Talking with Taryn Aiken

I came across Taryn Aiken in a news story about her and her public speaking partner, 16-year-old Tanner Kirk. Tanner is physically limited by an attempt of his own a few years ago, and in the past year he lost his brother to suicide. Taryn has been surprised by what some people have told him: “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.”

Both of them disagree. They are passionate volunteers for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Taryn says she welcomes the uncomfortable conversation; “Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?” Over time, she became known as “the one who talks about suicide.”

As for the concern among some in the suicide prevention world that talking about being suicidal will somehow normalize it, Taryn is typically brisk: “It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.”

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Taryn Aiken. I’m 37-year-old single mother, with an 18-year-old son, Colin, and a daughter, Caitlin, 12, who will be 13 next month. I live in Utah, grew up here, born and raised. I got into what I currently do with AFSP kind of for a couple of reasons. I found them after my own father died by suicide. I found myself really lost, trying to cope online, and of course I Googled, because that’s what we do. And back then, when you Googled “suicide” it brought up resource information, while now it’s a bit scarier. But this was 11 years ago.

The first resource mentioned was AFSP, so I jumped in and looked through the website. I learned a lot of risk factors and warning signs that we could have looked for, and that drew me in because I identified with a lot of them, not only with my dad, but with my own life. When he died, it was his third attempt. So we knew there were struggles. I remember when I found him, I found it almost to be a bittersweet moment. As a teen, I had struggled with depression and sex abuse and had attempted many times as a young girl, and my dad found me after pretty serious attempts. So it was hard but also comforting, and I was grateful it was me who found him. Not the police, not my siblings. I knew it was something where I had experience, so I was better equipped to handle it than maybe they had been.

And how did you get to the point of being so involved with AFSP?

The website talked a lot about prevention, signs to look for, where you could get help. Also, it focused a lot on survivors, people who lost a loved one, not necessarily someone who had survived an attempt. I had felt very alone, isolated in grief. There was a lot of stigma. My dad’s own family didn’t want to admit how he died. So for me to find a group to talk about it was helpful. Then I wanted to get involved, to help families not to have to go through it at all. How to help loved ones. They always say hindsight’s 20-20. And my dad had made threats, comments. Maybe if we had looked harder … Maybe not.

I became impassioned to become a part of it. I found out they had local chapters across the U.S., run by volunteers, that did fundraising. The chapters distributed resources, provided info at the local level. I started doing fundraisers. Then, part of the charter to become a chapter is to do an Out of the Darkness walk, so I got involved in creating that. We held the first one in Utah in 2007. And from there, this will be our sixth year this year that we’ve done the walk. Just to see the growth in our state is tremendous. It’s gone from no one talking about suicide to last year’s walk having 1,500 walkers who raised $60,000. A lot more are talking about it now, families, those who’ve survived it. It’s an awesome organization to be a part of. I hope one day it can be my job. I still work, do volunteering, but it would be nice to have some way to have suicide prevention be my job.

I started college this year to get a social work degree, just to be able to work with kids, teens. To help.

Do you have a dream of what you’d like to do?

I think just now, just working at the school level. Kids, in my opinion, they’re not being taught coping skills, how to deal when it gets hard. There are a lot of reasons why people complete. There are life’s stressors, but mental illness is still an underlying factor. I think we see so much teen suicide because they’re unable to cope. They’re so inundated with technology that they spend all their time there, with no human interaction. So I see a need in my own state for more mental health wellness in the school system. We have PE, but we need a focus on mental health as well. In our school system, there’s only one social worker in the entire district. Well, one person can’t take care of 80,000 kids. So there’s a need for that.

Definitely, I enjoy AFSP’s role in getting out to schools. Tanner comes with me and shares his story, how he survives, his desire to keep going. And watching the way kids react to him is so powerful. It makes them think differently about suicide. What if you attempt and don’t succeed? He can’t speak on his own, walk on his own. He thought he was ending it all, and now he has a different life. Now he’s focused on what he can do to save others.

Talk a little about his story.

