There is an illness that affects about 6 percent of all Americans, yet there are often no visible symptoms. It is not contagious, and there is still much we do not understand about it.
These millions of Americans suffer from various forms of mental illness, a disability that is just as real and severe as physical ailments, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
To illustrate to students the reality of mental-health problems, the Fresno affiliate of NAMI brought its “In Our Own Voice” presentation to Fresno State on Wednesday.
The event featured three local people – identified as David, Sergio and Nancy – living with mental illness who shared their stories of dealing with their disabilities and the road to recovery.
Chuck Diddy, the In Our Own Voice coordinator for NAMI Fresno, introduced the organization.
“In Our Own Voice is a recovery-education program presented by trained, consumer preventers to other consumers, families, students and health-care professionals,” Diddy said.
NAMI offers education and training for people living with mental illness, their families and the general community, giving help and hope to those who need it. It provides advocacy, research and support for the mental-health community.
The presentation was broken up into five parts: dark days, acceptance, treatment, coping skills, and ending with success, hopes and dreams. The three presenters shared their own experiences of living with mental illness and offered advice based on how they took the steps to overcome it.
In the first section, “dark days,” the presenters recalled the struggles of their lives before they became fully aware of their illnesses or sought treatment.
“My dark days began at the age of 3 to 4 years of age,” David said. “I’m the only child; I felt different even going to school. I started to feel afflicted and depressed as time went on.”
As the pressure of life mounted, David began to feel the effects of the mental illness take hold.
“I had night terrors that shook my whole body in my sleep. I felt like I was sinking into my bed, and I rose up out of hell. I heard millions of people screaming, and I was convulsing and even vomiting.”
David was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20, after he had a complete breakdown, he said. He also had a stroke 2½ years ago, which was a “piece of cake” compared to having a nervous breakdown.
“To describe the experience, it was like putting fear, condemnation, shame and anxiety on super-steroids. I felt my mind separate from my body, and I lost 25 pounds from not eating and being so upset,” he said. “I felt as though, metaphorically, I had missed out on the second coming of Christ, and I was left behind because I saw friends and family moving ahead and on with their lives.”
Sergio also spoke of childhood experiences that foreshadowed his later diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“I noticed I was different when I was about 5 years old,” he said. “I remember looking outside my window one day, and I saw an Easter bunny that looked like a ghost jump from a telephone pole and jump around the backyard and ran back up the telephone pole and disappeared.”
Sergio got worse as he grew older and entered middle school. He described the feeling of having an “aura” and that people were talking about him. His condition continued to deteriorate in high school, when it started to affect his jobs, he said.
“I was talking to my coworker one day, and his face was normal and then all of a sudden, his face contorted to demonic. To me, I could see it with my own eyes,” Sergio said. “And then also, his voice changed. He told me, ‘I’m going to see you in hell.’ He told me that three times, and his voice was demonic. After the third time, his face changed back to normal.”
After a number of other incidents and a run-in with the police, Sergio was committed to a mental hospital against his will.
Nancy, who has major depression, had a more gradual and subtle emergence of her disorder. She said she did not socialize much in high school or college, minding her own business and doing her own work.
“As you get a little bit older, and you see where other peers your age are going in life and you notice that you’re not doing the same things as they are, you know, you just sort of wonder, ‘Well, what’s wrong? What’s wrong with me?’
“And I just noticed I was pulling myself away and isolating myself,” Nancy said. “And I knew intellectually that that was depression, but I didn’t tie the whole psychosocial aspect of it together like you do when you have some knowledge about it.”
Nancy said she had a hard time finding joy in even the smallest of activities, even when she knew it was something that she should be excited about.
“There was a lot of fear – fear of the unknown that was sweeping over me,” she said.
She consulted a doctor and was officially diagnosed with depression and began taking medications, but soon went off of them again and fell back into the grasp of her illness.
“I just want to say that depression does hurt,” Nancy said. “I mean, it physically hurts. It emotionally hurts. It spiritually and physically drains you of energy. So when I went back on my meds, I stayed on my meds.”
With her life starting to look like it was turning around, Nancy was involved in a head-on collision, severely injuring her shoulder and spine. This caused her to relapse to the point of considering suicide.
“I was thinking, you know, all I have to do is take a few extra of those pills, and I wouldn’t wake up the next morning, and I wouldn’t be a burden. I wouldn’t feel the shame that depression can take you to,” she said.
With the dark days in the past, the speakers revealed how they came to accept their illnesses and seek treatment.
For some, it came in the form of the right combination of medication and therapy. Often times, it takes those with mental illness a long time to find the right cocktail of medications for their specific diagnosis and the right fit for a therapist they feel understands and cares about them.
“I had a therapist who brought the good out in me,” David said, “not to judge me harshly or jump to conclusions.”
For Sergio, it was not an easy transition coming to terms with his illness, recognizing he was in denial for a long period.
“I remember trying the medications one at a time, and when I would get better, I thought it was myself getting better. I didn’t think it was the medication,” he said. “So it took me a long time to realize that I did have an illness. And when I accepted it, it was a process of me getting better with my diagnosis.”
All three presenters spoke of how their faith and having a close church community helped them work through their problems and gave them the strength of will to continue on.
Other tips they suggested for treatment and coping skills included exercise, proper diet, good sleep and a solid support system.
The presenters then shared their successes in overcoming the challenges of their mental illnesses and their hopes and dreams for the future. They all take pride in being NAMI volunteers and helping spread the word that recovery is possible, even in the worst of situations.
“I have a meaningful purpose for my life at this time,” Nancy said, “and that’s to share my story with In Our Own Voice. It seems to give me more confidence to go out and share. And I can offer empathy and encourage others since I’ve been there.”
David continues to educate himself in a variety of topics. He has also achieved his dream of becoming a pilot. He learned how to fly single-seat, ultra-light aircraft.
“God made me unique, and I will embrace it,” David said. “Nevertheless, I have strength in my resolve and my good qualities. I will do my best to keep on recovering stronger and stronger and staying on the path to recovery.”
Nancy is a pediatric nurse and no longer worries as much about her illness affecting the overall quality of her life.
“I learned that I will have a good day one day, and I may have not have as good of a day tomorrow, but I have more patience with myself, and I forgive myself and use these coping skills. I know that the not-so-good days will pass,” she said.
Rebecca Raya-Fernandez, the interim coordinator at Fresno State’s Psychological Services office, gave information to the audience about the services available for students on campus at the Student Health Center.
Raya-Fernandez said that Psychological Services aims to destigmatize all types of illness, and that every person has his or her own struggles to deal with – but that is what makes us human.
“We’re all human and we have different emotions and different feelings and different life experiences,” she said.
The services offered at the health center are free and include walk-ins from 9-11 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. Monday-Friday.
It offers individual counseling, relationship counseling for couples, personal-growth groups and psychiatry. There are also support groups available for a variety of topics, including relationships, eating disorders, stress-management, anxiety and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) groups.
Psychological Services brings a number of events to campus, like In Our Own Voice, to educate students by making these topics more tangible and to facilitate understanding.
“It’s about educating individuals on mental illness and giving them more information. I think a lot of the time, there’s not enough knowledge and there’s a lot of, perhaps, stigma attached and people may hesitate to seek services,” Raya-Fernandez said, “And this gives them an opportunity to have individuals from the community share their stories and to be able to acknowledge that this is very real and it can happen.”
The Student Health Center will hold Anxiety and Depression Screening Day on March 21 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. during which students can get a screening for mental illness and meet individually with a counselor, giving them information and help seek treatment, if necessary.