Since January I have been interning at the National Alliance of Mental Illness Massachusetts (NAMI Mass), and although I have only been working here for a mere four months, the overall experience has taught me more than any other intern position has.
For those who don't know what NAMI is, let me give you a bit of background. It is a mental health non-profit organization that improves the quality of life for people with mental illness and their families, through education programs, support groups, outreach, a revitalized help line and grassroots advocacy.
I think part of what makes NAMI unique is that all of their programs are taught by peers, people who have lived experience with mental illness and can therefore relate on a personal level to those in need of knowledge and comfort.
I am not writing this post today to simply tell you about NAMI. If you were that interested, you probably would have Googled it yourself. I am writing this post to tell you about three important lessons I have learnt while interning at this life-changing organization.
1. The importance of working in an understanding and judgement-free work environment
I have never understood why some people can be so accepting of a physical illness but not a mental illness. Having breast cancer and suffering from depression should be treated the same way -- with compassion and care. They are both unfortunate illnesses, and the only aspect that separates the two is that one is physical and one is mental. It is that simple.
Everyone working for or associated with NAMI either suffers from some form of mental illness or has a loved one that does. And with that brings a genuine sense of understanding and compassion into the office. I have never been afraid to mention my anxiety disorder to my coworkers, and they are never afraid to disclose information to me.
During my last internship, I had to take a short leave of absence after landing in the hospital with a panic attack. However, due to shame and embarrassment, I didn't feel comfortable telling them the truth. Instead I said that I had to take time off for a physical illness. If something like that happened while working at NAMI, I know I would feel comfortable enough to be upfront and honest with the office about it... and I truly believe that is how every single workplace should be. Because the sad reality is that every 1 in 4 people have a mental illness. No one should feel ashamed or as if their job is a stake for disclosing that they are suffering from a mental illness. Stigma needs to be eliminated in all workplaces.
2. The importance of being passionate about what you do
After various intern positions in the wrong field, I was left feeling hopeless about my future career. I've never understood how some people are able to live their entire life hating their job. I would be absolutely miserable and I wouldn't put up with it (I'm too stubborn).
Ever since I was little, I have always been interested in psychology and self-help. I always wanted to understand why I felt so different from everybody else. Yet, it wasn't until my second year in college that I changed my major to psychology. After semesters of enjoying my classes, I knew in my heart that I made the right decision.
However, working at NAMI has further confirmed the fact. Each day, whether I speak to someone over the phone, through email or in person, I feel as if I am making a difference. I feel like I can connect and relate to those with a mental illness, and I feel so determined and inspired to help them in whatever way I can. But let me tell you, I am not the only passionate person in the office.
Every single NAMI employee is passionate about what they do and trust me, it's contagious. Whenever my boss talks about the walk, passion literally pours out of her.
Money is a powerful and dynamic thing. It can make people insanely happy and others completely miserable. A lot of people argue that the pursuit of money equals the pursuit of happiness. I believe that the pursuit of happiness is all about finding something you're passionate about and letting that guide you.
3. The importance of stopping the stigma and ending the negative associations with mental illness
One of my favorite stigma-busting programs that NAMI offers is In Our Own Voice (IOOV). It is a 90-minute presentation done by two people with lived experience, where they discuss their dark days, treatment, recovery and acceptance. It is such a powerful presentation, that I was left completely and utterly awed by the end of it. The best part about IOOV is that it demonstrates that there is no stereotypical bipolar, depressive, schizophrenic, etc. Most of the time, you cannot tell what mental illness someone has just by looking at them.
When I first blogged about my anxiety disorder two years ago, the Facebook messages and texts started pouring in from friends, people I haven't spoken to in years and even strangers. Most of them applauded me for my courage of openly blogging about it and then admitted something personal about themselves and how they can relate. This just goes to show the power of vulnerability. People need to keep talking. It is the most effective way to bust the stigma. A mental illness does not define who someone is, just as a physical illness does not define who someone is.
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