You Are Not Alone: Community Stories of Mental Health

An Inspirational Evening with NAMI of Washtenaw County

Editor’s Note: This article describes a recent NAMI Washtenaw event entitled ‘You Are Not Alone’, a mental health awareness night filled with stories of those who have experienced a mental health condition firsthand. Our evening began with three community members sharing their stories, followed by the special appearance of Ken Duckworth, author of the new book You Are Not Alone.

By Annalise Lane

Thursday, October 27th was a special evening for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) as staff, volunteers, and Washtenaw County community members gathered to hear personal accounts of pain and triumph from individuals living with mental health conditions. The event, hosted at Ypsilanti’s beautiful Freighthouse in Depot Town, comprised one stop of many along an ongoing book tour for NAMI’s new book “You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health” written by Dr. Ken Duckworth, NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer. Stories shared emphasized the relentlessness of mental health conditions and the extraordinary strength of their survivors, flaws in mental health care systems, and the importance of the education, advocacy, and support that NAMI facilitates in Washtenaw County.

Standing in the sunbeams breaking in from the Freighthouse windows, the first speaker described his initial encounter with a mental health condition as a misdiagnosis of depression in his late teens. What followed was a series of barriers to completing his education at the University of Michigan and stigma-motivated advice from loved ones to embrace religion instead of seeking physician-prescribed therapy and medication. Amidst these challenges and the persistence of his mental health symptoms, the speaker found a North Star in the comradery he shared with his college roommates, the community he found in Ann Arbor, and his passion for music that he followed to Tennessee. Over time, however, the speaker found that more important to creating his own art to represent the trials and triumphs of his mental health journey was sharing his story, with the hope that doing so will demonstrate to others that art can be used as an outlet for their own mental health conditions. 

The next speaker shared a similar experience of misdiagnosis and dismissal from friends and family when she voiced her mental health concerns as a teenager. For example, her irritability was often attributed to teenage hormones, and her depression was blamed on Ann Arbor’s small size and brutal winters. When she finally consulted a doctor, she was quickly passed onto another on account of her “complicated” symptoms and concerns. After many years of therapy and trial and error in medication prescriptions, the speaker recently emerged from a particularly dark period of her life. She described finding solace in the NAMI Washtenaw community: she learned more about the mental health diagnoses she had received as well as methods of addressing and dismantling stigma surrounding mental health conditions. Once a student in NAMI of Washtenaw County’s Peer to Peer program, she has now taught the course herself four times. The speaker left the audience with three reminders, which I’d like to include for readers here. First, those who have a mental health condition did not ask for, nor do anything to cause their condition. Second, though easier said than done, it is important that individuals with mental health conditions are kind to themselves. Finally, recovery is not a destination, it is a process—and a non-linear one at that. 

The third speaker began with an account of her first panic attack. Sitting on the couch with her siblings at a young age, she recounted the sudden and terrifying feeling of an inability to breathe, and the anticipation of dying within minutes. Relief from her subsequent long and complicated journey with mental health, she described, finally arrived when she received a diagnosis and then again when she found an effective combination of medication and therapy to treat her symptoms. She emphasized that, while mental health diagnoses and treatment are often stigmatized and feared, they should be anything but. Getting help for yourself, and/or supporting others in getting help, the speaker stressed, is the strongest action individuals with mental health conditions or their loved ones can take. Now, as a NAMI Peer to Peer course graduate and teacher, it is this lesson that the speaker spreads as far and as wide as she can.

It was after these stories that Dr. Ken Duckworth shared his own. The son of a mentally ill father, Dr. Duckworth described childhood feelings of isolation and an inability to confide in anyone about his family’s struggles and their efforts to repress them. It was early in life, then, that Dr. Duckworth realized his interest in pursuing psychiatric medicine in an effort to better understand his father’s condition. More so, however, Dr. Duckworth wanted to contribute to discussions about mental health conditions in scientific and public communities in ways that dismantled stigma and led to improved mental health outcomes for those like his father. After attending the University of Michigan Medical School, Dr. Duckworth eventually stepped into the role of NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer, where he had the opportunity to speak to handfuls of Washtenaw community members whose experiences with mental health conditions were ready to be shared, and embrace his love of storytelling. From this work, the book “You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health” was born. 

Dr. Duckworth invited his colleague, also a mental health survivor, to deliver closing remarks and suggestions for improving mental health care across the United States. Of the utmost importance, the colleague emphasized, is early intervention, access to healthcare, and community-based treatment. If these recommendations sound familiar, it’s because they are among primary aims that the National Alliance on Mental Illness, including its branch in Washtenaw County, works to achieve every day. Thus, even as the evening’s stories of resilience and a promising future of improved mental health outcomes for all drew to a close, the work of NAMI and its community forges ahead.

Annalise is a second year Master of Public Health in Epidemiology student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where her primary concentration is psychiatric epidemiology. In her free time, Annalise enjoys listening to music, running, and spending time with friends and family.

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