The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was ubiquitous on social media this summer. Its ingenious mission was to promote understanding and empathy for those who experience this deeply difficult condition. My heart goes out to all of these people, and I am extremely happy a greater understanding of ALS, as well as financial support, were the results of this challenge.
While the mental illness recovery movement has yet to come up with such a clever way of raising awareness that reaches millions of people, we do have one powerful tool: our own stories. I often get the question, "Why are you so open about sharing your mental illness recovery story with people?" It's true. I am very open about it. I share with all of my friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. My friends from high school, college and my previous and current jobs know my story. Even my neighbors know. I've been written up in the local paper. Not to mention that I've come out in a few blogs on The Huffington Post. I'm about as "out" about my diagnosis and mental health as anyone can be. And this fact scares or alarms many people. I've had family and friends ask if I am making too big of a sacrifice by telling everyone I know about my experiences with bipolar disorder, which includes: a seven-year struggle where I had difficulty even getting out of bed in the morning, 12 hospitalizations, and many dysfunctional relationships. I share the details of much of this on my blog, along with the miracle of my recovery, and how I am doing advocacy and helping others now.
Here is my general response to those who are dubious that sharing my story is a good idea: The more people talk about mental illness and recovery, the more we come to know and understand about it. Demystifying mental illness will help decrease people's fear and reduce the stigma associated with it, which, in turn, may make it more likely that people will get help.
It is a sacrifice to tell people about these very intimate details of my life, but I look at it in the same way that people look at donating their bodies for scientific research after they die. It's a scary proposition to many people, but what motivates them to do it (among other things) is that people will benefit from their sacrifice. Similarly, I am sharing my mental health story with society to help people understand that recovery happens, and there that there is no shame in having a mental illness.
Make no mistake. I don't consider myself a martyr of any kind. I have a great life. And the more open I am about sharing my story, the more authentic a life I've been able to lead. Some people may be turned off by what I share, this is true. But, I don't want those people in my life anyway. So, sharing my story is very self-selecting in this way. And, for the most part, sharing the story of my struggles with, and recovery from bipolar disorder is met with deep respect and understanding. Furthermore, once I share, people open up about their own experiences with mental illness; very few people have not been touched by mental illness in some way, whether through their family, friends, or their own personal experiences.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge asks for people to make a sacrifice (dumping ice water on their heads) in order to show their support, understanding, and solidarity with those who experience ALS. In much the same way, I hope that by reading this post, more people will be inspired to make a sacrifice and "donate" their mental illness stories to society. We need to change the conversation about mental illness, from one of fear and ignorance to one of knowledge, understanding, and acceptance. I know it's scary to "come out" about your mental illness, or your loved one's. If you want to share your story, but are afraid, please don't hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the pros and cons. I won't judge or try to sway you; I will just share my own largely positive experience. There are so many people who feel alone and scared about their mental illness, and they don't have to be. Let's change people's minds about mental illness, one story at a time.
Have a story about depression or other mental illness that you'd like to share? Email email@example.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.