All throughout #MentalHealthMonth, NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania is sharing helpful Q&A’s on various subjects. This week, we’re talking about the importance of sharing your story. Joel Richard, Data & Communications Specialist at NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania, answered questions about his experience as an Ending the Silence and Say It Out Loud presenter.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Joel Mark Richard. I’m 28 years old and I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area for almost fourteen years. I attended Thomas Jefferson High School and later Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
I’ve struggled with Major Depressive Disorder and General Anxiety for the majority of my teenage years and my entire adult life. At times it has robbed me of my friends and family, of work and leisure, and it came very close to robbing me of my life. It was only with the support of others and eventually finding the help that was right for me that I’ve managed to piece my life back together.
Q: Why did you first get involved with NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania?
I first heard of NAMI while I was on a trip to Philadelphia during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. I had been very open about my experience with depression and struggle with suicide while I was there. One of the individuals who attended the trip with me was a NAMI member who approached me privately and encouraged me to share my story with others by volunteering with NAMI. She said that my story can help others going through similar experiences I had been through.
I have seen first-hand how many people struggled with mental illness in silence and I had lived it myself. Depression in particular can be extremely isolating and make you feel as though you are the only person in the world who knows what you’re going through. Beyond that, there’s a great deal of stigma, fear, and misunderstanding surrounding mental illnesses. For a time I didn’t act on this person’s advice. Combating my depression was still a daily struggle for me and I wasn’t ready. So I continued with treatment and therapy quietly for a time. But all the while I met people who were dealing with their own personal battles with mental illness. They all had their own stories, hopes, and dreams that their illnesses had begun to erode and who had reached a point where they had to lean on others around them to make it through. But we were the lucky ones, because I would hear in the news of people from all walks of life who had succumbed to their battles. I was saddened because I understood how alone, tired, and desperate each of these people must have felt.
I finally summoned the courage to reach out to NAMI because I needed all that I had struggled through with my Depression and Anxiety to be worth something, to have some meaning. I wanted to remind myself of how far I had fallen and that it is possible to get back from that place especially if I ever end up back there further down the road. But most of all I wanted to make sure that other people got the same opportunities I did to know that there are others out there alongside of them.
Q: You share your personal story as a presenter for Ending the Silence and Say It Out Loud. How do you think stories like yours help other people?
My story is just that: a story. It is my own experiences and life put to words and shared with others. But I know how lonely mental illness can be to endure. When someone is diagnosed with a physical illness the community comes out to support them. They will receive cards and well wishes, people bring casseroles and meals for them, and hold events and fundraisers in their honor. When someone is diagnosed with a mental illness very often they suffer in silence. We who struggle with mental illness have precious few allies who emerge to champion our battles for us. We have to be our own champions. That can feel incredibly isolating, and many times one can feel as though they have to fight the entire world themselves.
But on the other hand there are so many people around a person who is struggling with mental illness who either don’t understand the illness that person is battling or are unsure of how they can help that person or both. I’ve met countless family and friends of those suffering from mental illness desperate for a way to reach a person who is so important to them that they want to provide them with a buoy against the storm they struggle in.
Ending the Silence and Say It Out Loud aims at both of these groups. First, to let those struggling know that they are not alone. That there are others out there who understand where they are coming from. Who not only can sympathize but actually empathize with their battles and their fears. Second, to let all others know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness, and to educate people about what mental illness is and how to help and support those who endure it.
Q: How does it make you feel to know you’re making a difference in the lives of young people by telling your story?
I have described mental illness to friends and family like roaming through a forest in a fog; you know there’s a direction you should be headed in, but for the life of you you’re not sure if you’re heading the right way or not. Occasionally voices will call out from the fog to offer guidance, but ultimately you’re completely lost and many times you start to wonder if there’s ever anything beyond the darkness around you. When, at last, you reach a healthier point it’s like standing on a tall and open hill. You can look back on the forest behind and below you and see the whole forest and the fog still resting on it but you can finally see clearly again. I couldn’t just continue on my merry way knowing there are others still trapped in that forest desperate to get out.
Those people have to find their way out and they’re trying with everything they’ve got. I’m just on a hill calling out to them that the way out does actually exist and that there are others out there who’ve made it out of the forest. I’ve shared with them what I’ve seen and what it was like so they know I’ve been there with them and to let everyone else who isn’t in the forest know how difficult it is to be in there. Occasionally, a voice will call back from the forest and thank me for doing what I am doing, for letting them know that there is a way out or just knowing that they aren’t alone. Hearing that is more rewarding than I can ever effectively convey in words. Each of these people are desperately trying to nurse the spark of willpower they have to make it through; I’m just letting them know that what they’re going through isn’t impossible. If that simple sentiment can encourage them even to the tiniest degree either directly or indirectly then I can look back on all my own struggles and smile knowing that I was able to take what I had endured and use that to help others with what they endure.
Q: What words of encouragement have helped you through tough times that you would like to share?
You are not alone.
I cannot stress this enough. I know it’s hard guys, harder than any of us can ever put into words. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is ahead of you and you’ve been left behind, like everyone around you has it figured out and you’ve been left with some fatal flaw that prevents you from being where they all are. Sometimes you feel like you’re broken. Sometimes you feel so tired. Sometimes you feel so totally and utterly alone.
You are not alone.
There are others, droves in fact, of people who, like you, struggle in silence. Who feel alone and forgotten. I want each of you to know that there are people out there who want you to pull through and endure, who want a better life for you, who want what you’re going through to go away and for you to be healthier. Your friends and family are there, and failing that we have one another. We are all here struggling together and slowly we’re standing up. It is possible to live with these illnesses. It’s hard and the road is difficult, but it is possible.
You are not alone.