When I arrived things were a little confusing. It turned out we were not speaking to all of the 265 students at once, and that the local crisis center, PEMHS, was actually doing most of the presentation, so I might not be able to speak at all. It turned out that the PEMHS folks graciously got me into the schedule so I talked for about 4 minutes to the first group, since I was trying to be quick, but I talked for a couple more minutes than that to the second group. I was told by someone from PEMHS that I had all of the students' attention and they stopped talking to each other when I was talking, and all of them looked at me (which I did notice).
I asked them if I looked crazy to them. And many of them shook their heads and said no. I then told them that I actually have a serious mental illness, called Schizoaffective Disorder, which is a mixture of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. I told them that these illnesses all usually start in their age group (17-23 years old). I told them that I had survived 8 or 9 suicide attempts, and that PEMHS saved my life in 2005 when I had purchased a gun and almost shot myself. I told them that, now, when I feel suicidal, I ask for help. For example two months ago I was planning on jumping off the Skyway Bridge. But I did not jump off the Skyway Bridge. Afterwards, one of the young women came up to us and said that her cousin had recently killed himself by jumping off the Skyway Bridge. It is so sad how many people die on that goddamn bridge which has been a place I have contemplated killing myself at for many years, and the place where I tried to drive a car over the guardrail in 2005, totaling the car and barely surviving.
It was heartbreaking that, when asked if any of the students knew someone who had committed suicide, 64 out of about 200 students raised their hands. So sad. So horrible. I stressed to them the need to seek help and that there is NO shame in asking for help, NO shame in having a mental illness, NO shame in feeling suicidal.
I met a woman who was also speaking about a group called HALO which is affiliated with the Yellow Ribbon Project for Suicide Prevention, and is for survivors who have lost loved ones to suicide. She had this very powerful banner with her with a yellow ribbon for every person who had committed suicide in Florida in recent years. It was very thought-provoking, and I asked her if she would please speak at a future NAMI Pinellas education meeting, which she said she would be happy to do. She lost her son to suicide a few years ago, and in the aftermath of that two of his friends also committed suicide.
The statistics that the people from PEMHS showed on their slideshow were awful too. A lot of people do not realize this, but thousands of more people die by suicide rather than homicide every year in this country. We should be ashamed of the goddamn stigma that prevents people from talking openly about mental health issues and leads them to end up in their graves because they did not know how to get the help they needed, or help was not readily available. The United States should be ashamed, and the State of Florida should be deeply ashamed at how much of a priority they DO NOT PLACE on mental healthcare. It is sickening.
I spoke with a young woman afterwards who wanted to tell me about all of her family members, including her 7 year old son and herself who experience hearing voices and visual hallucinations. She told me that a local community mental health center had turned her away when she went there for help because they said she did not fit the criteria for free treatment since she was not experiencing hallucinations at the moment they talked to her. That is absolutely intolerable and disgusting to me. I gave her my card with my blog address and phone number on it, and told her to please come to the NAMI support group that NAMI Pinellas holds every Monday night, and to please call me or NAMI if we can be of any assistance to her.
Overall, I felt that this experience was rewarding. I used to be so shy and insecure, I couldn't dare to dream about being a public speaker, particularly in speaking about my mental illness. Now, I can do it with relative ease, and I enjoy it because it makes me feel like I am making some small bit of difference in the world, which is a reason to get up in the morning and live. I was up this morning because I had been up all night, with my freakin' insomnia again, and I am still grateful I did this even though I am exhausted and I now have to go to work for seven hours. I know I need to set limits on how much effort and time I put into trying to change the whole world while neglecting to care for my own self, but I felt it was important to do this today. Meeting someone whose family member recently died by jumping off the bridge I recently nearly jumped off was something that the universe meant to happen to me. I feel quite sure of that.
If you need help anywhere in the world, contact www.befrienders.org for a crisis line or email crisis counseling. Also see the Suicide Resources page on this blog if you or anyone you know needs help.
I am not ashamed anymore. I know to ask for help when I need it. I don't give a damn what people think about me for daring to mention mental illness on Facebook. I don't care that my employer is extremely ignorant about mental illness and also about the Americans with Disabilities Act, to the point that they tried to fire me for being in the hospital two months ago. Take your ignorance and go straight to hell with it, I have no room for that crap in my life. I will continue to try and combat the stigma surrounding mental illness by openly speaking about it, regardless of what stupid people think.