At age 13, he hung himself. He doesn’t remember a good month before, or a few weeks after, because of his injuries. He was found by his brother and life-flighted to the hospital. He came out of a coma after weeks. He has complete normal brain function, but his muscles are very tight, and that’s what prevents him from talking and walking. He spends hours a day in physical therapy. He doesn’t remember what his attempt was over. Apparently, he and his mom got in a fight over missing zit cream. Maybe that set him off, we don’t know. We know kids don’t have the logic. I remember at that age, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see any way past that, to get better. Maybe he had a history of mental illness in his family. He had lost family members to suicide.

I met him through the support group, Heart and Soul, and when I was inquiring who could speak at one of our walks, he was brought to my attention. He spoke, and I just fell in love with him. I just think it’s inspiring. I really enjoyed getting to know him. Then, unfortunately, in February his youngest brother hung himself and did not survive. It was devastating for all of them. But here again is a family with a history of suicide. It can still happen even though you’re aware and educated.

How did both of you respond?

In the beginning, it was just hard. Speaking for myself, I wondered, “Did we make this happen because we’re talking about it so much?” I don’t know if Tanner was thinking the same thing. I know he has had people say, “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.” I can’t spend my time, energy on that. We’re still going to talk about it, inform the public, educate. If not, we’re going to lose people with this illness. I know in the beginning, Tanner entertained thoughts of stopping, but then it ignited again his passion.

How long did it take to start speaking publicly again?

We’ve done several speaking engagements in the last few months. He needed a couple of months to grieve, of course. They miss him every day. They honor him, Ethan, share his story too. Nobody understood, maybe, how the world was for Ethan because they didn’t live in his shoes. The bullying of kids at that age. I’m sure there were a lot of factors. But it’s been awesome to see Tanner continue to share. His family has experienced this so many times, I know it is a passion for them.

You mentioned this is volunteer work. How much time do you put into this?

I spend hours a day doing this, organizing different events. I’ve done speaking engagements once a week, regularly. It’s something we spend a lot of time on. I’d love to see this as something Tanner does as his job, and be compensated. I’d love to see something come out of this to sustain him for his life, provide income for himself. I think his story is one that needs to be shared. We’ll also do volunteering as long as we have to. It’s important to him, and that’s how I feel. It’s the only thing that eases the pain of losing my dad.

How old is Tanner?

16.

How do you keep yourself healthy and protected?

Believe me, it’s a huge issue. I’m a recovering addict as well. I’ve had bouts where I get back into using. You take on a lot of people’s energy because they want to talk about the experience. And I’m not a therapist, but that’s part of the reason why I decided to go to school, to learn to separate those things. I still see a therapist myself, and I’m in a program of recovery, and tomorrow I celebrate for the first time being sober for 60 days, in a long time.

How did you decide to speak publicly?

I was tired of the show. I came out very early on and talked about my dad. I think he died because he couldn’t be vocal, he worried about what others might say. I thought, “To hell with that. This is the truth. This is what happened.” He did not have to be defined by suicide. He lived for 50 years. Because that’s how he chose to end it, that’s how we define his life?

A lot of us need to come to ownership of our lives. We do things that are not always right, that get us in trouble, but being quiet about those things keeps us stuck in that shame. Being able to say, “I’ve done this, I’ve done that,” frees us to move on from it. I want the uncomfortable conversation. I think the more that the brave of us say it, the more others will reach out instead of hide and be afraid of what people might think. I’m loud and proud. Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?

How did you start?

I think mostly at our walks. My name started to get out there in the media: “Oh, you’re the one who talks about suicide.” Our chapter was very instrumental in getting legislation requiring teachers to have two hours of suicide prevention training. It was an online video that AFSP produced called “More Than Sad.” But they had to fulfill another hour of training. We were listed as a resource for that other hour, so we had schools reaching out to me. We shared statistics, partnered with local health departments, to get stats and let them know what was going on locally. So that’s how it kind of started.

How have responses changed over the years?

It’s been huge. You kind of can tell the teachers who are excited to learn and the others who say, “I don’t need to worry about that.” I think if they’ve experienced it, they understand the importance of it. It’s heartbreaking that it takes a life lost. At the same time, conversations have been started. There’s still the stigma, the shame, the crap you deal with with ignorant people. But I feel our community’s more open to it than ever before.

