Having a mental illness presents challenges in individuals’ lives, but it should not define their lives. The same could be said for other disabilities, yet mental illnesses have such a stigma around them. This stigma causes individuals to be fearful about opening up about their mental illness. This fear can cause the mental illness to define their lives.
I remember vividly the first time I talked about my mental illness with people other than my family and my psychiatrist. The opportunity arose in my college financial counseling class. We were to present three items that held significant meaning to us to the class. At first, I was scared to death about sharing anything meaningful to the class. I was afraid to share anything about my mental illness and the counseling I had just gone through. It was the start of the semester and I did not know anyone in the class. I discussed the assignment with my psychiatrist and asked for his thoughts. He suggested that I go ahead and share some of the details of my mental illness and what I had gone through. He said this would help lay a foundation of understanding that would grow as I continued my college career. I balked at the idea initially, but his words soon began to make sense. If I could overcome my fear and be open and honest with my peers, I would eliminate a great deal of stress and anxiety in the future.
With determination, I walked into the class the day of my presentation. After the first several presentations, I noted how none of my peers shared any items that would cause them to be viewed in a negative way. My anxiety began to build as my turn approached. Finally, the moment came. I was standing in front of thirty-three of my peers. My first two items were like those of my peers. I shared a family photo and a sports item of some sort. My last item was an album cover of my favorite band. The lead singer of the band also suffers from a mental illness and talks about how it has shaped him into the person he is today. As I began sharing this with the class, I felt the mood in the room changing. With each sentence that I shared about my mental illness and how the band helped me get through my counseling, I could feel my peers’ opinion of me sink lower and lower. I was not the new kid anymore. I was the new kid with issues. In that moment I was being defined by my mental illness. In my moment of vulnerability, I was getting crushed by stereotypes.
Looking back at that experience, I believe that opening up about my mental illness was one of the best decisions I made in college.
Looking back at that experience, I believe that opening up about my mental illness was one of the best decisions I made in college. However, the benefits were not immediately realized. For the remainder of the first semester, I was treated as if I was fragile. It was as if the mere mention of something emotional would send me into a downward spiral and cause me to have an episode. There seemed to be an unspoken rule among my peers that there was no emotional talk allowed around me. Sharing my challenges appeared to have been a mistake, but I was not going to let my mental illness define me. I continued to work hard and showed my classmates that I was much more than a condition.
After the first semester, things began to change. Some of my peers began to ask about my mental illness and counseling. Their opinions about mental illness slowly began to change after seeing my progress. As we continued through school together, many of my peers became close friends. They began to open up to me about hard times they were experiencing. I realized that because I had shared my mental health issues with them, my friends were able to overcome their fears of sharing information about their challenges. They saw that I did not let my mental illness define me. I believe the risk I took gave them hope.
One of the greatest rewards for me from that presentation I gave years ago is that I have been able to help others deal with their fears of being defined by mental illness. I accept the challenges that my condition creates, and I move forward with my life. I also welcome the opportunities that it creates for me to help others. If I am able to help others with my story, then I am happy to share it.