of her brother who served in the Navy. She felt it would benefit her parents, who were raising a total of six children.
"I saw the difficulties my parents went through trying to get my siblings through college. So I didn't want to burden them by being sent through school."
Jackson's athletic background, including long-distance track and field, shot put, hurdling, and cheerleading, made basic training much easier for her than those who might not be as fit. During her military career she was deployed three times - twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. She had a near-death experience in Afghanistan, and she went through many things that took a toll on her emotionally.
"There were things I saw in Afghanistan in terms of injuries, multiple amputations, burns and agony that I saw people suffer through their service and of course I saw death," Jackson shared. "I've seen more death than anyone should see."
Courtesy of Cherissa Jackson
Like many veterans, Cherissa Jackson is a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) survivor because of what she saw and went through during her deployments. Luckily for her, she was able to focus on her fitness to help her become a survivor and move forward with the duration of her past career as well as the one she is in today.
“Fitness has always been a way out for me. It has always been a way for me to calm my mind. I focus on strength training, running, etc. I don't think about what's going on in the world around me.” Jackson went on to say that exercise has been a positive source of many times in her life for her physical and mental well-being .
"When I was going through a tumultuous divorce, it was the workout that saved my sanity. In my 50 years on this earth I can pinpoint every situation where fitness and wellness were the catalysts that got me out of the dark places.”
Courtesy of Cherissa Jackson
Jackson has heard numerous stories from veterans that also led to PTSD diagnoses. One could imagine that a position like hers would potentially have a negative impact on the way she thinks. She said that wasn't necessarily the case.
"When I'm talking to a veteran, I'm so much in the zone of helping them that I try not to bring my own personal experience into it when I'm helping them find solutions," Jackson explained. She also explained how she can overcome potential problems that may arise later after completing her work.
"I immediately find a place to run or get on a bike and ride a bike. I have a peloton at home so that physical fitness can help me sweat out that stress or agony and pictures."
Because of the benefits Jackson has seen from focusing on fitness, she advocates other veterans do the same. She feels that some of the issues they face could be helped by spending time on self improvement in some physical form. If they already have experience in training, that helps her bond with them even more.
“We can relate on that level. I hear them say, "Yeah, I missed a workout this week and I wasn't feeling well," I said, "Workout is your being." It helps me think like them and with their workouts and physical fitness to stay, which can also help with her PTSD," she explained. In many cases, the connection she can make can be life-saving.
“I speak to so many survivors of suicide and people are calling us for help. Hearing them talk about their children and their families. They hope so. If you can show them that life is worth living based on that little bit of hope that they have, that gives them the spark and motivation to do better and be better," Jackson said.
Whether through her personal experience or professional purpose, Captain Cherissa Jackson is an advocate for physical fitness because she wants to see veterans and others find something that gives them hope for the future, just as she does every time she finishes the day training and when she finishes a conversation with one of the veterans, she helps.
“There is hope out here, and physical fitness plays a role in hope because it helps you know that life is worth living. Just getting out there and moving, doing something can motivate a person to get out there and find that hope in their life. That's what I'm about."
Follow Cherissa Jackson on Instagram @cherissajackson