How to make it easier to discuss this topic? I don’t mean speeches, but among ourselves?

Look at the ’60s, when sex wasn’t talked about. The more the conversation happens, the more comfortable it is. I think, too, the more we have understanding and compassion about people with mental illness, the same thing will happen. The same changing of mindset from, “Oh, they’re crazy.” No, my mind can get sick the way my lungs can get sick. It’s not, “Oh, you did it to yourself.” Addiction, eating disorders, these are forms of mental illness. So many factors play into it. The more the conversation happens, the more normal it become, not a taboo topic.

Some people in the suicide prevention world worry that attempt survivors speaking publicly will somehow “normalize” it. What do you think?

I can appreciate where they’re coming from, but it’s happening. So if you ignore it, you only perpetuate it. It needs to be addressed. It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.

What do you think about media portrayals?

I think the media has a responsibility, like anything else, a responsibility in reporting of things. The news station here had an awesome 45-minute, commercial-free special on suicide, talking to parents, teens, kids, adults. It’s so hidden that people don’t know its going on around them. See KSL 5, “Breaking the Silence.” It was just awesome. We didn’t spearhead it. They came to us. They took it upon themselves.

What should change in the mental health system?

We need more access to good mental health care. People are going to family doctors for mental health. Not that they’re not great, but they’re great for a cold. They give recommendations based on what drug reps say.

And coverage for mental health care. A lot of people don’t have insurance or mental health coverage. Access to care is huge. Unfortunately, most people who experience suicidal thoughts get turned away if they don’t have coverage. Unless you go in actively threatening, you are told, “Nope, we can’t take you.” Access needs to be improved. I tell people all the time to straight-up lie, tell the ER you have a plan. At least if we can get them somewhere safe. A lot of mental health facilities here do a 24-hour assessment. For most people who are actively suicidal, if you can get them past that moment, you have a chance.

What would you do if your own feelings came back?

I would know what to do, where to go. I would know it’s a moment and can get past it. I also know that like any other illness, I have to take an active role. I can’t expect things to get better by themselves. I need to become educated, be willing to do the treatment. Unfortunately, until they come up with tests, “OK, this is what you need to treat this,” it is a lot of trial and error, and it can be frustrating to people. They have to try several options before finding what works for them. It’s just exercising that patience and being willing to fight.

I get lots of requests from family and friends of attempt survivors about what they should do and say. Any advice?

I think the best resource is to get in touch with NAMI. It has support groups for families. Like Al-anon, they have help for families of people who have the disease. They don’t always have the right answers, but they can refer to people who do. That’s why I love the Lifeline; 24/7, I can call and talk through it. Even that 5-minute window of “I want to be done, end my life,” you can reach out to someone. You don’t know the power it can have.

You briefly mentioned your experiences. Are you comfortable talking about them?

My very first attempt was when I was 12. And I ODed and was found by my father. And I know 100 percent why. I had been sexually abused as a kid by my parents’ friend. When I came forth and told my family, I was told to forget about it, forget it ever happened. Well, you try forgetting. I was taught at an early age that I don’t have a voice, that when bad things happen I didn’t matter. No one cared enough to stop it.

And so then when my parents decided to divorce, I thought, “This is awful, I don’t want to go on.” I was stuck living with someone I didn’t want to live with. My dad was leaving. How to function? I just didn’t see any hope. That was my first attempt. It landed me in a hospital for three weeks, where I was able to process and explain and talk about sexual abuse and have people who did listen. But over the course of my life, I was raped again as a 15-year-old, and it put me right back into that same thinking. No one wanted to hear about it. I’m victimized, abused, no one gives a shit. So I attempted at 15.

I was a cutter a lot of my life. It wasn’t about attempting. People would see the marks: “Oh, you’re trying to kill yourself. No it was about getting out the pain. No one listened to me talk, so maybe if they see it … After that, I started seeing a counselor, and it’s a counselor I see to this day. You know what, my family will not always have my back, but there are others I can go to, that I do have a voice. And sometimes it won’t always be the people who are supposed to love me. And that’s what saved me. Having that support, even though they’re not the people I wanted it to be. People still cared. (Crying.) I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.

