When my son was diagnosed with bipolar illness, he desperately wanted someone who would listen. Someone to acknowledge the validity of his experiences when he was manic, psychotic, depressed, someone to “meet him where he was in his illness.” I regret that I was not that person. I was so scared and confused myself that he didn’t wanted to share what might have scared me even more. And worse, maybe he thought that I just wouldn’t understand, that I would judge him. After all isn’t that what’s happening to most of those with mental illness? Why on earth would you want to talk about your illness if you risk being judged and stigmatized? As it turns out most don’t risk it. As a result, they are isolated and don’t seek treatment because they end up feeling ashamed and guilty.
What makes us resist hearing those who want to explain what’s happening to them? I think many of us are afraid—afraid, for example, that if we talk about the horrible pain of depression and possiblity of suicide, it becomes all too real and possible. If we talk about what one sees, hears, thinks, when manic or psychotic, we might encourage those experiences; if we ignore them we can snuff them out. But whether we acknowledge them or not, they are very real for those who are experiencing them.
This week, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Week, the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has launched a new campaign called “I Will Listen,” which asks us to pledge, in videos and Twitter posts, to listen with an open heart to anyone struggling with mental illness. The objective of the campaign is not to reach the one out of four who experiences a mental health disorder each year, but rather to reach everyone else who can and should support them.
A public service video for the campaign features Michael Thompson, a former president of the New York City Metro chapter, who says, “It was my older brother, Tom. When I would visit him occasionally, he would talk about things that didn’t make sense to me. I got a call. And — and my brother killed himself.” He feels he could have done more. At the end of the segment he says, “I’m Mike Thompson, and I will listen.”
The “I Will Listen” campaign challenges negative stereotypes by encouraging the public to make videos pledging to listen to those affected by mental illness without judgment. Says Wendy Brennan, Executive Director, NAMI-NYC Metro. “What is extraordinary about the I Will Listen Campaign is that everyone, no matter where they are or their experience with mental health issues, can participate in a dynamic dialogue surrounding mental health by committing to listen to those who suffer. By promising to listen, we can really change society’s perceptions about mental illness.”
You can promise to listen at: IWillListen.org