BringChange2Mind

August 30, 2010

Strength of Us, By Dana Markey

Our newest guest blog focuses on an amazing resource for young adults. Dana Markey, project manager for NAMI’s Strength of Us, is here to tell us all about it…

I am always excited to have the opportunity to write about StrengthofUs.org, a new online community and social networking website for young adults living with a mental health condition. This project is very close to my heart so I’m thrilled to share this valuable resource with the BringChange2Mind.org blog!

I know how valuable it is to find peer support and with that, the comforting knowledge that you are not alone. After an isolating and traumatic childhood, I was lucky enough to go to college where I started up a NAMI on Campus chapter, a student-run, student-led organization that provided mental health support and education to college students.

Through this group, I got to connect with my peers and exchange stories, support and hope with those who could understand. I saw time and time again how just one meaningful connection with a peer could change the course of someone’s life, mine included.

Yet, the reality for far too many young adults, ages 18 to 25, living with a mental health condition is that this kind of peer connection can be hard to come by. College in so many ways saved my life but even then I knew that not all young adults have ready access to a supportive community like a campus—a more universal space was needed where any young adult could access peer support and resources specifically geared toward their needs.

Thus, when NAMI received a grant from the Rodwell Dart Memorial Foundation to create just such a space for young adults, I jumped at the chance to become involved with the project.

As project manager of StrengthofUs.org and a young adult myself, I had the great fortune of meeting many inspiring, candid and empathetic young adults while developing and eventually participating in StrengthofUs.org. As part of this project, we surveyed over 250 young adults on their social networking habits, support needs and resource preferences. We also assembled a wonderful young adult Expert Advisory Group that advised us on all aspects of the project.

Since our launch in March 2010, the website is growing rapidly with young adults opening their lives, minds and hearts to help others by sharing their personal stories, providing mutual support and offering friendship to those in need of a listening ear.

Their stories reflect an amazing amount of resiliency in the face of adversity. One young adult describes how filmmaking saved his life during a time he was battling severe depression, another talks about taking charge of his life after experiencing delusional thinking and paranoia and yet another discusses making it to Harvard after overcoming debilitating Anxiety. These stories are only a snapshot of the amazing young adults who are on the site to offer lessons learned, hope and encouragement to others whose lives have been impacted by a mental health issue in one way or another.

StrengthofUs.org users are connecting with their peers by sharing their personal stories, creativity and helpful resources by:

  • Creating profiles;
  • Writing and responding to blog entries;
  • Posting to “The Wire,” a Twitter-like feature;
  • Engaging in discussion groups and chats;
  • Expressing themselves creatively by posting their original music, poetry, photographs and other artistic endeavors; and
  • Sharing videos, photos and other media.

Young adults can also access relevant resources on and talk about the issues that matter most to them, including:

  • Dating and relationships,
  • Making and keeping friends,
  • Doing well in school,
  • Living independently,
  • Setting and achieving goals,
  • Maintaining weight,
  • Overcoming negative thoughts;
  • Finding strength and happiness; and
  • Much more.

These are issues we all explore in our lives at one time or another, but StrengthofUs.org enables young adults to bond and connect over these topics rather than have to deal with them alone—it’s about strength in numbers so to say.

The over 1,000 talented, compassionate and thoughtful young adults on StrengthofUs.org are just the kind of people most of us hope to meet in our lives. They are quick to offer hope, strength and virtual hugs when others are having a bad day and to celebrate with those having a good day. If there is one thing you can take from StrengthofUs.org, it is that clichéd, yet ever so comforting reminder that you are indeed not alone. I encourage you to join this wonderful community today at StrengthofUs.org.

August 21, 2010

From Diagnosis to Empowerment

Filed under: Youth — Tags: , , , — Linea @ 1:27 pm

I just returned from a weekend conference for NAMI Washington State. Having been diagnosed only five years ago I have found it interesting to watch myself as I have moved through the various phases of acceptance. Between the inspiration of the conference and my present realizations I have decided that I should start a series for young adults (or anyone interested) on the path from initial diagnosis to empowerment. In these posts I hope to provide examples from my personal story along with tips and ideas for how you can achieve these goals. My upcoming posts will be:

Stayed tuned!

August 1, 2010

“What’s Going On Here?!” -The Diagnosis Story

Filed under: Youth — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Linea @ 8:07 pm

“What is going on here?!?”

These were the thoughts that were rapidly firing in my head as I tried to figure out why I just couldn’t be happy and go out with my friends, or why I just couldn’t slow down and relax. For the longest time I hated myself for not being able to fix “it”.

