Finding Personal Recovery from Mental Illness

I will always remember my 14th birthday. Not for the reason most teenagers do, but because it was the first time my dad told me, “I love you.” It was written in my birthday card. Growing up I always knew my father was different from other dads. He did not hug me, say “goodbye” when I left for school, or ask about my day. Not much has changed since then. As my 20th birthday recently came and passed, I never even received a mere “Happy Birthday” text message from him. The only difference between those two birthdays is I have learned to accept that my dad is different. In 2000, my father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a severe mental breakdown and suicide attempt. Bipolar disorder is a condition where people fluctuate between periods of high energy or impulsiveness and bouts of irritable moods and depression. These mood swings are often very extreme and quick. The news of my father’s illness came as no shock my family and I. Shortly after the diagnosis, his aggressive manic episodes were decreased by the high volume of medication prescribed to him, including antipsychotics and lithium. My once impulsive and easily outraged father was now in a coma-like state, sleeping around 16 hours a day. The nonstop talking machine I once knew could not even hold a conversation without dozing off. His unstable state of mind and chronic mental illness is what soon led to my parent’s divorce.

After my father’s diagnosis, I decided to become involved in the mental health community. Over the past six years I have volunteered at mental health facilities in the metropolitan area. I have enjoyed every minute spent in the club house settings interacting and talking with patients, playing cards, and even doing arts and crafts. I learned that just a few minutes could make a patient’s entire day as well as my own. The time I have spent over the years has undeniably opened my eyes to the difference I can and want to make in the mental health world and has only pushed me to become more involved.

I am currently the Minneapolis Vail Place Social Event Assistant and Ambassador, giving me the opportunity to provide support and hope for those dealing with mental illness. Vail Place holds a personal significance as it is named after my grandfather, Dr. David Vail; a Harvard Medical School trained psychiatrist. He was also the Medical Director of Minnesota’s Department of Public Welfare for 11 years. During his term, Minnesota was recognized as a leader in humanizing its psychiatric facilities; changing them from custodial institutions to treatment programs designed to meet specific needs of their residents. My grandfather wanted to make a difference and he did so with a vision. Dr. Vail believed in providing community-based, mental health services for people with long-term serious illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, in order to empower them and help them achieve self-sufficiency. After his early passing, my grandfather’s vision became a reality when the first ‘Vail Place’ facility opened in downtown Hopkins in 1981 and second facility opening in South Minneapolis in 1988. The goal of Vail Place is to help make recovery a reality for people living with severe mental illness, meet the growing need for community services resulting from de-institutionalization, reduce hospitalizations, promote recovery, and reintegrate members back into the community. These incredible aspects and many more make me so honored to be a part of the Vail Place team.

I volunteer every Monday evening and have cultivated so many lasting relationships because of it. I have given a handful of presentations to schools, Universities, and Lions Clubs in order to educate and deliver hope for the countless people diagnosed with a mental illness. Besides my presentations, I help organize and volunteer at the Annual Vail Place Garage Sale Fundraiser, last year raising roughly $2000 for social events and program items. Through these activities, I continually strive to involve others in volunteer opportunities at either one of the Vail Place locations or their local mental health facility. Not only have I raised hundreds of dollars for Vail Place through my presentations and fundraisers, but most importantly I have seen firsthand through my work that one person can make a difference. I will continue to get others involved with volunteer opportunities at either one of the Vail Place locations or their local mental health facility. My volunteer work has helped me both cope with the reality that my father has a chronic mental illness and morph that seemingly negative aspect of my life into a positive teaching mechanism that I now use to relate to the immeasurable number of people, like myself, whose loved ones suffer from a mental illness.

One in four people suffer from a diagnosable mental illness involving a degree of incapacity that interferes with employment, attendance at school, or daily life. Severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are serious medical conditions that disrupt a person’s feelings, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Mental illness stigmas create a sense of shame, fear, or hopelessness that prevents people from seeking treatment. Those dealing with a mental illness are afraid of the stigmatization of being called “crazy,” labeled as violent, or seen as intellectually disabled. In Minnesota alone, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young adults age 15 to 24 years old. Suicide is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated mental illness. Undoubtedly, mental illnesses are severe problems as they result in substantially diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life; one of the many reasons why I am so passionate about addressing this issue.

As Miss West Metro 2013, a part of the Miss America Scholarship Organization, I continue to share my personal story of how mental illness has affected my life, educate others about mental disorders, associated stigmas, and how to provide support to those who are suffering, in hopes of one day creating a universal acceptance and understanding of mental health. I constantly strive to be that one person to make a difference in the lives of others and inspire others to do the same.


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