August 8, 2018
By Kelly Davis, Director of Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services at Mental Health America
Growing up I felt different from the people around me but could not figure out why. As time went on, doctors gave me more and more diagnoses like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder to explain my experience. While these labels validated my feelings to some degree, they also made me feel increasingly separate from the people around me.
I didn’t see others struggling to function in the way that I did, and I certainly didn’t hear them discussing it. The examples I saw in the media and the messages I received from doctors, blogs, and message boards painted a future filled with maintenance and lowered expectations. If I made it, I would have to give up much of what I wanted and hoped for myself.
On the verge of dropping out of college, I made a commitment to try everything I could to take care of myself. I began reading as many self-help and personal development books as I could get my hands on and started practicing yoga. I slowly began to feel better than I ever had before and, even though I still struggled, became more and more skeptical of the fatalistic messages I had heard. I began reaching out to the professors at my university to explore what I was learning and why I had not been introduced to the world of skill-building, goal-setting and wellbeing in my many years of treatment.
One day, a professor shared an article with me that changed the course of my life. A debate about the damaging messages people given psychiatric diagnoses receive—written by a person with lived experience—confirmed the things I was finding. This blog led me to many more articles about people given diagnoses who were thriving and coming up with their own ways to support themselves and one another.
In this new world, my experiences did not make me feel bad or broken; my experiences were just a part of who I am and gave me a valuable perspective on the world. Stories written by people with experiences like my own inspired me. I learned that many of the services and supports that focused on hope, community, autonomy, and wellness were driven by people like me. I learned that much of the civil rights work in mental health also came from people with lived experience.
There was now a world where my life was not something to hide but something allowed me to connect, share, and contribute to a larger movement. Connecting with this community, with its focus on the whole person and empowerment, shifted my life from one of isolation to one of contribution.
While I may have figured out a way to live with the messages I was given, I know I would not have a life without the work and ideas of the consumer movement. Instead of being ashamed of who I am, I am proud to be part of a resilient and compassionate movement to transform mental health services.