Who else are you?

I think the thing people should know is that everything in my life, everything I went through, you know … I am what I choose to become, not what happened to me. I get to have that final say, to have that final power. I’ve let so many people have power over me. I can choose at any moment what I let those things be. And I chose to be someone who looks on the bright side, who looks for hope for others. I spent plenty of time doing the bad. I can choose what I create in that next moment, even when it’s shitty.

And what else is part of your identity?

My identity is this. It’s what I do, how I spend my time. I love to spend time outside. My gosh, if I could be paid to be a Hawaiian Tropic swim model, I would love it. I need that vitamin D. I’m one who enjoys being out in nature. I just want to help people. It’s where I’m at. It’s what I do.

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Talking with Steve Harrington

Steve Harrington didn’t decide to come out about his depression. The local newspaper did it for him.

“I was living in a small community at the time I went to the psych unit, and it was actually on the front page of the newspaper,” he says. “It was, you know, ‘Local resident Steve Harrington has checked in with major depression to the psych hospital.’ How they found out and why that was a newsworthy subject is beyond my comprehension.”

In his 40s, with a law degree, he found himself diagnosed not only with depression but with schizophrenia. He was told he’d never accomplish anything again. After a few years of sitting at home and crying, he eventually worked his way back into life, started working with policy makers on national mental issues and now leads a peer support association. His psychiatrist once told him, “You’ll never live a normal life.” “And I say thank god, because I live an extraordinary life,” Steve says.

Here, he talks about how to be taken seriously after coming out, the need for more funding for peer-run support services, and the thinking behind his declaration that “Some of the most stigmatizing initiatives I’ve seen are anti-stigma initiatives.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m Steve Harrington. These days, I’m the executive director of the International Association of Peer Supporters. That’s what I do most of my time. I also do a lot of training on recovery issues. Very often it’s for peer supporters, but I also do presentations for physicians, psychiatrists at universities. Oh gosh, I do a lot of keynotes at conferences of all sorts. Let’s see, I’ve been to Europe three times do to those, Australia, so … Oh, academically, if it matters _ I don’t think it matters, but to some it does _ I have a law degree, but I didn’t practice too much law. And I finished a post-doc fellowship last year at Boston University at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. I did teaching and research there for two years. Gosh, I don’t know, I think that’s probably the most important stuff.

How did you come to be talking to me?

OK, well, basically, I will try to keep it short but relevant. Basically, gosh, how many years ago was it? I don’t know, it seems like a lifetime ago. Like in 1995, due to the loss of a close family friend, I went into a serious major depression and had a lot of psychotic features. I had hallucinations, visual and auditory, and I ended up in a psychiatric unit. And what happened there was, I was in northern Michigan, and it was a psych unit at a hospital. And I was there for about three days, and I wasn’t feeling any better. They were giving me meds, but I was not feeling better. So I decided if I was going to get better, I would have to do it myself.

I had experience before I got sick, I had worked for a consulting firm where I did a lot of strategic planning for large corporations and state governments and that kind of thing. I thought, “Well, my head is sort of an organization. I can do strategic planning of my own.” I went to the nurses’ desk and asked for some chart paper and a marker. Those are the tools of the strategic planner. I shared a room with another person, and I started doing my own strategic planning, what I wanted out of life. I had a mission statement, a vision statement, value statement. I did what is called a SWOT analysis. So I came up with a number of goals, very comprehensive. And what happened was, my goals were like, I wanted to get my house back, since I lost that as part of the illness.

Also at this time, they diagnosed me with not only depression but schizophrenia. In my 40s I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was pretty unusual. But I was thinking back to when I was 18, 20 years old and was having hallucinations and thought everybody did. But I learned how to cope with them. And then when I experienced depression, I lost my coping skills, and that’s why the hallucinations became more obvious. Anyways, getting back to my goals, I wanted to get a job again, a car again. I wanted to write another book. I had written a few. I wanted to get another graduate degree, in public administration. And I had those kinds of things. You know, kind of regaining my life back. And I wrote all these things down, filled up my room, and I had papers all over the room, and I ran out of room on the walls, all over my bed, on my roommates’ bed. And the whole time I wasn’t feeling depressed, for the first time in months. These three hours of planning.