In this society where we are told we should “just smile” or “walk in the sunshine” we assume it is our fault for not trying harder. We assume we are weak or bad for not perfectly controlling our mind and our body. We assume that there is something wrong with our personality as opposed to our chemistry. When I was first depressed to the point of suicide I got into a cycle of feeling agonizing pain of depression, exhaustion and defeat from not being able to fix it and an extreme hatred for my lack of strength and drive to pick myself up. It wasn’t until I was in the hospital on a suicide watch that I was given my first tentatPhoto by Linea Johnsonive diagnosis, Bipolar II.

Now, I grew up with a special ed teacher mom and a vocational rehabilitation counselor dad. I grew up being taught the importance of being sensitive to disabilities, the equality between every person no matter their difference and the importance of providing access and help to those with specific needs that may be different from my own. I grew up obsessively reading the DSM, diagnosing my pets with various illnesses. So when it came down to it,  I knew about disabilities. I knew all about “differences” and the normalcy of said differences. I knew all about what the word “label” meant in that community and knew that one should not use a condition to classify the whole of a person.

Maybe this is why it hurt so much when I was first diagnosed. Maybe deep down in my heart I knew just how little the rest of the world knew about disabilities. Maybe I knew the discrimination and misunderstanding that came with a mental illness label, because I found my mind screaming “No. Not me! I am not BIPOLAR. I am not like that. I’m not CRAZY”. To me, someone who found every disability as simply another thing that makes us unique and special, this diagnosis made me into something I didn’t want to be. It grouped me into a category that was “bad”. And whether or not the people in this category were “bad” or not, societies view and opinion of them was. I was not going to be in this category. I had spent my entire life trying to be perfect, flawless and this was the biggest flaw I could ever imagine.

On the other hand however, there was the small, scared, childlike voice inside of me saying, “its not my fault”. Even writing this today makes me tear up when I remember just how hard I tried to make myself feel “normal”. I tried so hard to control my emotions, but the more I tried, and the more I failed, the more I punished myself. I had two competing voices in my head, the blamer, “It’s all your fault! If you tried harder we wouldn’t be where we are today!” and the blamed, “I try so hard. I’m not good enough. I deserve this pain.” It was a dangerous downward spiral that became even worse when it moved from mental to physical hatred. Finally having a diagnosis validated those “it’s not my fault” cries of the blamed. It allowed me to start being a little bit nicer to myself.

It took me a long time to be nicer to myself, and in many ways it is still a very difficult struggle. The diagnosis, for me,  was one of the most life changing parts of my illness. It forced me to come to terms with the blamer and the blamed. It helped me realize who I really am and whether or not a label (BIPOLAR) defined me.

At first I felt that the words were etched into my forehead. I felt that with one word I was someone completely different. Years have taught me that my diagnosis can never define me. It may define some of the traits of my illness, but it will never define my exact reaction to those traits. Through my diagnosis I have been able to take the blame away and realize that this is simply something  unique about me. A blessing and a curse that makes my life slightly different from other peoples’ lives. Though the label that accompanies the diagnosis was painful, I have finally  found the most important thing of all, the map towards treatment. And with treatment lies stability.

June 27, 2010

BringChange2Mind in Seattle, by Cinda Johnson

We were two moms and two adult children chatting at the dining room table after a Seattle dinner of salmon on the grill and salad. We had met each other in person less than three months before yet we were bonded as close as family. Calen and Linea talked about their experiences hospitalized because of psychiatric illnesses. They talked about their “breaks” (these weren’t school breaks!) and how it affected their relationships with their friends. Jessie and I talked about the pain, love and profound respect we experienced as we traveled with our children through their illnesses. Jessie and Linea talked about when suicide was stalking them and how they stayed healthy and stable. We talked about my brother and the others who were no longer with us. Calen connected with Linea as they discussed how sharing their stories and voices as advocates for mental health treatment and understanding had strengthened them. It was just an ordinary evening, yet profound in our shared heartache, heartbreak, recovery and thankfulness.

Linea Johnson, Cinda Johnson, Jessie Close, and Calen Pick

Calen Pick and Jessie Close were in town to present at Seattle University’s College of Education celebration of the 75th year of educating teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, community mental health counselors, principals, superintendents and leaders in higher education. There were a few questions around campus about the connection between “celebration” and “mental illness”. Calen and Jessie spoke of their own battles with mental illness and their slow road to recovery. They shared their commitment to the very mission of Seattle University, “…empowering leaders for a just and humane world.” Yes, there were a few in the audience who looked uncomfortable as Calen described his hallucinations and Jessie her battle with alcohol in addition to her bipolar disorder. But the vast majority applauded the courage and willingness to put a face to frightening illnesses; two beautiful, wise, and “normal” (whatever that is) faces to which the audience could relate.

