Monday, September 27, 2010

public speaking engagements: working to educate folks about mental illness

Today I spoke as part of a sensitivity training people from NAMI and other groups representing all sorts of disabilities were doing in St. Petersburg organized by the Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments (CAPI). The purpose of these sensitivity trainings is to give employees (or in this case volunteers) of a company or organization a well-rounded training on disability rights issues, directly from people who have disabilities or work to advocate for them. In this case, we were speaking to volunteers at the Mahaffey Theater and some folks from the Florida Orchestra.

I had about six minutes to talk, but we talked four different times as different groups of 8-10 people each rotated through the various workshop rooms. I talked about stigma, the way people who live with mental illnesses are portrayed in the media, the fact that most people with mental illnesses are not criminals or violent, and then I talked about myself and my history a little. I described psychosis, what it entails, and how lucky I was to finally get helped by a medication regimen that worked well enough to get me out of the state I was in five years ago before I was properly diagnosed. A pivotal moment in my life occured when I was taken by police, in handcuffs, to the hospital, and then ordered by a judge to stay hospitalized for six months. That was how I began to get better. For the first time, then, I was on medications that worked and that had the time to begin to take effect, since I was there for so long and the choice of whether to take them, and the complications of how to afford them were taken out of my hands. That's why I'm alive today.

My cohort from the local NAMI consumer council spoke too, and did a great job, and a family member who has been doing these sensitivity trainings for years and who answers the local NAMI hotline with his wife, spoke first during each session, and talked about what NAMI does and the fact that Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia are brain disorders involving chemical imbalances

I felt like I managed my anxiety well enough to speak effectively, which was really good, because I had been quite nervous before. Several of the people thanked me, and told me I had done well. One woman said, "You are AWESOME," which kind of made me laugh, and another one said she was about to cry, after hearing my story, because I reminded her of her daughter; then she asked me for a hug.

A friend of mine, who was my professor for a few writing and literature courses I took back in the 1990's, has suggested that I try public speaking as a job, to actually make money doing it. I scoffed at the thought that anybody would pay little, old me, to hear me talk, but sometimes I wonder - what if I could do that at some point, or even just speak more often as a volunteer. Because I don't see this as speaking just about myself, just to benefit myself. When I do things like what I did today, I do it on behalf of everybody who has ever lived with a mental illness. I try to say what I think we, collectively, want people to know. I speak up for the stigmatized, marginalized, and ignored people like myself all over the world. And I like doing it.

Next month, I'm going to be on a panel of speakers at the Southeast Institute on Homelessness and Supportive Housing 2010 conference. This is exciting, since I've never spoken at something like this before. I am nervous, but as I had expressed to the president of our local NAMI affiliate that I wanted to do more to help homeless people with mental illnesses, he asked if I'd like to take this on, and I said I would. I will be in a workshop with other "consumers" (people who live with mental illneses; weird term though it is). I am looking forward to that. I lived in three different shelters during periods when I was homeless and psychotic, and I lived in a car for a few weeks. I lived in the bedroom of a friend of a friend who didn't really like me all that much for three years (very kind of him to let me do that), with no car, and I barely ever left that room. I know a little bit about what homelessness is like, though I was never in the position that I had to live on the streets. In motels, yes, but not on the street. I was lucky in that respect.

There are a lot of homeless people in my neighborhood, because there's a shelter nearby, and it's the "downtown" area of the city I live in. I often wish there were more programs around to help these people, and it's sad that there aren't. So I'll do what I can, and if I can speak up on their behalf, I feel priveleged to have the opportunity to do so. Wish me luck!


  1. This is such an awesome thing that you are doing by speaking at these things. It is so important to fight the stigma. Thank you! Don't stop...I think doors are opening for you to be able to do more and reach more people with your story.

  2. Hi Jen,
    Like the Medcalfs said, it's great that you are doing this. As discussed before, the view of mentally ill people in the media is not so accurate or helpful, and there is still a very long way to go before the stigma will really have been removed from mental illness.

    People being prepared to speak out publicly is part of this, and although I'm not really one of them at this stage, I really respect the fact that you are. Good luck with it, and keep up the good work!

  3. Thank you for your support and kind comments. I think all of us speak out in our own way, and each time we do that we make an impact on the stigma that enshrouds mental illness in this country, and on this planet, and I think that all of our blogs, conversations, organizations, meetings, websites, Facebook posts, tweets, speaking engagements, flyers, and every other way that we speak the truth about mental illness are extremely important and valuable. We are the only people who can create the change we're waiting for, after all.


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