Open dialogue can tear down walls of misunderstanding about mental illness

Our communities are filled with people who are living silently with mental illness, and most of us are terrified to share our stories. We are afraid of being judged and labeled, relegated to the edges of society.

We fear that we will be locked out of the inner circle of community, the place where life is shared over good food, camping trips, church events and baseball games. The place where meals are brought to those experiencing tragedy, where money is raised for those experiencing catastrophe, and where community support surrounds those in need of healing. We fear that we will be on the outside looking in.

We are afraid that if we talk about our illness we will be the subject of rumors questioning our stability, integrity, worth and competency. We fear that when we share our diagnoses – bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder or something else – we will be held at arm’s length and will no longer be trusted to participate in the responsibilities of the community; to teach young people; to manage the finances of our local church; to organize the community benevolence program; or to hold our position as accountant, city councilman, barista or CEO.

Our community must do better than this, and I believe we will. We will do better when we have eyes to see, eyes to see that they are us. Who among us doesn’t have a mental illness or know someone who has a mental illness?

We will do better when our communities hold forums and town halls where we can talk openly about mental illness and stop speaking in language that evokes fear. There is great power in sitting in a room with someone and taking the time to hear that person’s story.

Until we make this a priority, people living with mental illness will continue to be cast as unstable villains, teetering on the edge of some violent explosion, fit only to be locked away, pushed out of the life of our community.

As a community, we have an opportunity to grow, to bring to light a group of illnesses that are misunderstood, whose treatment and research is underfunded, and whose effect reaches into nearly every home. It’s time to inform the misunderstanding, better fund the treatment and research, and open the lines of communication that will lead to reconciliation and healing.

Allow me to start the conversation.

I have bipolar disorder, type 1. In 2003, I ran through Lakewood in my boxers carrying an American flag. I received inpatient treatment at the psychiatric unit of St. Francis Hospital and outpatient treatment Greater Lakes Mental Health. I attempted suicide. I spent weeks, on two different occasions, wrapped in a world of delusions that caused erratic behavior. That’s a piece of my story.

I have also been the valedictorian of my high school, leader in my church youth group, a server at Red Lobster, an employee of Merrill Lynch, a minister and a graduate student at the University of Washington.

I’m a father, a husband, a resident of Pierce County. These are also pieces of my story.

What’s your story?