And my roommate came in and was a little disturbed. He called my doctor, and he came down, and I said, “This is how I’m going to get better. This is my plan to get better.” He didn’t say a word, just looked around the room and left. He went to the nurses’ station, and a few minutes later they had two, what they call mental health technicians, who ushered me into a stark padded room that was locked and took my clothes. So I ended up in this room, and after it took me about two days to get the attention of a nurse _ they were just giving me meds through a slot in a door _ I asked, “What am I doing here? Just when I was feeling good, why am I in here?” She said, “We saw your papers. You really believe you can do all those things? Get a house, a car, reclaim life?” I said, “Yeah. Of course.” She said, “Well, you’re delusional. And if you believe that, we don’t know what you’ll do.” So I was in the room for my own safety.

So a couple of days after that, I was released. I was talking with my  doctor. He sat me down and said, “Let me tell you what your life is going to be like.” He said, “You’ll never have your own house. You’ll probably end up living in a group home. You’ll never work again, you’ll never write a book again, you’ll never get that degree you wanted.” He said, “You’ll never live a normal life. Face it, you have a mental illness.” He said I’d be in and out of psych units all my  life, two or three times a year, taking meds, having suicide attacks. Anyway, a pretty bleak picture.

So when I was released from the hospital, I had virtually no hope, because I thought this guy knows what he’s talking about, right? He’s a doctor, he deals with these things all the time. I had no hope, and I went back to my parents’ home. And because I had no hope, I created a plan where I would take my own life. It seemed like the only reasonable option. So I wrote a note: Who will take care of my son, raise him, you know, doing the planning for my own demise. And I had half a pill bottle of painkillers, and I took those with beer, and I thought, “Well, that’s gonna do it.” I woke up a day and a half later, and I was still alive. And so, obviously, it was not a successful attempt. After that, you know, the parents saw the note, of course, and they didn’t know how to help me. They made me promise not to try again. My son, who was 16, was pretty upset. I made the promise, but I sat on a sofa every day for five years, sitting and crying. That’s all I did. It was almost 10 percent of my life I spent doing that. Then my parents said, “Gee, things are not getting any better, why don’t you go down to the community mental health center and see if there’s anything they can do?”

So I did. I met a case manager there who gave me an assessment. The second time I met him, he said to do person-centered planning. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “We sit down, you tell me goals, and we work on that as your plan.” I said, “Goals and objectives? I did that once, and I’m really uncomfortable doing it if you’re trying to get me into a padded room.” I explained what had happened, and he was rather angry. At any rate, I ended up meeting other people like me who had had their own challenges, and virtually all had had a suicide attempt. And it started a period of growth. We said, “There’s hope for getting better.” Things just took off from there. Yeah, and I look back now and I proved the psychiatrist wrong, except for two things. One, he said, “You’ll never write a single book again,” and I’ve written three since then. And the other thing was, he said, “You’ll never live a normal life.” And I say thank god, because I live an extraordinary life. So that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

How did you get into this peer leadership role?

As I moved along in my recovery journey, I realized that, first off, people can get better, and that there’s a lot of misinformation and bad attitudes among traditional mental health providers. It kind of fueled a passion in me to do something about it. I don’t really know, one thing led to another, and the next thing I know, they were bringing me to Washington and other places to help with policy development, workforce development. I got a job as a peer specialist, and I worked for four years as a peer specialist. They hired six of us at the same time, and we were among the first in Michigan. We felt kind of isolated, and we wanted to know what was going on, and we formed this association. We said, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we had 50 members and all get together?” And next week, we’re having our seventh annual national peer support conference, with about 300 people. And we’ve got about 2,000 members. So it’s gone well beyond expectations. But I think, you know, what led to leadership positions has just been, you know, when you don’t have any hope and start getting hope and your eyes open up, you get this appreciation for what could be. You learn to look at challenges as opportunities for personal growth. It just seems like people saw that instead of a really negative attitude I once had. It turned into a very positive attitude. So things just kind of fell into my lap to a great extent.

