By Nicole Campbell
As someone who previously had panic attacks just thinking about public speaking, it’s amazing that I’ve been able to speak in front of so many people through NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania. I became an In Our Own Voice presenter almost 3 years ago and completed Ending The Silence training last year. Getting involved with NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I first learned about NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania when Susan Harrington and an In Our Own Voice presenter gave a presentation in my Abnormal Psychology class. I was touched by the speaker’s story and because I went through many years of working on recovery and accepting my mental health diagnoses, I knew I had to get involved!
Crafting my story to fit within the In Our Own Voice and Ending The Silence formats was cathartic. I learned how to make the most impact with my words and story, but I also learned the extent of my strength as I reflected on my recovery progress. It reinforced the fact that I make the right decision every time I choose to invest in myself and my mental health.
I am passionate about sharing my story because I experienced symptoms of mental illness at an early age. Mental health issues weren’t really discussed in my household or in school. They were either stigmatized or swept under the rug. I had to learn how to advocate for myself the hard way at a young age and try to navigate the mental healthcare system with limited support because I didn’t realize organizations like NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania existed.
Since becoming a presenter, I frequently speak at schools to students, parents, and school staff because kids can relate to my stories of experiencing symptoms at their age and I can help those who spend time with kids learn how to better support kids’ mental health. It’s beautiful to see people’s faces light up when I say something that resonates with them. The relief one feels whenever the weight of stigma come off their shoulders is immense. I had the same feeling when I learned about others who also experienced anxiety and depression.
One of my favorite things about giving a presentation is the time after I speak, when people get to pick my brain during the question and answer portion. Some want to inquire about specific experiences I have gone through, while others may ask for advice about themselves or someone they know. It’s incredible to be that resource for people who have never had anyone like me to turn to.
I can’t explain how it feels to be the person that I so desperately needed from elementary school through high school. I am able to bridge the gap between the perceptions people have about mental illness and those who live with them and what it’s actually like to have one. One time when I spoke to high school students, I asked them what they pictured when they thought of a person living with a mental illness. Most people respond with something negative, but by the time the presentation was over, their perspectives changed and they understood that people living with mental health issues aren’t something they should fear.
Being a presenter has given me my voice and empowered me by letting me tell my story and allowing me to help people who are typically either personally affected by mental health issues or know someone who is. Every semester since I started getting involved with NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania, my former professor invited Susan and me back to speak to her Abnormal Psychology class to give an In Our Own Voice Presentation. The last time I was there, one of her students came up to me because she graduated from the same high school as me 5 years later than me and we connected because her experiences were nearly identical as mine.
I have also connected with other speaker’s stories and getting to know other people who also have lived experience with mental illness has been incredible. Getting to hear people’s perspectives and insight that they have gained from their experiences has been eye opening. In addition to life lessons I’ve learned by speaking with others about mental illness, I also discovered my passion: educating people about mental health issues.
As a result of being a presenter for some of NAMI’s programs, I chose to major in Public Health Promotion and Education in order to spread mental health awareness on a large scale. Also, my family has changed their perspectives on mental illness and my conditions because I have become a vocal mental health advocate and stigma fighter. I’m so happy and thankful to be a presenter for NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania! If you’re thinking about getting involved, do it. You won’t regret it!