Brave souls change hearts and minds!

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Photo: “This is My Brave” cast in Wheeling, West Virginia 

There’s a special feeling when we can be a part of something far bigger than we could ever accomplish alone.  This is my overwhelming feeling of having participated in Youth Services System and NAMI Greater Wheeling’s “This is My Brave Show,” which was held last night at the historic Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.

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Photo:  The Experience Church Worship Team & Audience

If you aren’t familiar with “This is My Brave” let me shed some light on it for you.  It’s a national non-profit organization co-founded by the amazing Jennifer Marshall.  The purpose of the show is to allow those who live with mental health conditions (mental illness & substance use disorders) to share their stories through creative expression-poetry, original music, essay.  The intent is to impact the stigma of mental illness through story telling.

The sixteen cast members in our show inspired the audience and made a lasting impression on all those who attended.  Those who shared struggle with and persevere daily through challenges related to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder, suicide attempts and alcoholism.  Our show had an added bonus with the Experience Church Worship Team (aka-the band), kicking off the show with their inspiring and impactful musical talents.

The audience feedback has been nothing but positive.

Many people have said the IQ on that stage was beyond impressive.  Translation – people with mental illness can be smart.  Multiple people said, “it was fascinating to see the broad range of socio-economic levels and diversity of those impacted by mental illness.  Translation – mental illness does not discriminate.   One gentleman said, “I’m not affected by mental illness and I never realized what people go through.  This show helped me understand what others deal with.  I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”

And…the overwhelming comment by numerous people, “This show is inspiring.”

This morning I received this amazing quote from one of our cast members, Mr. Bill Hogan.  Bill writes,

“I have been involved in a bunch of stuff in my almost 90 years but never have I been so “electrified” by a group or an event as I was last night.  I love the word mystery and last night the wonder of it all, that unidentifiable power that charged the people on the stage as a group and as individuals was wonderful and gave everyone in that theater, on stage and off , a sense of joyful peace.  Everything was lined up the way it is supposed to be.
I am thinking of a quote  by W.B. Yeats  “ Go forth teller of tales. And seize whatever prey your heart desires.  Have no fear. Everything exists.  And everything is
True. And the earth is but dust under our feet.”  I am truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great happening.”

And that my friends sums up my feelings of being a part of something greater than myself.  Being part of a movement to shed light on mental illness, one person and one story at a time.  As Jennifer Marshall says, “Storytelling saves lives!”  Indeed it does.

Jennifer Marshall and Cast Photo:  Jennifer Marshall speaking to the cast of “This is My Brave” Wheeling, West Virginia

10 ways to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

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As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I’ve had to learn how to manage my illness and how to stay mentally healthy.  My experience as a college basketball player playing for the legendary coach Pat Summitt and my days of striving to become an Olympic athlete helped shape how I deal with surviving in this crazy world.

Here’s my top 10 list of how to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

1) Know what you’re thinking

When you live with bipolar disorder and learn how to manage it, you quickly learn about racing thoughts.  But the truth is lot’s of people have anxiety and that can also cause thoughts to race from one subject to the next, making it difficult to concentrate.  If the thoughts are negative it can turn a good day bad in a heart beat.

What I’ve found helpful is to pay attention to what you’re thinking.  I check in to see what my thoughts are telling me.  Am I saying, “I’m not worth anything.” Am I telling myself, “I’m a failure.”  Whatever negative thing you are telling yourself effects everything you do in your day.

My old coach Pat Summitt used to always tell me, “Amy, you’re your own worst enemy.  You’re too hard on yourself.”  I would sit across from her desk and nod.  I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how to fix the problem.  I was striving to be perfect, beating myself up when I made mistakes and torturing myself mentally with repetitive thoughts.

So, if you’re going to stay mentally healthy, take time out during the day or in the moment and think about the things you’re telling yourself.  Learn to replace those negative thoughts and it will change your day for the better.

