The first time I shared my mental health journey with someone I didn’t know was when I was a sophomore in college. I was a member of a mental health advocacy group on campus and we were hosting an event called the “Love Speaks Forum.” During this event, some of our group members were going to share their personal stories to start a dialogue about mental health with the public audience.
Initially, I had no intention of talking to the audience. It wasn’t that I was inherently scared of talking about my past; I was extremely open about my history with my mom and a couple friends, and I talked with my psychiatrist regularly. Instead, I was scared of talking about my past in front of people I didn’t know. I had no idea how people would react. Would they judge me? Think less of me? I was even afraid people would laugh at my past pain.
But two or three weeks before the event was scheduled, we needed more volunteers to speak. Our group’s president asked again if anyone else would be willing to speak. She didn’t want to pressure anyone, but she talked about how the event would be a safe space for everyone. A couple days later, I said that I would speak.
Even though it was my choice to share my story, I was terrified. I imagined a crowded auditorium of people hurling judgment at me. I imagined blacking out on stage, forgetting my own name, or bursting into inconsolable tears. To help ease my nerves a little bit, I typed up exactly what I wanted to say so I could read from the printed document. Having that guidance reassured me.
The night of the event, there were thirty people in attendance, not including the four of us sharing our stories. I only knew a couple people in the audience. Before it was my turn, I spent a lot of time re-reading the beginning of my printed notes, as if I needed to make sure the first page hadn’t changed since I had typed it.
When the microphone was handed to me, I immediately began reading; I didn’t look up to the audience once. My voice shook, and tears threatened to fall numerous times. I was all too aware that I was telling thirty-three other people—some of whom were complete strangers—all about my depression, my anxiety, my obsessive compulsions, my suicide attempt, my hospitalizations, and—most importantly—my recovery. I made sure to spend the most time talking about my recovery because it was important for me to stress that even though I had been through a lot, I was still able to sit on that stage and share everything. Even though I still had—and still do have—a lot of progress to make, I was in a significantly better place than I was a couple years before.
After the event formally ended, some of the audience members talked to me. Some thanked me for sharing my story or said they were glad I was okay now, but others talked to me longer. They mentioned their own experiences that were similar to mine, or experiences their friends or family members had gone through. They said how encouraging it was to hear, firsthand, from someone else who had experienced such low lows, yet who was now doing okay.
I realized that those conversations were why I had stepped up to share my story in the first place. Having the courage to be vulnerable and share my experiences was one of the most powerful ways I could open the dialogue for destigmatizing mental illness. My words could help others realize they weren’t experiencing mental illness alone, even if our experiences weren’t identical. My words could help people see the importance in mental health treatment, education, and funding. My words—especially my focus on recovery—could help inspire someone, either directly or subconsciously, to reach out for help themselves.
This event helped me discover the power in my words, and I still share my story with people when I feel comfortable and safe doing so. Using my voice helps me feel like I’m contributing directly toward the destigmatization of mental illness. And as my story can help others, it can help me too, as I remember that I am not alone in my mental health journey, either.
It’s okay if you aren’t ready to share your own story with others. If you are thinking about sharing your story, consider using this helpful storytelling checklist from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to help determine how to share your story safely and effectively—both for yourself and for others
If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7/365 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You are never alone.