How did you get people to take you seriously?

Well, sometimes they don’t. I guess quite frankly, I hate to say this, because it’s not important to me but is to others: If you have academic credentials. Often they’re surprised that a person with any kind of psychiatric condition can do things, even though history has shown time and again that’s reality. Sometimes, though, they say, “You’re the exception.” And when they say that, I have a long list of other people, some historical, some contemporary, who are doing very well. I say, “I’m not the exception. How long of a list do you want?” Yeah, for the most part, people are open, and there’s nothing more powerful than that one-on-one contact with people.

I’ve noticed there’s still stigma among mental health professionals, even though the field has so many anti-stigma campaigns. How to change this?

Well, it is changing. I’ve talked to a number of people about this, why it’s changing, and they say the peer supporters are entering the mental health workforce, and they see the power of having that shared experience. And even though they may be a psychiatrist or psychologist or a therapist who isn’t ever really going to be a peer supporter, they are becoming more open about it because they see how powerful it is to develop a meaningful relationship, how powerful having that shared experience can be. There’s the notion out there that people in the psychological, Freudian school of thought are not supposed to disclose anything. And a lot of psychologists get trained in that. But others get trained in the humanistic view, where the focus is on relationships. And we have research and such, showing the humanistic view is much more powerful and effective than the psychoanalytic view. So we are seeing that the vast majority of traditional mental health providers and professionals don’t disclose, but we’re getting progress in that area.

How to find them? For someone who might be suicidal and wants to work with someone who understands and won’t panic.

Well, it’s not necessarily the self-disclosure that’s the key, in my view. It’s a having a therapist, a case manager, whoever, with whom you can create a meaningful relationship. A real, true, caring relationship. And that’s not easy at all. I went through a number of therapists before I found people who were really helpful. And a lot of people, especially in the public system, they don’t know they can change their psychiatrist, they can change their therapist, and I encourage people to do that. One of the best ways is word of mouth. If you meet other people who have mental issues, ask them: Who’s good out there, who are you seeing? What are they like? Word of mouth, I’ve found that to be the best.

What should people ask the therapist in the first meeting to gauge their comfort in talking about suicide?

You make clear your expectations. A lot of it is intuitive. Are they making eye contact, are they really listening? The words they’re using, the tone, the body posture can tell a lot. It’s not an easy thing, and sometimes you have to see a therapist three or four times before you know.

What is the least risky way to broach the s-word?

Suicide? Lay it out there. It takes some courage. There’s such stigma associated with it. But just to lay it out there and if the therapist or psychiatrist or psychologist is not comfortable. Just say, “Yeah, I had a suicide attempt,” and just see the reaction. And that will tell you a lot right there. If they’re not comfortable, move on. That person is not for you. I’ve found that being direct and frank is the best way. If they dance around it, it won’t be addressed very quickly, if at all. The suicide attempt, to me personally, was a sign of how hopeless and how much in despair a person can be. And my life since that attempt has changed so much that you start to grow and develop a different attitude about life and challenges. It’s just how powerful hope can be. I don’t know, it’s just my experience, from one extreme to the other. From totally hopeless to filled with hope beyond imagination.

How do you avoid those thoughts coming back? Or do they?

I haven’t had suicidal ideation. I have had instances where I thought, “Gee, maybe I should consider suicide,” but it was a very passing thought. What I do is, I’m able to look at the relationships I’ve got, what’s happy in my life. I thought about that once, and now I understand how life can change so quickly for the better. So it’s more of a personal thing.

Another thing I do is, something that’s a bit of a trigger for me is stress. So every morning, I wake up and do a self-check. I’m still in bed and think, “How am I feeling today? Did I sleep well? What is it in my day that might be stressful? And how am I going to handle that? How to take care of myself?” And self-care, unfortunately, is difficult for us to put a high priority on, that sometimes we feel that if we’re not productive, we feel we don’t deserve to take care of ourselves. Unfortunately, because that’s what so often fuels the hope. Doing things with friends, that kind of thing. So, really paying attention to self-care is really vital.