2)  Keep the negative news in perspective

Every night my 82 year old mother can’t wait to turn on NBC news and watch Lester Holt.  In fact she’ll turn on the television and say, “Gotta watch Lester.”  I roll my eyes and laugh.  If I don’t have anything else to do I’ll sit and watch the news with her.

But what I’ve found is that almost every news story is filled with negativity.  We get told over and over again everything that is wrong with humanity.  If we watch the local news it can be worse.  One station spends about 15 minutes going through all the people who went to court for the day.

It makes people look bad.  But in my 20 year career working for Fortune 500 companies, traveling all around the world with my sports teams and for personal fun, and working with an advocacy group–I have found most people are good.  Most people care about others and want to live a peaceful and happy life.

I like learning about what’s going on in the world, but I’d rather not be inundated with negativity.  Watch the news, but realize the whole world isn’t going to hell.

3)  Focus on what you can control

We have become a fear based culture.  Almost to the point we are paranoid about where we go and what we do for fear of running into someone who wishes to do us harm.  Paralyzing fear keeps people from venturing out and living life in a carefree way.

The truth is we can’t control what happens. In fact, we have little control over few things.  I’ve found the key to stay healthy is to find the things I can control and focus on those things.  It’s much more pleasant than worrying about all the things that could happen. 

I’ve also noticed that trying to change someone else’s views or opinions is like walking up the Rocky Mountains with no shoes on.  I can’t control the fact that some people refuse to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  It’s hard to do.  But in finding the best solutions to challenges or problems it’s great to have different perspectives and experiences at the table.  We just can’t control who is willing to listen and who is not.

I practice taking a deep breath and keeping things in perspective, realizing there is very little I can control.  But how I look at things is one of them.  I choose compassion and empathy, it’s something I can control and it makes me feel good.

4)  Balance social media

I was having a conversation with my friend Betsy.  We were talking about how important it is to balance how we use social media.  She said, “I’ve disconnected–deleted all my social media accounts.  I was spending sometimes 8 hours a day on social media.  Almost addicted to Facebook and Instagram likes.”

I thought about what she was saying and then ask myself the question, “How much time am I spending on social media?”  The answer was it ebs and flows.  I’m not addicted to it, but I try to use it constructively.  I don’t allow myself to compare my life to others, especially because I know people often portray their lives as perfect on social media.

Balance is the key.  And remember there was a day when counting the number of “likes” just didn’t matter.  I find it helpful to simply disconnect at times.  It helps me stay grounded in what’s most important.

5)  Learn how to stay present

There is no greater joy to me than having an intimate conversation with someone who is fully present.  We can all sense when someone is paying attention to us and when they are not.

It’s a discipline to learn how to stay in the present.  But I’ve found it to be the most helpful way I can live.  Sometimes my past has been painful and staying in the present keeps me far away from reliving the pain all over again.

6)  Surround yourself with positive people

There are a few people in my life I can’t avoid, but I cringe when they get on a negative roll and don’t stop.  It’s as if the world is coming to an end and every human being in it are evil.  Well, I’m exaggerating-but sadly only a little bit.

But seriously I’ve learned the more I’m around positive people we lift each other up.  We focus on the positive experiences and share those with each other.

When I have a depressive episode it’s even more important to be around someone who is positive.  They always Life my spirits and help me keep on fighting.

7)  Check your attitude

Oh…this is an important one.  Attitude is everything.  How we approach challenges and problems.  How we feel with agree and disappointments.  Having a positive attitude even in the darkest of times fuels the fight for survival.

8)  Practice gratefulness

One of the things that helps me in my continuing recovery journey is being grateful.  The little reminders of things and people I’m grateful fills up my heart.  I take a deep breath and thank God for giving me my new day.  I’m grateful for all the people who have crossed my path.  I’m grateful for the ability to put things in perspective.  Honestly, when I feel gratitude it makes me happy.

9)  Learn to say “no”

The is a tough one for me.  I like to help people, but have realized I can’t do everything.  I have to set limits to stay healthy.  I have to know my boundaries.  And above all I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “no.”

