If a person has a sharp pain in their side, a pain that is interfering with their ability to function, how long does it take them to seek medical assistance?
A few hours? A day? A week, maybe?
For most, the choice to go to a doctor or a hospital would be a logical choice, encouraged by their loved ones, and affirmed by their friends.
But for those who suffer with a mental health disorder, one in four people, according to a recent U.S. Census, the choice is not always so easy.
Research shows that the stigmas associated with mental health issues can leave people suffering for a decade or more before they seek relief – relief which, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, can be achieved 70 to 90 percent of the time if the person is properly diagnosed and treated. Society promotes ideas that people with mental health disorders are dangerous, high maintenance, or weak, and people literally die because they are afraid of being labeled as such.
In response to these alarming facts, Northern Illinois University is hosting a campus-wide SAY IT OUT LOUD Mental Health Awareness Week.
During the week, students, faculty, and staff are invited to participate in one of the many programs designed to give them a safe place to talk about mental health and ask questions. SAY IT OUT LOUD is a state-wide initiative, funded by a grant from the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership, based on research that shows that talking about mental health lowers the societal pressures that keep people from seeking treatment.
The NIU SAY IT OUT LOUD campaign, led by counseling professors Charlie E. Myers and Toni R. Tollerud, and coordinated by graduate student Elisa Woodruff, have designed a week of events that are free and open to all. They include a keynote presentation, a film showing and discussion, an open mic night, an art show, and discussion tables in the Holmes Student Center.
The Project on Civic Reflection has also partnered with the campaign to host two conversations about controversial topics surrounding mental health issues. A bureau of graduate student speakers are available to go into classrooms and facilitate discussions about mental health, its stigma and resources for students.
Members of the NIU community members are encouraged to attend as individuals or as groups and take the conversation with them back into their own environs.
- Wednesday, Sept. 19, 6:30 p.m., Carl Sandburg Auditorium: “Nothing’s Wrong, I’m Fine: Addressing the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Using a creative mix of dramatic re-enactments, presentation of the facts and audience discussion/participation, members of the Alexian Brothers Parish Services, a division of Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health System, will perform a 90-minute presentation on mental health and how to talk about it with both friends and strangers.
- Thursday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m., DuSable Hall 204: Film Showing and Discussion: “Canvas.” Professors Charlie E. Myers and Toni R. Tollerud of the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education will facilitate a showing and discussion of the heartfelt and honest story of a family living with a mother’s relapse into schizophrenia. Starring Joe Pantoliano (“Fight Club,” “Sopranos”) and Marcia Gay Harden (“First Wives Club,” “Meet Joe Black”).
- Friday, Sept. 21, 4 to 6 p.m., Graham Hall Room 418: Project on Civic Reflection “Mental Health in the Media: Perceptions of Mental Illness.” Come join in an open discussion addressing mental health issues as it is portrayed in the media. Hosted by Joy Mitchell.
- Friday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m., Diversions Lounge (Holmes Student Center): SAY IT OUT LOUD Open Mic Night. The NIU community is invited to share music, poetry and personal stories related to mental health issues. Performances by the Awakenings Project of Elgin will be featured through the night. Hosted by Joel Filmore. Sign-up begins at 6:30 p.m.
- Sunday, Sept. 16, through Friday, Sept. 21. HSC Art Gallery: SAY IT OUT LOUD Art Show. Art from the Awakenings Project of Elgin.
- Monday, Sept. 17, through Friday, Sept. 21, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., MLK Commons. SAY IT OUT LOUD table. SIOL volunteers will host a table with SIOL literature and opportunities for conversation.
“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s time that we stood up and declared with one strong voice that we support those who are suffering in silence,” Filmore said. “This initiative is so vitally important to the NIU community, as well as the DeKalb community at large. People often suffer in silence with mental illness out of fear and shame; we need to send a message that we care, and you no longer have to live out your days in silence.”
The silence, it turns out, is what kills.
As a part of the initiative, the NIU SIOL staff collected stories from NIU members who recovered from mental illness. Their full stories are available on a website that was created by the grant team. The stories have a common theme – that the person suffered in silence until they chose to SAY IT OUT LOUD, and then things got better.
“Perhaps it was exhaustion at living on this roller coaster for so long, but something told me that it must not be like this for other people, and perhaps I deserved happiness too,” says one woman who later found out that her intense struggles with her friends, family and career, and her frequent suicidal ideation, were actually symptoms of bipolar disorder. “In the next few minutes, a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders as I got the chance to finally tell someone what was happening to me.”
Her sentiments are echoed by another contributor who wrote about her past with self-harm, saying that her compulsion to cut her own body was relieved when she revealed her secret to a friend who was also a “cutter.”
A contributor who suffered from an eating disorder since her early teens talked of the isolation of her disease in a different way. Control of her eating allowed her to hold her “pesky emotions” at bay and never truly connect to another.
“Maybe it was meeting the love of my life, the man that I would eventually marry. Maybe it was realizing that my actions were literally tearing me apart from the inside out. Or maybe, it was the realization that there had to be more to life than an all consuming obsession. … Whatever it was, I decided to start living. Really living; without the eating disorder.”
It took her almost a decade, but when she finally sought treatment, her counselor helped her learn to feel, and she now considers herself recovered.
The woman with bipolar disorder agrees.
“It’s not like all my problems suddenly went away. I had to do some really hard work. There were definitely more dark moments, but that night, I got a great gift called hope. So I won’t say it’s been perfect, but I will say that it’s been a million times better than how it was. … I never want to go back to the way it was before. Life still has ups and downs, but I have tools and a network of people to help me when things are tough … life is so much better once you say it out loud.”