Mental illnesses are insidious and terrifying but also treatable, manageable and even offer opportunities to connect to others with honesty and love in ways we may have previously not been able to do. Although both Jessie and Calen and Linea and I speak to large audiences sharing our stories in order to assure understanding, resources and care for the millions of people with a mental health condition, it is the personal connections that strengthen this movement. Linea and Calen are examples of the power of young people stepping forward and changing the face and understanding of mental illness yet they are two young people in their twenties who love books and walking and music and art and deep philosophical discussions. Jessie bravely shares her own experiences struggling with bipolar disorder. Yet she and I also connect at a deep and lasting level of “mom”; mothers who will do anything possible to keep their children safe and wish with every fiber of their being for their happiness and safety.

Seattle University's 75th Anniversary Celebration

BringChange2Mind is a powerful movement with almost 13,000 Facebook fans and emails and requests for help coming in every day and from all over the nation. Requests that are responded to within 36 hours! This movement is taking hold and taking off. The conversations on Facebook are powerful, the walks across the country with our NAMI partners were life-changing for many, and the support and understanding developing within this community is awe-inspiring. Together we are an influential and significant grass-roots movement started by Glenn Close. Yes, a famous actress but also a sister who is connected to every family with a mental illness because she knows. Just like the connection around the dining room table, into the community and across the country. This BringChange2Mind community gets it. Together we can change the face of these illnesses and together we can be the leaders needed for a just and humane world for all people, particularly for those with mental illnesses.

June 9, 2010

Finding Dry Land: Linea’s Story

There was a moment in my life when I almost drowned.

Living in the largest dorm in the country with three best friends, experiencing my first serious college boyfriend, living what I thought to be the perfect life of a college kid, I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better. That is, until I turned my back to the ocean and was swiftly and dramatically pulled in by the undertow.

One moment I was there and one moment I wasn’t. It was as if I had suddenly had my brain replaced by someone weaker, angrier, sadder. I didn’t know where I was or what I had set out to do anymore. I couldn’t understand what went wrong. I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly seeing violent images every time I closed my eyes.

Though I didn’t know it, this was a dramatic and intense case of depression. I stopped eating. I broke up with the man who was, at that time, the love of my life. I stopped leaving my room. I stopped all contact with the world, and whether I pretended I was there or not, my eyes were empty.

This went on for several weeks. Floating around Chicago, the city that I had worked so hard to get to. To me this went on for a lifetime. I floated out to sea.

Then my boyfriend, who was now just a friend-friend, called my parents. He called, and just as swiftly as I was pulled under, I was pulled out.

Completely.

My dad arrived from Seattle no less than ten hours after he was called. My life, my room, and my thoughts were packed up and shipped out. Flown back to Seattle and, in my mind, never to return.

Nothing could have been more painful. Nothing could have been more dramatic to me at that point and place in my life. Nineteen years old and suddenly I was forced to leave my friends, my life, my freedom and everything that I had built within the last two years of hard-earned independence.

I arrived home tired, cold, and wet, water still in my lungs.

The next couple of years moved from an undertow to a tsunami. My mind moved quickly from a “simple” depression to a devastating suicidal obsession. Looking back I am amazed I am even here to tell my story.

In the next year and a half I spent time in hospitals for suicide prevention and for overdose recovery. I spent time in apartments, manic and drugged and depressed and dangerous. I spent so many hours feeling completely out of control of my mind and so many hours trying to fight against it with every form of self-medication and self-harm I could find that I am amazed I have the ability to form thoughts or press my fingers to these keys.

It took me a long time to come to terms with what was happening. After having a “wait and see” diagnosis of bipolar disorder II at nineteen I spent many, many months fighting the label and implications before I received my final, “for sure” diagnosis of plain old bipolar I. My months and years of fighting only made things worse and it took me a long time before I realized that if I was good to myself and my body, my bipolar would be good to me. Who knew stimulants could make you manic or alcohol could make you devastatingly depressed? Though it seems obvious, I sure didn’t.

Once I finally gave in and decided to change my life things began to turn around again. Though it took lots of self-care and finding the right doctors, counselors, and meds, my stability allowed me to live the life I had always dreamed of living. My stability was more than just taking care of myself and finding the right help however, it was also my amazing luck to have the opportunities and support network I do. It was this fact that inspired me to begin to make a difference in the mental health world.

Having spent time in the worst psych units with the saddest cases I realized that things must change. I realized that people need to talk about these things. People need to be able to talk about their thoughts, lives, and feelings. We need to be able to share our stories.

So…here I am today, graduating, speaking at conferences, in classrooms and auditoriums, writing and collaborating with mental health and education professionals, working with amazing mental health organizations, writing a book, and volunteering with BC2M. Through my experiences I have realized that I needed to make a difference, and through my opportunities I have hopefully begun to do so. I am so excited and pleased that I have the opportunity to make the differences that I am seeing.

Today I have found my way back to dry land where I can finally stand on firm ground, and it is here that I will help others do the same.

Photo by Linea Johnson

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