“Feeling so different from everyone around you is the most difficult thing” about growing up with mental illness, Juliana Kerrest said last night. “I felt alien.”
Juliana was part of Speak Up for Kids live-streamed event featuring two young women who had struggled with undiagnosed psychiatric disorders as adolescents, before they got good diagnoses and effective help.
They were speaking on behalf of Active Minds, a national nonprofit that organizes student-led chapters on college campuses to fight the stigma associated with mental illness, and encourage young people to get the care they need. They talked about why it’s important to be open about mental illness in young people, and at the same time were a great examples of openness themselves.
“I’ve always said to myself, ‘I didn’t go through whatever I went through for nothing,'” Danee Sergeant remarked as she explained why she speaks to other young people about mental health. While struggling with the manic and disorganized symptoms of an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder, and a chronically unstable family life, she fell into addiction and homelessness. Now she is clean and sober, has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and attends graduate school for social work. “As I progressed, I figured, ‘What better way to give back than to share my personal story?’ And it was actually very therapeutic for me to speak about it and to hear how I made it through so many things. It’s empowering every time I share my story.”
Juliana struggled with depressive episodes from early adolescence, leading to a series of hospitalizations in college. She has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And she brought up a crucial point—addressing stigma is a job that’s never really over, but one that sharing and listening makes easier. “Even though often we talk about how we shouldn’t feel stigmatized and shouldn’t feel ashamed, I’ve discovered that there is still a lingering feeling of that,” she said. “And so people’s reactions to me when I share my story brings a sense of reassurance. It confirms for me that it is ok what I’m doing and that it is ok that I’m talking about it.
Both Juliana and Danee are still living with mental illness. “I get the hopeless feeling, the helpless feeling,” Danee says of her ongoing experience of bipolar. But “when I start seeing that, I know it’s something I can address. Which is pretty cool.”
It was hard not to be struck by the powerful example of two young people who, while still fully engaged in the management of a chronic mental illness, see the importance of lending their voices and stories to a campaign of awareness. Juliana and Danee are examples of what knowledge—of medicine, of self—can do for young people, for families, for communities. Which, to borrow a phrase, is pretty cool.