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From Storytelling to Advocacy

Posted Feb 01 2010 12:00am
I am going out of town next week to present at two conferences, one in Wisconsin and one in Texas. At these conferences I always share my story and read from my personal journals written during my most painful moments. Presenting to teachers, mental health professionals, and others who are somewhat well-read in the subject of bipolar and mental illness, I know that I want to share my most intimate moments with the illness. I want to let them see the mindset and thoughts that go through someone's head while they are in an episode. I want them to be able to see what it is really like for someone suffering with a mental health condition because I know it will help them help those struggling with it. I know that through sharing my story I can create a compassion and empathy that cannot be found in psychology textbooks. I know that through honesty I can help them reach out to just one more person.

When it comes to the world outside the conference room I am not always as aggressively vocal about my deepest darkest moments. At least not right away. My way of sharing stories outside of the classroom or conference room is through honest answers to often simple questions. People may ask things like, "Why did you take a quarter off in your sophomore year?" And instead of running or come up with a lie on the spot, I simply tell them the truth: I had to take a medical leave because I was suffering with a severe depression and was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This usually turns into a question and answer session, "what is it like to have bipolar disorder?" "what is it like to be hospitalized?" "tell me about your medications". And often times, if it doesn't produce questions I often tell them flat out, "Feel free to ask me questions, I'm not embarrassed".

Oftentimes in the "real world" of offices or classrooms or living-rooms people may not bring up mental health conditions, and if they do, the fear, misinformation, and misunderstanding is enormous. It is in these times that we (those who have a mental health condition, and those who know anyone who does) need to speak out. Be brave when you hear, "Oh my god she was like soooo bipolar! That's like the worst roommate to have!" Be brave and say, "that must have been hard for you to live with someone having such a hard time. I hope that you provided her with the support she needed. I am bipolar, so I know it's so hard to foster healthy relationships when you're in an episode..." It is in these moments when you give them the "she doesn't know what she's talking about" and try to inform and not get mad.

I get mad about injustice. Alot. I get mad when people make fun of others for any reason. When people are unfair or unkind to someone they know nothing about. But it is important that we don't get mad. If we want to make a difference we must be the  stronger man (or woman) and simply inform. Tell your story: Let people see the face of mental illness and know that it looks just like everyone else, just like theirs. Provide information: Help people find resources to get better informed. Let them know how many people actually deal with mental health issues.

Here are some of BringChange2Mind's thoughts on what you can do to make a change:

Speak Up

The general population is largely unaware of the number of people with mental illness; because of this, the stigma of mental illness is a “hidden stigma.”
Strong evidence shows that contact between the general public and people with mental illness may be an effective approach to significant and lasting attitudinal changes.
The stories and experiences of people who live with mental illness, and corresponding stigma, may have the greatest impact.
People who come out about their disease find significant release in no longer having to keep it a secret. This reduction in stress can aid in treatment, as well as improve relationships, job satisfaction and support from family members.
Unfortunately, coming out may lead to social disapproval and possible housing or employment discrimination. However, being open about your disease may allow you some protection against discrimination through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Strength in Numbers: The World Health Organization has done research that suggests that nearly half of adults will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetimes. The more people realize that people affected by mental illness are “just like me,” the easier it will be to live with any form of mental illness.

Watch your Language
Refrain from using terms like “crazy,” “nuts”, “psycho” and “lunatic”.
Say someone “has schizophrenia”, or “has bi-polar disorder” rather than calling the person a “schizophrenic” or “they’re bi-polar.”
Although correcting someone else’s use of language might not be a good approach, you should always try to watch your own. 

So these are my thoughts. Now go out and make a difference!!

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