This past Friday, as part of the real job, I had the pleasure of attending career day at one of my local elementary schools. During that time, I spoke with about 70 5th graders about what it’s like to be a State Representative, what I do, what my issues are, etc. In doing so, did what I always did: I spoke about mental health. I also made sure to be very clear – no euphemisms, and no sugar-coating. I spoke about having depression and anxiety disorders – what that means – and how I see a therapist as needed and take medication on a daily basis.
I make this part of an overall anti-stigma conversation. If I’m talking to younger kids, I broach the subject like this:
“Okay, let’s say you’re riding you’re bike, and you fall off and your arm is hanging at a funny angle.” (imagine me holding my arm at a funny angle) “What’s the first thing you are going to do?”
“Yes, well, there’s that, but AFTER that.”
“Right! Exactly! You’ll call 911! And you would’t even think about it, right? You wouldn’t be embarrassed. Well, imagine having a mental illness….”
And I take it from there.
Sometimes, the kids ask me questions about this stuff. Other times, they delve into other areas of my career. In two of the three classes I had, the mental illness did come up. I was asked questions about it, and they were strikingly perceptive. Two that stick out in my mind:
- Is suicide a mental illness?
- Is it a mental illness if you do drugs?
And then a few kids opened up and discussed their own experiences – or that of their family – with mental illness. I know no one would be able to identify them from this, but I’d still rather not say what they said. Suffice to say – it struck me. It left a mark. And it reminded me of one of the many reasons I always discuss my mental illness, but particularly with kids: It can give them a little bit of hope. As many of you unquestionably know, one of mental illness’ greatest challenges is the way it warps your mind, makes you feel like you are alone. I want all of these kids to know that they aren’t alone.
This leads me back to my main point: Tell your story. Please understand I say this not to toot my own horn, but the smartest decision I have ever made in my life was to publicly discuss my own struggles with depression and anxiety. The experience has become astonishingly positive, and has helped me help other people. According to research, a contact-oriented strategy, one in which regular people share their own struggles with mental illness, can be invaluable towards fighting the stigma that keeps people locked in shame and out of treatment. Telling your story can provide incalculable hope to others who need it.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspective. Have you “gone public” with your struggles? What has your experience been like?