At 14, I joined my high school speech and debate team. Ever since, I've been hooked on public speaking. Put me in front of a bunch of strangers, the more the better, and I thrive. I don't need to imagine people in their underwear. All I need is my voice and occasionally, a microphone.
So, you can imagine how bizarre it was for me when I recently found myself feeling nervous in front of an audience of only a few dozen people. I'd been invited to speak at an alumni event, which would have been fine were it for high school, college, law school or even kindergarten. But it wasn't. It was for Skyland Trail, a psychiatric day treatment program I'd attended two years earlier, after being hospitalized for my first acute manic episode.
Most of the lectures I give at universities are about one of two topics you're never supposed to bring up in polite conversation: politics or religion -- and quite frequently, both. Talking about such issues has never made me the least bit uncomfortable. But talking about my psychotic break was terrifying.
My mouth got dry. My palms grew sweaty. My heart pounded. Still, I managed to share my story -- granted, in a much less self-assured tone than usual. Talking religion and politics is cake compared to rehashing my mania, depression and psychosis. For one, no matter how heated things get, I never break down in tears discussing Islamophobia or foreign policy. But there, I lost it. Twice, I had to take a long pause.
Still, the audience of patients, staff, family members and other alumni was warm and encouraging -- some even said "it's okay" when I had to stop. These people knew where I was coming from; they were willing to wait for me to pull myself together, and they encouraged me to move on.
That is precisely what community-based mental health facilities are meant to do. To recognize where those of us with mental illnesses are coming from, to give us the time and space we need to get well, and to encourage us to meet our potential -- which incidentally, can often exceed that of so-called "normal" people.
But these aren't the kinds of facilities people want in their backyards -- that is, until they need them. Assumptions about the mentally ill abound: that we're violent, that we can't be trusted around children, that we can't be trusted full stop. The truth is, though, that we are more likely to be victims of violent crime than we are to be violent criminals, and with proper treatment, many of us can and do lead fruitful and productive lives.
Yet today, that kind of treatment is becoming less and less available. Arizona alone has made $65 million in behavioral health cuts in the past two years, affecting roughly 28,000 state residents -- which may well have included the young man charged with the recent shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and over a dozen others at a Tucson Safeway supermarket. And although this man is by no means representative and his story feeds all kinds of false stereotypes about the mentally ill, I still can't help but hope that this tragedy will spark a necessary debate and benefit those of us who genuinely need access to mental health care and are by and large not criminals.
As mental health programs and facilities across the country lose funding, people like me, who desperately need them, are left with few options. Due to such cuts, patients end up having access to only acute facilities and mental hospitals, which are much more expensive and traumatizing than the community-based programs that are most vulnerable to budget cuts today. The counselors at these programs do more than throw drugs at us and send us home. They teach us vital skills to function, contribute and thrive in society.
Without them, I could easily be sitting on a back ward somewhere eating Jell-O and complaining about missing puzzle pieces. Without them -- and I say this with no exaggeration -- I could just as easily be dead. Without them, society risks losing countless caring and competent mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. De-funding community-based mental health programs and providers is simply not a risk that we can afford to take.