When I first started showing symptoms of bipolar disorder, I was only ten years old. Back then, no one really talked much about mental illness, and even professionals in the field didn’t believe mental illness could affect kids as young as I was. I didn’t seek help until I was eighteen years old in college, and the “help” I was given was ineffective, to say the least. My first therapist gave me a battery of tests and concluded I should stop lying about the severity of my symptoms and just make an effort to make more friends. I tried to talk to people, but that’s when I began to learn about the depth of the problem of “stigma.” Thanks to this ingrained stigma, it took me another eighteen years to finally find a treatment regime that finally helped me properly manage my symptoms.
To get that treatment, I read everything from self-help books on mental illness all the way to med school textbooks in order to educate the professionals who were supposed to be treating me. During that process, I found a number of organizations who were willing to help me with my self-education. One of those was the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Through that association, I discovered many more people who were having the same problems I’d had for most of my life. As my knowledge grew, so did my desire to help, so I started looking for volunteer opportunities.
The one opportunity that jumped out at me was NAMI Colorado’s Public Policy Committee. For me, this was an opportunity to attack stigma on a higher level. By giving my voice to legislation that affects people with mental illness, I could help chip away at that ingrained, society-level stigma that had so affected my own treatment. It seemed like a perfect fit for my knowledge, skills, and desires. Having spent a year on the Public Policy Committee, I have come to realize how big of a problem it still is, and I have been humbled by the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes on behalf of myself and others like me who have to live with a mental illness.
After two legislative sessions, the biggest lesson I have learned is that we’ve come a long way from when I was first diagnosed, but we still have a long way to go. Most important, I am beginning to see the impact we, along with all of our partners in the mental health community, are making when it comes to legislation affecting people with mental illness. I have personally seen bills that promote stigma be changed to something more supportive, and I have even seen a few bills written from the beginning with a more positive view of mental illness in mind. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, so we still have plenty of work ahead of us.
One of the biggest strides forward I have seen this year was the development of a brochure designed specifically for legislators, but it is nothing more than wasted paper unless it gets into their hands. We need people like you to go to town hall meetings, shake your representatives and senators’ hands, let them know you care mental illness, and leave one of these important brochures with them. For more information about these legislative brochures, you can contact your local NAMI chapter.
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