How did you decide to be so open about your experience, and how have people’s responses changed over the years?

The decision was made for me, actually. I was living in a small community at the time I went to the psych unit, and it was actually on the front page of the newspaper. It was, you know, “Local resident Steve Harrington has checked in with major depression to the psych hospital.” How they found out and why that was a newsworthy subject is beyond my comprehension. But yeah, I guess the other thing is, so much good has come out of that challenge that I want to share it. It’s something that is, a lot of people find it inspirational. They say it’s helped them. Hearing that story. And it’s not just a story about being sick. A big part of the story is getting better, and how wonderful life can be.

Shortly before calling you, I read an article in The Atlantic online by a young anonymous woman who said she was not able to tell her colleagues about her bipolar disorder because of stigma. What would you say to her?

When you self-disclose, there are a lot of considerations. First of all, it’s not for everyone, for a variety of reasons. Maybe there are workplace issues, or others. We still have a lot of stigma out there. A lot of people don’t understand. I don’t fault anybody who chooses not to disclose. It’s a very personal decision. There are risks involved.

How do we eventually erase those risks?

Education. That’s why I do what I do. I stand up in front of 1,000 people and say, “This is where I’ve been. This is my journey. It’s not just me. There are hundreds of thousands just like me. Some are up front, and some aren’t.” It’s all about educating, and the best way is one-on-one, making connections with people. It’s really funny because so many people have _ when you self-disclose, so often you self-disclose to someone with the same or similar experience. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk in doing that. But when you figure that 20 percent of the population at any time has a mental condition … There’s still an awful lot of fear based on ignorance.

What kind of changes would you like to see?

First, and this could get me in trouble, but that’s OK, I’m frustrated, like the emperor has no clothes. First, we have a lot of peer-run organizations, and if they get any funding, they’re always the last. And if there are any budget cuts, they’re the first to go. Some provide peer support, some provide education to the community, all different kinds of roles. But there’s still that funding prejudice, the economic oppression that continues. And I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see, you know, when funding comes, it goes to for-profit organizations, to hospitals, to universities, to state and local governments. Why not directly to peer organizations? We have bushels of research that says it’s the most cost-effective way to help people. We’re not seeing it because our policies are still oppressive, our funding policies. And related to that, I’d like to see in these anti-stigma and suicide prevention programs, so many of them are not peer-run or have no meaningful peer input. And you know, it’s really odd that that happens. Some of the most stigmatizing initiatives I’ve seen are anti-stigma initiatives. Because they don’t respect peers. They’re supposed to fight stigma but practice it all the time.

For example?

Well, there’s a California university that was funded several hundred thousand dollars for an anti-stigma program, and when doing their presentation at a conference, I asked, “How many peers did you employ?” It’s all run by academicians. “We don’t employ any. They help us with programs and tell stories, but we don’t pay them. We buy them lunch sometimes, reimburse them for travel.” That was like my first time my eyes were opened. Yeah. but there’s a lot of them out there that operate the same way. And maybe that’s why I’m a little sensitive about academic credentials. I’m fortunate because, with the timing of my illness, I was able to obtain academic credentials. But they’re often used as a barrier. And people with psychiatric conditions often don’t have the opportunity. They get sick after high school, or it gets too expensive, or they’re dealing with internal stigma. A lot of these organizations use a lack of credentials as a barrier to keep peers out.

How to change that?

By doing exactly what you’re doing. We have to step up to the plate and take risks and be vocal. And again, it’s not for everybody, but we need more leaders. We have a shortage of leaders. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on. Through your efforts and others, we can change the notion that, you know, you have to have an MSW to have any credibility. Instead, it’s about your life experience.

Finally, who else are you?

I’m so glad you asked that question. What am I? I love to take pictures, landscape and nature photos. I like animals, especially birds. I’m an avid bird watcher, though they actually call us birders. I have a great number of very good friends, and to me that’s really important. Let’s see, I like to write, so, yeah.