Sharing stories about mental health can change, save lives
Genuine. Fastidious. Earnest. Engaging.
Those were the first among many adjectives that came to mind as I listened to Amy (she has asked that we don't use her last name) share her experience with mental health issues throughout most of her life. Like many, she struggled for decades until finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 44.
"I find that it takes a lot of humility to improve in my health," Amy said. "Since mental illness can rob a person of their insight, I have to willingly choose to listen to others' feedback on my behavior. I have a select few trusted friends and professionals whom I can turn to in times of distress."
Besides listening, sharing her story of ongoing recovery is something Amy also has committed to doing on a regular basis. NAMI's Ending the Silence (ETS), a program that lives up to its name by providing the language, context and information to open that often lifesaving dialogue about mental health, is her platform.
"I feel that I have something to share with others who may not realize that they're not alone," Amy said. "I have had gratifying experiences presenting to students, staff and parents. I have had several peers approach me to share that they have been very moved by watching me cope with my mental health challenges. They say that they have been inspired by my example."
Stigma plays a large role in how the stories are told and how they're received, and denial is a typical obstacle. The average delay between noticing symptoms and seeking help is most often measured in years.
"The worst thing is to live with untreated mental illness," Amy said. "I really hope that my willingness to be transparent about my life experiences can be a good example."
And while recovery from mental illness is quite common, Amy is quick to share that it's a process that has its ups and downs: "I believe that it is imperative to develop and refine a wellness plan, especially when you're doing well, and be willing to ask others for help following it when you're not. In my experience, there are no guarantees. I still run into challenges despite my best efforts."
Whether the audience is middle school students, their parents and loved ones, or the school staff, Amy's ETS presentations start the conversation from the perspective of others who have "been there" and most likely "done that." It's powerful. It's life changing. And, yes … it's lifesaving.
"We need to end the silence and continue to open the conversations about mental health and mental illness so that they can become as comfortable as a conversation about a broken leg," Amy said.
Thank you, Amy, for changing — and saving — lives.
Amy is a Clackamas County resident, a working professiona, and well into her own recovery plan. She volunteers regularly presenting ETS to audiences of students, parents and school staff.
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