10)  Don’t be afraid to get professional help

Staying mentally healthy is critically important to everyone.  But sometimes we need a little bit of extra help.  Some days it’s just nice to talk to a therapist who is completely removed from the situation.

Sometimes people need a little extra help with medications to get through some tough times, difficult and overwhelming anxiety, depression etc.  And for those of us with chronic mental health conditions it’s imperative we stay with our treatment plan especially if it’s working well.

If you had cardiovascular, respiratory, or digestive problems would you seek professional help?  Things that effect our thinking, emotions and behavior-our mental health-sometimes need professional help too.  Don’t be ashamed to get the help you need.

Hoping my top 10 list helps somebody today.  Wishing peace.  Amy

It’s not sexy to be a mental health advocate

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October is breast cancer awareness month.  I didn’t know that until eight days into October.  My realization started when I went to the local grocery store and every other cashier light (you know the one that tells you when their open) was pink.  And they were asking for donations at the register for breast cancer research dollars.  Still didn’t realize it, because people ask for money for everything now.

Then, I went shopping.  Pink shirts for sale everywhere.  I was so impressed.  Everyone, unless of course you’ve been living under a rock, knows pink is the color for breast cancer.  It’s a highly successful awareness campaign that started in full force over twenty years ago.  Heck, even the NFL is “pinked out” in October.  As a mental health advocate I dream about the day when everyone knows mental health awareness is green and guys like Brandon Marshall (click here for Brandon’s mental health advocacy organization) don’t get fined $10,000 dollars by the NFL for wearing green cleats.

But when something is successful it warrants looking at their model and learning from all the good things breast cancer awareness advocacy organizations have done.  In fact, it all peaked my interest in finding out just how much money is spent annually on breast cancer research.

The answer-cloudy.  Mmmm….what do I mean by that?

Well, turns out that breast cancer awareness and research are lumped into one big estimated sum of $6 billion a year.  Of course there are critics who think all money should be research money.  But you don’t get research donations without awareness.

Why is this important to mental health advocacy?  Because the National Institute of Mental Health has an annual budget of only $1.5 billion.  The National Institute of Mental Health funds research for mental illness and neurological conditions (brain illnesses), like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, depression, etc.  All of these illnesses have a fraction of money spent on research.

I compared the annual budget of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer advocacy organization based in Texas, (well known for the trademarked tagline “Race for the Cure”) to that of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest mental health advocacy organization in the country.  I found the Komen foundation listed as #54 on the Forbes list of U.S. most wealthy charities with $250 million in annual revenue in 2016.  That’s for one year folks.  On the other hand, NAMI based in Arlington, VA has a little over $10 million in revenue.

In all fairness, NAMI has affiliaties in all 50 states who also have revenue, but I doubt even including all of them would break a $50 million in total revenue.

What’s my point?

How are we going to make sizable contributions as mental health advocates when the largest organization of advocacy only nets $10 million a year?  So many diseases to lobby for research on-so few dollars.  So many issues to battle, so few people to do the work.

And then there’s this…

#1)  STIGMA. It’s not cool to be a mental health advocate.

#2)  STIGMA. It’s not sexy to go out and raise money for people who have a mental illness.

#3) STIGMA. These illnesses are misunderstood.  They are often not looked at as an illness.

#4) STIGMA.  People are ashamed to come out and say they are living with a mental illness.

#5)  STIGMA. Policy makers don’t understand it, unless it effects them.

#6) STIGMA.  Family members don’t want people to know their loved ones live with a mental illness.

And…

I could go on and on.  You get the point.  We have limited resources for a very complex problem that most people don’t understand and many fear and are afraid to talk about.

So..if you’re reading this please pick up an advocacy banner.  There’s an enormous amount of work that needs done.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation started with raising awareness for breast cancer.  Mental Health Adovocates have to do the same thing.  We have to help one another do this work.

If you’re local to the Wheeling area you can start your advocacy work by showing up at the NAMI Greater Wheeling Walk on October 21 @Wheeling Park.  Registration starts at 10am.

And…

We even have cool tee-shirts.