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Speakers share about struggles with mental health

 

The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in her 20s came as a relief to Hope Richardson. There was finally a name for what she felt and something that could be done, she said. Because mental illness is a lifelong condition, staying well takes effort, and she's mindful of that every day.

Once afraid of others not liking her and unable to stand up for herself, Richardson said she often walked around with her head down and hair covering her face. She went through bouts of depression and struggled with anger, manic episodes and suicidal thoughts.

Early on, she was hesitant to talk about her condition.

"I didn't want people to know. I was kind of embarrassed and ashamed," said Richardson, 44, of Des Moines.

Through therapy and support, she has learned to "live with," rather than "suffer," mental illness and says the only way to end stigma is to educate others.

She's part of a group of trained speakers who open up about their disorders through In Our Own Voice, a public awareness program sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness Greater Des Moines. The local chapter began offering the program last fall.

Sharing their stories serves as a type of ongoing therapy for the speakers and a chance to paint a realistic picture of mental illness, which affects one in four adults — about 61.5 million Americans every year. One in 17, or 13.6 million Americans, live with a serious mental condition such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

 

The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in her 20s came as a relief to Hope Richardson. There was finally a name for what she felt and something that could be done, she said. Because mental illness is a lifelong condition, staying well takes effort, and she's mindful of that every day.

Once afraid of others not liking her and unable to stand up for herself, Richardson said she often walked around with her head down and hair covering her face. She went through bouts of depression and struggled with anger, manic episodes and suicidal thoughts.

Early on, she was hesitant to talk about her condition.

"I didn't want people to know. I was kind of embarrassed and ashamed," said Richardson, 44, of Des Moines.

Through therapy and support, she has learned to "live with," rather than "suffer," mental illness and says the only way to end stigma is to educate others.

She's part of a group of trained speakers who open up about their disorders through In Our Own Voice, a public awareness program sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness Greater Des Moines. The local chapter began offering the program last fall.

Sharing their stories serves as a type of ongoing therapy for the speakers and a chance to paint a realistic picture of mental illness, which affects one in four adults — about 61.5 million Americans every year. One in 17, or 13.6 million Americans, live with a serious mental condition such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

 

Matt Connolly, another In Our Own Voice presenter, uses the program to recount how mental illness led him on a downward spiral 20 years ago. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2003 after the condition had gradually worsened over the previous 10 years. At its height, he says he was completely delusional, experiencing constant hallucinations.

"I was not in my right mind. I couldn't hold down a job, have relationships, friends or family, bounced around the country trying to make something work," said Connolly, 39, of Des Moines. He ended up at the Downtown YMCA, estranged from friends and family and on the verge of homelessness.

"It was all fine with me because I didn't know any better, any different, and it didn't matter much. I was having plenty of a good time in my mind. I had a psychotic break, got in trouble with the law three times in two weeks, made the front page of the paper — a big break all for the very good. If it wasn't for the police, then I would still, well, I could have easily died. Actually, I probably would have," he said.

With the support of his family once again, he waded through the complexity of law enforcement, commitment and hospitals and climbed back to life.

"They were relieved there was an answer for why I was who I was in most of my 20s," he said.

Outpatient hospitalization, intense counseling and therapy, medication, NAMI.org, family and friends got him on the right track immediately, he said. Within six months, he had shelter and a job.

A year into recovery, he was symptom-free, except for some slight olfactory hallucinations. He met his wife during that time and they now have two children. He's an established Realtor and a "green" builder, is a NAMI board member and one of the young professionals making up the Broadlawns Foundation Advocate Circle.

"There's been no going back for me. I will say this: that I am very guarded in my wellness practice to make sure that it stays that way forever. I do a lot of things right, all day, every day," he said.

Richardson takes that same approach. Initially hesitant to take medication, a friend helped her realize that diabetics take insulin to save their lives, so the same thinking should apply to mental illness. Once she accepted that, she began medication and has done well ever since.

Faith, therapy, family and coping skills help her deal with daily stress.

"For me, I came to accept I will very likely be on medication the rest of my life to help balance the chemicals in my brain. I also know that I can't allow myself to give up. So I've been able to start recognizing triggers early rather than too late.

"If I recognize those triggers, I can start my coping mechanisms early on," said Richardson, a single mother of three daughters who is now working on her bachelor's degree in graphic arts.

After starting treatments, she came to the realization that "I am who I am. This is part of me," she said.

She was inspired to join In Our own Voice after listening to a presentation by Terri and Phoenix Shipman, who are both living with mental illness.

Terri Shipman, 45, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 21. At age 35, she was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from a childhood experience.

She experienced several unstable relationships and was both verbally and physically aggressive. She delivered pizzas for years just to get by, but also lost jobs and lived in a homeless shelter. Getting involved in mental health advocacy and peer support training helped her learn to cope, as well as succeed.

"You don't realize how many people out there have the same disorder and are unable to talk about it," she said.

Several audience members have sought support following her presentations, she said, and she's willing to help since she had trouble finding someone to talk to about her troubles. Finding a loving partner has also been a big step forward in the process. With her wife, Phoenix, they worked to find the right therapist.

Shipman still experiences setbacks. She "crashed" the last two winters and was hospitalized, receiving electroconvulsive therapy to bring her out of depression.

"My life isn't perfect. and I try really hard, but sometimes it's a just mental illness and it's unpredictable at times," she said.

When those dark days creep in, she's learned to adjust.

"It's part of my life. I fight every day to not be like that and not to have to go into the hospital, but if I need to I know it's there and safe. It's not a bad thing anymore," she said.

Richardson, Connolly and Shipman all have their own means of coping with mental illness. Richardson uses visual images — calming ocean waves — to relax and also escapes by reading. Shipman centers herself with controlled breathing, yoga and support groups.

Connolly, who has been symptom-free for 10 years, has a long list of wellness tips he uses daily, including meditation, positive thinking, family time, eating right, exercising and avoiding toxins and trauma. Prevention is the only answer, he says.

"It's taken me 10 years since diagnosis to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. That's been fun to finally figure it out. Now that I'm there I can focus my time appropriately and carry on," he said.

http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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